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America’s Catastrophic Learning Loss
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America’s Catastrophic Learning Loss

An annual benchmark of 4th and 8th graders found that math and reading proficiency has cratered.

Happy Friday! Elon Musk is officially in charge of Twitter after his $44 billion deal to acquire the social media platform finally closed late last night. His first move? Fire the company’s CEO, CFO, general counsel, and head of trust and safety.

“The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence,” Musk said yesterday. “That said, Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported Thursday that real gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an annual rate of 2.6 percent in the third quarter of 2022 after two quarters of contraction. The bulk of this growth came from a reduction in the trade deficit, as U.S. oil and gas exports increased while imports fell; consumer spending grew just 1.4 percent over the period. Nevertheless, President Joe Biden pointed to the numbers as evidence the economy “is continuing to power forward” in a statement.
  • During a speech Thursday in which he sought to portray Russia as a defender of traditional Christian values and a rising force in a multipolar world, President Vladimir Putin claimed that—despite senior Kremlin officials’ warnings—Russia has no intention of using nuclear weapons against Ukraine. “We see no need for that,” Putin said. “There is no point in that, neither political, nor military.” President Joe Biden didn’t buy it. “If he has no intention, why does he keep talking about it?” Biden asked. “He’s been very dangerous in how he’s approached this.”
  • After a months-long stalemate, the Iraqi parliament officially selected Mohammed Shia al-Sudani—a 52-year old Shiite former labor and human rights minister—to serve as prime minister. The move is likely to strengthen the regional ties between Baghdad and Tehran.
  • The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—rose by 3,000 week-over-week to a seasonally adjusted 217,000 last week. The measure is up from earlier this year, but it remains near historic lows, signaling the labor market—though cooling—continues to be tight.
  • The number of weekly confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States increased about 0.7 percent over the past two weeks according to CDC data, while the average number of daily deaths attributed to the virus—a lagging indicator—increased 1.9 percent. About 20,600 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, down from approximately 21,400 two weeks ago.

Reading the Nation’s Report Card

Teaching from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images.)

There are plenty of time-honored ways to deal with a bad report card. “Forget” it in your locker, bury it deep in your book bag—tear it up and eat it if you’re really desperate. But no amount of deception would be enough to hide the lousy grades America’s schools got this week from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).

The NAEP tests a representative sample of 4th and 8th-grade students on reading and math skills to determine how their learning compares to past students at that age. Scores were already slipping before the pandemic, but in the latest round—administered this spring—about a third of students didn’t meet the lowest reading benchmark, and math performance saw its steepest decline since the NAEP’s first tests were administered in 1990. The details of the drops vary by age, ethnicity, and other categories, but virtually every measure shows losses. 

“I want to be very clear: The results in today’s nation’s report card are appalling and unacceptable,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Monday. “This is a moment of truth for education. How we respond to this will determine not only our recovery but our nation’s standing in the world.”

Researchers consider 10 points on the NAEP to represent about a school year of learning.  “In NAEP, when we experience a 1- or 2-point decline, we’re talking about it as a significant impact on a student’s achievement,” NAEP commissioner Peggy Carr told the Associated Press. “In math, we experienced an 8-point decline.” 

To be clear, that doesn’t mean the students tested forgot math they’d already learned—it’s a measure of how far behind they are compared to previous students at their age.

The scores show the havoc wreaked on kids’ learning by abrupt transitions to online learning—and the several semesters of disruption that followed. But although research has established that the students who stayed in remote school the longest typically saw the biggest losses, the NAEP results don’t fit that pattern—California, where schools tended to stay shut longer, didn’t score much differently than eager-to-open Florida.

Even setting the remote vs. in-person debate aside, these NAEP results underline what we already knew—a lot of America’s kids aren’t where they should be academically, and it’s going to take concerted intervention to help them close the gap. The stakes are high: Students could be dealing with the consequences of these learning losses for years to come if schools don’t succeed, since children who read poorly in elementary school are more likely to drop out of high school, for example, while the eighth graders who took the assessment last spring are now in a critical time to prepare for college.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat it,” Michael Petrilli, president of the education reform-focused Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told The Dispatch. “There is a very high risk that—probably especially for the older kids that have gone through this—that there are going to be gaps in their education that just never get filled.”

We haven’t seen districts holding kids back or requiring them to retake classes en masse, which Petrilli argues might be necessary to truly fill in the gaps. But public and private schools have launched programs aimed at making up for lost time, largely funded by the $190 billion in federal COVID relief. A review published yesterday by The 74 Million, a digital media outlet covering education, found that one in three large, urban public school districts in the U.S. plan to use all four of the most evidence-supported catch-up strategies: tutoring, extra learning time, small group instruction, and using data to target interventions. Exact statistics are hard to come by, but according to the data collection firm Burbio, 93 percent of the nation’s school districts offered summer programs this year, and Georgetown University’s FutureEd think tank estimated in May that schools had spent a collective $3.1 billion on after-school and summer programs.

But these programs aren’t magic bullets. Districts have struggled to hire enough tutors or convince teachers to work through their summer break on expanded summer school programs. Officials in Madison, Wisconsin, for example, had to disenroll about 700 students who signed up for summer programs due to “unanticipated staffing challenges.” The pandemic widened learning gaps between low and high-income students—wealthier families were more likely to have equipment suitable for online learning and have better access to private tutoring and other aids. But even attempts to target remediation to higher-need students have hit roadblocks: New Hampshire created a tutoring fund specifically for low-income students, but expanded it to all students after receiving limited signups.

