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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

There are three terrifying things about the long-term federal test data on 13-year-olds' achievement, writes Vladimir Kogan, an Ohio State political scientist.

Achievement declines have erased five decades' worth of progress, and are "even more shocking" for disadvantaged students, he writes.

Pandemic recovery efforts have been an "abysmal failure," despite nearly $200 billion in federal spending.

Third, "it is probably too late to help the oldest students," writes Kogan. "Recent high school graduates and those who will graduate over the next several years" will be poorly prepared for careers or college.

It's not just academics, he writes. It's hard for students to make up lost learning -- or lost social skills -- if they don't show up consistently..

. . . Widespread absenteeism has become a new normal, perhaps reflecting well-meaning efforts among educators and administrators to show empathy during the pandemic, an erosion of social norms about the importance of attendance or persistence of bad habits — such as late-night gaming and sleeping late — that many kids likely developed during months of prolonged closures or virtual instruction.

Adults are fighting over LGBTQ-themed books in school libraries, Kogan writes. But it won't make much difference if students can't or won't read. "Nearly a third of 13-year-olds now report that they read for fun 'never or hardly ever' — up sharply from a decade ago."

When schools closed, we were told that disrupted students weren't falling behind. They were learning other, unmeasurable things. They were "resilient." The physical, psychological, social and emotional risks were dismissed.

That complacency is dangerous, Kogan concludes. The 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk motivated bipartisan "reforms that focused on establishing high academic standards, greater accountability and a focus on the lowest achievers," he writes. Scores increased and achievement gaps narrowed. Can we do it again?

I see one ray of hope. Many states and school districts have gotten serious about improving reading instruction, and some understand that includes teaching background knowledge and vocabulary, not just isolated skills. That will help.

I'm not hopeful about math. Am I wrong?

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