As parents contemplate the second full school year after the onset of COVID, what should we do to ensure our kids are academically and socially on track? Remember, information is power. Here are three things to ask about so you can best advocate for your children.
IS YOUR CHILD ON GRADE LEVEL AFTER TWO DISRUPTED YEARS?
Last fall some school districts in New Jersey administered state-sponsored online assessments called Start Strong. These tests help measure student learning loss due to school closures and remote instruction. The results were a little scary: a majority of students need “strong support” (the lowest ranking) in science and between 34-38 percent need strong support in math and reading. Fourth graders were especially hard-hit: 49.3 percent scored in the lowest category in math along with 41.5 percent in reading.
JerseyCAN, a non-profit with the goal that every New Jersey student should graduate from high school ready to enroll in college and succeed in their career, estimated that only one in four students were on grade level in math, and only one in three in reading. Predictably, learning loss was greatest among students from low-income families, which are disproportionately people of color.
Of course, these are state averages; every child is different. Therefore, it’s on parents to find out if your children are on grade level in academic subjects. How do you do this? If your district administered the Start Strong assessments, you have the right to see the results and ask questions about them. Additionally, many districts assess student learning through computer-based assessments two or three times a year; the most popular ones are NWEA’s MAP tests and Curriculum Associates’ iReady tests. Again, the results are available to you—all you have to do is ask.
Best-case scenario? When you had your child’s parent-teacher conferences, the teacher reviewed the results. Worst-case? You heard nothing. Don’t let this stop you. As your children’s advocate, set up an appointment with their teachers to review their progress.
WHAT’S YOUR DISTRICT DOING ABOUT LEARNING LOSS?
Over the past two years, the federal government distributed funds to every state to address pandemic-induced learning loss, as well as renovate HVAC systems for safe in-person schooling. How much money did districts get from the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan Act? More than has ever been allocated before: about $125 billion. New Jersey’s share is $2.8 billion, with 90 percent of the money going directly to school districts. But that money isn’t worth a hill of beans if it’s not spent wisely.
As your child’s advocate, you need to find out how your district is spending its emergency federal funding, often referred to as ESSER funds, which stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief. In fact, part of the package is that school districts are required to solicit parent and community input about how they’ll spend that money. While there are some rules—for instance, 20 percent of your district’s money must be spent on ameliorating learning loss—there’s wide latitude and, as a stakeholder, you have the right to see your district’s plan and weigh in.
According to experts in the field, the best use of those funds is “high-dosage tutoring,” intensive one-to-one instruction (or in very small groups) on a sustained, daily basis during the school day, to help all students accelerate their learning in an individualized manner.
WHAT’S YOUR DISTRICT DOING ABOUT SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL HEALTH?
Students (and parents too) suffered non-academic trials during school closures, particularly social-emotional trauma. Lately there’s been much attention paid to mental health disorders, particularly among adolescents. This past December the U.S. Surgeon General warned of a “devastating” mental health crisis among adolescents, with rising levels of mental illness and a severe shortage of therapists.
It’s not just teenagers: a national survey of teachers found that 39 percent said the “social skills and emotional maturity levels” of their current students are “much less advanced” than before the pandemic and 41 percent said their students were “somewhat less advanced” in those areas. Teachers reported seeing more temper tantrums among young students, more trouble following rules and routines, and both withdrawal and attention-seeking behavior.
Take the social and emotional temperature of your child; no one can gauge this better than you. If you detect problems, see if your school offers social skills groups or therapeutic sessions to help your child adjust. “The biggest thing is just to listen and to find out what the real problem is,” said one superintendent. “If you have a positive, trusting relationship [with your child], that’s where we have an opportunity to really educate our children.”
—Laura Waters is founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report. She and her husband have four children and have lived in Central Jersey for 30 years.