Upon the recent release of new test results for nine-year-old students, it would appear that our education system has entered a state of crisis.
Does that sound alarmist? Let’s look at the facts: outcomes moved almost uniformly in the wrong direction. Achievement declined significantly in both math and reading, with fewer higher performers and far more low performers. Most importantly, instead of movement toward equal access to educational opportunity, the results showed growing gaps. As noted in many news headlines, this was the worst downturn since the federal testing program began in 1969—erasing what had been decades of progress. One could argue that we’re as far away from our educational goals as we’ve ever been.
Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. The greatest problem we face is not our plummeting outcomes but the very real risk that we will fail to reverse them.
As Morgan Polikoff and David M. Houston wrote, parents appear relatively unconcerned about their children having lost ground academically. In recent polls and surveys, many report that their children did not suffer learning setbacks during the pandemic or that they are performing better, not worse, than before.
What’s going on here?
Why is this the case, when there is such widespread evidence that so many kids are far off-track?
One possible reason: Parents and caregivers aren’t seeing many signs of trouble. Since March 2020, many schools have embraced a series of changes that likely stem from the laudable goal of reducing stress for families. Here are just a few:
- Teachers are assigning less homework
- Many schools are adopting more lenient grading standards, leading to increased grade inflation
- Students who are not meeting reading standards are not being held back
- State tests were canceled for all students in 2020 and administered with limitations in 2021
Unfortunately, these same changes make it more difficult for parents to understand when their children are not learning as they should. It’s entirely understandable for families to conclude that their kids are doing just fine. In fact, excellent research by Learning Heroes indicates that more than 90 percent of students are receiving all grades of B or better.
We now face a thorny dilemma. Policy experts are calling for massive investments in supplemental education to make up for missed learning during school closures. This could take the form of tutoring or summer school, for example. Interventions like these may be the only way to catch students up. But none of these remedies will matter if families decline to participate because they feel they are unnecessary.
Educators hold the power to determine what happens next.
Teachers and school leaders know which students have fallen behind because they see their progress each day in class. They can decipher dense test score reports that parents often find unintelligible.
When meeting with families, teachers can choose to sugarcoat the truth. It’s easy to do. “Oh, don’t worry, it was a little rough there during remote learning, but everything will work itself out. Your child is thrilled to be back in the classroom! Kids are resilient!” Families will be glad to hear the good news, which may only reinforce the positive impression they already hold.
It is imperative that educators avoid this easy path. There is another way: telling the clear, honest truth.
What if teachers level with the parents whose students are off-track academically and say, plainly, “I need your help”? Help to ensure a student is in-class, on-time, every day. Help to set aside 45 minutes each night for independent reading. Help to practice math facts until they are automatic. Help to make up what might be substantial missed learning.
Schools cannot climb this hill alone—and leaving families out of the loop only does a disservice to everyone. Even in the best of times, it has been difficult to catch-up students who are far behind where they ought to be. Teachers need families as partners, and true partnership requires honesty. Likewise, families cannot deliver for their children without relying on teachers, who are exhausted from years of pandemic grind.
The road to recovery starts with identifying specific students who need support—and treating their families as critical allies in the process.
Otherwise, we can all predict what will happen next. Schools will spend billions on academic remediation efforts that will receive low participation before quietly fizzling. The learning gaps that exploded during the pandemic will calcify, leading to greater inequality for decades to come. That would be a true state of crisis for our country.