Bridgeport resident Tressa Pankovits is associate director of Reinventing America’s Schools project at Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. She writes in this commentary that also appears in the Connecticut Post “In this very abnormal year, with its huge gap in continuous learning, BPS has a heightened responsibility to marshal every available resource to reach its already-behind students and ensure they do everything humanly possible to give them the attention and instruction to which they are entitled.”
Bridgeport Public School students were in trouble before the pandemic shuttered schools in March. Each year, BPS students take the “Smarter Balance” state tests. On the 2019 test, not a single BPS school recorded 50 percent of its students meeting or exceeding expectations for their grade level in reading, with the exception of two select enrollment magnet schools.
At seven BPS schools, fewer than 20 percent of students scored at grade level in reading, with just 10 percent of students proficient at Cesar Batalla School, and just 9.5 percent meeting or exceeding expectations at Luis Munoz Marin Elementary. Scores in math were no better–in many cases, they were worse.
What does this look like when we turn the statistics into living, breathing children? Well, from those seven BPS schools with fewer than 20 percent of students scoring at grade level, the state counted a total of 3,466 student test scores. Of those 3,466 kids, only 444 of them had learned what they should have by that point in their schooling. The vast majority, 3,022 kids, are behind, and had not learned what they need to succeed at more challenging coursework in the next grade.
This spring, the pandemic closed BPS before students could take the state test, to see if they had done any catching up since the previous year. Since 1906, researchers have been studying the “summer slide,” or, the amount of learning students lose over summer when schools are closed. One of the biggest studies in recent times showed that students can forget as much as 25 to 30 percent of what they learned the previous year over the roughly 10 weeks of summer vacation. This year, if schools really do open as scheduled, BPS students will have been out of the classroom for 24 weeks–a solid six months.
In a normal year, there would be no reason to expect the massive numbers of BPS students who are behind would do better in the following grade without some kind of intervention, like tutoring, remedial work in summer school, and so on. In this very abnormal year, with its huge gap in continuous learning, BPS has a heightened responsibility to marshal every available resource to reach its already-behind students and ensure they do everything humanly possible to give them the attention and instruction to which they are entitled.
While BPS has announced a “Fall Re-Opening Task Force,” there is little evidence of a heightened sense of urgency around academic remediation. Parents are obviously frustrated, but where is the community outrage over BPS’ “business as usual” approach? Even a few small extra measures, like advertising a district-wide summer book reading contest, or district participation in the free science “World Challenge Club” summer camps sweeping the globe, with a few prizes on offer, could’ve kept kids engaged and thinking during this unprecedented loss of instructional time.
During a recent “Facebook live” session with parents and stakeholders, new Superintendent Michael Testani was asked by me and others what special training teachers are receiving over the summer to be better equipped to teach students remotely, even part time. Emergency online teaching is one thing–to do it effectively over an extended period of time requires careful instructional planning, using a systematic model for design and development. And there are a myriad of professional development programs available.
Testani didn’t answer the question about professional development, likely because he was earnestly focused on discussing re-opening schools in person, even though most parents on the Facebook chat sounded doubtful. Their doubt seemed to increase when he announced the district would not be doing temperature checks, “because kids might be warm from walking to school and have an elevated temperature.” This seems to go against CDC guidelines, which recommend temperature checks if feasible, and the American Pediatric Association, which acknowledges that temperature checks and symptom screening are a frequent part of many reopening processes. It’s hard to see how declining to take temperatures will make contact tracing any easier if a COVID case pops up, forcing students back into distance learning mode.
But, just as BPS seems to exhibit little urgency to modernize its instructional delivery capabilities, for the sake of children who depend on BPS for the education that will shape their entire lives for good or ill, there seems a lack of what should be almost wartime energy around pulling out the stops for physical safety.
Thus, it will not be shocking if the teachers union, like those in Los Angeles, Chicago and other places, balks at returning to the classroom. Parents may beat them to the punch, from the sounds of the concerns on Facebook.