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Students are behind after the pandemic, and schools are crunched to catch up before state tests

December 1, 2021, 4:00 PM UTC
Students sitting at desks
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Policymakers accurately predicted that schools would need to address a maelstrom of pandemic-related challenges as students returned to school in person this fall, and they allocated billions of dollars—in the form of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund—to do just that. 

But there’s one critical thing schools don’t have more of: time. 

Many kids have returned to school both reeling from pandemic-induced isolation and trauma and staggering under the weight of larger-than-normal academic gaps after more than a year of virtual and hybrid instruction. With state tests once again looming and some kids further behind than ever, schools are understandably eager to add more time into the school day for academic subjects and small-group tutoring.

“[Pandemic learning loss] was bad,” said Steven Wilson, cofounder of Cadence Learning, a nonprofit that partners with districts and schools across the country to offer accelerated learning summer programs. “If it’s not addressed, it will have long-term developmental consequences for a generation. We have to act, and…until we invent a radical solution, we need more quality learning time.”

But the subjects most often on the chopping block to make additional time for academics are enrichment classes like art and music—the very subjects that might help address the panoply of social, developmental, and emotional needs that schools are currently contending with.

Data from education technology provider EVERFI show that enrichment subjects are also critical to the development of students’ life skills and practical knowledge. For example, only 42% of students felt able to read and understand a paycheck before taking one of EVERFI’s financial literacy courses; that number jumped to 61% post-course. And 70% of students who took an EVERFI course about mental wellness said it gave them tools to recognize and cope with stress. Cut down on courses like these, and kids may be hugely underprepared to navigate essential parts of the adult world.

It’s against this backdrop that schools are having to make tough decisions about what to prioritize.

Jamie Downs is the principal at YES Prep Southside Secondary, a public charter school serving grades 6 through 12 in Houston. Creating a school’s schedule and course catalog can be a daunting puzzle in the best of times, but this year, Downs’ decisions were further complicated by the passage of a new Texas law, HB 4545.

Passed in June 2021, HB 4545 requires that any student who failed a state test must receive 30 hours of small-group tutoring. The mandate can also be met if students are taught by a high-performing teacher as designated by the state’s teacher incentive program, but according to the program’s website, there are currently only 4,617 such teachers across the state—just over 1% of the teacher workforce. 

After the enormous challenges of the past school year, there’s no doubt that small-group tutoring is a necessity for kids who are returning this year with big academic gaps. But there’s more to HB 4545. 

Downs reports that a number of his students opted out of the state test last spring because Texas required students to test in person, and they felt unsafe doing so. Under HB 4545, those students are subject to the same requirements as students who failed, unless the school administers an additional exam to test their proficiency at the beginning of the school year. This leaves Downs with even more tutoring to jigsaw into the school day.

“We’re trying to catch [students] up, but it’s like a fire hydrant of information down their throats,” Downs said. “We started to adapt to life online [in 2020], but kids were not prepared for that. Parents were not prepared for that…Kids are now two grades higher…and they don’t have the foundational skills to be successful in [their current] courses.”   

Given the challenges of virtual instruction—internet connectivity issues, distractions at home, teachers unable to provide as much support as they otherwise could have in person, to name just a few—a number of Downs’ students also failed classes that are required for graduation and must retake them this year.

In response to the hugely increased academic need, Downs was forced to cut back on elective courses and can now offer only those electives required to graduate.

“They still get electives, but for some kids, rather than going to PE, they’re going to a reading intervention…or retaking the English class [they] failed last year,” Downs said. “We’ve really had to cut [electives] down to what’s required for graduation. So rather than having robust fine art offerings, we have one fine arts class…We’ve had to pick and choose our battles to make sure kids graduate.”

Unfortunately, the difficult choice to limit electives can have real consequences for kids’ development, socialization, and overall well-being.

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that youth mental health is impacted by kids’ ability to engage with music and the arts,” said Josh DeSantis, an associate professor of education at York College of Pennsylvania.

A 2019 report that analyzed the effects of increased arts education for over 10,000 elementary and middle school students in Houston found that more exposure to the arts (primarily music, theater, dance, and visual arts) led to a significant decrease in disciplinary incidents and an increase in writing achievement and students’ compassion for others. And a 2010 CDC report found a positive connection between physical activity in the school day and academic behaviors, such as concentration, memory, self-esteem, and classroom behavior.   

Before the pandemic, DeSantis saw schools incorporating more practices to nurture students’ mental health, such as mindfulness and yoga, and he’s hopeful that the trend will continue, even in the face of pressure to catch students up academically.

“There had been a [pre-pandemic] movement toward a more empathetic, whole view of children,” DeSantis said. “Now everybody understands this. We’ve all spent more time with our kids [in virtual school]…and we’ve seen what the consequences are if we don’t humanize school.”

Stephanie Nantell, a former music teacher and the director of curriculum and programming at Education Through Music, a New York City nonprofit that provides music instruction to under-resourced schools, has seen that music education is inextricably linked to students’ social and emotional development. 

