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Why Oregon schools rank among lowest in education gains following COVID disruptions

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The pandemic may seem like it's in the rearview mirror, but students and teachers continue to feel its impact. The federal government has invested billions of dollars in recent years to address learning loss. And a recent study from Harvard and Stanford shows that while students have made gains, those gains have been uneven. Katia Riddle reports from Oregon, where many school districts ranked among the lowest on this measure.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: Meet future rock star Judah Moisan. He plays bass.

JUDAH MOISAN: So it's called Siblings of War. It's a punk rock band that I made up with some kids at school.

RIDDLE: They want to be kind of like Green Day, he says, except their band will be made up of 10-year-olds instead of old guys. He's written out the names of their future songs on a Post-It note.

JUDAH: The first song on it is going to be named "Priority," and the second one is "Feeding Frenzy."

RIDDLE: Making up these song names seems like a small thing, but just the act of writing them down shows progress for Judah. His mom, Jane Moisan, says during the pandemic, they abandoned the online learning platform the school gave them.

JANE MOISAN: We had, you know, the little red dot that said 157 at one point (laughter).

RIDDLE: Missing assignments?

MOISAN: Yes, yes.

RIDDLE: Judah was still reading and doing math at home. His mom wasn't too worried. But she didn't realize he wasn't writing enough. When he got back to school, he really struggled.

MOISAN: The worksheets were going back to his teacher with these kind of flippant answers, 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, right, Judah?

JUDAH: And it was kind of sad. Like, I couldn't express my ideas like Mom was saying.

RIDDLE: Judah started to get defiant in school. He was self-conscious around his peers. Then this year, his parents hired a tutor. He's made a lot of progress. High-dosage tutoring - it's one thing experts say works to catch kids up. But what about kids here who don't have parents who can pay for it?

AMARA LAVATO: Something that I notice is that they have a very hard time focusing.

RIDDLE: Amara Lavato teaches in a Portland suburb called Gresham. Other states invested in programs to provide widespread tutoring for kids who need it. That happened in some places in Oregon, but not all. Many of her students are low income.

LAVATO: They don't know how to handle frustration.

RIDDLE: Lovato teaches second grade. The kids she has this year were preschool age in the pandemic. She says even with kids this young, she can still see significant delays in their social and emotional development. That leads to academic delays.

LAVATO: One-to-one tutoring - it could be very effective. But we don't have enough staff to do that.

RIDDLE: Unlike some other states, Oregon gave individual school districts a lot of latitude to decide how to spend federal recovery money. Thomas Kane is a researcher at Harvard. He worked on the study, evaluating different states' efforts.

THOMAS KANE: It's almost as if - like, just imagine if during the pandemic, the federal government had just distributed dollars to local public health departments and said to them, OK, you guys figure out your own solution to the pandemic.

RIDDLE: Schools had to juggle a lot during the pandemic - figuring out remote learning, monitoring students' emotional well-being, thinking about their safety. Kane says Oregon didn't give its schools firm directives on how much they should set aside to address learning loss, or the best practices for doing so.

KANE: Like, there would have been some communities, you know, implemented more effective strategies than others.

RIDDLE: Teacher training is another thing that experts say helped to catch kids up in other states. That was also less consistent here. Jackie Ayalya is a second grade teacher. She points to a board of sticky notes in her classroom. After that day's math lesson, each student had to rate one addition problem and put it on the wall.

JACKIE AYALYA: This kind of helps me to see who gets it.

RIDDLE: It's a quick assessment, but it gives her invaluable information that helps her make sure kids don't slip through the cracks. She didn't learn this strategy in Oregon, though. She learned it when she was working in another state. She says her colleagues here just haven't had the same opportunities.

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

CHARLENE WILLIAMS: It was a tough time for folks.

RIDDLE: Dr. Charlene Williams is the director of the Oregon Department of Education. She says educators everywhere struggled to figure out how to prioritize spending with lots of needs during the pandemic.

WILLIAMS: They had to make some hard decisions.

RIDDLE: There was a lot of guesswork. But she says, like the rest of the country, the state has learned from this stress test.

WILLIAMS: While we know that our data does not tell a good story, we also know what it takes in order to start getting students what they need.

RIDDLE: Oregon has started a new statewide summer learning program as well as an early literacy initiative. Williams says it's an effort by the state to reach not just some students - all students.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Katia Riddle