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Public Education's Alarming New 4th 'R': Reversal of Learning


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Real Clear Investigations

Call it the big reset – downward – in public education.

The alarming plunge in academic performance during the pandemic was met with a significant drop in grading and graduation standards to ease the pressure on students struggling with remote learning. The hope was that hundreds of billions of dollars of emergency federal aid would enable schools to reverse the learning loss and restore the standards.


Four years later, the money is almost gone and students haven’t made up that lost academic ground, equaling more that a year of learning for disadvantaged kids. Driven by fears of a spike in dropout rates, especially among blacks and Latinos, many states and school districts are apparently leaving in place the lower standards that allow students to get good grades and graduate even though they have learned much less, particularly in math.

It’s as if many of the nation's 50 million public school students have fallen backwards to a time before rigorous standards and accountability mattered very much.

“I'm getting concerned that, rather than continuing to do the hard work of addressing learning loss, schools will start to accept a new normal of lower standards,” said Amber Northern, who oversees research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a group that advocates for academic rigor in schools.

The question is—why did the windfall of federal funding do so little to help students catch up?

Northern and other researchers, state officials and school leaders interviewed for this article say many districts, facing staffing shortages and a spike in absenteeism, didn’t have the bandwidth to take on the hard work of helping students recover. But other districts, including those that don’t take academic rigor and test scores very seriously, share in the blame. They didn’t see learning loss as a top priority to tackle. It was easier to spend the money on pay rises for staff and upgrading buildings.

The learning loss debacle is the latest chapter in the decade-long decline in public schools. Achievement among black and Latino students on state tests was already dropping before COVID drove an exodus of families away from traditional public schools in search of a better education. Although by lowering standards and lifting the graduation rate districts have created the impression that they have bounced back, experts say that’s the wrong signal to send, creating complacency when urgency is needed.

“There is a lot of fatigue among educators in looking at this issue and how to deal with it,” says Karyn Lewis, a research director at assessment group NWEA. “But if we just accept this as the new normal, it means accepting achievement gaps that have widened exponentially. That is what’s most concerning.” :snip:

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