Policymakers should help students achieve, not lower the bar

Many students lost out on in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools closed. Quality tutoring services can make a difference.

There’s simply no dispute about the toll the past two years of “COVID education” have taken on students.

Michigan State researchers found that each month of remote instruction put another 1 percent of the state’s students “significantly behind” in math, and about half that many in reading. Low-income learners, who could least afford the setback, lost the most ground.

The findings of another recent study from around the country mirrored these results on a larger scale. Schools serving children in poverty were most likely to close classroom doors the longest, slowing down all students academically and widening the gap between those of different economic backgrounds.

The problem offers no easy solutions. But schools at least should stop doing harm. A new analysis published in Education Week found average student scores on the ACT college entrance exam declined over the past decade, even as high school grade-point averages rose and accelerated during the pandemic. Grade inflation may soothe some pains for the moment, but it only leaves more students at the mercy of remedial college classes that undermine their ability to earn a degree.

Rather than lowering the bar, policymakers should reinforce a shared commitment to help students overcome obstacles and reach their potential. One way to at least alleviate the effects of missing out on key months of in-person instruction is to provide quality supplemental services. For students who have fallen behind, tutoring has been shown to boost achievement. Many moms and dads understand this, and they are looking for help. About a quarter of parents told a recent national survey that they are either looking, or planning to look, for tutoring services to help their child.

Where unions and education officials fell down in providing needed continuity of learning, some states have stepped up. That includes Tennessee and North Carolina, which have directed shares of federal aid into training tutors who are providing intensive support to younger students. Ohio has observed early success in a virtual personalized tutoring program for children with disabilities. And one county in Florida is using COVID-relief dollars to pay its teachers to provide similar small-group support before and after school hours.

Yet, in some places, post-pandemic tutoring appears to be a lower priority. One news outlet found three-fourths of Michigan districts made no mention of “tutoring” in their plans to use some of the $6 billion in federal COVID relief. Local schools still had the vast majority of those funds on the table, as of April.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer belatedly joined the call to ramp up tutoring last month. Her proposal to create a $280 million program called MI Back on Track may represent a positive shift from her earlier track record, but is too light on details to offer great hopes. It isn’t clear precisely which students would be eligible for services, nor who would control the funds. Would it be the same school officials who are struggling to spend the state’s sizable haul of extra federal cash?

Given the Michigan governor’s track record, it seems safe to expect that parents will have little say in choosing services that work best for their children. In 2021, Whitmer vetoed three proposals that would have helped families afford extra academic help. The first offered reimbursements for summer school remediation; the second, scholarships for early literacy tutoring and materials.

The third piece of legislation was the most expansive. Whitmer’s veto of Student Opportunity Scholarship accounts denied thousands of public school students access to tutoring and other education services. The tax-credit donations designed to fund the accounts, which also could be used to pay for private K-12 tuition, would make a smaller dent in Michigan’s school aid budget than the amount forwarded in the governor’s tutoring proposal.

A citizen’s initiative effort aims to bypass the governor’s opposition, but the timeline for making Student Opportunity Scholarship accounts available to families has become murkier after a key June 1 signature-collecting deadline was missed.

The sobering reality is that many students need the extra academic help now — and they’ll need more in the years to come. Giving parents a stronger voice in the process will only help children catch up in the classroom.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.

Tags college entrance exams COVID-19 pandemic Education Gretchen Whitmer student achievement

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