There’s plenty of work to do to improve Illinois schools

Most of us, even if we’re not directly involved with education, already know the COVID-19 pandemic sent a massive shock wave throughout the nation’s public schools system.

Just ask any parent, teacher, student, principal, college administrator, cafeteria worker or anyone else involved with K-12 or higher education. As one Chicago principal wrote in an op-ed back in January, as schools reopened during an initial surge of the Omicron variant: Our schools are not OK.

Meanwhile, record numbers of teachers nationwide are leaving the profession, which does not bode well for getting schools fully “back to normal.”

In fact, “back to normal” is not good enough. “Normal” before COVID-19 meant stark racial and economic gaps in achievement, college attendance, access to technology and other indicators of quality education — all of which worsened during the pandemic.

Illinois must do better, and a new report lays bare how far our state has to go. With a new school year fast approaching, it’s another reminder for all of us — but especially policy makers, legislators and public officials — of what’s at stake, because good public schools are essential for Illinois’ future.

High-quality education is the foundation for everything else our state needs to thrive: neighborhoods and cities that are attractive to families, businesses with well-paying jobs that require an educated workforce and citizens who can participate effectively in civic life.

None of the sobering data in “The State We’re In 2022: A Look at the Impact of COVID-19 on Education in Illinois,” is surprising, unfortunately. Even so, it’s worth reviewing.

Here are some highlights

A body blow to enrollment

Students at every level have to be in class, whether in person or virtual, to learn. Because of plummeting enrollment during the pandemic, getting every child back in school is the first barrier to overcome, especially among the youngest students.

Enrollment in state-administered early childhood programs (including home visiting and other programs for infants and children under age 3) fell from 3% to 22% in fiscal year 2021, with the sharpest decline among children from low-income families.

Community college enrollment fell 14% overall, with the sharpest drop among Black and Latino students.

Public school enrollment fell, too, especially in rural schools, among white students and in the primary grades — when children begin developing the skills and habits to help them be successful in school. Chronic absenteeism also increased.

One remedy outlined by Carmen Ayala, state superintendent of education, deserves strong support: having regional offices of education do more to help districts with anti-truancy efforts. Ayala, speaking at a City Club of Chicago event last week to unveil the Advance Illinois report’s findings, said the Illinois State Board of Education is also planning a major bilingual (Spanish and English) enrollment campaign targeted at families of preschool and kindergarten-aged children. .

Janice Jackson, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, also made an important point at the City Club: “Don’t discount the role of community organizations in getting kids back in school.” In Chicago, community groups typically focus on education as well as housing, anti-violence and other issues — and they know their neighborhoods and families.

Supporting community-driven back-to-school initiatives is a smart move.

Access to instructions

Although schools reopened to in-person learning in 2020-2021, low-income students and students of color remained more likely to be learning virtually or in a hybrid setting, the report states. Making the problem worse, these children were already more likely to have less access to technology, something CPS struggled with during the worst of the pandemic and afterwards.

Meanwhile, students’ access to high-quality instruction, as measured by the state’s 5Essentials Survey that examines various research-based indicators of school quality, plummeted in 2020-2021.

Student well-being

Schools have a vital and essential role in fostering students’ mental and social well-being, and must be given adequate resources to meet that role.

That job is more important now, given the crisis in mental health among young people.

The good news: Parents and students feel more supported by their schools because of resources added during the pandemic, according to focus groups conducted by Advance Illinois. But the need for such resources — social workers, school nurses, programs on social and emotional learning — is ongoing.

Achievement gaps

As one might expect, test scores fell during the pandemic. As well, the freshman on-track rate, a reliable indicator of whether a student will eventually graduate from high school, declined as well.

Test scores should not be the final determinant of school quality, but scores do provide us with some insight into how much children are — or are not — learning. A decline in scores, and in the on-track rate, should be taken seriously.

There’s more in the full report online. But clearly there’s work to be done.

Illinois can’t afford to ignore it.

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