Mitigating COVID-Related Learning Losses – Conflicted Advice Gets an Airing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Old School House Photo by Steve McKinzie

by James C. Sherlock

Any attention given to learning losses is welcome, but some are more welcome than others.

Data published in an op-ed by Kristen Amundson in the Richmond Times-Dispatch give preliminary evidence of the destruction of K-12 learning that has been going on since last March.

“A new poll from Christopher Newport University found that 75% of Virginia parents are worried their children are falling behind in school because of disruptions caused by COVID-19. More than half (53%) are “very worried.”

They’re right.

Nine months after the pandemic led to school closures, we have data on how well students are learning. The answer: Not well.

This past month, Fairfax County Public Schools reported an 83% increase in the number of middle and high school students receiving an “F” in two or more classes. Unsurprisingly, students with disabilities, English learners and economically disadvantaged students did even worse, with jumps of more than 350%.

The nonprofit testing organization NWEA reported in November that students’ math scores dropped five to 10 percentage points from this past year. While reading scores roughly held constant, even students who are making some progress show smaller gains than in the past, “resulting in more students falling behind relative to their prior standing,” NWEA says.

Her data are illustrative. I think even those predictions will prove optimistic under SOL testing.

Ms. Amundson is the former chair of the Fairfax County School Board and a former member of the Virginia General Assembly. Unfortunately, her recommendations for mitigation of learning losses “talk her book.” She builds a pathway to her own company with a series of recommendations I find entirely unrealistic.

Ms. Amundson’s recommendations. After recommending vaccinations and PPE for teachers, she wrote that she doubts that SOLs will be administered this Spring. I agree that is a distinct possibility.

But she recommended privately developed tools for individual learning assessment by parents as an alternative to SOLs rather than recommending the Governor ensure SOLs are administered or some other mass assessment.

She then recommended schools develop “a personalized academic recovery plan for every child.” I simply don’t find that realistic, even with testing. Her “personalized education plan” recommendation, not coincidentally, supports individual tutoring.

Then: “Research shows us that 1-on-1 tutoring by trained tutors can close learning gaps.” Good to know.

She followed the individual tutoring recommendation with a note that she is “involved” with a company that provides such tutoring. She did not disclose how much her compensation package is worth with that company.

Mass individualized academic testing and recovery plans with tutoring for each child cannot be administered by the schools. Period. They will have to hire Ms. Amundson’s company and her competitors to do it.

Ms. Amundson is welcome to her opinions, and I have no doubt they were made in good faith, but RTD editors made a fundamental error letting such blatant conflict of interest into their opinion pages.

I wrote about some of the options for increasing in-school days in an earlier post.

Those recommendations will enable treating classrooms as classrooms rather than mass independent learning centers with hundreds of thousands of 1-on-1 tutor sessions.

Evidence gathering. But school boards will find it impossible to tailor final plans of any sort without large scale and objective evidence of learning losses.

There are two alternatives I offer for gathering actionable evidence:

  1. VDOE issued on Dec. 18 a waiver of regulatory language related to expedited SOL assessment retakes. I take that as a precursor to waiving the spring SOLs if federal requirements are waived. The General Assembly should consider either passing a bill requiring the Governor to administer SOLs or getting a public guarantee that he will.
  2. An alternative concept that has been presented to me may prove attractive with conditions. It is to let teachers, when they finally get their kids in front of them for a few weeks, meet in each school in grade-level meetings to develop an assessment of where their kids stand academically and what is necessary to get them back up to where they should be. That is a very attractive approach from a teacher buy-in perspective and therefore from a school board perspective. If, and it is a big if, those grade-level assessments can be aggregated and presented to each school board without multiple levels of review and changes by school and district administrations, that may prove effective in support of school board decisions without the disruption of SOLs.

If forced to pick right now, I’d recommend SOLs, because I don’t trust school and district administrations on this issue and an aggregation of subjective judgements may or may not equal an objective judgement. But there is undeniable value in the teacher evaluation approach if it is unfiltered when presented to school boards.