Calculator puts stark numbers to students’ lost learning
Jose Aparicio likes the idea of an objective yardstick to measure the pandemic’s learning effects on students.
“It’s a place to start the conversation,” said the North Wasco County School Board chair.
Edunomics Lab has provided that discussion starting point with a calculator that estimates students’ lost learning in more than 8,000 U.S. school districts, including most in Oregon.
The calculator uses a complex formula that factors in a district’s time in remote learning, demographic makeup and past academic achievement to estimate how much its students have fallen behind expected growth in math and reading. The calculator also estimates how much money the district must spend to catch up students through tutoring, which the research center says is the most cost-effective strategy.
Edunomics Lab is a Georgetown University research center that studies education finance. Katie Silberstein, Edunomics Lab strategic projects lead, said individual data is essential to guide district responses, but the calculator offers broad estimates to give parents, teachers and communities a way to think about the pandemic’s effects.
“We hope it gets the message of urgency out there,” she said.
The calculator shows North Wasco students are 20 weeks behind in math and 12 weeks behind in reading, and it will take roughly $6.3 million to help them catch up.
North Wasco has its own data on academic progress, and the school board gets a report twice a year. Aparicio said January’s report showed a range of student abilities but the differences between the farthest behind and the most advanced are more extreme than in the past.
North Wasco was among the last districts in Oregon to return to in-person learning, has a high rate of poverty and has more than 50% students of color, factors that research shows amplified pandemic education struggles.
The district’s recovery strategies include an expanded communication effort to get parents and the community more involved in students’ learning.
“All hands on deck are needed for the success of our kids,” Aparicio said.
Oregon districts tend to have among the higher lost learning totals in the United States because Oregon was among the last states to return to in-person learning, Silberstein said. But all U.S. districts showed at least a few weeks of lost learning because of all the pandemic disruptions, including when most schools closed at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
Math generally showed greater losses than reading because students could do more reading-related assignments on their own, Silberstein said.
A sampling of about three dozen Oregon school districts found a range from as low as four weeks lost to as much as 23. Oregon’s school year is about 34 weeks. Silberstein said four weeks is among the lowest and 23 is among the highest numbers in the country.
The Mitchell School District between Redmond and John Day is on the low end of learning loss in Oregon, with students behind an average of nine weeks in math and seven weeks in reading.
Mitchell Superintendent Vince Swagerty said most students are generally where they should be because the district’s tiny size has allowed extensive in-person education and individualized remediation. Still, he said, gaps are visible, especially among early learners and students working on their English.
Mitchell has used federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to create a “response to intervention” class for the first time to help students catch up.
Parkrose School District Superintendent Michael Lopes Serrao said the pandemic has forced educators to think about new systems to get better results.
The Parkrose School District is among the U.S. districts facing the highest learning loss. Parkrose students have been showing significant growth this year, Lopes Serrao said, but many of the students come from communities with education barriers and started school already behind grade-level norms.
He said it is difficult to separate the gap created by the pandemic from the gap the students already faced because of systemic inequities. Neighboring districts in east Portland have similar demographics and high learning losses.
“We have to transform to better serve our kids,” he said. “We are going to see those gaps unless we find a better way to serve our students of color.”
Parkrose is using some of its federal emergency money for teachers to lower class sizes and give instructors more individual time with students, especially in the early grades. The staffing isn’t sustainable, though, unless the Oregon Legislature provides more for the schools with the students who have the most challenges, Lopes Serrao said.
The calculator includes how much money a district is getting from ESSER III. The calculator says it would take $9 million to catch up all Parkrose’s students while ESSER III only provides $7 million. Many Oregon districts are in a similar plight, with more need than federal funds can address.
“It doesn’t stretch as much as you want it to,” said Seaside School District Superintendent Susan Penrod.
Seaside students are estimated to be behind 17 weeks in math and 14 weeks in reading. Recovery would take roughly $600,000 more in tutoring than the district’s ESSER III allocation.
Seaside has braided Student Success Act and ESSER funds to hire instructional coaches to guide teachers with interventions. It has also created intervention blocks during the day to help students on specific needs.
Penrod said the district has committed to one year of the blocks but would like to continue the program if it can find the money. Seaside expects to use up its emergency money by the end of 2023.
ESSER money must be used by 2024, but students will need at least three to five years of extra support to catch up, according to a recent report from NWEA, an assessment company.
Penrod said the district is using Student Success Act money to support recovery efforts because they can count on those funds to continue coming. Educators will be dealing with the underlying systemic problems for years to come.
“We were struggling with challenges before the pandemic,” Penrod said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
• Starting Sept. 16, Edunomics Lab will offer “Finance Fridays,” a four-part virtual fiscal management workshop for school board members.