By Dan Goldhaber, Thomas J. Kane, Andrew McEachin and Emily Morton

American students have experienced a historic decline in academic achievement. The only possible response — the only rational response — is a historic collective investment in children and young adults.

The results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveal plummeting test scores nationwide, setting students back to where they were two decades ago. At the same time, we witnessed a sharp increase in educational inequity, with much larger losses in high poverty districts. Yet there’s a troubling disconnect between the scale of catch-up efforts in the last school year and the magnitude of the declines.

These losses won’t be fixed by few hours of tutoring or a helpful computer program. Schools and families need to take a hard look at where every student stands. And their communities need to step up to help in any way they can.

The best metaphor for this moment comes not from the history of education, but from the space program.

When President John F. Kennedy issued his moon challenge, NASA’s rocket designers calculated the thrust they would need to send a spacecraft to the moon and soon realized that they would need something far larger than anything they’d built before. The result was the Saturn V rocket.

Today, school district leaders are responsible for reversing learning loss of a magnitude none of them have ever experienced. And they have been given little guidance about what an adequate response might look like. No wonder many system leaders have been launching the equivalents of bottle rockets: an increase in summer school enrollment or tutors for a few more students.

Communities will need to think bigger and bolder to plan a package of interventions sized to the challenge.

To a certain extent, it’s hard to blame them for not aiming higher in the last school year. Continued covid-19 surges and significant challenges with staffing, scheduling and competing priorities in schools made it hard enough to implement the plans that do exist. But, even if the interventions had gone as planned, they wouldn’t have been enough to catch students up in many districts.

The first step is to more clearly define the task in front of educators and families.

States need to help everyone see the loss in terms of what it’s going to take to get students back on track. Telling educators that proficiency rates have declined isn’t enough. Explaining that students lost several months or a year of math instruction provides a more solid basis for planning an ambitious recovery agenda.

Second, states and districts should be transparent about what different solutions can accomplish.

Research suggests that districts might be able to get a year’s worth of additional growth by providing students with three hours of tutoring, with three or fewer students per teacher — each week. A summer school session provides an academic quarter’s-worth of learning. An additional period of algebra instruction can teach students the material they would learn in one semester.

Once districts and parents know how much learning their students have lost, and what it will cost to make it up, they can launch efforts that are adequate to the challenge. Thanks to the president and Congress, schools have an unprecedented infusion of federal funds to work with. They will also need staff, time and space. For that, they will need community buy-in.

Take staffing: Given shortages in the teaching profession, schools might not be able to do their recruiting alone, or do it through existing channels. Expanding partnerships between schools and teacher education programs is a promising strategy several states and districts are using to recruit intervention providers. But in areas where student need is the greatest, states could mobilize (and pay) local undergraduate students, parents and other community members to provide tutoring.

Schools and education leaders should also be frank about what this effort requires from families. Expanding learning opportunities, such as after-school programs or Saturday academies, will require students and families to sacrifice time they might ordinarily spend on extracurriculars, family responsibilities, or even vacations. Year-round school will require broader adjustments to family routines — though it might be a benefit for parents scrambling for summer child care.

To get consensus from families that these changes are worthwhile, districts and states must be crystal clear about where individual children stand.

A June survey found that more than 90 percent of parents believed their children to be at or above grade level. In another survey, nearly 50 percent of parents of teens were worried that their own child had fallen behind because of the pandemic. These figures simply do not line up with what we know about where students are academically today. Being transparent about students’ academic standing with families might be painful, but it’s vital.

Districts cannot do this alone, nor should they. Our children deserve more than getting back to where they were two years ago. They deserve a Saturn V to shoot for the moon — and beyond.

Read the full article here.