Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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In the Trenches

Since March 2020, all K-12 students have experienced some form of disruption to their curriculum. A significant amount of time was necessary for the transition to an online classroom and back to in-person instruction. New teaching formats and technologies had to be implemented with little training in less-than-ideal conditions while still covering the same ground as any other school year. This challenge was met head-on by educators and students alike—but not without enormous obstacles and some unavoidable concessions.

Time away from the classroom had left its mark on students, and lawmakers attempted to address the loss in learning and development with legislation they hoped would hastily bridge the gaps, backed by an infusion of federal relief funding. When the 2021-22 school year began, ATPE members returned with the hope it would resemble a pre-quarantine normalcy, but instead they’ve found themselves on the frontlines of a crucial battle between these new expectations and a painful reality.

The COVID Slide

Greg Fore, an eighth grade Functional Living Skills teacher in Dallas ISD, recalls his experience: “Last year felt like we were just going through the motions of education. We were trying so hard to adjust on the fly and just get through the curriculum that our students couldn’t get what they needed, and their learning suffered for it.”

The difference between what the standards require and what students actually learn is something that educators naturally track over the course of each semester. Couple that common deviation with the learning interruption of summer break, and a bit of learning loss is expected from students at the start of each school year. This year, however, educators have encountered an unprecedented “slide,” particularly in key areas such as math and reading.

Mandy Vahrenkamp, a second-grade self-contained teacher in Calhoun County ISD, has observed this gap in her students’ growth. “This year, instead of having a few students who are struggling readers and read a year or so below grade-level, the majority of our students are almost a year behind on their reading level, which affects all other subjects being taught,” she says.

Fore says this has been the “worst, most chaotic year” in his 30 years of teaching. “Teachers are leaving. We can’t get subs. We are combining classrooms. It has just been craziness.”

And he isn’t alone. All over the state of Texas, educators continue to encounter enormous difficulties that have compelled many to resign. The lack of resources and now manpower have combined to make conditions even more tenuous for schools to provide students with some semblance of normalcy.

Other Types of Learning Loss 

Educational learning loss is not the only issue educators face after so many months of virtual teaching. They are also dealing with behavioral problems stemming from the lack of structure and supervision during periods of remote learning.

A 36-year educator, Allyson Haveman is one of five assistant principals at Lubbock High School. She has observed a noticeable shift in student discipline since her school’s return to in-person teaching. “A lot of kids picked up a bunch of bad habits, and we had to reteach a lot of social skills,” Haveman says. “They have become remarkably unfettered—not having that time in school has made a significant difference in their social development.”

This distinct regression may be most apparent in younger students who have spent a significant portion of their elementary education in a virtual classroom. Often with little to no adult supervision, many students found themselves structuring their own school days in ways they found to be convenient rather than efficient. With the return to physical classrooms amid an ongoing pandemic, many are struggling to adjust, and educators are having to address this “slide” in their students’ social development as well.

Jerrica Liggins, a secondary curriculum director for Paris ISD, is concerned about the relationship between disciplinary actions and student growth.

“Our district is paying close attention,” she says. “When the kids misbehave, we are looking at ways to redirect that negative attention back to learning instead of suspending them from school where they will experience even more learning loss.”

The solution for student behavioral problems has never been simple, but educators now find themselves with fewer options and more ground to cover. Many students have experienced loss and isolation throughout this crisis and addressing both their education and behavior has proven arduous for educators in every grade level.

Shawn Mustain is a science teacher for Spring Branch ISD and in his 19th year as an educator. “I think the pandemic just ripped the Band-Aids off and exposed the ugly truth that many of our students just are not foundationally prepared or resilient,” he says. 

The realities of educational inequity 

A recent study from NWEA, a research-based, nonprofit organization, shows that gaps are widening for high-risk student populations, and the laundry list of factors that contribute to this are not new or surprising. Families that lacked adequate technology and internet connectivity have suffered the most severe learning setbacks, while special needs students and English language learners were affected in more subtle ways. In many cases, what instruction they did receive was diminished by the inability of schools to cater to their situation in a virtual environment.

Lotus Hoey is an ESL teacher in Houston ISD who speaks three languages. She recognizes her ESL students and their parents faced unique challenges with virtual learning, and they were not alone.

“We have a high-risk population of students who have learning disabilities, are low-income, or have other special needs,” she says. “They have an existing equity issue; compound that with 18 months of lack of learning, and we need more intervention.”

From the very first weeks of quarantine, districts had to completely alter teaching formats and make use of existing resources. In cases where student populations were historically trailing their peers, this was dreadfully inadequate. Student achievement gaps continue to grow wider as they experience even more setbacks, and this unfortunate circumstance can be exacerbated by the trauma of economic instability, isolation, and the loss of loved ones from COVID-19.

Mustain, who teaches at a predominantly Hispanic high school where half to three-quarters of students are classified as English language learners, asserts: “The struggles are really tough for many of our students who are having to learn not only English but the language of math or science. How can we expect students, who read four to five grade levels below where they should be, to perform equally with students who don’t have these reading gaps? Yet, they are expected to take the same tests at the same time while being foundationally deficient.”

HB 4545 

The 87th Texas Legislature passed the controversial House Bill 4545, which requires supplemental accelerated instruction (i.e., tutoring) for students who struggled on or didn’t take the Spring 2021 State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR). This translates to 30 additional hours of instruction for each subject in which a student did not achieve a “Meets Expectations” or above. This measure aims to plug holes identified by standardized tests, but the extra work has generally not been well received by educators.

