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Opinion: Public Schools Not to Blame for Learning Loss

Studies show that learning loss in Virginia, as in other states, was not relegated to public schools. The most salient variables appear to have been socioeconomic factors, which call for investment and focused tutoring.

Three students sitting at a table with their heads down on stacks of books in front of them, with a shelf full of books behind them.
(TNS) — At first glance, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania school systems couldn’t be more different, as a quick review of high-level data from U.S. News & World Report bears out.

However, the two share one important trait: Each faces withering criticism about student achievement from parents and civic leaders.

Many of these critics promote creating a range of educational opportunities — charter, private, parochial, and lab schools, to name the most popular — and letting parents choose where to send their children. Though couched in terms of “choice” and “options,” it’s really a one-size-fits-all blind faith in free markets that is pushed with few questions by the governor, local leaders, state-level think tanks, and many of the everyday citizens I encounter.

The pandemic has served as an accelerant for school choice supporters, who point to recent NAEP data to argue that public schools uniformly failed students, and that the time is ripe for change.

The governor, as I’ve written before, has fueled this cry by misleading Virginians about SOL scores and the most-recent NAEP scores, drawing broad-stroke conclusions that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Now a new study, the Education Recovery Scorecard — designed to understand learning loss during the pandemic — allows us to see just how misleading the governor and public-school critics have been.

The ERS study has two eye-catching findings for critics of how public schools handled the pandemic, and the impact it had on students:

Schooling experiences were not solely, or even primarily, to blame for learning loss during the pandemic. The “effects of the pandemic were inconsistently felt across America,” the report reads. And this inconsistency was true within states. Some districts’ learning loss was modest (York County), others were significant (Richmond City). The accompanying chart on math learning loss demonstrates the range of learning loss.

Poverty accelerated our educational disparities. “The declines in scores were notably larger in higher-poverty school districts, on average, meaning that the pandemic widened already large educational disparities between high- and low-income communities.”

Read those conclusions again.

Virginia, like every other state studied, did not uniformly crash during the pandemic, as the governor has suggested. Some districts came through fairly well, others did not. Most importantly, students’ schooling experiences — masking or not masking; learning remotely, in-person, or via a hybrid model — does not necessarily explain that learning loss where drops in scores are significant.

A district’s socioeconomics, however, does say a great deal about how students came through the pandemic. Districts with low numbers of students on free and reduced-priced lunches realized significantly less learning loss than districts with higher numbers of poor students.

These findings should be carefully studied by anyone who thinks school choice is a panacea to our educational challenges.

To really elevate student achievement, our first task is to support high-poverty students and meet their challenging needs. Our public schools are the best institutions to do this. They have the infrastructure and expertise to support these students.

But we must seize the opportunity by leveraging the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds dispensed by the federal government to target these students and improve their chances for success.

Gov. Youngkin in October challenged districts to use their funds in just this way. It’s the right call, and we encourage local districts, especially Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg, to do this.

This support can take many forms. Texas and Tennessee are both getting good results, for example, with focused tutoring.

To its credit, Fredericksburg has been moving in this direction, using ESSER funds to open summer school to more students the past two summers, and hiring three people to target and support students facing significant learning loss.

At press time I did not have a clear handle on Spotsylvania’s use of ESSER funds for high-poverty students, but that does not appear to be a major push.

It’s time to be bold. Fredericksburg, in particular, with its high population of ALICE students and students from diverse language backgrounds, could potentially realize the kind of learning improvements it needs to make with high-poverty students by directing its ESSER funds to programs to support them. The same is probably true of Spotsylvania.

Both districts have plenty of ESSER funds to pull from. Spotsylvania has more than $16 million, according to the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. Fredericksburg has almost $5.9 million.

Culture wars in Spotsylvania and demands to accelerate school choice in Fredericksburg will not improve student achievement. Supporting students in poverty, will.

Let’s learn that lesson, and extract something good from this pandemic.

Martin Davis is Opinion Page editor of The Free Lance-Star.

©2022 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.