Saturday, May 21, 2022
May 21, 2022

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Westneat: Where’s urgency to help students?


On Wednesday, state lawmakers in Olympia spent an hour discussing an idea that might have made some sense if we lived in an alternate universe. One where a pandemic hadn’t ravaged schooling for the past two years.

They debated a bill that could permanently reduce the amount of in-person instruction in K-12 schools, by up to 20 percent.

“I’m actually in disbelief we’re discussing this, two years into the pandemic,” one parent from Issaquah told lawmakers. “We’re only beginning to address the resulting learning loss … and now this?”

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said in her defense that she wasn’t necessarily proposing more remote schooling, but rather flexibility for project-based “asynchronous” learning. As Senate Bill 5735 puts it, that’s where students still do school work, but without “two-way interactive communication contact with school district staff.”

Back in my day we just called this “study hall.”

Anyway, because of blowback to the idea, including Wednesday from some educator groups, this bill seems wounded and maybe dead before it’s out of the gate.

But listening to the debate, I couldn’t help but sympathize with that Issaquah parent about the big picture. They’re talking about cutting in-person instruction? Now?

Last week the state released the most hideous batch of standardized test scores I’ve ever seen. Statewide, the number of kids grades 3 through 11 who meet the minimum math standard plunged by 20 percent. Typically, scores like this representing hundreds of thousands of students would go up or down by maybe 2 percent or 3 percent.

So this is a major drop. Critics immediately pounced, blaming everyone from the governor to the teachers unions to the liberals in general for keeping schools shuttered for too long last year.

I’m not going to revisit that debate. In-person school, for most people, is obviously better. The stubborn reality, though, is that the pandemic didn’t much care: The blue remote-schooling states and the bold “we won’t hide from this virus” red states all saw large, sometimes unprecedented test score drops.

Take, say, Texas. Math scores there dropped 16 points compared to before the pandemic. Utah, which had in-person school last school year (interrupted by occasional quarantines), saw math performance drop an average of 30 points across grades 5 through 10.

It was a 100-year scourge that was disruptive regardless. There probably was no perfect choice for what the schools should have done.

All that said: The schools are in a crisis. And there ought to be some high-level urgency right now about fixing them.

Only I’m not hearing it. Are you?

When Gov. Jay Inslee rolled out his priorities for 2022 last month, he held a series of news conferences to highlight his top goals. They were, in descending order: climate proposals, such as electrifying the ferry fleet; salmon recovery; and homelessness.

In his budget he did propose redirecting unspent education money back into the schools to help them recover. This is good, but it was hardly a clarion call.

Said the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, when he released Washington’s abysmal test scores last week: “We’re not gonna spend a lot of energy here because there’s too many factors that are unique.”

Say what? It seems the opposite of unique: Students everywhere have had their educations upended, in similar fashion. They’re all hurting, in red states and blue. The test scores, in every state, are one of many signals flashing red that they need help, immediately.

We’ve been through a slow-rolling hurricane. To recover, kids are doubtless going to need less time isolated. To put it in legislative-ese: They need more “two-way interactive communication contact.” Not 20 percent less.

Our schools also sorely need a champion right now, someone to meet this moment. The field for that seems wide open.

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