Eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman once explained the secret to his bodybuilding success: “Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift any heavy-ass weights!” Following the disappointing news about historic declines in student achievement since Covid, the quote carries a broader lesson for public education. Elected officials must take hard but necessary steps to bring kids back up to speed.
Consider a representative urban school district’s moribund effort to reverse its staggering learning loss. On the surface, Richmond, Virginia, is better positioned to bounce back from the pandemic than most peer districts. Superintendent Jason Kamras is an eager leader, the recipient of a national teaching award, and an acolyte of Michelle Rhee, who spearheaded an impressive turnaround in Washington, D.C., schools. The politics in Old Dominion are also more favorable to reform than they are in other blue communities: unions aren’t especially strong in Virginia and, despite media portrayals to the contrary, Republican governor Glenn Youngkin has set a bold, bipartisan agenda to address pandemic learning loss—appointing, for instance, former Clinton administration advisor and seasoned reformer Andy Rotherham to the state’s board of education.
But all is not well in the River City. According to data from researchers at Stanford University’s education school, Richmond students have lost a year and a half of learning since before the pandemic. These losses are significantly worse than most other majority-black school districts in the United States. Today, Richmond’s students perform three full grade levels lower than the average American student.
In a recent New Yorker article, journalist Alec MacGillis explains what went wrong with the city’s turnaround plan. At the heart of the problem is lack of political will, arising from denial about the urgency of the situation. He explains:
In Richmond . . . the learning-loss debate has centered on time: The greatest challenge is finding extra hours for supplementary instruction. In early 2021, as it became clear that Richmond was not going to reopen its schools that spring, [Superintendent Kamras] shared . . . a possible remedy: switching to a year-round calendar, with summer vacation limited to July, and four two-week breaks during the school year. Most students would still have 180 school days a year, but the district would select 5,000 students to receive up to 40 days of extra instruction during the breaks. Teachers who volunteered to work would be paid more . . . Kamras cited a report issued by staff of the Virginia legislature which indicated that . . . a year-round calendar . . . had clear benefits for Black students.
Despite the dire situation facing Richmond’s most vulnerable students, and a slew of studies showing that more instructional time is the most promising way to reverse learning loss, however, the school board was ultimately not persuaded to extend the school year:
Several board members declared that the survey [gauging community opinion] should have another option, too: the status quo. [One school board member argued:] “It’s not right that Black and brown students in our district are chained to their desks essentially further into the school year while their counterparts in the counties get to play and have a summer.”
If providing more instructional time is akin to “chaining kids to desks,” one wonders what being unable to read feels like. Yet some elected school board members apparently fail to see that illiteracy is the ultimate stricture.
Part of the difficulty of reversing learning loss is that it requires politicians to tell constituents—including parents—hard truths that some would rather not hear. Simply put, reversing learning loss means requiring more instructional time. In Richmond, MacGillis detailed how the superintendent’s push to do just that failed:
Kamras noted that the calendar would still have a six-week summer break, but several [school board] members were unmoved. ‘I wonder if there’s a way to address summer learning loss without adding days or going to year-round,’ [school board member Stephanie] Rizzi said. ‘Is there some kind of way that we can take a creative approach and try something that isn’t going to feel like an extra job for our parents and our children?’ After the votes, Rizzi elaborated on her resistance. ‘Learning loss’ is largely a subjective term,’ she told [MacGillis].”
Such denial goes far beyond Richmond. According to a 2022 survey conducted by Learning Heroes, more than 90 percent of parents believe that their children are performing at grade level, even as data show the opposite. It certainly doesn’t help when elected officials downplay the severity of learning loss, or teachers’ union leaders deny that it even exists. As the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s (CRPE) Robin Lake explained, “Parents aren’t pushing for tutoring because they don’t understand how much pandemic learning loss damage affected their child.”
A lack of political accountability deepens the challenge. Consider how school districts spent their federal Covid relief money, commonly known as ESSER. At first, these dollars were intended to help districts reopen schools. But the final installment of federal funds was supposed to address learning loss. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened frequently enough. The federal government estimates that just 10 percent of kids have access to high-dosage tutoring. A Georgetown University research team tracking how districts’ are spending ESSER money observed that “investments in social-emotional learning are more popular than expanded learning time,” and that a large share of federal money has gone to improving facilities rather than to direct instruction.
A significant body of peer-reviewed research shows that extended learning time—especially heavy tutoring—moves the needle most for kids. Much like losing weight is governed by the tried-and-true approach of “move more, eat less,” increasing student learning entails a surplus of instructional time. Is any of this easy, or politically expedient? No. But if we don’t want to consign the pandemic cohort of students to something resembling second-class citizenship, we need to make them lift some heavy academic weights.
Photo: Dusan Stankovic/iStock