More students are failing since before the pandemic
We compare data between Wausau, Stevens Point and D.C. Everest school districts and ask their leaders what is being done.
The morning I started writing this I saw a piece from the New York Times editorial board entitled “The Startling Evidence on Learning Loss Is In” — once I saw that, I knew I had the final piece I needed to finish this story.
Awhile ago I reached out to three school districts in our area: Wausau, D.C. Everest and SPASH — to get some data around failing grades pre- and post- pandemic. SPASH sent them very quickly, followed by D.C. Everest and finally Wausau. (To be fair, I had been told administrators would be presenting data to the board in August so I held off on making a request. Then I learned that no such data was shared. So I requested it.)
Following my receiving the data from all three districts, I then started to set up interviews. How did that go? I actually had to tell SPASH to wait on setting up interviews because I wanted to see all the data from the three districts first. Everest took a bit of time but did eventually came through.
Remarkably, when I asked the Wausau School District, I was told they would be setting me up with someone. Two weeks went by and I asked again, and they were “working on it.”
I got answers eventually, but… well, you’ll see how that all transpired later on.
Why am I doing this story? Back in fall of 2020, district officials pointed out that failing grades were increasing at an alarming rate. I reported on it at the time, but also made a mental note: Two or three years down the road, I wanted to look at these rates to see if they normalized, or remained elevated.
The failing grade data I received from the district, as well, as the district report cards that are sent to DPI, all show the same trend across all the districts: failing grades spiked during the pandemic, then recovered somewhat, but not all the way, in the subsequent years. And in the case of SPASH, the last school year was nearly as bad as during the pandemic.
Why? The New York Times’ latest piece is clear:
The evidence is now in, and it is startling. The school closures that took 50 million children out of classrooms at the start of the pandemic may prove to be the most damaging disruption in the history of American education. It also set student progress in math and reading back by two decades and widened the achievement gap that separates poor and wealthy children.
D.C. Everest’s Kelly Thompson, director of curriculum, literacy, assessment and EL, agrees. She says it was clear to Everest District leaders that kids need to be in the classroom, as she explained in our interview.
Meanwhile, something I learned about from the Times’ piece: The federal government had allocated $190 billion in aid to schools to help address the setbacks. That money is about to run out.
What I found in reviewing the data was the same thing that Harvard researchers found. They reviewed 8,000 communities in 40 states and D.C., and their conclusions were similar to what our local data showed:
Children have resumed learning, but largely at the same pace as before the pandemic. There’s no hurrying up teaching fractions or the Pythagorean theorem,” said CEPR faculty director Thomas Kane. “The hardest hit communities — like Richmond, Virginia, St. Louis, Missouri, and New Haven, Connecticut, where students fell behind by more than 1.5 years in math — have to teach 150 percent of a typical year’s worth of material for three years in a row — just to catch up. That is simply not going to happen without a major increase in instructional time. Any district that lost more than a year of learning should be required to revisit their recovery plans and add instructional time — summer school, extended school year, tutoring, etc. — so that students are made whole.
Thompson confirmed something I also found in the report card data, and something the Times mentions in its piece — that the impacts are uneven. Students who already did well didn’t have much problem during the pandemic or afterward. But students who were already struggling started struggling much worse.
The bottom line, Thompson said, is that children need to be in the classroom. They’re social beings, and that’s an important part of learning. While some children are self-disciplined, that’s somewhat rare amongst the overall populace. And for children already falling behind, it made things much worse.
For younger children, in person learning seemed even more crucial. I was a virtual guest during a pandemic elementary classroom in 2020. What I saw could only be described as chaos on a screen. Out of a dozen or so children, I think only one was actually paying attention.
But that’s an anecdote. And we left elementary schools out for simplicity, and only focused on secondary school students (middle/junior high to high school).
Here’s what we found.
D.C. Everest school district probably had one of the best outcomes of all three districts we looked at. Though the data follows a similar pattern — recovery from the pandemic, but not to levels seen pre-pandemic — the numbers of failing grades post-pandemic have dropped pretty close to those in the 2019 and earlier school years.
Those statistics include Ds and Fs, as will SPASH’s when they come up. And Thompson says the latest grades coming out for quarter 1 of this year are looking even better, she says.
So what did they do? One, Thompson explains, is that they realized pretty quickly that distance learning wasn’t working and that classroom education is critical. “One of the biggest issues has to be in-person learning,” Thompson says. “With kids out for so many reasons, it impacts their progress.”
But here are some changes Thompson says they made:
Installed a dean of students: There is one of these at the junior and senior high buildings. They deal directly with making sure kids are in school. Absences increased in the years following the pandemic, and these positions help make sure kids are in person.
Added a class period called “extended learning time” or ELT: It works like this, Thompson explains: If a student is falling behind in a class, that teacher can summon a student to the ELT time to go over areas where they’re struggling to help get them back on track.
Added an advisory period: This allows students to meet with advisors to make sure they’re on track for their college and/or career goals, making sure they’re getting the necessary grades or taking the right classes.
Thompson’s position is that the vast majority of students really need to learn in the classroom to be effective. She says data shows that that’s the case.
But that doesn’t mean every student. Some students really do take to self-paced, virtual learning. Thompson agreed with the assessment that some students already thriving did better during the distance learning portion than they had been previously.
And even now it’s effective for some students who want to take a class virtually that’s not offered in the regular curriculum. But those students need to keep their grades up, or back to the classroom they come, Thompson explains.
But it also opened up gaps between high achievers and struggling students.
What the research shows
The Wausonian reviewed a number of reviews of online learning vs in-person learning. We looked for a systematic review with a large body of peer-reviewed research.
