2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Drastic learning loss endangers an entire generation of students

Staggering numbers illustrate depths of educational crisis

As we embrace a new year, let’s together resolve to end an old crisis: the staggering number of students failing.

New data released by Montgomery County Public Schools reveal percentage-point increases of 24.2 and 15.5 in failure rates for, respectively, Hispanic and Black students living in poverty. They are falling so far behind that the detrimental impact on their lives will likely persist for years to come.

The sudden shift to remote learning in March 2020 posed significant challenges for students living in poverty who already struggled. While some families had the means to support their children’s academic success even in the pandemic — investing in personalized learning pods — too many others did not.

The Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence commissioned a team of researchers from the University of Maryland School of Public Health who interviewed students, families and teachers to better understand their lived experiences.

They found students like a middle schooler who had been thrust into impossible situations that prohibited him from succeeding in remote education (on p. 7 of the report).

While his parents worked long hours, he was responsible for his two elementary school-aged siblings. He had to help them log in before he could attend to his own online classes that were going on simultaneously.

And when his younger siblings lost interest, he had no choice but to supervise rather than study. He simply could not attend online school while providing child care.

More than 14,000 MCPS students did not actively participate in virtual learning from March 30 to April 17.

Almost 3,400 never logged in during that period. Of those, 80% were Black and Brown students.

This fall, thousands of students continued to struggle with consistent access.

New MCPS data reveal alarming increases in failure rates among Black and Brown students, and even steeper increases for those living in poverty.

An analysis of year-over-year first-quarter grades for this year’s high school freshmen — comparing their performance to last year — shows that among Hispanic/Latino students impacted by poverty, the failure rate jumped from 6% to 42% in English and 7% to 44% in math.

Failure rates among Black students in poverty rose from 5% to 31% in English and 6% to 34% in math.

The combination of months of little to no schooling and exponential increases in failure rates illuminate the depths of learning loss and the possibility of losing an entire generation as students slip further and further behind.

This is not normal, and we must not allow it to be normalized.

While a full return to in-person learning might not be practical or safe, we must start investing now to combat learning loss. We must provide intensive interventions now to help students make up lost ground.

We must look to the future when it is safe for all students to return to school and ensure that our most highly impacted students have equitable access to the most highly qualified teachers and administrators who can help them catch up as quickly as possible.

In the spirit of new year resolutions, we ask you to resolve to join us in giving voice to the children and families who so urgently need our help.

A coalition of interested organizations and individuals has already come together to say “enough.” Join us in demanding concrete steps now to get these children back on track. These students need you.

Learn more about the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence and how you can get involved at www.bandbcoalition.org.

Byron Johns, chair of the NAACP Parents’ Council, and Diego Uriburu, executive director of Identity, are co-founders of the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence.