Adams: COVID-19 Learning Loss Will Be Devastating for NYC Students. But the School System Will Come Out Looking Just Fine

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio (Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office / Flickr)

The New York Times reports that, due to COVID-related school shutdowns in the spring, “The average student could begin the next school year having lost as much as a third of the expected progress from the previous year in reading and half of the expected progress in math.”

That won’t make much of a difference in New York City.

I don’t mean it won’t make much of a difference to the average child.

As a McKinsey & Co. report noted: How much learning students lose during school closures varies significantly by access to remote learning, the quality of remote instruction, home support and the degree of engagement. For simplicity’s sake, we have grouped high school students into three archetypes. First, there are students who experience average-quality remote learning; this group continues to progress, but at a slower pace than if they had remained in school. Second, some students are getting lower-quality remote learning; they are generally stagnating at their current grade levels. Then there are students who are not getting any instruction at all; they are probably losing significant ground. Finally, some students drop out of high school altogether.

And I don’t mean it won’t make much of a difference to society as a whole.

The Brookings Institution calculates: The cost to the United States in future earnings of four months of lost education is $2.5 trillion — 12.7 percent of annual GDP.

But it won’t make much of a difference to the New York City Department of Education.

It will be able to continue with business as usual. Better, even. Despite budget shortfalls and a hiring freeze, it can keep adding new executive staff and giving them raises.

But what about the children? What about their learning?

What about it?

Even before COVID-19 hit, there were already schools where only 10 percent of students passed their state tests. And schools where not a single child did. Nonetheless, the majority of students in these schools received passing grades and were promoted to the next level.

Citywide, in 2019, 47.4 percent of students in grades 3 to 8 were deemed proficient in English Language Arts, and 45.6 percent were proficient in math. That means over half the children in NYC were not.

How did they do in 2020? We don’t know. State tests were canceled due to COVID. And the New York City Council is proposing canceling them for 2021 as well.

The council’s letter to the New York State Board of Regents reads: We hope you agree that setting aside precious hours for instruction, learning and healing to accommodate standardized test preparation and administration has no place in the upcoming school year. State tests cannot possibly be “fair” this year, with students engaged in widely different learning modalities.

This, of course, suggests that state tests were anything close to “fair” in previous years, and that it’s only COVID that disrupted what had otherwise been an equitable system that worked equally well for all students.

Also canceled for 2020 were Regents exams necessary for high school graduation. Instead, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza told principals, “We’re going to have to make big decisions … regarding promotions and graduations. We need to start to think how are we going to justify promotions and graduations. … We need to rethink the way we grade students. Maybe we should grade them on a pass/fail basis, whether they master the material or not.”

Whether they master the material or not.

Because, whether they master the material or not, the DOE can still boast about its rising high school graduation rates.

Although, as noted by Chalkbeat: Graduation rates have grown steadily since 2005, when fewer than half of city students earned diplomas in four years. The uptick mirrors national trends, but may have little to do with how much students are learning. In New York, for instance, the state has made it easier for students to earn diplomas, in part, by creating more pathways to graduation. The state has maintained that these changes have not watered down the rigor of its requirements to exit high school.

But may have little to do with how much students are learning.

To recap: New York City is promoting and graduating students whether they master the material or not, regardless of how much they are learning.

A good curriculum builds upon itself. Concepts a student masters one year are supposed to help them understand subsequent concepts in the next. A child who fails to grasp multiplication is going to have a much harder time in pre-algebra. A kid who struggles with reading comprehension is just going to grow further and further lost as texts increase in difficulty.

A student promoted to the next grade after failing the current one will not suddenly magically gain mastery just because more difficult curriculum has been placed in front of them. And a teen thrust out into the world with a worthless high school diploma is unlikely to pick up everything they’ve been deprived of through real-world osmosis.

Missing over a year of instruction and learning will affect every single academic year that comes after. The damage will be exponential. Kids are going to suffer massive academic gaps. But most of those, we won’t know about. Because testing to find out where exactly they’ve fallen behind would be, according to some on the City Council, unfair.

But even if we do administer state tests this year, it still won’t matter, as demonstrated by all the students being passed in previous years. This year, there may be more kids in that situation than ever. But we either won’t know about it or will ignore it, just like in previous years. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, but the DOE will be fine either way.

Thanks to NYC’s thoroughly incompetent COVID response, students will suffer, the economy will suffer and society will suffer — for decades to come.

But the DOE will still tout its promotion rates, its graduation rates and what a wonderful job it did during the 2020-21 year, despite all obstacles.

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