NASHVILLE, TN – When children returned to school this Fall they were behind 9-11% in math and 3-7% in reading, according to the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) in Portland, Oregon.

In a normal school year, 4th and 5th grade students would need an additional eight to ten weeks to catch up. Students’ future income would drop $43,000 if those scores were allowed to become permanent.

Schools in Tennessee extended the school year. Others compensated with tutors, extra periods of instruction in math and reading, Saturday academies, and afterschool programs.

For most schools, the catch up strategy is asking teachers to run a few review sessions and to generally pick up the pace of instruction. Researchers say that is not going to work well and they found kids who were already behind academically lost the most ground during the pandemic.

“In other words, communities of color and those experiencing poverty have not only borne the brunt of job and wage losses, but their children have borne the brunt of the academic losses as well,” the NWEA study reported.

Three educational experts briefed the Tribune on learning loss last week and outlined ways to overcome it.

“In general very few people wanted to stay out of school. This is very refreshing to me from someone who has written about schools for many decades—that enthusiasm about schools,” said Louis Freedberg, an education policy expert.

In response to the pandemic, he said states put more money in most schools and created programs that helped schools work with kid more effectively.

Louis Freedberg is former Executive Director of EDSource. He has analyzed and reported on local, state, and national education policy for more than two decades.

“The narrative was that schools were important not just for learning, not just for the 3 Rs—reading, writing, and arithmetic but for students’ physical and mental health,” Freedberg said.

He said that it is crucial to engage kids now and get them excited about learning. For too long the focus has been on grades and testing.

“That doesn’t work for most people,” Freedberg said. There are proven strategies that work better than the standard metrics of academic achievement. One of them is project-based learning.

“Unfinished learning is our way of talking about what others often call call learning loss or learning gap,” said Allison Socol, Assistant Director p-12 Policy at the Education Trust in Washington.

Socol said reframing the problem in that way shifts the focus away from blaming students and puts more responsibility on the system to provide additional resources and help the most impacted students accelerate their learning due to the pandemic.

“We do know a lot about what works for accelerating student learning and helping them catch up,” Socol said, adding that the most effective strategies fall into three categories.

Intensive tutoring:  usually looks like one tutor or teacher working one on one or a small group of students, four or fewer, providing skill-building curricula that help children master their unfinished learning while still being able to access and progress in grade-level content. 

Expanded Learning Time: educators could lengthen the school day or schedule an extra block of reading time or math during normal school hours. Sokol said that both methods work well.

Strong relationships:  ensuring that students are engaged in school and making academic progress. Their social and emotional needs require time to have strong relationships with the adults in the building.

Allison Socol is Assistant Director of P-12 Policy at the Education Trust in Washington DC.

Sokol noted Tennessee made good educational investments using federal and state dollars from the American Rescue Plan.

“Nashville in Tennessee is a great example. There are two programs in that district that are very promising. The district provided intensive tutoring and they have implemented a program called “Navigator” in which adults in the district engage on a regular basis with students and families to find out how the district can provide or connect to support and services from housing, health, food insecurity, and, of course, provide academic support,” she said.

However, those promising programs in Metro Schools are not available statewide. Governor Bill Lee is trying to change the way school funding works in Tennessee.

He is behind a number of bills that would put more money in privately run charter schools and less into the state’s traditional public schools.

In January, Lee announced a partnership with Hillsdale College in Michigan. It is a private conservative liberal arts college. They plan to open 50-100 charter schools across Tennessee.

“A lot of folks have been hearing about community schools as a strategy that is being turned to as we think about pandemic recovery and pandemic response,” said Hayin Kimner, Managing Director for the California Community Schools Learning Exchange.

Community schools do not refer to a particular program or funding strategy. The focus is on the whole child where districts and schools work together with teachers, students, and families. Community schools have partnerships with community agencies and local governments to align resources behind improving student outcomes.

If that sounds a lot like how schools have coped with COVID-19, that’s because it is.

However, community schools have been around for 40 years. They operate in eight states and cities like New York, Boston, and Oakland.

Many school districts are under-financed but have natural assets and strong relationships that are often not part of the school fabric but could be.

“The calamity and chaos of COVID actually brought some clarity particularly for those school folks who were all responding to the urgencies of the realities of young people and their families,” Kimner said.

Hayin Kimner is the Managing Director for the CA Community Schools Learning Exchange and a Senior Policy and Research Fellow for Policy Analysis for California Education.

The pandemic forced educators to change their thinking about education and business as usual and focus instead on what is most essential to good teaching and learning.

“Those schools and districts that had strong relationships with families were much quicker to pivot to respond to distance learning, technology gaps, and really thinking through the ways to meet students where they were,” she said.

Kimner said teachers’ voices and innovation by educators were prominent features of the schools that did so well.

“Schools were not dealing with this crisis alone. Strong communication and coordination with local departments of public health as well as community-based organizations… really gave way to a different way of thinking about collaboration and partnership. We were all trying to row in one direction,” Kimner said.

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1 Comment

  1. Since this article focuses on Nashville and Tennessee, the mention of the community school approach could have done the same. MNPS in Nashville has had a community school model in place for years in a subset of its schools, has continually grown, and will expand next year through ESSER funding. The state has a network of community schools initiatives from Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Memphis. The Communities in Schools organization works in schools throughout rural areas, in addition to Nashville and Memphis. Basically, there is a great deal of relevant information missing that the article needs to present a more complete picture.

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