After two years of dislocations and disruptions, our schools should be elated. Masks can come off. Campuses are buzzing to familiar rhythms. On the surface, schools are reclaiming “normalcy.”
A recent study of 4.4 million students confirmed the potential of young, eager students: After returning to the classroom, most students can maintain learning “at a normal pace.” However, students are behind. They need to acquire two years’ worth of knowledge in one year.
In fact, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath declared pandemic-driven learning loss to be the largest problem facing Texas, with a projected economic impact of $2 trillion, reflecting an estimated 6% reduction in lifetime earnings for pre-K-12 students across our state based on current levels of learning loss.
The solution is to accelerate the rate of learning. That requires more targeted time spent in learning mode and a corresponding change in approach and investment.
At Leonides G. Cigarroa Elementary, community volunteers partnered with the principal, hung college banners throughout every hallway, outfitted reading nooks under every stairwell and provided every student with books in their homes and classrooms. These inexpensive purchases plus targeted teacher training and consistent tutors helped propel big results in the classroom. Even through COVID-19, 63% of Cigarroa third graders are currently reading on grade level, one of the strongest indicators of long-term success. That’s pretty impressive for a school community with staggering levels of poverty where only 9% of third graders were on pace just over five years ago.
Cigarroa’s climb from 9% to 63% exemplifies the power of collective community investments.
Our public schools can’t do this alone. As Superintendent Michael Hinojosa is quoted saying in a Dallas Morning News article, “Neither Dallas ISD nor many other Texas districts will be able to meet the state’s requirements to provide that much extra attention to the children who fell behind.”
Within a typical Dallas ISD elementary campus budget of $4 million, 80% is needed to pay competitive salaries for strong educators within today’s inflationary economy, and 15% goes to maintenance of aging school facilities, leaving 5% for everything else.
After copy paper, technology equipment and limited teacher training, only about $9 per student remains for supports such as classroom libraries, guided reading texts, outdoor learning spaces, or digital adaptive student software, all critical for normal and accelerated learning. Making matters worse, Texas is confronting serious challenges attracting, retaining and motivating teachers.
Local efforts are underway to build a robust teacher pipeline, and the Texas Legislature is making inroads to increase funding tied to student outcomes. Strategic implementation of these critical efforts will take time.
In the meantime, affluent districts will lean on their parent bases to step up support of student enrichment programs, professional development, or teacher appreciation and incentives. But given the pervasive poverty across Dallas ISD families, it is not realistic to think that incremental investments like those that sustained Cigarroa can come from our students’ families.
But you and your investment of time, talent, and treasure can supplement public funds and provide immediate support for weary educators and provide the tools, tutors and training to supercharge learning in the wake of COVID-induced learning loss.
Education, for the majority of Dallas ISD students, is the ticket out; but today, achieving a sustained level of proficiency will take herculean efforts unless we, private citizens, share in this responsibility. By investing time and treasure to close the gap, our collective efforts become the simple solution.
We can do this — together — one gesture, one resource, one act of encouragement at a time.
Spend an afternoon reading to elementary students and give their teacher an extra planning period. Repaint a library on Saturday and illuminate a child’s reading experience on Monday. Invest in technology accessories or adaptive learning software and ready students for 21st century curriculum.
Do the simple stuff now; ensure the future of Texas.
Abigail Williams is the founder and CEO of United to Learn, an education nonprofit serving Dallas ISD elementary schools. She wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.