Tag Archives: missing students

We are still failing to support our most vulnerable students

In October 2020, Bellwether Education Partners’ estimate that as many as 3 million students were missing in the margins and were receiving no formal education at all became a national shorthand about the severity of the pandemic for America’s young people. More than one year later, and with the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic wreaking havoc, we still don’t know how many of our most vulnerable students are missing from K-12 schools

Our recent analysis estimates that there are 1.3 million fewer students nationwide enrolled in public pre-K through 12 schools between 2018-19 and 2020-21. This decline doesn’t include kids enrolled but not attending regularly or engaged in learning, which data from school districts suggest is a significant issue.  

As we pass the two-year mark in this pandemic, a lack of accurate, shareable, and even knowable data on where young people are highlights an even more fundamental issue: The design of systems meant to support young people is failing them.

For example, we know that one in 500 U.S. children lost a caregiver due to COVID-19. This kind of deep loss will change a young person’s life trajectory. Our communities aren’t ready to support them or their peers who have experienced other significant losses and disruptions.

In most places, schools, foster care agencies, juvenile justice systems, and other organizations were never designed to look across the totality of a young person’s life to understand and meet their needs — and that problem is more visible now than ever. Snap impressions, red tape, and confusion abound. 

Young people experiencing disruptions (such as homelessness, being placed in foster care, involvement with the juvenile justice system, an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, or the loss of a caregiver) must navigate a byzantine network of ever-changing adults to get the services they need. They are left to keep track of their own paperwork, follow up with adults, and retell their most painful stories. Missteps navigating these systems can lead to suspension or expulsion from school, incarceration, job loss, or all of the above. 

While adults working in these systems often fail to communicate or collaborate, they are also frustrated by not having enough information or resources. Staff turnover is high and caseloads are unmanageable. Resources are scarce. Patchworked attempts at improvement within one agency or one organization yield marginal results for young people.

Ultimately, poorly designed or implemented systems leave lasting effects on young people, including challenges to finishing high school or college, shortchanging their ability to live a healthy, happy, and gratifying life — all at great cost to communities. 

These are big, but solvable problems. And they start with better practices, policies, and resource allocations.

In practice, communities can start by listening to young people to better understand their unmet needs in order to remove the barriers to delivering programs and services. At best, decision-makers merely go through the motions of asking young people about their experiences and perspectives. Yet the young people who are still struggling to thrive are the only experts in how the pandemic has affected them holistically: their schooling, mental health, economic futures, housing status, and more. 

In-person schooling this year is a big step in the right direction when COVID-19 safety protocols are followed and new variants don’t pose an additional public health risk. But students need more than the standard learning time. 

Prioritizing more time for all kinds of learning for marginalized student populations, such as support outside of the traditional school day and school year, is a start. More evening and weekend instructional time with a teacher or well-trained tutor would allow students to get needed time to build knowledge and skills. In addition to one-on-one time, small, cohort-based acceleration academies could allow students to focus on targeted skill gaps during holidays, summer breaks, and weekends. 

A school, however, is only part of the solution to missed learning time. Schools can build structured partnerships with communities and families, collaboratively setting goals for students, bringing a sense of urgency and ownership for every adult in a child’s life. In these spaces, schools can also become supporting partners for the delivery of other services, helping to knit together the threads of care surrounding their most vulnerable students. 

Policy should follow practice and remove barriers to learning. In addition, a focus on data transparency could better enable schools and stakeholders to understand where students missing in the margins are in real time: across enrollment in school at all, daily attendance, and engagement in learning. Our data systems were not working well before the pandemic and they clearly no longer serve our needs; students were always lost in the system, but now the problem is too big to ignore. 

These kinds of systemic practice and policy changes require better long-term resource allocations. Federal stimulus funding is a huge, but temporary, start. A more sustainable funding model can be designed on a collaborative foundation of partnerships with community-based organizations, expanding the current capacity for support. For example, a homeless-services organization might be well positioned to identify families (or unaccompanied youth) who need education support but don’t know how to get connected with the programs that meet their needs.

As we come to the close of yet another school year amid the pandemic, even more young people are in crisis and support from adults is even more strained. But communities can use this moment to build a coherent system with processes and policies designed around what young people actually need. The question is, how will we prioritize doing that hard work?

Deep into the new school year, we’re still missing a lot of students

An empty elementary school classroom

Source: Wikimedia

Educators, parents, and policymakers have been concerned about the effects of the pandemic on student learning ever since it forced the abrupt end of in-person instruction in March. In October, my colleagues and I estimated that 3 million students were at high risk of having had little to no education since then. NWEA, the organization that runs the popular MAP Growth exam, estimated in April 2020 that learning loss due to spring school closures and the “summer slide” would set students back, on average, by 30% of a year in reading and more than half a year in math.

The new school year has brought about new data on student performance, and the early returns seem less dire than those original projections — with a major caveat. In a new brief with fall data, NWEA found that students in their test sample started the 2020-21 school year in roughly the same place in reading compared with similar students at the start of 2019-20, and about 5-10 percentile points lower in math. This was a huge sample of 4.4 million students spanning grades 3 through 8, so relatively minor slowdowns in math progress seems worth celebrating.

But these findings are not all good news. The authors note that many of the observable declines were concentrated disproportionately among Black and Hispanic student populations. Biggest of all, fully 25% of students who took the MAP last year didn’t take it this year. In a “normal” year, that rate of dropoff is more like 15%, which suggests that there are many students missing from this year’s data. These could be new homeschoolers or private school enrollees, or they could be disconnected from the school system altogether.

This aligns with other early state-level estimates of enrollment declines. Connecticut’s fall 2020 enrollment is down roughly 3%; so is that of Washington and Missouri. Georgia’s state enrollment numbers are down 2.2%. Most of those declines are concentrated in kindergarten and pre-K, often in double digits. Each of these newly available data points seem to provide evidence of a big picture that is potentially devastating: as many as three million students missing from school.

It’s important to consider here that these missing students — missing from school, and missing from the NWEA MAP data — include those most likely to be deeply affected by the pandemic. In an addendum to the NWEA brief, authors Angela Johnson and Megan Kuhfeld warn that these new learning loss estimates must be considered with this in mind: that the students being tested now are on average less racially diverse (and whiter) and attending socioeconomically more advantaged schools. This is emblematic of what we have seen playing out across the country all year. Generally speaking, more well-off students and their families have the resources to withstand the pressure of the pandemic to an extent that their lower-income peers do not, resulting in two increasingly divergent education systems: one where frequent testing, hybrid learning, and private tutoring are available — and one where they are not.

While this challenge is immense and likely to be with us for some time to come, there are action steps policymakers can take immediately that will better position states and districts for the long haul. The new enrollment figures underscore an urgent need for improved attendance and enrollment data and faster reporting that will enable schools to be responsive and flexible in tracking down “missing” students. There is also a need for attendance intervention strategies that start with an informed understanding of students’ unmet needs, and for collaboration with social service organizations and other community-based organizations that can work to meet those needs. And states can start by providing the funding that can make these interventions possible.

For more on the 3 million students missing in the margins, you can read Bellwether’s report here.