It’s week 132 of our new reality and this is a time to grapple with what the new student achievement numbers are telling us, even when it’s difficult news to hear. While the NAEP results covered in the last edition of this newsletter told us a lot about how students fared nationally, the new round of state tests are much more personal. That makes it harder to talk about because these results are connected to individual decisions in a crisis and children in specific communities we know and love.
That’s how many Black boys met expectations in math on the recently released 2022 student achievement results in DC’s district schools. On the eve of the pandemic in 2019, 17 percent of Black boys in district schools met those same expectations. The word “disaster” is used a lot lately but it is absolutely the right fit here.
But what about the other half of DC’s schools, the charter sector?
Sadly, 9 percent is also the percentage of Black boys in DC charter schools who met math expectations in 2022. That’s down from 22 percent in 2019, an even sharper decline than in DC’s district schools.
The charter school sector in DC, which has achieved so much success over the past decade by making every moment count in their school buildings, seems to have had a particularly difficult transition to an all-virtual environment. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the low performance of virtual charter schools is well documented. As we wrote in our joint 2016 report with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers: “at the same time that full-time virtual charter public schools have seen significant growth, far too many have experienced notable problems … The well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual charter public schools should serve as a call to action.”
Now that DC charter schools are back in person, they will need all the effort they can muster—and all the support we can provide—to help their students get back on track.
Indeed, a review of the school level data suggests that student achievement in some of DC’s most prominent charter schools dropped by previously unimaginable amounts. For example, four KIPP elementary schools that in 2019 led the DC charter sector in performance—and served as national models of excellence for schools around the nation—saw their percentage of students meeting math expectations drop 40 points or more. We have a unique moment in time to restore those learning losses with additional support and instruction but it won’t last forever.
DC should be commended for providing an honest accounting of where students stand. This data shouldn’t be used as a hammer to punish decisions made in a difficult moment in time when our public health officials struggled to provide clear guidance to schools and prevent fear from overwhelming the facts. It can and should be used as a flashlight to help illuminate why student achievement dropped where it did and what it will take to get it back. Transparency is a core value of education reform that we need now more than ever.
So, what can we learn from these results?
Some have suggested that the cut scores on these DC tests are set too high and we shouldn’t read too much into these drops. Yet if that is true, it’s worth asking how 72% of white boys in DC cleared that same bar in math this year. The starting point for any serious discussion should be the affirmation that these are reasonable goals all schools should be trying to achieve. Indeed, a few charter schools beat the odds and held onto their high levels of achievement, most notably BASIS DC and Washington Latin. We should analyze why that is and what we can learn from them.
It is also worth reflecting on the fact that Burbio ranks DC as last in the country on the amount of in-person education children received during the pandemic when compared against the 50 states. If many of these charter models require in-person learning to work, it’s reasonable to conclude DC was a particularly inhospitable environment in which to operate the past two years.
As discussed below, the evidence increasingly points toward these extended school closures as the biggest driver of the huge drops in student achievement we are seeing in district schools and charter schools on nearly every test. Or as Mike Bloomberg put it in a recent Washington Post op-ed on the nationwide drop in student achievement: “Blame for these dismal results lies mostly with poorly designed and implemented remote instruction programs that stretched on far too long — and long after vaccines became available.” Bloomberg makes the case for funding “deeper and more aggressive interventions” including in-person learning opportunities during the summer, after school and on weekends.
Another core value of education reform is parental choice and it’s worth exploring the challenges we experienced in trying to uphold this value in a time of crisis.
Polling in summer 2020 showed that about half of all families weren’t comfortable sending their children back to in-person learning for the start of the 2020-21 school year with the other half wanting in-person learning or unsure what they wanted, which no doubt greatly complicated the reopening decisions of all schools. Yet, it’s worth remembering that the decision facing school and district leaders at that time wasn’t whether to force all families into in-person learning or all families into virtual learning but instead whether schools should provide all families with an option of in-person learning or not.
As Derrell Bradford and I argued in USA Today in August 2020, given the stakes involved we couldn’t afford a one-size-fits-all mindset. Instead every parent in America deserved the right to choose not just between district and charter schools but between in-person and virtual learning for their children.
If we ever face another health crisis that threatens to shut down schools, it will be wise to look to the example of America’s Catholic schools. Nationally, 92 percent of Catholic schools made the decision to offer their families the choice of sending their children back to their school buildings or continuing with a virtual option. That compares to only 43 percent of district schools and just 34 percent of charter schools that gave their families the same choice.
We will never know exactly how many families would have chosen that in-person option if offered one, but the experience of urban Catholic schools that serve students from the same neighborhoods as charter and district schools suggests that once the option was made available, a large percentage of families likely would have chosen to send their children back to school. Steady leadership in a crisis can make all the difference.
Given everything we have learned, where should we go from here? Now more than ever we need to put kids’ needs first.
That means designating schools as essential services so that we never find ourselves in a situation where we close schools while keeping bars and restaurants open. It means investing in funding systems that provide families with the resources they need to choose in-person summer camps, tutoring and after school programs to help their kids catch back up.
Given the enormous gaps we need to fill, we should also make room in these investments for new programs and new approaches and quickly and rigorously assess their effectiveness. We should also explore ways to help families move across school sectors and school boundaries, particularly in moments of crisis when their needs aren’t being met.
Most of all, we need to continue to invest in objective data on student achievement and insist on keeping our expectations high even when we fall short.
Last time in the New Reality Roundup, we focused on building renewed urgency to combat learning loss and welcomed the newest Executive Director to the 50CAN family, JerseyCAN’s Paula White. This week we dig deeper into the state achievement results and make the case for investing in educational R&D to help us climb out of this learning crisis.
FROM THE FIELD
States in the 50CAN network are already investing heavily in parent power ahead of the 2023 legislative sessions. GeorgiaCAN is seeing strong parent interest for their respective parent fellowships. In Georgia, over 200 parents applied for the next cohort of the EPIC fellowship. At JerseyCAN, new Executive Director Paula White announced that applications are open for a similar program in the Garden State.
NewMexicoKidsCAN Executive Director Amanda Aragon has hit the media circuit to discuss both the NAEP long term trends report and the New Mexico state assessment results. With appearances on the local Bob Clark podcast and in the Albuquerque Journal, Amanda continues to inform the public that “the reality is that we are failing to prepare the majority of our students with the skills we know they need to succeed.”
The DelawareCAN Action Fund congratulated four of their endorsed candidates–Senate candidate Russ Huxtable and Representatives Nnamdi Chukwuocha, Stephanie Bolden and Debra Heffernan–for victories in last week’s primary election.
Moment of Resilience
Mia Moore, a 16 year old student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is one of seven students interviewed by CRPE for the State of the American Student. “The end of my 8th grade year and the full Freshman year I was out of school and completely virtual. That was tough for me because I’m not a virtual learner,” Mia shares in a video in which she demonstrates the value of candor in a crisis and stresses the critical importance of the bond between teachers and students in recovering from the pandemic, academically and in terms of mental health.