When your state representative proposes a nutty bill like allowing guns in daycares or requiring that all legislation include a quote from the Magna Carta, recall that in our nation of 50 sovereign states, each with reserved police powers except where explicitly stated by the Constitution, state legislatures are where democracy’s rubber meets the road for the issues most relevant to American families.
K-12 education is a prime example. While nothing that happened in last week’s federal election will impact what happens in schools, the composition of state legislatures will. Like when a Florida Republican state representative floats a bill authorizing school districts to require teachers to wear microphones and to place cameras in classrooms so parents can keep watch. Or when Iowa Republican state representative Norlin Mommsen proposes forcing schools to put cameras in every classroom except special education and gym classes (because nothing bad ever happens in gym class), and mandating fines of up to 5% of salary for school employees who disconnect or obstruct cameras.
Although no cameras were present when these bills were discussed in committee, this is the same crowd that wanted cameras trained on voting drop boxes. As patriot Frank Horney of Palm Desert, CA wrote to his local newspaper: “Jewelry stores, banks and homes have security cameras on 24/7 to protect their assets. The most valuable assets we have are our children. Professional teachers should not be afraid of cameras in the classroom unless they have something to hide. Parents would be able to relax and know that the great teachers we have are in their corner and value our most precious assets.” If you disagree, ask America’s Horneys and Mommsens, what’s your agenda for not wanting to protect children? And along the same lines, why are you not willing to support my bill to ban Shakespeare and his 400 puns on bawdy body parts?
Barring a return of Donald Trump or the panopticon, we won’t have cameras in classrooms. But if we did, the show’s the same as three years ago. And that’s odd, because the cast has changed + cast in a very different light. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2020-22 erased decades of learning gains. Reading scores declined and are now at at a level last seen in 1992 when cameras in classrooms were but a gleam in Norlin Mommsen’s eye. Meanwhile, in by far the largest decline ever recorded, the average U.S. student lost close to a year of learning in math. Worse, declines were more severe for Black and Hispanic students, exacerbating historic inequities.
‘Tis nae only NAEP. Average ACT scores fell below 20 for the first time since 1991. Nearly half of all 2022 test takers met none of the subject benchmarks in English, reading, science, and math. ACT’s CEO called the decline “alarming,” although it would have been more alarming if not for less-prepared students inordinately opting out in an era of test-optional college admissions.
So those of us who follow Norlin Mommsen’s attentive example should be hopping mad, right? One of the biggest surprises of last week’s pattern-breaking midterm election was that voters didn’t punish Democrats who kept schools closed for a year. Granted that when you're behind in math and science, it's not a good idea to vote for a political party that has sworn allegiance to a cult of non-counting and harbors serious doubts about science; that way madness lies. Even so, in the cities and states that kept schools closed longest, Democrats did just fine, retaining all state legislative majorities. Of course, it’s not just about keeping schools closed. States that minimized school closures also saw dismal results. The K-12 Covid story is less about closed schools than how schools adapted to lack of student engagement and mask-filtered instruction during (what we hope was) a once-in-a-century disruption. The grade: F.
Also not being blamed: K-12 leaders and teachers unions. While privileged parent tempers flared on social media when schools were closed, there’s been no widespread blowback. Remarkably, 82% of parents think their child’s school handled the pandemic well. So California state superintendant Tony Thurmond was reelected easily. And Cecily Myart-Cruz, president-militant of United Teachers of Los Angeles who famously told Los Angeles Magazine that “there’s no such thing as learning loss” and that “our kids didn’t lose anything” because “they learned survival,” remains firmly in control of her union. Far from playing defense, California teachers unions felt emboldened to spend $5M in member dues opposing a ballot initiative that would have raised taxes to fund electric vehicle incentives and wildfire prevention. Why? Because incremental tax revenue wouldn’t have gone to schools.
