March 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic forces APS to shut down in-person instruction. APS is caught with many students, many digital devices, but no real plan to continue meaningful learning virtually. Teachers are left to create virtual lessons, delivering inconsistent curriculum and outcomes.
All this happens despite APS’s insistence — pre-COVID-19 — that APS already had adopted “Personalized Learning.” APS claimed that its version of personalized learning (heavily dependent on digital devices) ensured “instruction, curriculum and outcomes are connected to our learners’ unique talents, skills and interests and [use] technology to provide flexibility and choice for our learners.”
The pandemic exposed a very different reality: Failing grades — despite really hard-working teachers and staff. Critically missing: in-person interactions among teachers and students. Overall: declining test scores and inconsistent supports for students most in need.
May 2020: APS superintendent Francisco Durán inherits this chaotic and challenging situation. Since then, much of our community’s focus appropriately has been on when, where, and under what safety protocols APS should re-open for in-person instruction.
But for years before Dr. Durán arrived, and continuing today — whether our students are trying to learn in or out of a school building — APS has dropped the instructional ball. Dr. Durán and the current School Board now own it and must fix it.
APS must refocus on instruction, especially remediation for learning losses suffered by at-risk groups, and adopting evidence-based resources, particularly for reading, writing and math.
Instructional challenges have been exacerbated during the pandemic version of virtual learning, with no solid countywide remediation plan in place. The Arlington Tiered System of Support (ATSS) was a pre-COVID-19 program created to provide time each day to help with interventions in areas like reading, writing, and math: “Research does show that in order for an intervention to be effective targeted instruction should range from 20-40 minutes 4-5 days a week.” But this program has gone radio silent since March 2020. Why isn’t APS prioritizing the continuation of this program and creating small groups to remediate the learning deficits of those children who need ATSS services (regardless of school)?
As ARLnow.com has reported, at the elementary and middle and high school levels, more students are struggling to make passing grades this year: ” Black and Hispanic students, English-language learning students, and students with disabilities are experiencing the deepest drops.”
Over half of rising 6th graders are reading below grade level. Black and Hispanic students, English-language learning students, and students with disabilities are seeing literacy declines, with inconsistent or no interventions to address pre- and current pandemic-related academic concerns.
Dr. Durán’s February 4, 2021 presentation (Slides 22-31) displayed this Fall’s DIBELS reading scores for grades 3-5, underscoring the urgency for intensive reading interventions for at-risk students.
Grades 6-8 (MS student Reading Inventory (RI)) advanced range scores have declined, over the past three years, from 63% to 58% (p. 3).
APS overall Reading SOL pass rates for students have continued to drop within a four-year trend (p. 3).
The adoption of Structured Literacy resources and teacher training still seem to be lagging, with no aggressive plan to implement them. Step Up to Writing was adopted in 2016 as a primary or core English Language Arts resource, but is not being used uniformly throughout APS. According to the 2019 English Language Art evaluation “around a third of teachers in relevant grade levels reported NEVER using the following resources: Growing Words, Handwriting Without Tears, and Step Up to Writing.”
How long must kids wait to learn to read and write using evidenced-based resources like these?
Outcomes for Black students in a recent Monitoring Report (Instructional Update, slides 26 & 27) strongly suggest that APS needs to expedite a plan to address the many students being left behind.
APS and elected School Board members urgently must:
- embrace an instructional focus on student achievement in reading, writing and math, utilizing evidence-based resources.
- streamline each student’s instructional day (virtual or in-person) to focus on reading, writing and math, allocating sufficient instructional time.
- reorient teacher training, data monitoring, and accountability to improve outcomes in these core subject areas in every school countywide.
- adopt a budget reinforcing these priorities.
Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC, a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.