Reversing learning loss

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Reversing learning loss
Mark Eaton (Courtesy photo)
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By Mark Eaton

The anticipation, or relief, with the August 21 start of Alexandria City Public Schools classes tends to obscure some important facts. First, while on the whole students are now learning at the same pace they were before the pandemic, overall test scores remain below pre-pandemic levels. 

Second, after three years of disrupted learning, the gap between current test scores and pre-pandemic scores is not yet closing for most school districts. 

Third, the effects of the pandemic vary widely among student groups but the emerging picture is that students who were struggling, particularly those in the primary grades, before the pandemic have even greater post-pandemic disparities and challenges. 

These are among the core findings of The Road to Recovery Project, a consortium of education research organizations engaged in a national effort to collect and analyze data about pandemic recovery initiatives and their effectiveness. R2R’s assessment of the progress of post-COVID-19 academic recovery is viewable at caldercenter.org/covidrecovery. 

Education performance issues are often seen through the lens of personal experience. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that parents and other stakeholders may not be aware of the extent of pandemic-related learning loss, particularly in the most affected student groups. 

Former Alexandria School Board member Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research and a professor at the University of Washington, sees a disconnect between the empirical student performance data and what opinion surveys show about how most parents think their children are doing in school. 

This urgency gap is due primarily to many school systems, including ACPS, grading more leniently as a response to the pandemic’s challenges for students. Grading systems can be subjects of intense debate. Reversing lenient grading practices can be difficult because students and parents sometimes see high grades as an entitlement. 

R2R recommends that school systems adopt pandemic recovery initiatives as follows: 

“We estimate that making up the remaining recovery gap will take the equivalent of approximately 40 to over100 hours of high-quality, high-dosage tutoring for the average student, with slightly lower estimates for reading than math. For the hardest-hit districts and students, academic recovery from COVID-19 is likely to require an all-hands-on-deck response for the next several years.” 

Assessments of the effectiveness of ACPS’ pandemic recovery initiatives thus far, and those necessary for the future, may vary. However, it seems that two things are inarguably true. 

First, the strengthening connection between ACPS and the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium, a nonprofit group which provides one-on-one volunteer reading tutoring to elementary school students, is a positive development. ATC is a key contributor to COVID academic recovery. 

According to ATC Executive Director Lisa Jacobs, in the 2023-2024 school year ATC tutors will be in all 14 ACPS elementary schools – up from 12 schools in 2022-2023 – and are projected to serve 255 students, up from 195 students in 2022-2023. Jacobs expects ATC to deploy 300 volunteer tutors – up from 242 in 2022-2023 – who are projected to hold about 12,000 tutoring sessions. 

Second, Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson and others are exactly right to focus on the findings of the recently released study by the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission on how Virginia funds public education. In the August edition of his mind-bendingly detailed, but valuable, Council Connection newsletter viewable at myemail.constantcontact.com/August-2023-Council-Connection.html?soid=1109043704255&aid=JjK9c5YYhRM. 

Wilson described the JLARC study’s conclusions this way: 

1) Virginia schools receive less money from the Commonwealth than other states. 

2) The Standards of Quality do not accurately reflect the local costs of education. 

3) The formula does not address the costs of educating students with higher needs. 

4) The formula is far too complex to manage. 

The Standards of Quality are the constitutionally mandated minimum educational program Virginia school systems must provide and are the primary determinant for state educational funding to localities. 

ATC’s expanded reach in our schools can be supported with contributions of time and money here: alexandriatutors.org. 

All 140 seats in the General Assembly will be decided in November’s elections. Let’s press candidates from both political parties for substantive and robust improvements to the problems in state funding of the public schools identified in the JLARC study. 

The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@gmail.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at. https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/.

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