How policymakers can support schools and achievement during COVID-19

NWEA recently released research on student achievement during the 2020–2021 school year, the first full year of teaching and learning during COVID-19. The results were what many would expect, but were nonetheless disheartening: the pandemic, paired with interrupted learning, school closures, and remote and hybrid environments, has exacerbated inequalities in schools, particularly for children of color and students in high-poverty schools. While the disruption affected all subject areas, there were larger declines in math than in reading relative to historical trends. The data is clear. What do we intend to do about it?  

We talked with Evan Stone and LaTanya Pattillo—two educators turned advocates—about how the pandemic will change education and education policy, and the many ways it already has.  

About Evan and LaTanya

After teaching in one of the country’s largest schools, Evan realized he and his colleagues loved their instruction and the connections they made with students, but they were burning out navigating bureaucracy and red tape. He knew teachers had the passion, knowledge, and tenacity to be powerful voices in the advocacy space and decided to mobilize his colleagues. Evan cofounded Educators for Excellence (E4E)—which now has six chapters across the country and over 33,000 members—to encourage educators to take an active role in their local teachers’ unions and be agents of change at the local, state, and federal levels. “E4E grew out of those twin experiences of teachers feeling powerless and seeing the immense influence of our union and wanting it to be more representative of the needs we saw in our schools and classrooms,” he says. 

[T]he collective voice of teachers can’t be ignored.

LaTanya was a former parent volunteer turned teacher turned state-house staffer. Today, she serves as director of Policy and Advocacy for NWEA. “Someone told me a long time ago that I was headed into politics and I didn’t believe them,” she explains. “But I soon took a role in the office of the governor of North Carolina, and that experience specifically helped me gain a greater understanding as to how ‘the sausage is made’ in education policy and further affirmed my belief that we need to do more.”  

The future of education policy

Evan and LaTanya answered three big questions on what’s next in education policy. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.  

1. What should be the highest priorities of policymakers who are trying to support students and educators returning to classrooms this fall?

LaTanya: This is the first time that there has been such a massive influx of funds into the education system. If we are serious about true equity, then that means we need to target those funds and build strategies that reach our most underserved and underrepresented communities. At NWEA, we recommend that policymakers:  

  • Invest in and build a strong teacher pipeline through targeted recruitment, preparation, and retention programs. 
  • Build the skills of the educator workforce through activities such as leadership development and instructional coaching focused on meeting the needs of students. 
  • Attend to educators’ mental and physical health needs, including by acknowledging the difficulties teachers encounter and celebrating successes.    
  • Provide targeted and purposeful professional development opportunities to educators, including coaching on how to evaluate data on student progress to help all students succeed. 

Evan: Our priorities at E4E come from both our national survey of teachers and more than 4,000 conversations we’ve had with educators. There’s a lot of alignment with NWEA.  

  • Elevate and diversify the teaching profession. We should be paying teachers more for taking on additional responsibility in the next year, when they are teaching longer and taking on work with students outside of the regular day. At the federal level, we should be investing in things like the Honorable Augustus F. Hawkins Centers of Excellence and other ways to make sure we have a diverse force of teachers coming into the profession. 
  • Support social-emotional well-being. We can only even begin the process of recovering from unfinished learning if our students come back to us and have the supports and resources to engage in their educational environments. I think there needs to be a deep focus on the mental health of our students and our educators as they return to buildings full-time in the fall. 
  • Close equity gaps and recover from unfinished learning. That means maximizing the resources we have to not just catch up but think about long-term interventions and pernicious opportunity gaps that have existed for too long.  
  • Build culturally relevant, anti-racist classrooms. What we’re hearing from teachers is, in addition to this pandemic, we have revealed a pandemic of racism that has been ongoing in our country and is affecting our students in our schools. So what are we doing to create culturally affirming, actively anti-racist and bias-aware teachers in classrooms? That looks like investing in professional development for teachers. That looks like better curricular tools and resources. We think there’s a huge opportunity to truly make schools welcoming, inviting places for all students. It could also mean eliminating the discipline disparities that we’ve been advocating against for a long time. 
  • Resource equity. We need to be using this moment to increase equity in funding by driving additional resources to districts and schools serving students with significant need, and we should be using federal dollars to incentivize change in state and district funding formulas to ensure that we close these equity gaps even after we no longer have federal recovery funding.

2. Countless studies, including ours, have shown increased inequity in education during COVID-19. What actions do policymakers and education leaders need to take to ensure that all students—particularly students of color and students living in poverty—have access to high-quality opportunities to recover and advance learning?

LaTanya: As a mission-driven, not-for-profit organization focused on improving outcomes for students through research, assessment, and professional development, NWEA released a comprehensive set of recommendations that address the complexity of recovery. We encourage policymakers to take the following actions: 

  • Re-engage all students, with a focus on historically underserved students.  
  • Continue to support access to remote learning technology for students and families. 
  • Attend to the physical, social, and mental health needs of students and families.  
  • Measure student progress, rethink assessment systems, and use data to support recovery.
  • Support and train teachers and leaders. 
  • Move from restarting to reimagining accountability and school improvement.

Evan: We need to make sure that the financial resources targeted at recovery go to the communities that have been disproportionately impacted. The federal dollars do that through the Title 1 formula, but we also need to make sure that when those dollars get to districts, they actually go to those kids and communities.

E4E will be closely watching the data on how these dollars are spent in districts. Do they get to the students, schools, and communities that are most impacted? And then, what additional investments in education are being made? It’s about equity in how we spend our funds, but it’s also about transparency, so that we can hold officials accountable to ensuring dollars get to the kids, families, and communities that most need them.

3. We are still hearing the phrase “return to normal,” but we must do better than that. How can educators, schools, and districts use this opportunity to reimagine education for the better?

LaTanya: As daunting as it is to think about what needs to be done to “re-envision” or make the necessary changes to ensure that equity is at the forefront of all that we do, we must. We must.  

This is the first time that there has been such a massive influx of funds into the education system. [W]e need to […] reach our most underserved and underrepresented communities.

There is a quote by James Baldwin that says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced,” and I live by that. We must acknowledge what we are facing and use this as a time to reset and recommit to make real change in education—the kind of change that makes this a truly equitable system for all. 

Evan: I agree with the principle that we need to go back to better than normal, because normal is certainly not good enough. But I do worry that under the idea of reinvention or creating something new, we will not actually address the problems that are long-standing in our education system. Now, at the tail end of the biggest disruption to education and with the unprecedented federal investment in education, we can’t just mask the shortcomings of the public education system; we must make real change so that all students can benefit from excellent and relevant education.

I hope the research from NWEA provides even more motivation for legislators and policymakers to invest in those who have been most impacted by the pandemic, and that it helps spark conversations and action about how we can truly remedy this problem. And, most importantly, I hope that teachers see this data as a call to action to advocate for our students both inside and outside of the classroom, because the collective voice of teachers can’t be ignored.

Learn more

For a closer look at COVID-19 and its impact on student achievement, stream our webinar, “Research meets practice: How educators are responding to the latest COVID-19 impact results,” on demand.  

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