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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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Other Paper Say: Answer clear for learning loss

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During the pandemic, when schools were shuttered for more than a year, everyone knew there would be a price to pay. That toll has now come due, with student behavior and academic problems at a scale teachers say they have never seen.

In response, some districts are proceeding like it’s business-as-usual. But that could not be farther from the truth.

Toward the end of a six-hour school board meeting last week, Seattle Public Schools presented what ought to have been at the top of the agenda: 40 percent of the seventh-graders in six middle schools missed more than three weeks of instruction last year, a rate of chronic absenteeism even higher than what schools posted in 2021-22, when students first came back to class.

Unsurprisingly, fewer than half of these kids, now in eighth grade, met targets for academic growth. Only 20 percent of Black male seventh-graders were proficient in math when tested last spring. At that rate, it is practically guaranteed that they won’t be ready for high school — not without a major intervention.

The federal government anticipated this problem, doling out nearly $3 billion to cover the cost of catching kids up in Washington alone. About $333 million of that money was to be targeted explicitly toward learning loss. Seattle used its share for teachers’ salaries and professional development.

In a district where leaders talk constantly about equity and educational justice, that is flat-out baffling.

But Seattle shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. When reporters asked state officials for an account of how districts were spending their money, they were told, “dunno.” Instructions from the feds were merely a loose guideline, the officials said, and they weren’t going to act like hall monitors in tracking it.

That appears to be a misinterpretation. Washington was one of just two states audited by the federal Department of Education because of its lack of transparency in showing exactly where the learning loss money went.

Meanwhile, a blizzard of research points toward intensive tutoring as the best way to counter academic atrophy. Number crunchers at the Washington State Institute for Public Policy studied the results of various K-12 tutoring styles used nationally and published a report in September asserting that if those patterns were replicated here, high-dosage tutoring “could fully offset the decline in test scores during the pandemic.”

That is a tantalizing promise.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction wants higher pay for paraeducators, the folks often tasked with tutoring. But why wait for the Legislature to cough up more money? Seattle has scads of retired scientists and legions of writers eager to volunteer in schools. All they need is someone at district headquarters with the will to organize them and, of course, a call to action.

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