At a recent Chicago Board of Education meeting, Schools Chief Janice Jackson made a pointed, passionate statement as she defended her position that students and teachers be held accountable for work done during the pandemic.
At a time when critics are accusing the school district of not being understanding enough about what kids are up against, she insisted the accountability was about protecting the gains made by the district’s students.
“I want to make sure that we are not throwing out all of the hard work we have done to support our students, and to push students who people didn’t believe could perform to do great things,” Jackson said. “We are not throwing that out because of COVID.”
After all, Jackson is deeply proud of research that showed Chicago Public Schools students between 2009 and 2014 were making gains at greater rates than virtually all other students across the nation.
But now, that progress could be threatened. Widely-touted research predicts the extended school shutdowns could have a devastating effect on student achievement nationally. According to the research, the setbacks could be most pronounced in school districts like Chicago’s, where students are poor, families are stressed by the economic and health problems and the transition to remote learning has been rocky.
The researcher who made the projections said understanding the potential losses gives school districts the power to do something about it, just like data can help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“I think there is a similar moral imperative in education where we need to come together to reduce the slope as much as we can,” said Beth Tarasawa, executive vice president of research at NWEA, a nonprofit testing organization. “It is not meant to frighten or to disproportionately put the burden on teachers who are already on the front lines ... I want to give plenty of attention to social emotional learning, but it’s also not to go in blindly and pretend this didn't have an impact.”
Yet this research and Jackson’s determination is being met with some criticism. Some other academics and teachers say alarms about academic devastation are overblown. They believe a global pandemic is not the time to worry about what students are learning. And they insist that students can bounce back.
Sounding the alarm
Teacher Aisha Wade-Bey, however, is worried about learning loss.
A 20-year-veteran, she teaches 5th and 6th graders at Lawndale Academy on the West Side. She has great faith in her students, calling her 5th graders the “Brainy Bunch” and her 6th graders the “Infinite Sixth.” She wants them to know they are smart and have infinite potential.
When schools closed in mid-March, she was deep into a lesson, teaching her students how to annotate and find inferences in text.
But as the weeks of the shutdown turned into months, she said she could not escape the sinking feeling that her students were losing ground.
“It is like when they have summer break and they come back in September, you feel like you are back at square one, like you are starting all over again — and that is just three months of summer,” she said. “So yes ... three months within a school year ... I think it is going to make a difference.”
Wade-Bey’s reasoning — if summer’s bad, the school shutdown is going to be worse — is exactly what concerns researchers.
Tarasawa projected that students could show up in September with 70% of what the academic gains normally expected in reading. For math, she predicts students could return to school with about 50% of the typical learning gains, with some grades almost a full year behind. She coined the term the “COVID-19 slide" for this projected loss.
“On average, for math, it is more devastating,” she said. Students are “not only losing the learning in the school year, but you are also coupling that with the summer loss.”
To make their predictions, Tarasawa and her team took what is usually lost over a typical summer and walked it back to March 15, the day many schools closed. Chicago Public Schools’ last day before the shutdown was March 17. Tarasawa’s nonprofit testing organization has a bank of five million test scores taken at different times in the year.
Tarasawa added there are many factors that could impact the trajectory. She notes some students will do well with remote learning, especially if students are independent learners or get one-on-one attention from their parents or another adult.
For others, the decline could be much worse than a typical summer because of the additional stress on families, both psychologically and economically.
Prepping for what’s coming this fall
Either way, Tarasawa said schools need to be preparing for students to come in behind.
School districts might look at how schools in New Orleans tried to catch students up after Hurricane Katrina, said Paul Hill, a University of Washington professor who founded the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Some schools grouped students by their grade level, rather than their age, he said. Doing that requires that diagnostic tests be used right away, he said.
Hill said New Orleans schools that were able to bring students back up to grade level were intentional about throwing services at students — including tutoring, an extended day and summer school. He suggests potentially using unemployed, recent college students as tutors..
Wade-Bey said students in her school are especially worried about being held back a grade, so she’s not sure sorting them by grade level would work.
But she also expects students to return at different levels. She said student engagement with remote learning has been uneven. She spends a lot of time calling parents to try to hunt down students.
Despite that, she often finds herself online with only a handful of her 30 students. The good news is that those students are getting one-on-one attention and really benefiting.
But others are losing out. She often thinks of one student who had struggled in the past but was getting into the groove of class before the pandemic. So far, this boy has yet to show up to an online class.
“We already had children struggling on the line, and right now I feel like they might just be lost to the system and fall through cracks,” Wade-Bey said.
The kids will be all right
But for every teacher like Wade-Bey, there are others who say the researchers and experts are being alarmist and that worrying about learning loss right now is misguided.
“There are going to be teachers in the next year who will be able to provide services and get the student up to speed, because we are all aware of the circumstances,” said Roxanna Gonzalez, a teacher at Prieto Elementary School in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side.
Gonzalez said she is assigning her students work, but she also is raising money with other teachers to help families meet their basic needs.
Likewise, high school science teacher Phil Cantor said his biology students will ultimately get what they need academically.
“I feel like the whole idea that kids have to be at a certain place is sort of arbitrary to begin with,” said Cantor, who teaches at North-Grand High School in Humboldt Park. “The chemistry and physics teachers are fantastic. They will help kids catch up and get them skills they need before they graduate.”
Alfred Tatum, the dean of College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the predictions about learning loss presumes a lot of things that aren’t necessarily true. For one, he said students aren’t going to lose skills, they just won’t grow.
“If students have strong intellectual memory muscles, the progress does not collapse,” he said. “For example, if I know how to read well and I am outside of school for two months, I am still going to know how to read well. That is not going to be debilitated in any way.”
He said students may not be sharpening their skills, so it might be more like stalling than losing ground.
Furthermore, he said students across Chicago were already receiving an uneven education before the shutdown. As a result, their losses will be different now that in-person classes are canceled.
“I have been in classrooms where students are encountering less than one page of text a day,” said Tatum, a former 8th grade teacher in a Chicago public school. “If I am missing that one page [during the shutdown], and I go down to zero, that is a very different experience than if I am experiencing wide reading and wide writing and then I go to zero.”