Recent headlines have brought news — unfortunately not unexpected — of declining student performance in reading and math across the country. We could see it coming. Student outcome scores have been plateauing over the last decade. Then COVID hit. The results from the previous two years are as bad as we thought they would be.
A few questions are top of mind. What are we doing about it, and is it — and will it be — enough? And will the concern last into the future so that we don’t forget about this in a year or two? There is a lot at stake if we don’t get this right.
For large swaths of kids, we know what generally works best. That includes high-intensity tutoring, more time on task, putting our best teachers in front of our neediest students, and using research-based instruction. It also means using the data to improve.
The bad news is that we don’t always implement the research. You’d be surprised at how often we spend years and tens of millions of dollars researching what works, have a clear picture from that research, and then ignore it.
Reading instruction is one of the best (or worst — depending on how you define it) examples of this. About 25 years ago, the National Reading Panel published results on how to best teach kids to read in the early grades. It clearly showed that phonics-based instruction works.
Some states put that research into practice to good effect. Mississippi is a shining example of a state that has prioritized research-based reading instruction through policy and funding. The state has had impressive results to show for it.
But two decades later, we still have far too many schools using curricula not based on that research and far too many teachers’ colleges preparing teachers poorly.
Who is going to provide high-dosage tutoring in our schools? If students need more time on task, but we’re locked into union agreements about the length of school days and school years, how do we shift to a different model? How do we get initiatives to stick when superintendents frequently turn over?
These kinds of big, systemic issues require responses not just in each school and district but at the state level. States have a role in driving what works. After all, they are the largest funder of K-12 education.
It’s an important time for our nation’s governors to step up. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush met with the governors in Charlottesville, Va., and that summit set the path for a determined effort during the next decade to focus on standards and aligned assessments. At the same time, we saw steady improvements in the Nation’s Report Card in reading and math.
I’d suggest it’s time for the next governors’ summit. We’re at a point where every state, and every school district, can’t just keep moving along with a status quo approach. And too frequently, when governors have weighed in lately on education, it’s been about cultural issues in schools and not enough about student outcomes.
Given the knottiest questions the education community faces, governors may need to think outside the box on how they keep their best leaders and teachers in schools and also recruit new talent.
Our students struggled before COVID, and now there is an even greater sense of urgency. For their sake, I hope our leaders put in the time and effort to tackle this head-on.
Holly Kuzmich, a senior adviser at the George W. Bush Institute, worked on education policy at the White House and Department of Education under President George W. Bush/InsideSources