“HB 4545 is exhausting,” Haveman says. “It looks really good on paper, but it is still a nightmare. You must have buy-in, and we are not seeing that with students right now—at least not at a consistent level.

“I know it was a data-driven necessity, but the teachers are already pushed to the max, and these mandates are killing those same people they (#txlege) are relying on to put them into play.” 

The additional hours of tutoring are a burden that has fallen squarely on teachers’ shoulders, and they are not convinced this approach will have the desired effect. Not only does HB 4545 add to growing lists of additional duties and new initiatives, but also some argue it misses the mark altogether. The learning loss many students are currently experiencing is more extensive than HB 4545 could ever hope to address. Students who have fallen months or even years behind their grade-level curriculum will likely benefit little from tutoring on Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) that require foundational knowledge they do not yet possess.

“I believe that math could be an issue with this approach,” Liggins says. “You have to know how to add and subtract before you can multiply, so if you are trying to learn something out of order, you are going to struggle. Teaching grade-level math in a tutoring session right now is doing more harm than good.” 

The path forward 

Districts across Texas have received federal aid through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grants that were designed to fund COVID-19 relief programs and initiatives, and schools are spending this money in different ways. Some have hired new teachers to reduce class sizes or replace the ones that have left. Others are paying third-party vendors to meet the tutoring mandates for HB 4545. 

At Pershing Middle School in Central Houston, where Hoey teaches ESL, educators could volunteer to take two full days out of their winter break for a program they call Camp Spark. In this model, ESSER funds are paid to teachers instead of outside vendors to provide the required tutoring.

“At the legislative level, we need funds to pay teachers more,” Hoey explains. “That will be the most effective path forward. [Educators] are burned out and losing motivation.”

Programs like Camp Spark are a small step in that direction, but more money and more creativity will be needed to even begin to sufficiently incentivize educators. On the other hand, when considering new programs and initiatives, many teachers believe that less is more.

Janet Godfrey, a retiree who has returned this year as an academic support teacher on an ESSER grant, believes schools are trying to do too much, too soon. “What I would like to see is a slowing down of the curriculum,” she says. “There are too many TEKS to hit in one year and gain mastery. This is especially true when we may have to go down to the TEKS from the previous year to help with understanding.”

Many student learning gaps predate the pandemic and have never been fully addressed. As much as legislators would like standardized testing to “leave no child behind,” this method has yet to offer any substantive solutions for student learning inequity.

Vahrenkamp also doesn’t agree with the current approach. “I think Texas should suspend the STAAR test for a couple of years. They have said it will not count for students, yet they must take it. The time we spend preparing for and administering the test would be better applied toward helping students get back to grade level.”

Despite lawmakers’ efforts to capture both the full nature and extent of learning loss with test scores alone, student success has, and will always be, best governed by educators on an individual basis. The most effective way to mitigate the impact of quarantine may be to reduce the scope of curriculum for struggling students and allow teachers to focus their efforts on solely reinforcing the basics.

Fore says that success would need to “… begin with legislators and TEA recognizing that we are in the midst of a pandemic. They need to truly see and understand that schools, admin, teachers, support staff, parents, and students are all struggling just to cope and survive. Schools have been expected to move forward like nothing is happening.”

What to avoid

The reality of the situation is that many Texas students will not be at grade level by the end of the school year. Creating unrealistic expectations for their growth as they continue to deal with the trauma of this crisis is not only ineffective but also could be damaging. Much of the learning loss schools are now identifying will not be erased overnight.

“Schools need to slow down instead of trying to have teachers cover one to two years’ worth of concepts so students can ‘catch up,’” Vahrenkamp contends. “To offset this stress, districts need to stop adding to the ever-growing to-do list. We need to have a way to track growth and show the students’ improvement without asking teachers to put information in a new form every few weeks.”

One huge problem with standardized testing is that it requires students to learn or reinforce test-taking strategies that are not related to an academic standard. This can be a time-suck for educators in any circumstance but is especially rough when they are already working from a deficit.

Godfrey feels that, right now, moving the STAAR to an online-only format is problematic: “The students are playing catch-up, and to test online means a whole new set of skills must be taught. Teachers need to be trained in these skills first in order to enable our students. Pencil and paper are the only way we have tested for a century. Why is this the best time to make a major systemic change?”

A portion of learning loss over the past two years can be directly attributed to students’ having to adapt to remote learning platforms and then transition back to a physical classroom. The critical time that students lose during each change can add up to create substantial obstacles for the achievement of their learning goals.

Mustain asserts that students would be better off if standardized testing were replaced with double-blocked reading or math courses to focus on their deficiencies. “Part of this is attributable to how the State of Texas pushes standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of student learning. Texas officials who seem to believe that we can just test our way out of this mess is just mind-boggling and really exacerbates the learning gaps.”

Haveman recognizes this as a recovery year for her students and staff, and she would like to see grace rather than hard-line accountability.

“I have never seen the state of Texas implement anything consistently for five years except for standardized testing. Forget the mandates, and just let the teachers do what is necessary to recover,” she says.

Educators are observing many forms of learning loss in their students this year, and though they may not know how long it will take to bridge these gaps, they remain hopeful Texas lawmakers will hear their stories and empower them to see this through. They know that only in the classrooms—on the frontlines of education—could anyone hope to understand what needs to be done.


Author: David George