AILSA CHANG, HOST:
As the school year winds down for more than 50 million K-12 students, school leaders are taking stock of the pandemic's academic toll.
UNIDENTIFIED SCHOOL LEADER #1: Unprecedented, historic learning loss.
UNIDENTIFIED SCHOOL LEADER #2: These gaps are real.
UNIDENTIFIED SCHOOL LEADER #3: Particularly in mathematics.
UNIDENTIFIED SCHOOL LEADER #4: Significant declines in math.
UNIDENTIFIED SCHOOL LEADER #3: Lots of learning loss in reading as well.
UNIDENTIFIED SCHOOL LEADER #1: That is shocking. It's a stunning phenomenon.
CHANG: Those were school leaders in Los Angeles, Little Rock, Ark., Guilford County, N.C., and Tennessee. Now, new research offers the clearest view yet of what those school leaders were talking about, what's become commonly known as learning loss, and what schools can do about it. NPR's Cory Turner joins us now to walk us through all of this. Hey, Cory.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So let's talk about this new research - like, how do you measure something that kids did not get?
TURNER: Yeah, that's the challenge. So this research comes from a collaborative of researchers at Harvard, the American Institutes for Research, Dartmouth College and the school testing nonprofit NWEA. And what they did, Ailsa, is they studied the test scores of more than 2 million elementary and middle schoolers. And they did that by comparing the academic growth that these kids made in math and reading over two years before the pandemic to the growth that they made over the past two years during the pandemic. Now, obviously, test scores are not going to capture everything that kids did learn, but they're a good start.
CHANG: OK. Right. So tell us, what did they find?
TURNER: Well, a few things. First, this should surprise no one who has been paying attention over the last two years. Remote learning just wasn't as good as in-person learning for most kids. Schools just weren't prepared for it. But as is so often the case, researchers also found that our most vulnerable students were hit the hardest.
So here's Thomas Kane. He's one of the researchers involved. He's with the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard.
THOMAS KANE: It was a combination of high-poverty schools were more likely to go remote. And when they did go remote, students lost more.
TURNER: So on average, last school year - and we're talking about 2020-'21 - high-poverty schools spent more time remote than did low- and mid-poverty schools. So that alone means the kids in those schools missed more learning. But Kane says even when everyone was remote, students at these high-poverty schools actually missed more learning.
CHANG: Do we know how much more?
TURNER: Yes. So let's use as an example the schools that stayed remote for the majority of the last school year. So students at high-poverty schools missed the equivalent of 22 weeks of in-person math learning. Kane says the losses were essentially comparable in reading, too. So 22 weeks - Ailsa, that's more than half of a traditional school year...
TURNER: ...Which is around 38 to 40 weeks. But students in low-poverty schools, who were also remote for that time - they only missed the equivalent of 13 weeks.
CHANG: So why was there such a big difference here? Like, is this about access to computers and Wi-Fi?
TURNER: Yeah, a lot of it is about inequity and a lack of resources. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently surveyed a lot of teachers, and those working in high-poverty schools were much more likely to report their students lacked an appropriate workspace, access to internet. They were less likely to have an adult there to help with remote learning, often because that adult was out working.
But even before the pandemic, kids in high-poverty neighborhoods, who are also disproportionately Black, Hispanic or Indigenous, were also just more likely to experience all sorts of even bigger challenges, Ailsa, to learning - like food insecurity, homelessness, lack of health care.
TURNER: You know, I spoke with Becky Pringle about this. She runs the nation's largest teachers union, the NEA. And she says this litany of long-standing racial, social, economic injustices, you know, they have always been an obstacle for learning for millions of kids.
BECK PRINGLE: Those inequities have existed forever. What the pandemic did was just like the pandemic did with everything. It just made it worse.
CHANG: Absolutely. What about places that returned to in-person learning more quickly than others? Like, did the researchers find that sooner return had a noticeable effect?
TURNER: Yes. So in states that had the highest rates of remote instruction overall - so we're talking about California, Illinois, Kentucky and several others - high-poverty schools stayed remote, on average, two months longer than low-poverty schools, which obviously led to bigger learning gaps. And there were very real public health reasons for those decisions. On the other hand, in Texas, Florida, a bunch of largely rural states where students spent the least amount of time remote, the differences between high- and low-poverty schools were quite small. So here's how Thomas Kane described what that meant for students.
KANE: When we shut down, gaps widened a lot. In areas where schools did not shut down, gaps did not widen. So it was like we flipped a switch.
TURNER: Yeah, so Kane says he hopes now that instead of relitigating these districts' choices to stay remote or to resume in-person, politicians and educators can use this data to look forward and, you know, use it as a call to action.
CHANG: Right. Well, I've heard a lot of people talk about this as learning loss, but I also understand that some educators just don't like that phrase. So how should we talk about what happened?
TURNER: Yeah. I've been thinking about this for more than a year now. Becky Pringle, whom we heard just a minute or two ago, she really doesn't like the phrase. Ebony Lee is assistant superintendent in Clayton County, Ga. Here's how she explains the problem.
EBONY LEE: We try not to say learning loss because as you probably heard now, Cory, if they didn't learn it, they didn't lose it.
TURNER: And, you know, Ailsa, I tend to agree. Learning loss is a misnomer, essentially, because what is being measured here is the learning that did not happen when schools went remote...
TURNER: ...In part because kids didn't have access to online materials or internet. Their teachers might not have been trained. I will say, though, it's important to say here - I have heard from parents, like Sheila Walker in Northern California, who have seen their kids' learning struggles, and they think learning loss as a name really captures the urgency that they feel now.
SHEILA WALKER: It would mean so much for parents if somebody would acknowledge it. You know, we have learning loss. Like, our boards - they don't even use those words. It's like, we know we have learning loss, so how are we going to address it?
CHANG: So whatever you call this, Cory, like, what can schools do to make up for all of this missed learning?
TURNER: Well, this is the good news, Ailsa, because research says there are a few things that really can work. Thomas Kane thinks there's a lot of promise in adding extra days to the school year - not hours to the day, but days to the year. Teachers would obviously need to be paid more, Kane says, and families would need to be on board. There's also summer school, although that obviously doesn't reach all the students who potentially need the help.
Though, I will say, I had a great chat with Superintendent Errick Greene in Jackson, Miss., and he told me about their summer school last year. They pulled out all the stops, and they reached many more kids than they usually do.
ERRICK GREENE: That was three or four times what we typically serve - very targeted lessons, all of that. I don't want to paint this rosy picture, though, because we have a huge churn of teachers.
TURNER: And that, actually, gets us to one more thing districts are doing to make up for all this missed learning. And that is they're bringing in extra help for students and teachers. So Tennessee built a statewide corps of tutors. It's called the Tennessee ALL Corps. And the plan is to provide tutoring to 150,000 elementary and middle schoolers over three years. The state's education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, told me the tutoring will be high-dosage and low-ratio.
PENNY SCHWINN: And for us, high-dosage means two to three times per week for at least 30 minutes. And low-ratio means no more than three students in a group.
TURNER: And, Ailsa, one more bit of good news here is several district leaders told me they're excited about the possibility of keeping up these interventions for the long run. So Schwinn, in Tennessee - she told me her tutoring corps is funded forevermore because she said it's no longer just about COVID recovery, but in her words, this is just good practice for kids.
CHANG: That is NPR's Cory Turner. Thank you so much, Cory.
TURNER: You're welcome.
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