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Why Oregon schools' pandemic recovery lags behind much of the nation

Oregon schools are struggling to recover academic learning losses, according to a recent study from researchers at Harvard and Stanford.
Brian A Jackson
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Oregon schools are struggling to recover academic learning losses, according to a recent study from researchers at Harvard and Stanford.

Sitting in his living room with his mom, fourth grader Judah Moisan holds up a post-it note where he's written the words "Priority," and "Frenzy."

They're song titles, he explains, for his first album with his future punk rock band, which will be called Siblings of War. Judah plays bass. Their band will be kind of like Green Day, he says, except made up of ten-year-olds instead of "old guys." Obviously.

Just writing down these song names is a small act of progress for this future rock star. Judah has been struggling with writing in the last few years. He is one of many of Oregon's students who are still grappling with pandemic related setbacks.

Oregon schools are struggling more than others across the country to close this gap, according to a recent study from researchers at Harvard and Stanford evaluating state efforts to recover academic learning losses. The federal government invested billions of dollars in aid to states towards this effort.

Surveyed schools in Oregon remain nearly two-thirds of a year behind pre-pandemic levels in reading and three-fourths of a year behind in math, according to the study. Learning loss in Oregon is roughly two to three times worse than national averages.

Judah is a kid who likes to go deep into his interests. His mom, Jane Moisan, recalls her son reading her the liner notes from Beatles' albums when he was four years old. His favorite book? Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. His favorite story? "The Tell-Tale heart."

Because of his natural curiosity and aptitude, Jane wasn't overly concerned about his scholastic development during the pandemic. The Moisans abandoned the online learning platform the school provided in favor of their own curriculum.

But Jane says she didn't realize that, even though Judah was pursuing his own academic interests, he wasn't writing enough. At one point, she recalls, she noticed he had 157 missing assignments. His handwriting and thought process around getting his ideas down on paper were suffering. When he got back to school, self consciousness around the issue led to behavior problems.

"The worksheets were going back to his teacher with these kind of flippant answers," she says, "because Judah wasn't feeling, maybe, confident in writing out his thinking. So he was sort of like having this attitude of, 'This is dumb anyway.'"

"It was kind of sad," says Judah, "I couldn't express my ideas."

The Moisans hired a tutor for their son this year, and he's made significant progress.

"High-dosage tutoring" is one intervention that experts say is highly effective in closing learning gaps, and many states across the country invested in providing it to all kids who needed it.

It's impossible to know exactly why Oregon's students struggled more than many others, but experts say one likely reason is a lack of statewide consistency in tutoring interventions.

"Oregon has a long history of not wanting to tell school districts what to do," says Sarah Pope, executive director of the Oregon-based education policy organization, Stand for Children. "I think that really hurt us in the COVID response."

Pope points out that many states with high performance on the recovery efforts – like Tennessee and Ohio – had strong directives from state leadership in implementing interventions including statewide tutoring, summer learning opportunities and teacher training.

By contrast, Oregon's 197 school districts spent their money on a range of needs including infrastructure, staffing and health and safety measures. Thomas Kane, a Harvard researcher who worked on the multi-state study, said some Oregon districts did invest in strategies like tutoring and summer learning, but the efforts were less widespread.

"Just imagine if during the pandemic the federal government had just distributed dollars to local public health departments and said to them, 'Okay, you guys figure out your own solution to the pandemic,'" he says. "Some communities implemented more effective strategies than others."

Amara Lavato, who teaches in the Portland suburb Gresham, says she's seen Oregon's struggle first-hand.

"They don't know how to handle frustration," she says of her students, many of whom are low-income.

Lavato teaches second grade, a cohort that was preschool age during the pandemic. Even in this group, says Lavato, the learning delays are apparent.

"They have a hard time focusing," she says. "One-to-one tutoring could be very effective...but we don't have enough staff to do that."

Teacher training is another effective intervention in catching kids up, and one that some teachers here like Lavato say they could use more of.

In another elementary school outside Portland, second-grade teacher Jackie Ayala points to a board of sticky notes in her classroom. After that day's math lesson, each student had to write one addition problem and put it on the wall.

"This kind of helps me see who gets it," says Ayala.

It's a quick assessment that gives her invaluable information in order to make sure kids don't slip through the cracks.

But Ayala, a veteran teacher of several decades, says she didn't learn this strategy in Oregon. She spent most of her career teaching in Nevada, a state she says that provided much more training. She observes that her colleagues just haven't had the same opportunities.

"I knew this math program because I used it in my last district," says Ayala. "I was told that because it was a pandemic that there wasn't that training."

State leaders point to the many needs and priorities that districts were juggling during the pandemic to explain the state's varied response.

"It was a tough time for folks," says Dr. Charlene Williams, director of the Oregon Department of Education.

During the pandemic educators everywhere struggled to figure out how to prioritize spending, she points out, balancing priorities including health, safety, students' emotional and social wellbeing, and staffing.

"They had to make some hard decisions," says Williams.

Williams says like the rest of the country, the state has learned from this stress test and points to a new summer learning program and early literacy initiative as efforts to reach kids on a statewide level.

"While we know the data does not tell a good story," says Williams. "We also know what it takes in order to start getting students what they need."

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Katia Riddle