Graduation rate news may disguise what’s really happened to Oregon students

Educators seeing marked changes in student emotional state, worry about equity as schools endure pandemic impacts

January 24, 2022 6:15 am

We learned last week that Oregon’s high school graduation rate for the class of 2021 was not as bad as many had feared. It declined by just two percentage points, from a high of 83%, after a full year of shuttered classrooms and disrupted learning.

Was this good news or bad for our pandemic-forced experiment with learning at home? Will our kids be alright, after all? Or is this a sign that those who follow the class of 2021 will continue to fall behind?

Educators and education reform advocates have been taking both sides on this question. Some purported to see a silver lining in the forced experiment with virtual learning. Others have been sounding the alarm about serious learning losses and emotional distress.

And, if we listen to school parents, they’re eager for the experiment to end and a return to normal school settings and schedules.

But in my conversations with teachers, school administrators and education advocates, I’ve concluded that it would be a mistake to return to the old ways of delivering K12 education.

Sorry, parents.

Nor can we afford to indulge in happy talk about “an abundance of learning” experienced in home-based settings, as one state education official was touting last summer.

Rather, I’m hoping that what we learn from the last two years is that we need to reorganize how education is delivered to get kids back on track, beginning as soon as this summer.

My own experience with online learning was decidedly mixed – and, I suspect, quite unrepresentative of that of most Oregonians.

I began sitting with my granddaughter one day a week during online school sessions last fall, when we realized she had fallen behind in her first year of virtual learning. That first year was chaotic for her and her mom, but her family decided to stay with the predictable schedule of the online school.

Now, thanks mostly to her grandmother, my granddaughter is getting a full schedule of intergenerational nagging, coaching and encouragement. And she’s making up lost ground. Still, I doubt that interventions of this kind are within the reach of many single-parent households and harried working families.

This is why I scoffed at the assertion from state education officials last year about “so much intergenerational learning happening right now.” Not for most students, I thought.

Many local educators agree. One of them is Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the InterMountain Educational Service District, which coordinates programs for 19 school districts in eastern Oregon. “These past two years have been a catastrophe for kids,” Mulvihill told me.

And it’s not just a matter of “learning loss” or “unfinished learning.”

Mulvihill is looking beyond the standardized data to see progress in academics.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he continued. “We did a number on our kids by isolating them in their most fragile development years. Despite our best intentions, we created a crisis for them.”

Mulvihill worries about the increasing evidence from the reopened classrooms that many kids have regressed in their social skills and are more likely to suffer anxiety and depression. And he worries about equity as well.

“The pandemic has exposed severe equity issues in our system. We’ve widened the opportunity gap without in-person instruction,” he observed.

What some might wishfully call an “abundance of learning” hasn’t been evenly distributed across all households, and it doesn’t help to ignore that reality.

Last year’s graduation numbers may not have been as bad as feared because of the momentum created by recent initiatives to target more funding to high schools and an expansions of summer school programs focused on student wellbeing. It may also be the case that, within this year’s and next year’s numbers, we’ll find troubling disparities between students in schools that reopened earlier and managed to keep their classrooms staffed thereafter and those that continued through intermittent shutdowns.

My sense is that we’d be mistaken to shrug off the experience of the last two years because of one less-bad-than-expected graduation report. Nor can we expect our kids to overcome what they have lost without a recovery plan for their academic achievement, mental health and social skills.

In a future column, I’ll share what I’ve been learning from educators about how we can respond to the new realities of this crisis and avert a continuing catastrophe for a generation of school kids.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.