Low remediation uptake may be partly due to parents not realizing that their kids—still passing classes, advancing to the next grade—have these learning gaps. In a poll by Education Next, 43 percent of parents said their children had experienced no learning loss, and only 9 percent were “very” or “somewhat” concerned their child wouldn’t ever catch up.  

“The worry is that there’s going to be a whole cohort of kids who are going to move through the system and never be caught up … if we go back to just doing the same thing that we’ve always done,” Petrilli said. “And unfortunately, with our education system, that is usually a good bet.”

Worth Your Time

  • Watching Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin campaign for Kari Lake in Arizona, Katherine Miller can’t help but wonder if we’ve reached the post-Trump era. “Looking at this pair one way, you could see Donald Trump’s endless influence over the Republican Party. But if you zoomed out, neither of these people has that much to do with Mr. Trump personally,” she notes in the New York Times. “Neither Mr. Youngkin nor Ms. Lake owes him an inarguable debt for name recognition, neither particularly mimics his mannerisms, neither cropped up in the background of surreal scenes at the White House, neither has lived some embarrassed, poisoned-in-real-time transition from Trump critic to supporter before a national audience. Really, neither Mr. Youngkin nor Ms. Lake had much to do with anything that happened nationally between June 2015 and January 2021.” What does that mean? “When people talk about a post-Trump era, there’s usually a subtext that it would involve a clean break and his permanent exit from political life,” Miller notes. “If we are entering a post-Trump period, though, rather than Mr. Trump being something to get past, he could remain a major factor in politics but no longer the sole reference point around which each development moves.”
  • The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College on Monday, and Richard Kahlenberg—a self-proclaimed liberal—thinks it’s time for the affirmative action status quo to go. “The dirty secret of higher education in the United States is that racial preferences for Black, Latino, and Native American college students provide cover for an admissions system that mostly benefits the wealthy,” he argues in The Atlantic. “The current framework of race-based preferences—which goes before the Supreme Court on Monday—is broadly unpopular, has been highly vulnerable to legal challenges under federal civil-rights laws, disproportionately helps upper-middle-class students of color, and pits working-class people of different races against one another. Major public and private universities cling to the status quo anyway, because doing so is easier financially than helping demonstrably disadvantaged students. These institutions act as if the predominant version of affirmative action is the only way to promote racial diversity, but that simply isn’t true. It’s just better for them.”
  • Jonah lost his beloved mother, Lucianne Goldberg, earlier this week at the age of 87. You can read her obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post, but we’ll leave you with John Podhoretz’s remembrance in Commentary: “Lucianne Goldberg was—she owned the term proudly—a broad. A grand broad—big, blowsy, sexy, and up for a good time from morning till night. She was the first and the last person I ever knew to spend her days inserting cigarettes into a cigarette holder and smoking them with relish like she was attending the blowout party in Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” he writes. “Lucianne was maybe the most sheerly fun person I’ve ever known, full of high good humor and gossip and tales about everyone we ever knew in common, and plenty she only knew, and plenty everybody knew. What a storyteller she was, cynical and world-weary and finding the humor in just about everything. And she had an essentially comic view of the world, in which, in one way or another, we were either all fools or tummlers.” 

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Reminder: We’re now less than a week away from our regional meetup at Midwest Coast Brewing Co. in Chicago—and there are only a few slots left. If you’re interested in attending the informal gathering next Thursday (11/3) with Steve, Sarah, Declan, and fellow Dispatch members, be sure to register here. We’ll cover drinks for the first hour-and-a-half of the event, and members are welcome—encouraged, even!—to bring their significant others and/or people who might be interested in The Dispatch. Anyone who attends as a guest of a member will be eligible for a three-month free trial.
  • Nick doesn’t want to become known as the guy who obsesses over the fledgling Trump-DeSantis feud, but he is that guy, so he might as well own it. “[Trump] hates the idea of Republicans overperforming without his help since it risks convincing GOP voters that they might do fine electorally without him, if not better,” Nick writes in yesterday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒). “Now they’re on the cusp of routing the Democrats in Florida, an unthinkable result as recently as a few years ago. So here comes Trump, bounding in at the last second and racing to the front of the parade so that he can turn around after Election Day and say, ‘You’re welcome.’”
  • On today’s episode of the Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, David, Steve, and Kevin chat through—what else?—the midterms. What does the Fetterman-Oz debate reveal about the media? Will the isolationist members of Congress in both parties affect Putin’s decision-making in Ukraine? What does Kevin mean by “political cooties”? Tune in for discussions of all that and more.
  • Sarah’s filling in for Jonah on today’s episode of The Remnant, and she’s joined by Democratic political strategist Mo Elleithee for a conversation about all things elections, partisanship, and Halloween. Why are bipartisan friendships becoming less common? What does campaign finance reform have to do with polarization? Stick around for a heart-wrenching tale of unrequited avian love and Sarah’s much-anticipated screech owl impersonation.
  • On the site today, Price St. Clair previews Brazil’s Sunday presidential election between right-wing populist incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and the leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as simply Lula.

Let Us Know

If you’re a parent, do you think your child experienced significant learning loss over the course of the pandemic? How can you tell? Has your school or school district unveiled programs designed to help make up for any learning loss?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.