Fuller: L.A. offers lessons for helping kids recover from COVID learning loss

Students walk to their classrooms at a public middle school in Los Angeles (Getty Images)

Teachers and principals across the nation are breathing a bit easier as a second grueling year winds down. Yet, the carefree summer days on the horizon may simply postpone the reckoning that educators will face next fall: How to ensure COVID-era students bounce back next year, recovering lost learning and narrowing gaping disparities in achievement.

Many school leaders say they will use the break to search for ways to renew and better team teachers, even to rethink schooling. “Some teachers are going to relax,” said Parwinder Johal, a California principal I spoke with for a study of classroom innovations post-pandemic. “But I have five teachers who became learners during the pandemic,” who are “pushing hard to do more in the arts, build a STEM lab and culturally sensitive pedagogy.”

As inventive principals and teachers reject antiquated practices and marshal the will to innovate, where can they find potent initiatives that better motivate kids and teachers alike? Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest district, offers an unlikely place to start.

In the 1990s, pupils in the Los Angeles Unified School District had fallen below peers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in every other American city except Washington, DC Politically divisive efforts to desegregate schools, then deadly rioting, had spurred middle-class flight from the district. Charter schools begin to sprout, attracting one-fifth of LA Unified’s students.

Then, to the surprise of many, achievement began to rise in 2002 — a winning streak that ran for nearly two decades. Fourth graders climbed more than a grade level in reading and eighth graders skyrocketed two full grades in math, never pausing until the COVID-19 shutdown. Learning curves grew steeper across LA’s diverse mosaic of children for nearly a generation.

The upward tilt at first resulted from Superintendent Roy Romer’s effort to keenly focus elementary teachers on core reading skills. The regimentation pressed by Romer, a former Colorado governor-turned-school leader, proved controversial in labor circles. I have nudged teachers to drill children on easily tested bits of knowledge; monitors visiting classrooms did not always nurture effective pedagogy. Yet, fourth-grade reading and math scores began to rise, soon followed by climbing NAEP proficiency in grade 8.

Many California educators similarly returned to essential learning standards during the pandemic, rallying around shared curricular goals, no longer seen as intrusive trespass by the central office. Might this sharper focus on what is taught, which proved so effective 20 years ago, now help to retrieve lost learning and shrink achievement gaps?

A young generation of civic activists surfaced in Black and brown communities, often allying with inventive teachers and principals, tending to a blossoming garden of creative reforms. This included effective advocates like Karen Bass, founder of the Community Coalition, who labored to shift the mindset of teachers, many of whom had long assumed that only particular pupils held the ability to enter college.

Forming a long-lasting coalition, Bass joined with parents and educators to expand college prep courses in the most challenged high schools, then won training for additional teachers to head Advanced Placement courses. Nearly one-third of LA’s high schoolers enrolled in these rigorous courses on the eve of COVID-19, one-half of pupils attending charter schools.

Graduation rates climbed from 62 percent in 2010 to over 80 percent a decade later. (Bass would go to Congress, be considered by Joe Biden for the vice presidency, and is favored to become the city’s next elderly).

Children’s advocates joined with early educators to make schools more family friendly. Scores of early learning centers have been constructed in LA since the 1990s, ensuring a pre-K spot for most young children. Parent literacy centers and health clinics went up at many schools, warmly serving kids and parents. The educational attainment of young Latinas in particular has lengthened by two years since the 1980s, averaging high school plus two years of college.

A handful of teachers or principals alone cannot deliver such deep and lasting gains in the relationships found inside schools or inventive pedagogical practices. But LA demonstrates that long strides can be made when educators organize in concert with parent groups and civic activists.

Progressive teachers have allied with administrators to create magnet programs and pilot schools, the latter borrowing from Boston’s autonomous school governance model in which educators share a commitment to preparing students in theater arts, computer science or health occupations, to name a few. LA’s pilot high schools have lowered dropout rates, due in part to tighter relationships with teachers, as reported by pupils, relative to peers attending traditional high schools.

The reforms achieved in LA over the past generation outshine the comparatively timid aspirations and quick fixes now deployed in many districts in hopes of stemming the pandemic-era drift in student learning. These short-term Band-Aids, like online tutoring or longer summer school, appear to be effective in some places. But will they fade as federal stimulus dollars run out, or fail to leave behind reforms that lift students over time?

Why not, in addition, replicate and extend initiatives that enrich pedagogy and social relations, along with embracing novel forms of schooling that have elevated students in Los Angeles? The inventive educators who have joined with parents and civic activists in LA are not satisfied with tinkering. Instead, they pursue deeper and lasting organizational change, both inside classrooms and across the diverse array of schools they have built together.

These recent lessons can help inspire educators to pursue recovery and renewal with reforms that work. “For sure, we must maintain our momentum to innovate going forward,” said Cheryl Jordan, another California school leader. “We must snip that rubber band so we don’t bounce back to the old normal.”

Bruce Fuller is a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of “When Schools Work” and “Organizing Locally.”

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