Half the federal money is gone, yet academic losses persist in Georgia

Fewer students in Georgia can subtract integers these days, let alone perform division, and many cannot read as well as kids their age could before the pandemic.

There is money to remediate such COVID-19 learning loss, but the financial math suggests it may not be enough, according to new research from Harvard and Stanford universities.

To estimate the cost, researchers there stitched together the results from last spring’s Georgia Milestones and from the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores. They dispensed with scores and proficiency rates, preferring a more familiar scale to describe the amount of learning loss: time.

Their Education Recovery Scorecard says that during the pandemic, Georgia students lost over four months of learning in math and nearly two in reading. The average for the two subjects amounts to a third of a school year — time that teachers, tutors and other trained experts will have to spend with students if they’re to be caught up.

Thomas Kane, a Harvard economist and education professor behind the new report, likened the effort to President John F. Kennedy’s moonshot in the 1960s. NASA engineers realized they’d need a more powerful rocket than what they’d been using to hurl astronauts around Earth’s orbit.

“They realized they needed a whole new rocket design, hence the Saturn 5 rocket,” he told reporters in October, when unveiling the scorecard that he and Stanford education professor Sean Reardon created. “What many districts are doing now,” Kane continued, “is effectively shooting bottle rockets at the moon ... .”

In a subsequent interview, Kane told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that since Georgia lost a third of a year, by their analysis, it should cost a third of a year’s pre-pandemic instructional expenses to catch up. Georgia reported spending $12 billion on instruction during the 2018-19 school year. So by their formula, catching up should cost about $4 billion.

In theory, Georgia’s schools should be able to afford it. The federal government them about $6 billion, in three waves of emergency funding tied to the pandemic. However, much of the money, half of which has been spent, was used for masks, cleaning supplies and other safety precautions, as well as technology, mental health support and operations.

All of these are important for education, but not the same thing as remediation. Experts say small-group tutoring, a costly endeavor, may be the best way to fill learning gaps.

Congress only mandated remediation with the last wave of money. The American Rescue Plan gave Georgia schools about $4 billion, requiring that only a fifth go toward learning loss.

The state’s 180 school districts get to decide how to spend it. Some allocated well above the minimum. Fulton County, for instance, put two-thirds of its $169 million into remediation, and is one of the few metro Atlanta districts that have committed enough, according to the Kane-Reardon formula. Some went with the minimum.

Many of the districts contacted by the AJC didn’t know what to make of their research.

Marietta Superintendent Grant Rivera called it a “fascinating analysis,” then explained how he used some of the federal money to bolster his teaching staff: He hired 45 teachers who can fill in when a classroom teacher is absent or help in classrooms when no substitute is required. The district put nearly twice the federal minimum into remediation, but that is about a quarter of what the professors’ formula says it will cost to catch up every student.

Trisha Tanner, a fifth grade teacher at Marietta’s Hickory Hills Elementary School, said her sidekick Shirley Westbrook has made a huge difference. During the half days when Westbrook is there, the students who need it can get more attention.

“There’s only so much of one teacher that can go around,” Tanner said. “We are a class size of 20. With two of us in here, we can get stuff done.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Georgia State University economics professor Tim Sass has been researching the pandemic’s impact on metro Atlanta schools. He and a colleague, Salma Ali, released a sobering study in November using internal test scores in Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties. It found that the return to near-universal in-person learning last school year “did not yield substantial improvements in average math or reading achievement growth.”

Sass, who is familiar with the new work by Kane and Reardon, said in an email to the AJC that their findings are “roughly consistent” with his own.

“One can quibble over the exact dollar amount, but the general conclusions they draw are on target in my view,” Sass wrote. “Many students have fallen way behind ... .”

Getting them back on track, he added, is going to be expensive.

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