The academic year just ended for public and private schools across the nation, but for many, school never really started. Before simply moving on to the next year, it’s worth checking the country’s academic report card. Doing so will reveal how students have suffered — and suggest summer school as a possible remedy. But that may prove more difficult to execute than it first appears, because of a familiar villain: teachers’ unions.
Let’s start with the data. They paint a discouraging picture. According to Amplify, almost half of children in first grade scored in the lowest possible literacy assessment for their grade year. This was a two-thirds increase of students in this level from the year before. Other sources reveal similar discouraging data. Fewer than half of kindergarteners, and only 58 percent of second graders, are reading at their grade level. Early-elementary-school students’ reading ability has plummeted 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels.
Even with grade inflation, that’s a failing mark.
These are not empty statistics. The full repercussions of sending kids home for the majority of the 2020–2021 school year are not yet known. However, research has consistently shown that early-childhood reading and writing are crucial for long-term development. How well a child “decodes” words in the first grade heavily determines reading-comprehension ability in high school.
Parents already know this intuitively. A poll from the beginning of the pandemic found that parents in California and Texas were less likely to be concerned about their finances than that their child would fall behind in school. They were right to be worried. Instead of heeding these concerns, though, we spent trillions of dollars protecting bank accounts while treating childhood schooling as an afterthought. And now parents’ worries are being proven right in real time. They are “overwhelmingly” concerned that their children have fallen behind in critical categories. Troubling anecdotes of rising failure rates abound.
These academic concerns are important. But school matters for other reasons as well. Kids need places to socialize, play, and build early friendships. So much of the benefit from education is under the surface. Children have double the neurological synapses adults have, which helps them learn rapidly about empathizing, teamwork, and basic conflict resolution.
Learning to share and “how to play with others” is a valuable skill that people learn earlier, rather than later. Children don’t get that kind of kinetic and emotional education through a computer screen. The results are telling. Anxiety and depression for pre-teens and teenagers is up almost 10 percent.
Is there anything we can do to help kids get back this lost year and to address its negative effects on them? Maybe. Some have proposed that summer school could help students recoup lost time. In addition to improving academic performance, summer school may help children rebuild friendships and restore personal connections lost during the pandemic.
There is no easy solution, though. Others argue that it’s important for kids to be allowed to go out and play this summer. However, after mandating that kids go to home and take classes over Zoom, it’s about time we allowed parents to make an individual decision about what is best for their child. Unfortunately, the majority of urban school districts seem to have no plans to offer a summer-school option.
It is clear that a lot of parents believe their children would benefit from summer schooling. Areas that have implemented summer classes have seen a significant increase in enrollment. However, parents around the country are facing a familiar problem. No, it’s not that their kids refuse to go to school. It’s that their teachers don’t want to teach.
Take, for instance, the Dallas Independent School District. Despite plummeting hospitalization rates, the summer-school option offered by the Dallas ISD will still be primarily virtual. For those who do come to class, state guidelines require temperature checks, extensive hand- washing, six feet of social distancing, dividers between desks, and groups no larger than 11. Yet the teachers’ union at Dallas ISD still warned the public that teachers may quit or resign over summer school.
Rena Honea, president of Alliance-American Federation of Teachers, argued that if students are allowed to not-attend school because they feel unsafe, teachers should be able to do the same.
This is not an isolated problem. The Washington Post recently recognized that summer-school teachers were in short supply. Nevertheless, teachers’ unions maintain that policy decisions on future schooling decisions “must prioritize public health concerns, first and foremost.”
This won’t cut it for the many parents who, for good reason, want their children in a classroom this summer. And for good reason. America is experiencing a real educational crisis. We have already under-prioritized the mental, emotional, and academic health of our children. Many of them are falling behind academically and emotionally. State and local officials should do everything in their power to ensure that kids are taught hard and soft skills this summer, prioritizing the well-being of the future of the nation.
This year, America’s report card came back with lots of failing grades. We should not let this summer go to waste as well.
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