Recently released data has confirmed what we already suspected: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative effect on education.
In standardized tests taken in the fall, 30 percent of Washington public school students in grades 4 through 11 met expected standards in math; that reflected a 20 percent decline compared with 2019, the last time assessments were taken. In English, the portion of students who met grade standards fell by 9 percentage points.
“Test scores don’t tell us everything, but they tell us something,” Marguerite Roza, a Seattle-based education finance professor at Georgetown University, told The Seattle Times. Deb Came from the state superintendent’s office, said: “The pandemic affected students overall. The assessment scores reinforce that.”
Washington is not alone in seeing the quantifiable impact of the pandemic and extended remote learning. In 20 of 26 states whose data was analyzed by Chalkbeat, high school graduation rates declined; in Washington, they dropped about one-half of a percentage point.
“It does concern me,” said Chris Reykdal, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction. “I don’t ever want to see a decline. We’ve made such steady progress.”
Critics are quick to blame the decline on draconian school shutdowns. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, said, “The response to COVID-19 in Washington state will have devastating consequences for our children’s and state’s future.”
Actually, those consequences are the result of the virus itself. Closing schools at a time when little was known about a new infectious disease was a reasonable decision. The question, then, is how to move forward. As an analysis from the Brookings Institution surmised in September: “Strong and inclusive public education systems are essential to the short- and long-term recovery of society, and there is an opportunity to leapfrog toward powered-up schools.”
That will require technical innovations — and access to technology. The pandemic and the trials of remote learning highlighted the importance of broadband internet access for all students. The Legislature has taken steps to enhance broadband access in this state, and the Biden administration has made such access a linchpin of efforts to boost infrastructure spending.
But the most important aspect of helping students and the educational system rebound from the pandemic is to invest in teachers.
As Vox.com writes in an analysis of education initiatives across the globe: “When researchers compared more than 150 interventions in developing countries, one trend stands out: Investing in teachers is strikingly cost-effective. … If we want to improve schools, the most cost-effective approach is getting teachers professional development and training.”
The pandemic has generated increased appreciation for the role played by teachers and the difficulties they face. That appreciation should translate into more than lip service or an extra apple for the teacher; it should result in sincere efforts to help teachers perform their jobs; support from administrators and parents in terms of classroom discipline; and continuing education for instructors.
Support for teachers not only will improve their performance, it will help attract bright young prospects to the profession and provide generational benefits for students.
The pandemic has had an impact on the American education system. But it also has created an opportunity to rethink that system and improve it.