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COVID learning loss requires strong action now in Maryland | COMMENTARY

Teacher Zia Hellman works with virtual students during the first week of in-person classes at Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, Nov. 20, 2020. Like other school districts across the country, Baltimore City Public Schools are slowly trying to get students back in the classroom. It has not been easy, but neither has remote learning.
Teacher Zia Hellman works with virtual students during the first week of in-person classes at Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, Nov. 20, 2020. Like other school districts across the country, Baltimore City Public Schools are slowly trying to get students back in the classroom. It has not been easy, but neither has remote learning. (Rosem Morton/The New York Times)

Maryland lawmakers last year decided to make a landmark 10-year commitment to transforming our state’s public schools into world-class centers for learning. The legislation my colleagues and I passed — a law called the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future — rests on the recommendations generated by the blue-ribbon Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, a 26-member panel chaired by former University System of Maryland chancellor Brit Kirwan that represented all the direct stakeholders in our schools, from teachers and students to parents and local school boards.

I had the privilege of serving on this Kirwan Commission, along with several other lawmakers and representatives of the Hogan administration. We spent three years working through plans to raise standards — and rewards — for teachers, expand pre-K and other services for students and their families, and increase support for children with special needs. Our plans also aimed to revamp high schools to better equip students for well-paying jobs, and we coupled our ideas with a rigorous accountability program for making sure our tax dollars on education get spent as intended.

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We realized, of course, that an initiative as broad as this would have to be phased in over multiple years, both to implement major instructional reforms and to raise needed revenue. Our final recommendation, adopted into the legislation lawmakers passed, called for a 10-year phase-in.

Unfortunately, that 10 years has now turned into 11. Last spring, Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation. Lawmakers will vote to override that veto in the 2021 session, but we’ve lost, even with the likely override, a full year.

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We’ve lost even more with the Covid-19 pandemic.

We shouldn’t try to sugarcoat what has happened to us educationally. Our schools have suffered a major reversal. Our students will have lost, by the time the pandemic subsides, as much as 15 months of in-person instruction. We are witnessing significant learning loss, despite the often heroic efforts of teachers, parents and kids.

How much learning loss have we experienced? Estimates vary. Keep in mind that we already — in “normal” times — see up to two months of learning loss every summer. With the COVID disruption, I believe middle and upper middle class students will lose at least three months of learning and possibly up to half a year. Our impoverished students, predominantly Black and brown, will lose as much as a year and a half.

All these learning losses won’t just push off into the more distant future the hopes and dreams the blueprint legislation embodies. All these losses, if not addressed, will relegate many students to underclass status for years to come. The educational scars may stretch an entire generation — above and beyond the loss of life and good health for those who have contracted the coronavirus.

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But our educational situation doesn’t have to be instructionally hopeless, not if we take strong action now.

What would that entail? Let’s start with special tutoring, a proven strategy for addressing learning loss. Tutoring can be effective on either a one-on-one or small-group basis. The key here, with whatever model we follow, will be implementation. We need tutoring on a massive scale, beginning by no later than this summer and continuing into the next school year. Even that will not be enough. We also need to fund summer school on a scale we’ve never seen before. And, finally, to overcome our state’s learning loss, we need to begin piloting flexible year-round school calendars to decrease the learning we lose every summer from our long-outdated long summer breaks.

Yes, all this will cost. But not acting will cost us much more. Students who fall far behind turn off and become more alienated. They act out and get in trouble. They drop out and even, in worst-case scenarios, get enmeshed in the school-to-prison pipeline.

In short, we only have one way to get back on track with the transformational proposals of the Kirwan Commission. We need to address — and remedy — the pandemic’s learning loss impact.

This will certainly be a big lift for our local school systems. They’ll have to put new infrastructure in place. And they’ll need new revenue. Maybe some of that can come from the Biden administration and Congress. But we have options, even without a major infusion of federal stimulus funds. Our state can raise and direct its own funds. The large corporations that beg for well-educated school graduates to staff their companies ought to have a vested interest in contributing to the solution.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future represents an attempt to lift up all of the public schools that our state’s students attend. Our entire state currently lags behind on international educational metrics. We can change that. But in this extraordinary time we’re going to have to take extraordinary measures.

State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky represents Prince George’s County and chairs the Maryland Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. He served on the Kirwan Commission and can be reached at paul.pinsky@senate.state.md.us.

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