After last week’s election, my favorite new social media phrase is “I’ve seen enough” i.e., pundits prefacing preliminary (and often incorrect) calls. Since no one is being blamed for learning loss – since the only ones being punished are students – it’s a wonder no self-proclaimed expert has made this call: “I’ve seen enough, Americans must love to lose learning.” Sure, Congress passed $190B in federal ESSER funding (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund). But districts are only obliged to spend 20% on learning loss. As a result, as The74 reports, “America’s largest districts have instead prioritized facilities improvements” – an emergency in the same way Covid was the “emergency” prompting student loan forgiveness just as President Biden declared the pandemic “over.”
As more learning loss data pours in, K-12 leaders know better. And parents will soon as districts let them in on the bad news. School districts need to get serious about combatting Covid learning loss before it’s too late. So what are the options?
1. Asynchronous online learning
Most school districts already have lots of online learning resources for students. The problem is that students from low-income families with the greatest learning loss are highly unlikely to avail themselves of these resources.
2. On-demand tutoring
Many districts made synchronous online tutoring available during Covid and are continuing these services. Students can log in whenever they like and get help in any subject. But like online learning resources, adoption is low. Researchers from UC Irvine and Brown found frequent texts produced adoption of up to 30%. But left alone, only about 20% of all students try online tutoring even once. And for students most in need, adoption was closer to 10%. Only 0.3% of students participated in tutoring three or more times a week, the recommended level to address learning loss.
While we’re seeing a proliferation of online tutoring models – e.g., Sal Khan’s Schoolhouse.world, Virginia’s new program with HBCUs – they’re all opt-in with volunteer tutors. But when there’s a three-alarm fire on your block, you don’t want your neighbor to have to opt-in, and – unless you’re a California teachers union against funding fire prevention – you don’t want volunteer fire fighters.
3. More mandatory instruction
The best way to systematically address learning loss is more instruction. It can’t be optional. But while a handful of districts have figured this out – Buffalo providing an extended school day and calendar, Montgomery County, MD running Saturday school – in the vast majority of districts, teachers unions have refused to amend contracts to allow teachers to work (and be paid) more. Last spring, L.A. Unified announced plans to add four paid days to the 2022-23 school year, but UTLA’s Myart-Cruz called it “an overreach… to ask more of students, families, and educators” and filed a complaint with the California Public Employment Relations Board. The result: four optional days (first two days of winter and spring break).
If we need more mandatory instruction and teachers won’t teach more – most districts are struggling to find enough teachers, especially substitutes and special ed teachers – the obvious solution is to bring in help from outside. This is why Achieve Partners has acquired MasteryPrep, the leader in helping underperforming students in underserved schools catch up and demonstrate mastery on end-of-course and college readiness exams. MasteryPrep currently partners with over 500 school districts to deliver mandatory in-person workshops and bootcamps along with synchronous and asynchronous online test prep for students struggling with learning loss.
Along with managing teacher shortages and political conflicts, lack of awareness and supply of instructional service providers like MasteryPrep explains why districts haven’t spent ESSER funding. Less than 15% of ESSER funding was spent in the 2021-22 school year. According to Georgetown’s Edunomics Lab, so far New York City has only spent 2%, Chicago 6%, Houston 9%, and L.A. 22%. The slow pace of spending has attracted attention from lawmakers concerned that “districts, particularly those that remained closed for over a year, have not spent the vast majority of funds made available during the pandemic.”
Where K-12 leaders have moved, ASU’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CPRE) reports efforts have been fragmented. Districts have been “applying high-dosage tutoring, project-based learning and career-infused education in a piecemeal fashion, rather than pursuing academic acceleration as a comprehensive approach.” CPRE leaders bemoan the “awful mismatch between the degree of academic decline and districts’ ability to make the dramatic instructional changes necessary to help kids catch up.”
Helping K-12 students catch up so they can be prepared for life, career, and college ( in that order) will require a coordinated all-of-the-above, all-hands-on-deck approach fit for a real emergency, complete with digital marketing and texting to get parents and students on board. Schools need more resources, more tutoring, more volunteers, more instructional service providers, and more leaders willing to take on inflexible unions.
Given the go-along, get-along approach so far, it’s remarkable no one is being punished. That would never happen on a reality show. So perhaps we should have cameras in classrooms. At that point, failure to take serious action would be a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions that even Norlin Mommsen wouldn’t want to see.