Austin Beutner and Shari Tarver Behring: Lessons from the pandemic about how to improve education

Recent NAEP reports on student scores from tests taken in early 2022 have sparked a chorus of concerns about the progress of children in public schools. While the focus on student achievement is warranted, a look at how educators are responding can show us how to start moving forward.

A notable outlier in the NAEP results are students in Los Angeles schools who were the only ones in the country to show improved reading and math scores in both 4th and 8th grade. The results are no accident as thousands of people in Los Angeles Unified worked tirelessly to feed families, keep them safe and provide teachers, students and their families with the technology and training needed to keep them connected with their school community. This allowed teachers and students to keep their focus on learning.

While NAEP says only 56% of students in low-income communities across the country were provided with a computer and 34% internet access, 100% of students in Los Angeles got both within weeks.

But before we put too much stock in the NAEP reports, let’s recognize that a relatively small number of students in any school district take the tests and each student only answers a portion of the questions. A better way to think about the results is more akin to that of a poll or survey—directionally interesting, but one should be careful about attributing too much significance to the specific numbers.

So, let’s dig deeper and look at one example of what educators did in Los Angeles schools. During the height of the pandemic in August 2020, Los Angeles Unified started a program called Primary Promise to help elementary school students build a foundation in literacy and math. Schools used Federal COVID relief funds to hire reading specialists to work alongside classroom teachers. This allows the classroom teacher to work with students who are at grade level while the specialist works with small groups of students on the building blocks of literacy including phonics, decoding and comprehension.

Study after study has shown the importance for children to become proficient readers in elementary school. They learn to read so they can read to learn. Yet even before the pandemic, barely one-third of 4th graders across the country were reading at grade level.

Visit a first-grade classroom in a more affluent community or private school and you’ll usually find two teachers. One to work with the children who are at grade level, the other to provide individualized or small group instruction.

Unfortunately, many public schools which serve low-income communities lack the resources to do this so one teacher is left trying to teach three or four groups of students with very different needs, in the same class at the same time. It’s awfully hard. An initial cohort of 2,500 first graders were selected to participate in Primary Promise because they were struggling academically, with only 9% reading at grade level on a commonly used diagnostic assessment, DIBELS.

Within 14 weeks, 42% of these students were reading at grade level, the same portion as their peers who were not in Primary Promise. In just one semester, one-third of students in the program had improved to grade level, an unprecedented increase. And all of this was done while students were taking classes online due to state rules which mandated classroom closures because of high COVID rates in the community. This program was expanded over the next several semesters to include thousands of additional students in K-3 with similar results.

While this effort is helping students in Los Angeles make extraordinary gains in reading, there are tens of thousands more children in public schools across California who could benefit from this individualized approach.

Schools will need to hire additional teachers and teachers’ aides to provide this help in the classroom. In anticipation of this, the two of us, together with our colleagues at LA Unified and CSUN, created a new course at CSUN to provide teachers with additional training to help with an early literacy effort in schools.

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They practice teaching strategies while using literacy assessments to guide their work and spend time on specialized instructional approaches for teaching English learners. The educators who take part in this are investing in themselves by developing new skills and additional expertise. They can qualify for higher pay and, for some, it may create a path for them to continue working in schools with a more flexible schedule compared with that of a classroom teacher.

The children in our public schools can’t wait—they need help now. Most traditional training programs take a year and as long as three years part-time. The first group of teachers who participated in a 10-week course last summer are now in school classrooms helping students.

While much of the conversation about schools repeats the narrative about learning loss, it’s time for the focus to shift to what schools can do about it. Educators created Primary Promise along with a special course in early literacy for teachers in response to the pandemic. It’s a powerful lesson we can all learn from.

Austin Beutner is the Author of Prop 28 which will provide funding to restore arts and music in California public schools. He served as Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified during the pandemic. Shari Tarver Behring is the Dean of the Michael Eisner College of Education at Cal State University, Northridge. CSUN has trained more teachers who work in Los Angeles Unified than any other institution.

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