A few weeks ago, researchers from the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University and Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project published an Education Recovery Scorecard that offered an in-depth and dire look at the pandemic’s impact on student achievement.
In an analysis of their findings written for The New York Times entitled “Parents don’t understand how far behind their kids are in school,” lead researchers Tom Kane and Sean Reardon write that although most parents think their children have either caught up from the pandemic or will soon do so, the “latest evidence suggests otherwise.” In fact, according to their research, by the spring of 2022, the average student was half a year behind in math and a third of a year behind in reading. Furthermore, their findings suggest that “within any school district, test scores declined by similar amounts in all groups of students—rich and poor, White, Black, and Hispanic.” In short, learning loss is widespread and significant, it’s impacting all kids, and schools have a ton of work to do to catch them up. (Kane reiterated these points when he recently appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.)
In their Times piece, Kane and Reardon recommend that in districts where students lost more than a year’s worth of learning, state leaders should require districts to “resubmit their plans for spending the federal money and work with them and community leaders to add instructional time.” That’s especially good advice for Ohio, as schools in the Buckeye State haven’t been particularly forthcoming about how they’re spending federal money to address learning loss.
Over the course of the pandemic, Ohio received more than $6 billion in federal relief aid to help schools. Ninety percent of the funding was distributed directly to schools. But neither the state nor the feds tied these funds to stringent transparency requirements or measures. As a result, state leaders and the general public have no idea how billions of dollars have been spent, or whether it has succeeded in helping kids. The State Board of Education has discussed district expenditures at a few of their meetings. There are some news stories about initiatives and improvements that are being paid for. Some districts have vaguely outlined on their websites how they are using or plan to use the funds, and the state has spotlighted others. But for the most part, nobody knows anything.
The state’s effort to establish a robust high-dosage tutoring program is a prime example. Last year, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) launched the Statewide Mathematics and Literacy Tutoring Grant, a program paid for by federal Covid relief funds and aimed at developing and expanding tutoring for K–12 students in the wake of pandemic-caused learning loss. The program specifically focuses on high-dosage tutoring (HDT), which research shows can produce large learning gains for students.
The state announced it would distribute up to $20 million to both public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities with teacher preparation programs, and that they would be responsible for overseeing the tutoring efforts. In a previous post, I explained why involving higher education institutions in this manner was a good idea. First, it addressed one of the biggest barriers to establishing an effective, statewide tutoring program: finding enough tutors. Second, it allowed teacher candidates who serve as tutors to gain hands-on instructional experience and training. A definite win-win.
And yet, despite the win-win nature, schools have largely kept their HDT programs to themselves. One would think, given the troubling size and scope of learning loss across the state, that they’d be shouting from the rooftops about how they’re collaborating with local higher education institutions to offer students learning recovery opportunities. They should be telling anyone who will listen that they’re regularly offering kids the support and intervention they need to catch up as proof that they’re doing everything they can. But they’re not.
The state’s website identifies every grantee, so we know which institutions of higher education were awarded funding, how much they received, and which K–12 districts and schools they’re partnering with. But in most cases, that seems to be all we know. For example, twenty-six grantees were awarded funding to run tutoring programs for both math and literacy. But broad web searches, as well as searches of the websites belonging to the K–12 districts and schools that grantees are working with, turn up very little information about the details of these programs.
There are some exceptions. In October, the Plain Dealer published a piece about how officials at Fairview Park City Schools reached out to staff at Baldwin Wallace University in northeast Ohio about starting a tutoring program. The state awarded the university nearly $300,000 to make it happen, and Baldwin Wallace education majors are now offering intensive tutoring in math and reading to students at a Fairview Park elementary school three times a week. Bowling Green State University was awarded $700,000 and is now running an after-school program that matches pre-service teachers with students who need additional help. Tutors and students meet twice a week, both in-person and remotely. Heidelberg University is also using its nearly $300,000 grant to run an afterschool program, and it’s doing so for a small number of students from a wide range of schools—including a traditional public school, a charter school, and a private school.
However, most of the publicly available information that exists about these efforts has been provided by higher education institutions, and not districts and schools. It’s worrisome that K–12 schools aren’t doing more to communicate to parents and the public that they’ve partnered with local universities to offer HDT to struggling students. Obviously, a lack of online information doesn’t mean that districts and schools haven’t communicated with families at all. But easily accessible information on school websites is often indicative of how transparent schools are with their communities about what matters—and how committed they are to addressing problems.
The bottom line is that Ohio’s attempt to get a statewide HDT initiative off the ground reflects a larger problem with the under-the-radar way the state’s schools are handling learning loss. Thanks to state report cards, national assessments, and the vital work of researchers like Kane and Reardon, those of us who are immersed in education policy know that learning losses are persisting. We know that the educational reality for tens of thousands of kids is stark and sobering and must urgently be addressed. But most parents and community members don’t realize how big the problem is, and they’re unaware of how their local schools are (or aren’t) addressing these academic challenges.
We have to do better. If hugely promising interventions like HDT aren’t headlining schools’ communication efforts—or even getting mentioned on their websites—then we have to ask whether schools are doing everything in their power to get children back on track.