You might think the latest headlines proclaiming grave learning losses among U.S. thirteen-year-olds over the past three years might trigger alarm, outrage and the resolve to do something about it. But you’d be wrong, for the biggest challenge to American education today isn’t learning loss or low achievement or widening gaps. It’s resistance to taking forceful action to rectify the situation.
For a vivid, scary, on-the-ground example, see the extended account by ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis of Richmond, Virginia’s, refusal to institute the year-round school calendar that was proposed by Superintendent Jason Kamras as a way to remediate that urban district’s woeful losses and set it on a path to stronger achievement.
The problem was acute. MacGillis reports that “Research released by Harvard and Stanford last fall found that Richmond’s fourth through eighth graders had lost two full years of ground in math and nearly a year and a half in reading.” At least as worrying to local educators was returning students’ “difficulty with basic interactions.” As one principal noted to MacGillis, “Socialization with each other was huge. How to be around each other—those are building blocks for ages six to ten. There was a whole retraining—what does it look like when you and another student disagree? They had missed that, not being in the building.”
Yes, such problems are nationwide—on the student-socialization and mental-health fronts, as well as on the achievement front, with the latter including not just overall setbacks, but also widening gaps as the neediest or lowest-achieving pupils suffered the greatest losses.
Though NAEP’s “long term” assessments look a tad antiquated, the version that test-takers took last fall was the same one that their counterparts took three years earlier—and the drop-off during that period, in both math and reading, is horrendous, placing the average math score back where it was at the time of the Charlottesville summit and the average reading score back where it was during Bush 43’s first term. Though we didn’t really need more proof that we’ve forfeited a generation or two of (modest) gains in these core subjects—and are in the process of sacrificing a generation of young Americans—if this doesn’t serve as a wake-up call for policymakers and education leaders, what will?
Yet the complacency of most Americans regarding the performance of our K–12 system has long been noted, as have the many structural, institutional, and contractual obstacles to changing that system in ways that might actually alter performance. This dates back at least to 1983’s Nation at Risk report. One reform effort after another gets opposed, diluted, or repealed—or turns out to be sorely incomplete because, for example, it fails to address the school-and-classroom implementation changes that are also essential if it’s to succeed.
Covid-related learning losses and what (if anything) to do about them are the latest example. Despite being flush with federal “recovery” dollars, most places aren’t doing much or doing “more of the same” or using the “lite” version or making it optional. They’re proving unable or unwilling to agree to actions that would truly alter behavior.
As the MacGillis piece makes clear, we shouldn’t dismiss this failure as mere structural rigidities or lack of leadership, although those definitely play roles almost everywhere. But the Richmond example is one of visionary leadership and what appear to be workable plans to retool the school year in ways that would facilitate recovery, especially among students who would get additional learning time, while also tackling such enduring problems as “summer learning loss” and kids getting into trouble due to endless weeks of no school.
What killed the year-round plan in Richmond (save for a tiny pilot version that finally slipped through, affecting just two of the districts’ fifty-four schools and potentially one thousand out of 22,000 pupils) was a witch’s brew of complacency, timidity, resignation, incomprehension, union resistance, and school board politics, plus a soupcon of condescension or obliviousness among elites to the true circumstances of disadvantaged families.
Be clear that this wasn’t about school-board “culture wars” over gender, CRT, and library books. It was about making a big change in the district’s accustomed modus operandi—the calendar itself—to benefit woefully-far-behind pupils, most of them Black, in an overwhelmingly disadvantaged urban setting. If there’s any legitimate rationale for elected local school boards today, it’s so they can grapple with big education policy-and-practice issues such as this one.
But after a two-year struggle, community surveys, and the superintendent’s near-firing, they weren’t able to agree to anything more than a miniscule pilot in schools whose principals “volunteered” (after struggling for parental and teacher approval).
Why the “year-round” approach with additional learning days baked in for way-behind pupils? As MacGillis reports, although Kamras had been skeptical of this strategy before the pandemic, he said that “to ignore the impact of the pandemic and the fact that it’s going to have repercussions for years would be tantamount to sticking our heads in the ground.” MacGillis continues:
[Kamras] began to see year-round school in a new light. For one thing, it seemed more workable than adding hours to the school day, given how drained many teachers felt at dismissal time. And it avoided the drawbacks of a long break for struggling students. [Thomas Kane, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education,] noted that traditional summer school is often insufficient, because it’s typically voluntary and plagued by low attendance rates. Although paying teachers and staff for additional weeks of work was an added expense, extending the year was logistically easier than other supplements, such as hiring a whole new corps of outside tutors. “We already have the school buildings and the teachers,” Kane said.
But the school board “wavered.” Two members—a former teacher and a “PTA mom”—were among those who said whoa:
Rizzi, the former schoolteacher, said that perhaps the district needed to help parents do more at home to teach reading. “There are some small things they could do to support their kids,” she said. “This doesn’t mean kids need to be in class forever.” Gibson, the former PTA leader, cited the opposition voiced by teachers and parents, and suggested that the district instead put the money toward improving summer school in 2022: “We owe the public to say, ‘We heard you.’”
A lot of surveyed parents apparently never understood the year-round plan—or never understood that their kids were academically behind. Some, predictably, argued that it would disrupt their vacation plans.
But MacGillis took himself to a low-income neighborhood where he posed that challenge to “several women on the next block who among them had about a dozen grandchildren in city schools. When I asked about the argument, made by some parents, that the shorter summer break would interfere with family trips, they scoffed, saying that few people in Fairfield Court [the local public-housing project] could afford to go anywhere.”
Most gag-inducing for me in his long and extremely well-reported piece about Richmond’s failure to adopt Kamras’s forward looking plan were these two bits:
I spoke with a newly elected member of the executive board of the Richmond teachers’ union, Melvin Hostman, who said that it was hard to agree to Kamras’s push for additional instructional time when there were so many other problems that needed to be addressed: lack of toilet paper, school buses arriving late, and widespread absenteeism among them. He added, “The whole thing about learning loss I found funny is that, if everyone was out of school, and everyone had learning loss, then aren’t we all equal? We all have a deficit.”
I asked parents picking up their kids if they had been disappointed that the pilot hadn’t proceeded. One mother, Alanna Scott, said she hadn’t really seen the point of extending the year to make up for what children lost in the pandemic. “It’s past now,” she said. “Whatever they know, they should keep rolling with it. The kids don’t know what they missed.”
Gag or weep or both?