Learning Gaps Loom As CPS Teachers Welcome Students ‘Home’ On First Day Back

A group of teachers met on Aug. 25, 2021 to prep for the start of the year at Mariano Azuela Elementary School in Chicago. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
A group of teachers met on Aug. 25, 2021 to prep for the start of the year at Mariano Azuela Elementary School in Chicago. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Learning Gaps Loom As CPS Teachers Welcome Students ‘Home’ On First Day Back

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

First grade teacher Jasmyne Portee-Haywood knows just how she’s going to greet her new students Monday morning, the first day of classes for about 300,000 students in traditional Chicago Public Schools.

“I’m going to let them know that they are home, and I welcome them back with open arms,” said Portee-Haywood, who teaches at the Dewey School of Excellence in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side.

But Portee-Haywood’s excitement is tempered by a heavy dose of reality. Students at her school and across the city are returning after a year plus dominated by remote instruction because of the pandemic. In remote learning, many teachers were unable to get through all the material covered in a typical year. At many schools, attendance and grades dropped as students struggled with the effects of the pandemic.

Dewey, like many schools, struggled with attendance.

“We lost touch with certain families and students that didn’t show up anymore,” Portee-Haywood said. “Parents didn’t answer calls or numbers got changed, and we just didn’t have that communication. It was very difficult for our school as a whole.”

National test data shows students are behind academically after more than a year of pandemic instruction. The losses are greatest among low-income and Black and Latino students — and that’s the majority of CPS students.

Some teachers disagree with the notion that students suffered “learning loss,” saying students learned invaluable lessons during this crisis. But most agree students missed out on some academic learning, and school district leaders have raised alarm bells about potential learning losses.

“Just because they are looking at you through the computer doesn’t mean that they are grasping,” Portee-Haywood said. “Just because their work is correct doesn’t mean that they did the work.”

Teachers this year have long to-do lists, including finding ways to support those who missed out on lots of instruction. Schools have been putting in place strategies to tackle the gaps, following the school district’s edict to teach students at their grade level, or “accelerate” learning.

That approach is different from remediation, where teachers try to catch students up by going over lessons they missed in previous years. That means a seventh grader could be stuck learning sixth- or even fifth-grade material.

“[The] focus is back to that personalized learning, rather than saying, ‘Here is what you don’t know, here is what you know, and here is how we are going to move you,’ ” explained Kathleen Speth, principal at Disney II Magnet School on the North Side.

But pulling off acceleration — successfully moving all students by teaching them at grade level — is a difficult task under normal circumstances for a big urban school district. And this, of course, is no normal school year.

In-person classes begin for nearly all Chicago Public Schools students five days a week on Aug. 30 for the first time since March, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Acceleration vs. remediation

District officials aren’t the only ones supporting acceleration. Many teachers and national experts back it over remediation. They say remediation is an outdated practice that doesn’t work.

First, it stigmatizes students, said David Steiner, executive director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University. Second, students miss out on regular instruction while they’re being remediated.

“Which means, of course, that they’ll just be further behind because they will have missed crucial teaching in those core subjects,” said Steiner, who also served as commissioner of education for the state of New York.

Acceleration is the opposite. It is about teaching students the essential skills and lessons they need to understand current grade-level material, he said.

Steiner says acceleration encourages teachers to ask, “What must we teach children in order for them to access next week’s grade level lesson? In other words, we’re going to say to ourselves, ‘look, the past is the past, we cannot possibly teach them everything they missed.’ ”

Last week, at Mariano Azuela Elementary, a mostly Latino school on the Southwest Side, a group of four teachers huddled around a table planning lessons for the coming months so they can accelerate students in the way Steiner and other experts talk about.

“We want to focus on what students can do, not what they are deficient in,” said Patricia Orozco-Rosas, one of the teachers. “It’s more of ‘OK, you know how to do this, now let’s move on and do the first step.’ ”

The four teachers taught first grade last year to about 65 students. Starting Monday, they are moving up with their students to second grade.

Orozco-Rosas said there were lessons they just didn’t have time to cover last year. In math, that included geometry. Instead, they focused on essential skills they had to teach so students would be ready for second grade work — things like addition and subtraction.

That kind of planning last year, they hope, is setting them for a year where they can focus on moving their students forward. But no one is under the illusion that this work is easy or that success is guaranteed.

“It’s a lot of scaffolding, a lot of finding ways to help that child achieve and be at grade level,” Orozco-Rosas said. “The thing that we are nervous about is finding enough time to cover all of that.”

Azuela Elementary School
Teachers at Azuela Elementary are focused on “what students can do, not what they are deficient in,” said teacher Patricia Orozco-Rosas. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

How to move students forward

Accelerating students successfully requires support and resources, Steiner and others say. Teachers need time for planning and tests to evaluate students and determine where they need help. They also need to scale back how much material they try to cover in a year.

“That’s easy for me to say, but it is not easy to do,” Steiner said.

Steiner said school districts should use the same curriculum across schools and hire tutors to support teachers in the classroom.

CPS spent $135 million developing a curriculum for all grades that it released this summer. But other schools already have their own curriculum, including Disney and Azuela. The district said adopting the Skyline curriculum is voluntary, but already more than 355 schools are using it. The district is no longer requiring schools to use the same standardized tests across the district, but CPS officials say schools can coordinate their own assessment plans and track students’ progress using Skyline and other district tools.

CPS said it plans to hire 850 tutors by the next school year. District officials said they have already made 600 offers to potential tutors this school year but it didn’t say how many tutors have started. Orozco-Rosas and her colleagues said they would welcome the support from tutors.

Uncertain road ahead

Dewey will be using the district’s new curriculum for math and social studies. Portee-Haywood said a baseline curriculum is an important step for her school and the district

“When you have [one] school teaching high standards and high expectations and curriculum that’s very appropriate for their grade level, and then you have [another] school [that] may not be teaching that and may have teachers … making up curriculum … those students do not get a fair and equal education,” Portee-Haywood said.

In preparation for this year, Portee-Haywood said her school also has lined up support from an outside organization to help with tutoring.

But Dewey has other issues. The school has struggled with declining enrollment and limited resources. It also just got a new principal a few days ago — one of several principals who have led the school since the spring.

Despite the instability, Portee-Haywood and other teachers are focused on doing right by their students.

“Our school has been through changes before, and every time we pull through,” said Portee-Haywood, who has been at Dewey for nine years. “The school actually does not operate on the leadership. The leadership does put the boat forward … the people rowing are the staff. And we are still here, and we are still willing, and we are still ready.”

She and others at Dewey said no matter what, they are more determined than ever to close whatever learning gaps they find as this school year begins.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.

This story was updated on Aug. 31 to include new information from Chicago Public Schools on the number of tutors offered jobs and on its new Skyline curriculum.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the name of a school. The correct name is Disney II Magnet School.