“Music makes you feel,” Nantell said. “Making music as part of a community makes you feel something. Innately, music [puts you] in touch with your emotions…We provide experiences and learning for students so that they can put words to [their feelings].”

Nantell also believes that enrichment classes offer powerful opportunities to reinforce what kids are learning in academic classes. For example, Education Through Music incorporates lessons about acoustics and sound waves that tie into their third grade students’ science and math curriculum. 

“When [you take] something that students are learning in social studies or science or math, and you talk about it in the music room, you see their faces light up,” Nantell said. “Understanding those connections does so much to increase [their] learning and overall investment in school.”  

Alex Magaña, executive director of Beacon Network Schools in Denver, has seen a sharp drop in students’ academics and soft skills upon returning to school in person this fall, and he knew that keeping time in the school day for enrichment classes was crucial in light of these challenges.   

“The academic gap is wider, but more importantly, we’re seeing a gap in work ethic and skill sets,” Magaña said. “We can focus on knowledge, but we’ve noticed that skill sets like how to study and how to be organized have [also] fallen down.”

Magaña was also surprised to see the extent of the pandemic’s impact on kids’ social development. A number of his students are having more behavioral outbursts and displaying immature behaviors that they normally would have outgrown one or two grades prior, a phenomenon he attributes to the social isolation of the past year and a half.

“Kids are just walking out [of the classroom],” Magaña said. “Last year [in online learning] they could just mute us. They’re technically still muting us when they walk out…It’s more challenging than we planned for.” 

Magaña believes that consistency is key, and he came into this school year committed to providing the same opportunities and classes that his schools had offered pre-pandemic. But he was forced to cut the number of days electives are offered from four days per week to two, in order to make time for accelerated learning blocks, where kids can receive small-group tutoring, support in reading, or more time to complete assignments.

State testing, which was suspended in many states in 2020 and in some states in 2021, will likely return in full this academic year. As is the case with many school leaders across the country, it’s on Magaña’s mind. He supports state testing as a means to ensure that schools are providing quality academic instruction, but he anticipates a sizable drop in state test scores, based on sample data from last spring.

“We accept state testing,” Magaña said. “We feel strongly that we need to know how we’re doing because we’re serving our kids…We’re obligated to ensure that our kids are performing well.”

The pressure to perform well on state tests and the ensuing tradeoffs schools make to do so is nothing new. DeSantis traces the national anxiety over students’ academic performance back to the 1980s and the publication of A Nation at Risk, a report that detailed gaps in the American education system and unfavorably compared American students’ academic performance with that of their international peers.

“There was tons of anxiety from a national defense lens about our school system,” DeSantis said. “That brought about the testing movement in the early 1980s.”

DeSantis traces the pendulum swing of education policy through the 1990s, when focus shifted away from testing and toward student well-being, with the addition of nonacademic advisory periods to the school day and a higher proportion of counselors in schools. 

That ethos was short-lived, however. In 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—an update to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that aimed to better hold schools responsible for all students’ academic progress—ushered in a renewed focus on standardized testing.

Among other things, NCLB mandated that all states administer yearly assessments in reading and math to all students in grades 3 through 8. The law also set benchmarks for student progress—benchmarks that were accompanied by consequences for schools that failed to meet them. However well-intentioned NCLB may have been, it also strongly incentivized a focus on math and reading to the exclusion of other subjects.

“The most heavy-handed reaction is [schools saying, ‘If] our kids didn’t do well in math, we’ll double the amount of minutes they spend in math and have five minutes for social studies and science,’” DeSantis said. “That contributed to the youth mental health crisis that existed before the pandemic.” 

DeSantis is hopeful that even if standardized testing is here to stay, policymakers and therefore school administrators might move toward more empathy when considering the outcomes. 

“[State testing] is just a narrow snapshot of one narrow band of one way to be smart on one day,” he said. “Maybe [the pandemic has brought] some daylight for policy to move more from punishment to support.”

Rather than viewing education policy as a dichotomous tug of war between academics and student well-being and joy, Wilson of Cadence Learning suggests that it’s possible for schools to have both. His answer? High-quality, intellectually exciting academic classes combined with intentional time built into the school day that promotes a sense of belonging, community, and shared values for kids.

Wilson acknowledges that the standards-based reforms of the past two decades are seen as a failure for the most part. However, he calls out pockets of success that could point the way forward, offering Massachusetts as an example. 

NCLB gave states latitude in developing the standards on which students would be tested, resulting in a wide array of standards that varied in content and rigor. Massachusetts developed standards that Wilson characterizes as intellectually rich and engaging for students; they subsequently became one of the top-performing states in the country for more than a decade.

“[There’s a] belief that academic learning is something to be suffered and endured, as opposed to something that can be deeply joyful and exhilarating,” Wilson said. “Kids are smart. What they’re going to feel good about is academic success, for which there will be no emotional substitute.”

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