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Catching up in the Classroom

Man sitting on a blue news set, wearing a blue suit and tie interviewing a woman with short brown hair and a black suit jacket.
Elijah Hedrick
VPM News Focal Point
Multimedia Journalist Billy Shields interviews UVA Education and Public Policy Professor Beth Schueler

UVA Education and Public Policy Assistant Professor Beth Schueler studies education and the inequities impacting K-12 schools and districts. She’s written extensively about methods to address post-pandemic learning loss and argues that one-on-one tutoring has been proven the most effective solution.

Schueler speaks about the students most impacted by learning loss and explains why a one-on-one teaching model may still be available for economically disadvantaged students.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

BILLY SHIELDS: While students are struggling to keep up socially and academically, educators are seeking new ways to support them. University of Virginia Professor of Education and Public Policy, Beth Schueler, is with us now to talk about solutions. VPM is working on a reading campaign with University of Virginia Literacy Partnerships. That collaboration had no bearing on the content of this interview. What kind of learning loss did we see in Virginia as a result of the pandemic?

BETH SCHUELER: So I've had a chance to study this question in collaboration with my colleague, Dr. Luke Miller at UVA, along with partners at the Virginia Department of Education. We really focused on the change from prior to the pandemic to that first post-pandemic onset year 2020, 2021. And what we saw looking at sort of test score outcomes for grades 3 through 8, the tested grades on the kind of SOL exams that parents will be familiar with, was a pretty sharp decline in math achievement in that first post-pandemic year.

The decline was, you know, larger than changes we saw in any of the pre-pandemic years, and was also larger than was observed in a number of other states around the country. So I think Virginia, you know, has a a long way to go in terms of the recovery efforts. In reading, it was a little bit more difficult to get a solid answer. We saw declines there, as well, but the state actually introduced a new exam in the 2020-21 school year. And so, you know, we don't have an exam that was administered both pre and post-pandemic that allows us to really, you know, look at that in a careful way.

BILLY SHIELDS: So who was the most impacted and did COVID exacerbate the achievement gap?

BETH SCHUELER: The pandemic, you know, did not affect all students and communities equally. And I think in terms of educational outcomes, definitely seems to be affecting students in ways that are sort of exacerbating already kind of unacceptably high levels of inequality in terms of educational outcomes. So in our own research, we find that those test score declines were larger for economically disadvantaged students than economically advantaged students. Larger for Black and Hispanic students than students of other races and ethnicities, and also larger for English learners than non-English learners. So definitely concerns about kind of rising inequality in the aftermath of the pandemic.

BILLY SHIELDS: And what are the best solutions for kids that are having a hard time catching up? Why is one-on-one tutoring so effective?

BETH SCHUELER: From a research perspective, it's hard for me to think of another educational intervention that is backed by as large a body of evidence and as kind of high-quality and rigorous a research base as high-dosage tutoring in particular. And that shows kind of consistently large, positive impacts for a wide range of grades and a wide range of subjects. Why is it effective? I think in part, that has to do with the sort of low tutor-to-student ratio allows for educators to really diagnose challenges more effectively and tailor their supports to individual student needs.

And it also, I think, has to do with the potential for relationship building, right? So easier to develop a relationship with a caring adult if it's kind of a one-on-one or a one-on-two scenario. And I think that is particularly important in our kind of post-pandemic moment after kids have been sort of disconnected from school and we know kind of mental health challenges are on the rise, so those relationships could be especially important now.

BILLY SHIELDS: What are vacation academies?

BETH SCHUELER: So, this is another approach to kind of individualizing instruction, but as opposed to tutoring where you've got kind of a one-to-one or one-to-two tutor student ratio, vacation academies are more of a small group program, so one teacher for groups of about 10 students. These are programs for which the district or the state or school recruits teachers they consider to be talented and has them work with small groups of struggling students in a single subject, like reading or math, over a week long vacation break. And we've studied these programs in a couple of contexts in Massachusetts, in districts that have been labeled as low performing and shown that these programs have really notable positive impacts on kids' academic achievement, and then in some cases, also non-test outcomes. So decreasing things like exposure to exclusionary discipline, suspensions, and the like.

BILLY SHIELDS: What do you tell parents who say they're not able to shoulder these extra educational costs themselves?

BETH SCHUELER: Yeah, so I think it's really important that some of these support services and programs be subsidized, be provided, you know, publicly through public or private funding so that it's not the case that parents are having to shoulder the cost and they're only available to students who can afford them. To parents, I would say, there may be opportunities, I would ask your teacher and administrator. I know the state of Virginia is also providing some grants directly to families who qualify based on income for these kinds of services. So that may be worth looking into, as well. However, the sort of federal pandemic relief funding is kind of coming to a close and is kind of running out at the moment, and so I think this is going to be a big challenge going forward to try to fund some of these programs.

BILLY SHIELDS: Professor Beth Schueler, thank you very much for your time.

BETH SCHUELER: Thanks for having me.


Billy Shields is a multimedia journalist with VPM News Focal Point.
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