Ed Trust Midwest joins experts from leading education states  

While much is unknown about the full impact of unfinished learning on America’s students due to the ongoing pandemic, state leaders across the nation are working on strategies for educational recovery.

To hear from leading education states, the Education Trust-Midwest brought together a panel of experts from Colorado, Tennessee and Connecticut to discuss their strategies, especially for underserved students, in a public webinar, Michigan’s Educational Recovery: What’s Now, What’s Next.

“We know that this is a critical time to act to ensure that our children are, not only catching up, but also accelerating through this educational recovery process that we’re facing due to the pandemic,” ETM Executive Director Amber Arellano said. “That’s going to be especially important for our most underserved students, including Black and Brown students, students with disabilities, English language learners and low-income children.”

Sara Heyburn Morrison, Ed.D., Executive Director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, joined virtually to talk about how Tennessee has prioritized supports for educators and continued early literacy improvement efforts amid the pandemic.

Despite the challenges of the time, the state continues to demonstrate how to implement evidence-based educational policy for the benefit of students with bipartisan support.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee legislature held a special session on education and passed bills to address unfinished learning. Heyburn Morrison explained that the bills address four key areas, including. The first bill, the Literacy Success Act. That bill, is intended to address the needs of early learners to ensure a statewide, offering a standardized blueprint for success that guides educators in helping students become literate by the third grade.

The second bill, the Learning Loss and Student Acceleration Act, specifically reserved state dollars to open access to students for summer learning through summer camps, a permanent “learning loss bridge camp” for middle learners, and after-school mini-camps during the 2021 and 2022 summers.

“We really hope that in our learning from this pandemic we will come to agree that the summer is a key period of learning, especially for students who are not at grade level,” Heyburn Morrison said.

Tennessee also enacted a Hold Harmless bill to guarantee that this spring’s state assessments will only be used to learn where and which students need the most support in the coming year if 80% or more of a district’s student population participate in the testing, and a Teacher Compensation bill to raise teacher wages.

In Connecticut, as explained by Ajit Gopalakrishnan, Chief Performance Officer for the Connecticut State Department of Education, the state did not wait to prepare for a second virtual and hybrid year. State education leaders immediately worked with school districts to develop reopening plans that would work for students whether their schools were in-person, hybrid, or fully remote.

“Part of the commitment from our state Board,” said Gopalakrishnan, “was that remote school days will count towards the requirement in our state law for 180 school days, if the Department of Education can track learner participation and learner attendance, and actually support school districts with not only dealing with the health issues around COVID, but also helping them to open school and offer in person instruction safely, to the fullest extent possible.”

To that end, the state worked to create a new policy that required districts to report weekly on student attendance.

The new wealth of attendance data enabled the state to work in concert with school districts and public health experts to identify and address specific school community needs to get and keep students in school. Thus far, that strategy has paid off to the tune of 80% of Connecticut school districts operating predominately or fully in-person, Gopalakrishnan said.

Anecdotally, Gopalakrishnan shared that school districts have requested that this reporting requirement continue post-pandemic because of how helpful the data has been in service of students.

In Colorado, the governor’s office is not only leading efforts to address learning loss directly attributable to the pandemic, but also to address long term inequities for underserved populations.

The administration created the Response, Innovation and Student Equity (RISE) fund, to support high-needs school districts, charter schools, and institutions of higher education to create sustainable innovations to improve student learning, close equity gaps and enhance operational efficiency for K-12 and higher education. The RISE fund resulted in a competitive grant program that helped to create collaborations between school districts and community institutions.

It has awarded $40 million to 32 projects across the state, which are required to be implemented throughout the next two years. The goal is to identify projects that can be replicated and scaled to support learners in Colorado long term.

Alana Plaus, a representative from the office of Colorado Governor Jared Polis shared examples of programming from RISE fund awardees. “One awardee has partnered with the Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado, the University of Northern Colorado, and Colorado State University to improve student and family outcomes for migrant families in the region. 

Another is a charter school that primarily serves pregnant and parenting teens and their children in Aurora, which is a city right next to Denver. The school received a grant to implement restorative practices and evidence-based strategies to help students repair relationships in school and prevent disciplinary actions. There’s just been a diverse array of awards, which I think is unique to the discretionary nature of the funds that we’re able to use for this.”

Also here in Michigan, Kevin Polston, Superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools and Chair of the Michigan Student Recovery Advisory Council, spoke about his work with other members of the council to create recommendations and guidance for all 800+ Michigan school districts.

They are considering ways to address student learning recovery and the severe social-emotional traumas of the pandemic, in addition to addressing longstanding challenges for students from low-income households, students of color, students with special needs and English learners.

The Council has worked to establish and nurture relationships with parents and community organizations that serve students when they’re away from school, in addition to imagining creative ways to increase applications to post-secondary opportunities, which along with applications for federal student aid, have decreased during the pandemic, Polston said.

In particular, the Council is working to adjust the state’s post-secondary system so that it does not punish students for surviving a pandemic but welcomes them into post-secondary credential opportunities and provides supports to address unfinished learning through non-credit bearing courses or programs to get students back on track. All recommendations of the Council, including some that acknowledge systemic and racial inequalities, are driven by data, he said. Those recommendations are expected to be released this month.