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Ryan Connelly Holmes
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Nearly three years into the pandemic, students and teachers in the U.S. are still trying to close the education gap formed by COVID-induced school shutdowns and remote learning struggles. Robert Balfanz, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss the challenges facing students nationwide and efforts to stem the country's learning loss.
Nearly three years into the Pandemic America's students and teachers are still trying to close the education gap created by COVID-induced school shutdowns and remote learning struggles.
Tonight, NewsHour co-anchor Geoff Bennett continues his reporting on the country's learning loss and what it will take to overcome it.
Yesterday, we reported how Baltimore City Public Schools is helping students catch up on unfinished learning from the Pandemic. Today, we focus on the challenges facing students nationwide and efforts to stem that learning loss. Congress gave schools billions of dollars to help students get up to speed on what they missed, but numerous studies show students are still behind. Test scores show that, too.
During the Pandemic, fourth grade reading scores dropped by the largest margin in 30 years. And fourth grade math scores fell for the first time ever.
Robert Balfanz is a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. He's also working with the Biden Administration's National Partnership for Student Success to address learning loss. It's great to have you here. Paint a picture for us of what this learning loss looks like nationwide. What do the latest numbers show?
Robert Balfanz, John Hopkins University:
Yeah, they show that, you know, it's been quite significant that on average, our students lost more than a half year of math learning and about a quarter of a year of reading learning. It really had two sources. It was interrupted learning, which is what we think about what happened when some of the kids were virtually learning and didn't have good conditions to learn, or didn't have good internet connections, or when they were quarantined when one of their classmates became ill with COVID. But it was also driven by a disconnection from schooling that once that was broken, it was harder to repair than we thought.
And then, the other key thing is that some kids had much more learning loss than others. Those averages hide the fact that in some places kids lost a year of math and a half year of reading. And some other places they didn't lose that much at all.
What types of interventions, based on your research, they're working?
I think the good news is that we actually have a couple of good things in our arsenal to help kids recover and ultimately thrive. One is to just remind ourselves that kids in fact, are resilient. And if we give them good instruction and good learning opportunities, many of them will be able to accelerate their learning. And then, for those that had the biggest losses, we know that there's really nothing better than high dosage tutoring.
And then, finally, there's really solid research saying that if kids know there's an adult that cares about them as a person, they have a supportive peer group. If they're involved in activities, helping others, they feel welcome in school. They will feel connected. And that's as close as we have to a universal prevention measure.
Schools nationwide, as you well know, are facing a harrowing staffing shortage. That's especially true in rural parts of this country and across the south. There was some reporting in the Washington Post just this past week about a rural school in Mississippi where the geometry teacher is a recording, and students in that school are basically teaching themselves chemistry classes. Understanding that there's no easy solution. What can be done to address that?
Yeah. Well, that's what we're really trying to do with the National Partnership for Student Success. We're really trying to find ways to get at least 250,000 more adults in schools as mentors, as tutors, as success coaches. And we're looking at places where we get large numbers of students, like college work study students, folks that are already volunteering for like 4-H or Big Brothers or Big Sisters of the YMCA. And even corporate volunteers to really create this small army of adults that can help teachers and students.
Billions of dollars in funding has been given out to schools across the country. Of course, funding is no guarantee of student outcomes. How should administrators think about pairing that money with effective programs?
There's been a lot of criticism that they haven't spent it fast enough, and I think in some ways that's OK, because to do this well, takes a lot of preparation. So, think about high dosage tutoring. You know, you have to have the money, which they fortunately we have for the federal funding. Then, you have to have the people, you have to have the time and space to do it, and you got to convince kids and students that they should engage in it, because we have to remember that students actually don't walk around saying, I had a learning loss. Many of them feel like they tried as hard as possible to learn. And so that there's a lot of work to be done to make those programs work well. And I think we're starting to turn the corner, and I'm optimistic we'll be able to start really seeing some big impacts of these efforts.
That was, in fact, my last question for you. Can this learning loss be recovered? It seems like the answer is yes, if the right solutions and resources are in place?
Yeah, those three things. One, that kids are resilient. Two, that we have some evidence-based strategies. And third, schools have the resources to implement them with the federal money, and they're learning how to do it. And they're starting to really — start picking up the traction. And I think in the next year or two, we're going to see a lot of good progress made.
Robert Balfanz with the Johns Hopkins School of Education. It's great to speak with you. Thanks for your time.
Thank you. Glad to be here.
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Geoff Bennett serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour. He also serves as an NBC News and MSNBC political contributor.
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