It will take systemic changes to K-12 schools to get students back on track after the historic academic losses brought on by the pandemic, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a speech to educators Wednesday.
His comments came as the U.S. Department of Education kicked off a five-month series of sessions aimed at equipping schools with the strategies and resources to improve student literacy and math performance. The first session followed this week’s release of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed the biggest drop in math and reading performance among 4th and 8th graders since the 1990s.
“The achievement gaps that have been a stain on our education system are even worse today than they were three years ago,” Cardona said. “These results should surprise no one and alarm everyone. They’re appalling and unacceptable.”
During the session, Cardona was joined by panel members from all levels of the education system, including state education leaders, district superintendents, principals, teachers, and students as well as education researchers like Peggy Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the agency that administers the NAEP.
All panelists at the event used the opportunity to urge systemic changes to schooling, with many pointing out that the gaps brought on by the pandemic are only a symptom of chronic challenges in public education.
“We must resist the temptation to return to systems that were not serving our students well,” Cardona said. “We must fight complacency with the same urgency we fought COVID for the last few years.”
Carr, who sat on a panel about leveraging research to boost pandemic recovery, said concerns over student achievement have been brewing since 2017 when students scoring at the lowest levels were not making the gains needed to close gaps between them and the highest-performing students.
Reading scores among 4th and 8th graders declined again in 2019, she said, raising alarms. Once the pandemic hit, those declines were exacerbated by other factors including students’ deteriorating mental health, increased bullying, and absenteeism, Carr said.
“People need to understand that going back to normal isn’t recovery for a lot of us because we need to do better than that,” Carr said. “We can do better than that.”
Carr also clarified that it’s not just students of color whose scores have dropped, but students of all races and economic backgrounds.
“It’s not just the other person’s problem,” she said. “What we’re seeing now is the higher performers that were flourishing before the pandemic, well, they’re decreasing too.”
Schools have to commit to evidence-based strategies that will address chronic absenteeism, create intentional instructional time, and keep students engaged in learning, said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, an education research center based out of Georgetown University.
“These evidence-based practices are focused on more time … but we also need to make sure we’re making that time matter,” Jordan said. “When kids are back in the classroom when they’re being tutored, they have to have stronger curriculum in reading, in math; they’ve got to have a school climate where they feel welcome, safe, and respected and where their mental health needs are met.”
Throughout the event, panelists pointed to many of what they called proven solutions to faltering academics, including high-dosage tutoring, grow-your-own programs to combat staffing shortages, and individualized interventions for students.
Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, described how his district started an equity index, which allocates funding to schools with higher levels of need based on the academic and demographic profiles of students. The index also looks at other indicators that impact academic performance, such as the school’s level of poverty, absenteeism rates, the percentage of students with disabilities, and the percentage of English learners. That approach has allowed the school district to gain points in reading and math for both 4th and 8th graders on NAEP in 2022, Carvalho said.
“We’re no longer in this country, in a position where there’s a lack of skill set,” he said. “We know exactly what works. What lacks often is a ‘will set.’”
Cardona also pointed to many of those proven strategies as a necessary response to the NAEP scores and urged school and district leaders to avoid putting “technical Band-Aids on big problems.”
But many of the academic recovery strategies that work require funding and resources that school and district leaders don’t have access to. Recent research indicates that schools will need $500 billion more than the $190 billion already sent to schools through the American Rescue Plan to address the academic losses brought on by the pandemic.
Cardona also used his speech as an opportunity to call on state and local leaders to increase funding for schools—and to build on the massive infusion of cash the federal government has given school districts to address the effects of the pandemic.
“The American Rescue Plan is a down payment on the transformational changes needed in our schools,” he said.
Additional sessions in the Education Department’s “Raising the Bar: Literacy & Math Series to Address Academic Recovery” will take place once a month on Nov. 10, Dec. 8, Jan. 12, and Feb. 9.