Picture for a minute the more than 50,000 students who attend the Detroit Public Schools Community District. It’s the largest school district in Michigan, where I live, and once again it’s the lowest-performing large school district in the country.
The vast majority of the children in Detroit schools are Black and come from low-income families. These are kids who can least afford to fall further behind.
Yet that is exactly what’s happened in the past three years. These students were locked out of their classrooms during the pandemic much longer than their peers in many Michigan districts and around the country.
Not putting students first
The scores reflect the cost of those decisions, which clearly did not put the interest of students first.
The latest national test scores, released Monday, highlight a gloomy picture for the country’s students. No state or city came out looking good, but some schools showed more precipitous declines, and those deserve close scrutiny.
Schools still have billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief; this funding must be directed to helping kids catch up.
More:Reading and math test scores fell across US during the pandemic. How did your state fare?
The National Assessment of Educational Progress – NAEP, or the Nation’s Report Card – assesses math and reading at the fourth and eighth grade level. A sampling of students in every state took the test earlier this year, and 26 large urban districts also participated. The test is usually given every two years, but officials delayed the exam for a year because of the pandemic.
In the case of Detroit – and cities like Chicago – COVID-related policies and pressure from teachers unions kept schools closed the longest. And the startling declines in those districts underscore just how damaging such decisions were on the nation’s more vulnerable students.
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Many of these districts witnessed double-digit score drops in at least one subject. Why does it matter? Experts equate 10 points on the NAEP to roughly a year’s worth of learning. So these declines signify a significant loss of learning.
COVID-19 was a culprit, but not the only one
Nationwide, scores fell in both math and reading. The math score declines are the largest ever recorded by the test, and reading scores are lower than they’ve been in years. According to the NAEP, the average math score for fourth graders fell 5 points since 2019, and the score for eighth graders dropped 8 points. In reading, average scores for both grades fell 3 points.
During a news media call Friday ahead of the scores’ release, I was surprised to hear National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner Peggy Carr’s reluctance to place most of the blame for the score declines on pandemic-related policies. While she said in a statement that the “results show the profound toll on student learning during the pandemic,” she stressed that it’s impossible to know whether remote learning was the main factor.
Stresses outside of school and the huge disruption of COVID-19 to students’ lives also played a role, she said.
COVID-19 certainly seems like the most disruptive event in the past few years, and schools that refused to open in a timely manner are seeing the worst consequences.
Lackluster scores aren’t anything new, however. For decades, the nation’s scores have largely flatlined, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars the U.S. Education Department has funneled to states.
“The results are dismaying and dismal and just continue to point to a system that has been long failing kids,” former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told me Monday. “But I think it would be a huge mistake to think that this is all pandemic-related.”
The country has known for a long time that the status quo in education isn’t working. Yet the “answer” always seems to be to send schools more money, even though increased funding hasn’t improved results.
Don’t try revisionist history
The Biden administration is leaning on the additional funding it sent to schools last year through the American Rescue Plan. Much of the roughly $130 billion that schools received is still unspent, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wants schools to use those funds to help address pandemic learning loss.
Congress passed that funding with few strings attached, however, and only 20% of the money must go toward helping students catch up, which seems a huge oversight.
Cardona also took this opportunity to slam the previous administration, and his partisan comments during a media call about student test results seemed out of place. Similarly, embargoed documents included a news release from the Biden-Harris administration pointing out that no Republican voted for the American Rescue Plan (DeVos said she was not given the opportunity to include a press release or make comments during NAEP announcements during her tenure).
Some of Cardona’s statements are also misleading, if not outright untrue. For instance, he said, “President Biden did more for education in the first six months (of his term)” than has been done “in the last 20 years.” And he said the president delivered on the “swift and safe” reopening of schools.
I recall in February 2021 when we learned what Biden’s definition of “swift” reopening looked like. His press secretary said he wanted half the schools open at least one day a week, if it was safe. That’s not exactly “did more for education” territory.
Cardona also failed to mention that the Trump administration oversaw the passage of two previous COVID-19 relief bills, which included more than $60 billion for schools. And starting in spring 2020, DeVos said, she advocated for a return to the classroom. She maintained how important that was through the end of 2020.
It’s going to take more than money
With students so far behind, the question becomes: Now what?
“Looking over decades of federal research, the major weakness of the traditional public school system is that it does not do a good job of moving students who are falling behind into a better place,” said Jonathan Butcher, an education policy expert at the Heritage Foundation.
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That’s true, but schools can try getting back to the basics of education. Former Florida Gov. Gov. Jeb Bush, founder and chairman of ExcelinEd, said on a call with reporters that there are concrete things schools – and parents – can do to help children.
Parents can spend more time reading to their kids at home, and teachers should focus on the basics of math and reading, including phonics, Bush said. He also called for a “radical transformation” of teacher prep programs.
For others, like DeVos, the answer lies beyond the public school system, which has resisted reform for decades, and with expanding school choice.
“I don’t know how anyone can look at the continued decline and then the precipitous decline in the last couple of years and say that doing more of the same thing is going to bring about any kind of new or different result,” DeVos said. “I think the conclusion has to be that we have got to do something completely different, and that really speaks to putting parents in charge and standing with families to really determine the best way forward for each of them.”
Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques