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Pandemic Learning Losses (Part 2)

Two recent reports from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) provided hard data on the severity of student learning losses in public schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly every subject in every grade showed learning losses, and in some cases, it was so severe that students are over a full school year behind where they should be.

Dr. Terry Stoops serves as Director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, and he joins us on Family Policy Matters this week to discuss how these learning losses can be rectified, in Part 2 of a 2-part show.

One reason these learning losses are so severe, argues Dr. Stoops, is that lawmakers and other high-level government officials did not understand the differences between teaching in-person and online. By assuming that teachers trained and experienced in in-person education could immediately switch over to online education, leaders did a real disservice to students, classroom teachers, and online teachers. “Online teaching is a very unique way of delivering information and interacting with students that takes a much different skill set than classroom instruction.”

As Dr. Stoops shared in Part 1 of this show, the proven solution to learning loss is “high dosage or intensive tutoring. […] Small groups of students receiving tutoring services from a very experienced, very capable teacher.”

He encourages parents to take the initiative and seek out this intensive tutoring if their child’s school district is not providing it. There are resources online for parents to provide this tutoring themselves, or they can send their child to a private tutoring center. Finally, parents should attend school board meetings, and “remind them that they are sitting on this amount of [COVID relief] money, and that the research is very clear on what they need to do with it.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Terry Stoops share more about pandemic learning losses, in Part 2 of a 2-part show.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Pandemic Learning Losses (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

DR. TERRY STOOPS: But a school district should understand that we are not going to get learning loss addressed in any other way than their ability to use the money that they have right now to address student learning loss through intensive or high-dosage tutoring. The science on this is settled. I think that it’s an approach that any school board that is thinking seriously about learning loss as a problem should be considering. Yet, I find startlingly few districts even talking about learning loss, let alone starting to implement tutoring programs to address it.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned the high-dosage, intensive tutoring, and I’m wondering if this is a stupid question: does that have to be person-to-person or can that be provided online to students?

DR. TERRY STOOPS: It’s an excellent question because we have seen an increase use in online learning even after the worst of the pandemic was over. But really to maximize the effects of the high-dosage tutoring, you want the child to be in front of the teacher. Really, if you think about how our classroom teachers are trained, they’re not trained for delivering online instruction; that’s one of the reasons why it was such a failure. They really have mastered the art of being able to educate students face-to-face, of being able to pick up verbal and nonverbal cues from students that may signal their understanding or lack of understanding for subject matter. It’s easier to keep students on task when they’re in front of you. Especially in a small group, you’re able to react much quicker to students that are able to attend a tutoring session in person.

Now, if that’s not possible for whatever reason, then you can be very successful providing an online tutoring program to students, provided the teacher who is conducting those sessions is experienced in the use of online instruction. We do have plenty of teachers in North Carolina that are experienced in using online instruction. We have two virtual charter schools in North Carolina. We have a virtual public school. We have some school districts that provide their own online instruction. So, there are teachers that are very, very good at providing online instruction, but there are teachers that find that they don’t quite understand how to master that type of online instruction because they were simply trained for the classroom environment. So, if we are going to guarantee results, then we want to deliver that instruction in person whenever possible.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So just to be clear, you’re not blaming the teachers. They’ve just been trained—all of their training has been basically face-to-face, and all of a sudden they’re thrown into having to do this thing that they’ve really not done before.

DR. TERRY STOOPS: Oh, absolutely. Certainly not blaming teachers! Unfortunately, during the worst of the pandemic, there was an assumption made by elected officials—specifically Roy Cooper—that teachers could easily transition from the classroom to online learning because teaching is teaching whether it’s online or in the classroom. But I think that kind of thinking was a real disservice to the fact that online teaching is a very unique way of delivering information and interacting with students that takes a much different skill set than classroom instruction. Now, I know that we were—as a state and every state was—scrambling to figure out how to deal with this transition to online instruction. I think there were better ways that we could have dealt with it than we did, but looking back, we know that we did students a disservice by having teachers transition to online education when their lessons, their instructional delivery, and everything that they had been trained to do wasn’t suitable for that type of environment.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Going back to these North Carolina-specific reports, which really are even more devastating than we expected them to be even though we heard that we had a lot of learning loss—but it’s just astounding to me. How does North Carolina compare to other states or the nation as a whole? Has this been pretty much across the board?

DR. TERRY STOOPS: North Carolina is really ahead of a lot of other states in doing this kind of analysis. In fact, I would say that we’re probably the leader in being able to measure learning loss. We have a few national reports that speak to the severity of learning loss that find, very much like the North Carolina studies do, that math is much more of a problem than reading. It seems that teachers had an easier time doing reading instruction online than math instruction. So, this is something that some of the national studies have confirmed for us. National studies have also confirmed that schools that locked down longer than some other schools tended to have greater levels of learning loss. So, we know that the longer that the students were locked out of their schools, the worst the learning loss was.

