We’re in an education crisis. Are we doing anything about it?

With abundant funding available, the time to act is now

MASSACHUSETTS GOT A double dose of bad news this fall with national and state barometers confirming that more than two years of interrupted learning has taken a toll on the academic progress of students.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise; common sense, along with myriad reports on the impact of disrupted learning and a mental health crisis, was enough to alert policymakers and educators that the consequences would be severe. What may be shocking is the lack of urgency in addressing these reverberations.

Despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to address the impacts on students of COVID-19, many districts are struggling to implement a comprehensive recovery plan that includes robust academic and mental health supports. With a deadline to utilize the funds by September 2024, the slow pace of spending by a number of districts begs the question: Where is the sense of urgency?

At last, districts have funding for additional tutoring during and outside of school, to address the significant mental health and social-emotional needs of their students, and to provide necessary support for teachers and school staff.

Right now, states like Tennessee and Texas  are using their federal funds for targeted interventions. Both states are taking on gaps across student outcomes and implementing research-based high-dosage tutoring programs to get students back on track. There is also a body of evidence showing the effect of time in school when it comes to academic recovery and achievement. If implemented well, expanded learning time has the potential to accelerate student learning in the wake of COVID, and districts should follow Springfield’s lead on offering summer academics and enrichment to all of its nearly 24,000 students. ESSER funding could also support evidence-based literacy instruction or wraparound services for mental health and social-emotional learning.

The need for action is glaring; yet the amount of activity has been imperceptible. Results from both the MCAS and the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress were carbon copies of each other – and they were troubling.

Recently released Massachusetts scores on NAEP, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” confirm the pandemic’s impact and something more alarming: scores have been declining for years. Grade 4 and grade 8 math scores have dropped since 2013 and grade 4 and grade 8 reading scores have declined since 2017.

The results of our statewide assessments (MCAS) also signal concern. For Massachusetts students in grades 3-8 who completed MCAS last spring, only 41 percent met or exceeded grade level expectations in English language arts (ELA). Only half of all 10th graders met or exceeded expectations in math. For the nearly 40,000 English learners in grades 3-8 across the Commonwealth, the situation is dire: only 6 percent met or exceeded grade level expectations in ELA.

For low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities, the results are equally glum. In Boston, only 20 percent of low-income students met or exceeded expectations on the grade 3-8 ELA assessment compared to 57 percent of their middle class peers. Across the state, only 15 percent of grade 10 students with disabilities met or exceeded expectations in grade 10 math, a difference of 43 percentage points from their non-disabled peers. Results for students of color are just as concerning. Even in districts regarded as higher performing — including Lexington, Wellesley, and Belmont — achievement gaps between White and Black students on the grade 3-8 ELA assessment range between 32 and 46 percentage points.

Every parent or guardian of a child who is below grade level in any subject should demand to know what their child’s school is doing to support students who are behind. They should also ask about innovative practices that teachers have been trained to implement, as well as request the longer-term plan of individual districts to bring all students to grade-level achievement.

Parents should ask themselves: Does my child’s teacher, school principal, and local school committee feel the same urgency I do about my child’s need to catch up?

The significance of the loss should serve as a clarion call to school districts and families about the tremendous work that lies ahead to help students recover from more than two years of academic disruption, social isolation, and mental health declines. At a time when schools finally have the financial resources to address the urgent needs, there is no more time to waste.

Mary Tamer is the state director for Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts and is a former member of the Boston School Committee.