Recent results from the National Center for Education Progress show severe learning losses during the pandemic and the (over)response to it.
Nine-year-olds’ scores plummeted nationwide in both math and reading. As expected, learning losses were not evenly distributed; students who were already struggling experienced the most negative consequences. Those of us who advocated for maskless and open schools were routinely vilified as lacking empathy and openly called racists. However, the national scores and negative consequences don’t lie: we were right.
The test results are completely unsurprising. Closing schools and masking children impacted their ability to effectively learn. Anyone without an irrational amount of fear and with critical thinking skills could have told you that would be the case in 2020. But it’s 2022, and there have now been a number of studies done; they all show disastrous results from pandemic school closures. Many students are a full academic year behind due to the response. No one should be surprised, at this point, that the schools that stayed closed the longest are having the worst results.
Further, low-income and minority students are having to and will continue to bear the consequences of panicked decision-making by “experts,” elected officials, and the school administrators who put their blinders on and listened to them. You don’t get to press pause or reverse from childhood development regardless of societal illness. Sadly, there are some children who will never catch up.
The most frustrating aspect of the entire pandemic response situation regarding schools is that the worst of the results that were completely avoidable had teachers' unions, administrators and educrats not put their personal fears and/or political interests before kids’ academic and psychological well-being.
The National Education Association (the outspoken liberal parent of the AEA) and the American Federation for Teachers actively lobbied the CDC regarding school closures and reopening procedures. Emails obtained via FOIA show the CDC’s willingness to accept their instructions and alter their recommendations to yield to the teachers' unions. Further, some teacher unions used the opportunity to push for completely unrelated political demands such as Medicare for all, banning charter schools and limiting school choice. Never let a crisis go to waste, right?
Across the nation, school re-openings had a higher correlation with political power dynamics than with any concern about the health and safety of students or teachers. In fact, it was never about the health and safety of teachers or students; it was about cash money. Isn’t it always? The American Rescue Plan included a $200 billion cash infusion into the public-education system above and beyond any existing state or federal aid. That’s $4,500 per public school student in the nation. How was that money used? Alabama got $3 billion alone, and districts are required to publish what they spend that money.
While schools remained closed, parents had an up-close and personal look at their children’s education like never before. As they looked over the shoulders and the assignments of their children, some parents didn’t like what they saw; issues such as Critical Race Theory, questionable reading assignments, inappropriate surveys and social justice-based lesson plans concerned many parents. Why were kids learning more about gender than grammar, and why were math problems infused with racial overtones? Those questions have sparked a national call for curriculum transparency and school choice legislation in public school districts and state legislatures across the country. Alabamians were asking the same questions and are now seeking answers from their school systems, school boards and state representatives.
There is a renewed interest in what schoolchildren are learning. Many parents are questioning whether public school kids are being effectively taught or politically indoctrinated. In Alabama, there is a legitimate question of whether the State Board of Education’s self-proclaimed “ban” on CRT is strong enough and if anyone is listening to the elected officials or the parents attempting to halt or at least hold the line on the increasingly secular progressive march through public education. Nationwide, there is a strong American majority advocating for greater parental involvement in education. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 84% of voters believe that parents should be able to see all curriculum plans and materials for classes their children take. In addition, that same poll found that 56% of voters strongly supported complete curriculum transparency (everyone having access to teacher lesson plans, book excerpts and videos shown in class).
Additionally, 68% of voters surveyed believe that public schools are habitually lowering academic standards, rather than expecting stronger performance from students. Americans believe that public education is dumbing down our kids. Despite baby-step gains in 2022, Alabama parents are justified in their alarm at both our state rankings and proficiency standards. Last just isn’t good enough, and Mississippi has passed us by.
Meanwhile, Rasmussen also reports that 56% of parents believe that public school boards do not respect the role of parents. There is no question that President Biden and his Department of Education and Department of Justice see parents as the enemy rather than the rightful stakeholders that they are. No Alabama parents who have badgered their school board for answers have been called domestic terrorists that I’m aware of; however, state and local school board members can barely be bothered to respond to questioning or allow feedback from those who are sincerely seeking involvement in their children’s education.
So what are we to do now, in the wake of the pandemic? There is a movement afoot nationwide, clamoring for parental rights and for renewed parental participation in public education. The devil is always in the details, and there are snares and traps behind almost every door that looks shiny or attractive. However, transparency and accountability are never the wrong answer when it comes to any public function, that includes education. Freedom to choose what is best for each of your children is never the wrong answer either.
Perhaps the progressive mantra of never letting a crisis go to waste is something that conservatives can learn from and actually use to our advantage when it comes to reforming public education. Perhaps the negative COVID-19 pandemic response will catapult Alabama parents back into the driver's seat of what their kids are learning; that would certainly be a silver lining to the dark cloud that COVID-19 has been on our state, nation and world.
Stephanie Holden Smith is an experienced policy analyst, political commentator, and public speaker. Smith has worked and volunteered in Governmental Affairs in Alabama since 1997, including lobbying for a Fortune 500 company and serving as Deputy Director of Finance for the State of Alabama. She is currently the principal of Thatcher Coalition LLC. To contact Stephanie, please go to http://thatchercoalition.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information [email protected].
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