This newsletter is not supposed to be focused on education, but so many of our recent editions — about teacher strikes, a teacher shortage, politics in the classroom, student loan debt — have fallen into that space.
Today it is national test score data suggesting that American 9-year-olds took a major step backward during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many of them were not physically in the classroom.
Average scores between 2020 and 2022 in math and reading fell “by a level not seen in decades,” according to AWN’s report:
7 points down in math — the first decline ever.
5 points down in reading — the largest decline since 1990.
The scores decreased more among lower-performing students and Black and Hispanic students, suggesting the pandemic was harder on groups of people already struggling.
The results are being interpreted as proof of what many parents, teachers and other sentient beings already suspected: that remote learning was a failure.
“It’s not surprising,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, appearing on AWN’s “New Day” on Thursday. “Keeping in mind a year and a half ago, over half of our schools were not open for full-time learning.”
What is this test? The National Assessment of Educational Progress, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, is known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” It’s a congressionally mandated program within the US Department of Education, and it selects a representative sample of students to project a national picture.
In-person learning. Cardona argued the Biden administration helped get districts back to in-person learning, which may be technically true, but is counter to the perception that Republican-led states were quicker to push their schools to return.
Schools and politics. Republicans have looked to grassroots school board politics — and making sure kids are physically in school — as a campaign issue, although the efforts have veered into disputes over race and gender.
These fights are often cited as a frustration for teachers and all of the other people who make schools run, such as guidance counselors.
Teacher burnout is real. 70+ kids in some classes. AWN’s Gabe Cohen went to a rural school district outside Phoenix, where science teacher Stacy Brady has a 10th grade biology class with more than 70 students.
“To me, it’s been very chaotic,” Brady told Cohen. “I wish I could clone myself because it’s like I can’t get to every kid who needs help.”
Cohen reported that Casa Grande’s elementary school district has gone to a four-day week in an effort to keep teachers. Meanwhile, their high schools are looking overseas for more candidates. And in some classrooms, they’re having paraprofessionals teach lesson plans prepared by licensed teachers like Brady. See Cohen’s report.
An old problem reaching crisis point. The teacher shortage in Casa Grande has been building for years, he writes, and the infusion of billions in federal pandemic relief funding has actually hurt some rural districts as larger districts poach teachers by offering better pay and benefits.
That teachers are leaving and few people want to join the field are also problems that predate the pandemic but were supercharged during the past two years. AWN’s Christina Maxouris and Christina Zdanowicz wrote about it in-depth earlier this year.
“I think the perception of teaching is that there is little respect and little pay for the amount of work that has to be done,” a northern California student teacher named Priscilla told them. “It’s not as prestigious as something else, like maybe a doctor, or a nurse.” Read more.
“Certainly something that everyone who is engaged in education agrees on is that it has been an extraordinarily difficult last three years to be a public school teacher,” Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy at New America, told me.
“The pandemic was a real body blow to the whole education system,” he said. “I think everything we know about learning tells us that it really requires a consistency and momentum and anything that interrupts that has long-term consequences.”
We spend a lot of money on education. You might think the answer is to spend more money on schools, and that is probably part of the answer. But I was a bit shocked to see how the US already spends more per student than most other countries, according to OECD data.
Plus, all the federal pandemic relief money school districts are trying to spend suggests the problem is larger than just funding.
“I was a fourth grade teacher. I know these students need smaller class sizes, they need tutoring, they need additional supports,” Cardona said on “New Day,” although he added the government has allocated billions for post-pandemic education. “The funding is there,” he said.
Don’t lump all these problems together. For a different view, I talked to Frederick Hess, who directs education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
He agreed with Cardona that the new test scores are devastating and that “nothing there is surprising.” That the US opened bars and nail salons a year before schools during the pandemic was “indefensible and immoral,” Hess added.
However, he pushed back on my question about whether there is a larger and new education crisis in this country. I asked him to weigh in on everything from “The Nation’s Report Card” test scores and teacher shortages to the student debt problems.
All of these problems have been brewing, he said.
Hess: We have a number of ongoing concerns in this country. College costs. Student performance has stagnated for a decade before 2019. Our schools are middling internationally even though we spend as much per kid as anywhere in the world. We’re worried that we’re not getting good value for tuition and higher ed. Teachers feel overburdened. And I think the pandemic absolutely exacerbated and highlighted all these challenges.
But after talking individually about each of these issues, Hess argued it’s important to view them distinctly.
Hess: I don’t know that it’s useful to directly bundle these together, except insofar as they’re affected by the pandemic. … I would be concerned that folks would talk about them as facets of some kind of single unifying crisis, distorting kind of the complexities on the ground and making it harder to solve the individual challenges, each of which requires specific remedies.