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Education has taken a big hit during COVID-19, we need equity-focused solutions to match

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COVID-19 has had an outsized impact on health and economic opportunity in historically underserved communities. The picture took longer to come into focus for education because so many usual sources of information on student progress were disrupted. We’re now starting to understand the scale and unevenness of the disruption, which require action from policymakers and education leaders. Even if recovery is swift and students return to pre-pandemic levels of achievement, significant inequities will persist. It’s time for an education transformation.

We examined academic growth and achievement for 5 million public school students across the country during the 2020-21 school year. This new data paints a bleak picture for all students — but are worse for those who were already the furthest behind. Despite herculean efforts by educators, overall students ended the year with reading achievement levels between 3 and 6 percentile points behind where they would have been in a more “typical” year (the 2018-19 school year), and 8 to 12 points behind in math. 

Students of color experienced much greater declines. For example, compared to same-race peers in a typical year, Black third graders ended this school year 15 percentile points lower in math and 10 percentile points lower in reading. Similarly, Latino third graders showed declines of 17 points in math and 10 points in reading relative to historic averages.

The results were similar for students in high-poverty schools, particularly in the lower grades. Third graders in high-poverty schools experienced a 17-point decline in math. Historically underserved students already had much lower achievement scores, and experienced declines that were often more than double their peers.

Even more worrying, we found many students “missing” from the data altogether because of lack of digital access or disengagement from their schools. Those students were more likely to be students of color and students in poverty. As a result, it is likely that this data understates the full extent of the impact on our nation’s most underserved kids.

These are national numbers, and the details of pandemic impacts will certainly vary by local context. It is clear, however, that student learning has been disrupted at an unprecedented scale, and the disruptions have hit hardest our communities of color and low-income families. Policymakers and educational leaders must react with a similarly disproportionate response. Equity is the most important lens through which we view recovery efforts.

The challenge ahead is immense. Many of the effects of the pandemic are ongoing. Educators and school leaders — among the many heroes of the pandemic — are exhausted. And the students who have been the most impacted were already in need of significant additional support to read and do math at grade level. 

There is, however, reason for optimism. With the worst of the pandemic hopefully behind us, and unprecedented federal funding, we have an opportunity to deploy effective programs and interventions to support recovery and lay a strong foundation for a more equitable and excellent education system. The impacts of the pandemic will last much longer than the recovery resources, so it is essential that the funding is used to launch equity-focused transformation in addition to meeting immediate needs.

To do this:

  1. Education leaders should support educators as they re-engage and advance learningfor the most impacted students through evidence-based interventions like tutoringand expanded instructional time.
  2. States and districts must continue to attend to the physical, mental and socio-emotional health of students and families. Mental health servicesshould be available in schools, including increased access to counseling services and school nurses. Partnerships with community organizationscan help connect families with services, especially when there are language and trust barriers. And after a year of turmoil, stress and anxiety, building positive school culture will be essential for student success.
  3. State and district leaders must invest in data coachingand professional developmentfor their teaching teams so they have strong support and evidence-informed guidance to tailor instruction to meet the diverse needs of students.”
  4. In the longer term, state policymakers should reimagine systems that are designed to identify and support struggling schools. After the disruption of the past two years, states must redesign accountability systems to align to recovery plans, support continuous improvement and expand access to opportunities to learn. 

The educational impacts of the pandemic have been vastly disproportionate. The recovery must reflect that reality. Policymakers, school leaders and educators must meet the moment with an unwavering focus on re-engaging, supporting, and advancing learning for our nation’s most underserved students 

Lindsay Dworkin is vice president of policy and advocacy at NWEA, a not-for-profit, research and educational services provider serving K-12 students. NWEA recently released new MAP Growth data on academic growth and achievement for 5 million American student

Tags COVID-19 Education K-12 education Lindsay Dworkin public education Public health School

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