The most devastating part about this is that the schools that had extended closures tended to be those schools that were in low-income areas and really cater to low-income and ethnic and racial minority students. Those tended to be locked down longer than schools in more affluent and white areas. So, that just increased the gaps in learning between racial and ethnic groups, between high-income and low-income students. That seemed to be the overriding factor. That’s why, I think, we’re starting to see some lawmakers propose providing some small amounts of funding for tutoring in those high-need areas first, even though the pain is shared statewide across all grades, across all subgroups, and almost every subject.

So, I think, as a state, we are far behind other states in being able to assess the problem. Other states, I think, are ahead of us in starting to implement these high-dosage intensive tutoring programs. North Carolina is unlike some other states that we have a strong, centralized Department of Public Instruction with a strong amount of regulation coming from the state. That’s a blessing and a curse in situations like this. It’s a blessing in the fact that we can really provide a large scale change from the state level across the entire state, but it’s a curse when we’re not as nimble as we could be in our local school districts in being able to make the kind of changes that would be necessary to respond.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, you mentioned that schools that didn’t stay closed as long, or stay remote as long, did better. I know a lot of private schools were not held to the forced closure or forced online learning. Did you find that those schools did much better?

DR. TERRY STOOPS: We don’t have good numbers to be able to compare how our home and private school students compare to our public-school students, because they take different tests. Honestly, I would love for our public-school students to take the same tests that many of our private and homeschool students are taking because those tests are, in my mind, much higher quality than the ones administered by the state. But, anecdotally, teachers in non-public schools, in even networks of non-public schools—Thales Academies come to mind—are finding their students are on par for where they should be at their grade level for the subject. Very little remediation needs to be done, except for the students that are transferring in from public schools. Because there was a lot of discontent with the way that public schools managed the pandemic and post-pandemic learning environment, there’s been a flood of individuals that are trying to leave the system and go to a non-public school, knowing that non-public schools seem to have more focus on attending to the academic needs of students. The wait lists for a lot of those schools are remarkable, just like the kind of public charter school wait lists that we have seen in recent years for parents wanting to get out of the district system.

So, we could probably double the number of private schools and private school seats in North Carolina and fill that very quickly, but we don’t have the ability to do so. Now, a lot of students are in a difficult situation where they’re in a district that isn’t meeting their needs, and there are these tremendous wait lists for non-public or public charter schools that make it difficult to leave the district system. Unfortunately, we have limited voucher programs in North Carolina. I think if we expanded the voucher programs, we would see a lot more students and a lot more private schools that welcome those students opening up. Perhaps we’ll see an expansion of those non-public school and charter school networks that do such a great job of serving North Carolina students.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What else can they do? If parents are hearing this and they’re like panicking—which I’m just a grandparent and I’m panicking—what can they do? Very practical first steps. You mentioned the high-dosage, intensive tutoring. How would they go about getting that started? And if they’re wanting to go after that billions of dollars in federal COVID funding that’s sitting in some of these local school districts, what do they need to do?

DR. TERRY STOOPS: Well, parents and grandparents can do a few things. They could provide intensive tutoring themselves, or they can go to a tutoring center, one of the many private tutoring centers that provide this type of tutoring. Knowing that tutoring really is the key to making sure that students are caught up, you can specifically request these tutoring centers to provide the sort of services that will allow the student to be able to catch up and reach grade level.

If I were approaching a school board, I would remind them that they are sitting on this amount of money, and that the research is very clear on what they need to do with it. The Department of Public Instruction, if you go to COVID-19 relief funding, will give you up-to-date information on just how much has been spent by each school district and how much they have left. This is valuable information for school boards that are so used to asking for more money, claiming that they don’t have sufficient resources to be able to provide basic services for students. Well, guess what? Not only do they have sufficient funding, but the state has a tool—the Department of Public Instruction has a tool—to determine just how much money they have and what they’ve been spending it on, and holding public officials accountable for spending that money in a way that benefits students, not adults.

I don’t know just how much some of our school boards recognize how much evidence there is, the benefits of high dosage or intensive tutoring. But the research is very clear about this. The research is almost in universal agreement as to the benefit of these types of programs. Now, one of the things that the John Locke Foundation has tried to do is to convince the General Assembly, if the schools aren’t going to do it, to give parents an education savings account or a voucher or some sort of financial vehicle to allow them to contract with a teacher or a private tutoring center using state funds to pay for those services. We’re going to continue fighting for that because we think that is the best way to address learning loss, is to give the money to parents and allow them to find the tutor that can provide the best services for their children.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Dr. Terry Stoops, Director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Lock Foundation, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.



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