The Wausonian found this systematic review in the International Journal of Education Technology in Higher Education. It looked at 36 peer-reviewed papers in drawing the conclusion in-person learning is more effective. It found that (emphasis from original) “students’ online access and positive coping strategies could not eradicate their infrastructure and home environment challenges” and “lecturers designed classroom replication, online practical skills training, online assessment integrity, and student engagement strategies to boost online learning quality, but students who used ineffective online participation strategies had poor engagement.”
This older meta-analysis from the U.S. Department of Education found the opposite - that there were positive effects of online learning, but mostly in a blended model and for higher-learning institutions. The study capped off at 2008, and commented that there were very few studies at all in K-12 education. Most stemmed from university, especially specialized field schooling such as medicine (which then suffers from a sort of selection bias, since those populations tend to be the ones who, as Thompson indicates above, would be likely to be in the minority of students who thrive in an online learning environment).
Wausau failing grade data
Wausau’s data looked worse than D.C. Everest’s, but better than SPASH’s. Here is the data:
Wausau provided only F grades, and did not include Ds as the other districts did. So one needs to keep that in mind when reviewing the data.
It was actually Wausau’s failing grade data in 2020, provided by then-Director of Secondary Education Jennifer Rausch, that sparked this story today. Back then, I took note to follow up at some point to see if those grades were improving, and if the problem would persist into future years.
As she said at the time, a common refrain from teachers at the time was something along the lines of “If only I could just reach them.” There was a sense that distance learning just wasn’t working.
Rausch always responded to me when I had questions. She is no longer with the district. Nor is Amy Arlen, who was always prompt in responding to my inquiries.
Months went by without hearing back on my inquiries, and an inquiry to the director of learning and acheivement, Dr. Colwell, also went unanswered.
I had also been emailing James Bouche, who I know was also concerned about these issues. I offered an interview but Bouche declined.
The data above, as I understand, has not been reported to the board. The district, according to one source, provided a presentation on the failing grades that didn’t include any data. That’s a surprise because data is out there. The Wausonian already reported on the school report card data that is filed with DPI (and the frustrating change from a very comprehendible report card to one that is extremely difficult to decipher).
That presentation, apparently, was in a board workshop on Sept. 11. I can find no agenda for such a workshop on the Wausau School Board’s website.
After a third followup with the district’s communication (I include the complete details of the bizarre followup conversation with the district’s communication person for paid subscribers), I received something of a response by committee. So while it might read a bit oddly, I will cite the district in the responses (though I can still hear a curmudgeonly editor screaming “districts can’t speak” from a back office somewhere).
The district highlighted its pandemic response, which I’d already documented: The learning hubs the district created during the pandemic, both through its own facilities and through partners such as the Boys and Girls Club. They also added virtual resource rooms. Those continue to this day, the district says, with the ability to identify gaps and fill them.
One thing that seemed to be different: the district added night school at Wausau East, something I hadn’t heard before.
Like others, the district said that the main issue during the pandemic is that students couldn’t get the in-person help they needed.
One interesting area where the district disputes my assessment: They say while my assessment that struggling students did worse while high achievers did better is true academically, they point out that even those high achievers struggled - they felt even more pressure to perform.
And, much like SPASH district administrators told me, they are working on developing stronger online curriculum in case such a thing happens again. See that below.
In stark contrast, SPASH’s communication director Sarah O’Donnell, offered to set up an interview for the story before I was even ready. (I held off because I wanted to gather data from the three districts first before conducting any interviews.
SPASH’s data looks the worst of the three:
As one can see, SPASH did not have a good school year.
I spoke with Chris Nymann, Assistant Superintendent and Director of Elementary Education, and Jeff Mlsna, Director of Secondary Education.
Nymann worked in SPASH during COVID and says the district matched very closely with Wausau in how it handled school closures and distance learning. (Nymann actually worked in the Wausau School District during COVID.) Mlsna worked in a Colorado district, providing yet another insight.
Nymann agreed that, much like The Wausonian saw in the district report card data, that students who were already struggling struggled even more with distance learning. One thing that helped, Nymann said, was adapting to a student pace model adapted to the students reading level. “That helped combat some of the disengagement,” Nymann told The Wausonian.
Following the pandemic, the district took a deeper look at some of the in-person skills that students might be missing. That means a focus on social and emotional sides of learning, as well as academic, Nymann says.
But also, they say, something like the COVID-19 pandemic could happen again but this time they will be prepared. Teachers are keeping their online teachings skills honed so, if such a thing were to happen again, they can be prepared.
But one challenge of online learning, Nymann says, is that they can’t control the home environment. That was a major challenge in the pandemic.
Another lesson from the pandemic, because it exacerbated it, Nymann says, is the varying rates of growth of students. Nymann says that teachers are more cognizant of students learning at different rates and are working to accommodate those styles more. “We have students who enter with a wide range of abilities,” Nymann says. “The pandemic amplified that.”
Mlsna added that another thing they learned is that kids are resilient, and that they will bounce back.
But will they?
National statistics seem to point in another direction. A resource called the National Report Card tracks statistics across 29 states.
Students in every category of reading and math performed worse this year than they did in 2020.
That includes average score as well as every single percentile. The data for the rest of the subjects look less troubling - some such as art and music saw improvement — but the reading and math scores are concerning.
Bonus for paid subscribers - Wausau School District gaslighting
I mentioned briefly in the story how difficult the school district was to deal with on this issue, where I had no problem getting information from SPASH and D.C. Everest. But the details are even crazier than I had room to put in the main story.