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Opinion | Historic learning losses require immediate and long-term changes

Education advocates have been anticipating the difficult news of the impact of COVID-19 virtually from the day schools shuttered in March of 2020.

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Jennifer Heymoss is vice president of initiatives and public policy for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. Amy Moore is vice president of evaluation and grantee capacity for the Community Foundation for Muskegon County. Erika VanDyke is program officer, for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. (Courtesy photo)

And while we expected significant unfinished learning, few could’ve anticipated the historic precipitous drops in student achievement that we heard about nationally last week – just as troubling news was coming out about how Michigan students fell behind on our own state assessments.

The New York Times reported that new data on long-term trends for 9-year-olds from the National Assessment of Educational Progress data showed that the pandemic erased two decades of progress in math and reading with performance in math and reading falling to levels from two decades earlier. And for the first time since the test was launched, “9-year-olds lost ground in math, and scores in reading fell by the largest margin in more than 30 years. The declines spanned almost all races and income levels and were markedly worse for the lowest-performing students.” Even more devastating was that Black students lost 13 points in math, compared with five points among white students.

Meanwhile, Michigan data released the same day showed that the pandemic had a similarly devastating impact on our schools and students, with the students who have long been underserved experiencing the greatest impact.

We now know concretely that gaps in opportunity that were already present due to an unjust educational system are growing wider.

Consider that scores on Michigan’s standardized test (M-STEP) “are sharply down from before the pandemic, underlining the academic toll of virtual learning and other COVID-related disruptions and traumas,” according to reporting by Chalkbeat-Detroit and Bridge Michigan. That’s not all. Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative released a report on third grade retention estimates showing that more than 5,600 Michigan students received reading scores low enough that they could be required to repeat third grade – a 20 percent increase in retention-eligible students. Worse yet are the disparities: Black students are 4.5 times as likely to be retention-eligible than are White students.

A time for action

Our coalition – the Michigan Partnership for Equity and Opportunity – has been advocating together since the pandemic began on key systemic issues that can change the trajectory for Michigan’s students. With the data now clearer than ever about the impact, we echo previous calls for a Marshall Plan-like strategy for Michigan education. This is especially critical for those who have long been underserved, including students of color, low-income students, English learners and students with disabilities.

Here are some immediate and long-term steps that Michigan’s policymakers must consider:

School districts should leverage federal stimulus dollars and direct additional resources to students most in need. To address unfinished learning, it is critical that support and direction be given to districts to fully train and equip educators on how to use data to identify the learning and opportunity gaps so they can focus their time and resources on closing those gaps – and direct resources to proven strategies, such as intensive tutoring and extended learning opportunities.

There are some positives steps underway. The governor and the Legislature provided $52 million to help districts address learning loss. They also included $25 million for before- and after-school programs and $5 million for summer learning program. This funding is a first step, and we encourage districts to target this investment towards English learners, students with disabilities and at-risk students. These students have been disproportionately impacted and deserve the funding to address their needs. 

But while the federal funding is helpful now, these dollars will run out and districts are already worrying about how to sustain programs to address unfinished learning. Soon, it will all come down to state leadership.

Michigan should work to overhaul our school funding system to be fair to all students. Importantly, schools need sustainable, fair funding to provide the resources to meet all students’ needs, particularly those who have experienced the impact of longstanding inequities in education. While the current year budget is a great example of both parties coming together and making investment in education a priority, more needs to be done. Two significant areas that increased in this year’s budget targeted students who have long been underserved: students with disabilities and at-risk students.

This is a big win, but these dollars are not enough if the state is serious about fairly funding our schools to meet students’ needs. For instance, Michigan still lags behind leading states when it comes to funding for economically-disadvantaged students and English learners – and the state still has not created a funding formula to fully fund the needs of students with disabilities.

In the long-term, Michigan needs to change its funding formula to prioritize these underserved students. That includes providing at least 100 percent more funding for students from low-income backgrounds and at least 75 percent to 100 percent more funding for English learners (ELs).

Michigan must put a stronger fiscal transparency and accountability system in place to ensure that dollars targeted towards equity actually reach historically underserved students.

For instance, if Michigan moves to a true fair funding formula in the future, new legislation should institute financial reporting procedures for districts that are aligned with the formula. State leaders should engage local communities and parents in the design, implementation and evaluation, so that it is clear how much of the weighted funding is being spent on the education of the high needs students for whom the funding is intended.

Michigan must also ensure dollars are used well to improve student experience and outcomes. That includes monitoring the funding districts actually receive and being transparent to the public with that information.

If the latest data showed us anything, it’s that Michigan needs to vastly accelerate our structural changes. Michigan will only reach our goal to become a Top Ten state for education if we invest in all of our students and create a system that supports their needs. Our coalition will continue to fight to ensure that schools have the needed resources to close opportunity gaps and provide all students the best opportunity to succeed, and we hope our state policymakers will join us.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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