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Peter’s Take: On learning loss recovery, will APS choose onward upward or backward downward?

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

This month, Virginia announced that school divisions can apply for “Onward Upward Virginia” grants to support literacy and math, “with targeted support for learners most impacted by pandemic disruptions, including students with disabilities, English learners, students who are economically disadvantaged, early learners, and those who are underperforming.”

The announcement of this grant shows that the State of Virginia continues to acknowledge the scope and magnitude of the effect of school closures:

“Virginia’s 2020-2021 SOL test scores tell us what we already knew–students need to be in the classroom without disruption to learn effectively. The connections, structures, and supports our school communities provide are irreplaceable, and many students did not have access to in person instruction for the full academic year. We must now focus on unfinished learning and acceleration to mitigate the impact the pandemic has had on student results.”

APS lacks a system-wide, resourced plan to address learning losses

To date, APS has barely acknowledged the directive from Virginia to “focus on unfinished learning and acceleration,” nor is there a system-wide, resourced plan to address learning losses. Superintendent Francisco Durán recently shared via School Talk that interventions will rely heavily on iPad apps Dreambox and Lexia along with targeted small group instruction (a tall order for overworked teachers who are already leading larger classes than in recent years). More is needed.

VDOE data reveal the pressing nature of the problem and how it falls disproportionately on certain schools. In particular, across APS neighborhood elementary schools that are over 50% economically disadvantaged, math scores dropped by an average of 42 points and 60% or more of students failed the math SOL. Science scores fell by an average of 55 points, and reading scores by an average of 20 points (apples to oranges, as Virginia lowered the minimum reading pass rate last year).

These schools already reported generally lower scores than non-economically disadvantaged schools. With the impact of the pandemic, these student scores are a crisis.

Learning loss recovery should be front and center, and should feature such evidence-based interventions as intensified tutoring and comprehensive after-school and extended school year programs. Will APS apply for an Onward Upward grant? If so, what will it ask for?

Why and whither virtual?

Amidst these grim results of virtual learning, APS continues to signal a possible permanent place for virtual school. In March, APS officials suggested that a permanent virtual learning program be located on one floor of the Ed Center. Last month, the widespread problems with VLP were referred to as “growing pains” that APS was “working diligently” to avoid repeating.

The best way to avoid repetition is to strictly limit participation, if APS offers virtual learning at all. Even before the experience of this past year, researchers were skeptical about the effectiveness of virtual education. Permanent virtual learning also lacks scale; this year’s VLP hired teachers for every grade level, even though many grades have very few students. For example, at the high school level, of the 90 classes taught by 25 APS teachers, they are on average only 35% full, with an average class size of only 9 students. This is a misallocation of resources when brick and mortar schools have had to increase class sizes due to budget constraints. In Virginia, virtual programming duplicates something that already exists at the state level.

We all support this year’s VLP educators in their passion to make VLP students’ learning experience the best it can be, this year. Going forward, the School Board must set the parameters for the existence of a virtual model, if any, for example by screening students for eligibility, including reliable internet and sufficient support. The School Board must also ensure APS resources, both funds and physical space, are used efficiently and equitably.

Our School Board should adopt as a matter of policy a screening model for access to virtual education similar to the one in Fairfax, not virtual education on demand.

Conclusion

Refusal to concentrate on learning loss tragically does a disservice to our current students and may presage an overall downward trend in academic performance of Arlington’s students, particularly the most vulnerable populations.

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.

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