The release of "the nation’s report card" last month, which revealed historically low math and reading scores at the national level, caused a significant impact on the education community. While these results were not entirely unexpected, many experts viewed the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) findings as a "catastrophic" indication of learning loss and a sobering reminder of the challenges we face in recovering from the pandemic. However, some teachers dismissed the declines, arguing that this year’s scores cannot be compared to previous releases and expressing confidence in students’ ability to bounce back. The three teachers who serve on the National Assessment Governing Board, which manages and establishes policies for NAEP, offer a unique perspective on the situation. They are both actively engaged in the classroom and actively participate in boardroom discussions, enabling them to observe student learning from both micro and macro levels.
These educators include Patrick Kelly, a government teacher for 12th-grade students in Columbia, S.C.; Michael A. Pope, an eighth-grade science teacher at a Department of Defense school in Japan; and Nardi Routten, a fourth-grade teacher in New Bern, N.C. During a board meeting this month, they met with Education Week to share their insights on the NAEP score release and provide recommendations for how policymakers can support teachers in their efforts to promote student progress. It is worth noting that Patrick Kelly also serves as the director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, the primary teacher group in South Carolina. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The NAEP results sparked considerable discussion and debate. What are your thoughts on them?
Kelly: In my view, the results are undoubtedly alarming. As an educator, it is challenging to find any encouraging takeaways from such significant declines. However, I believe it is essential to recognize the significance of this release as it has the potential to shake us out of our complacency in two key areas when it comes to analyzing student achievement data in the United States.
Firstly, there seems to be an urgency to return to normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic. This sentiment was frequently expressed in South Carolina by families, students, and educators. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that the pre-pandemic normalcy was failing too many students. While we did experience a record decline in 2022, I was already dissatisfied with the state of our educational system in 2020.
The surveys conducted among teachers have revealed that the majority lack confidence in their ability to assist students in recovering academically. What do you make of this finding?
I have observed this situation at my own school as well, as there are noticeable gaps in our students’ knowledge. I teach 4th grade, and it is evident that many of the students in this grade level struggle with basic phonemic-awareness skills, which involve the recognition and differentiation of sounds in the English language. When you consider that the COVID-19 pandemic occurred during their 2nd grade year, it becomes clear how significant this gap in phonemic awareness is. Many of my colleagues express their uncertainty in addressing this issue because they are 4th grade teachers. However, the state of North Carolina has implemented LETRS, a training program based on research about how students learn to read. Personally, I feel confident in my ability to support students in this area as I have been participating in LETRS for two years now. Unfortunately, not all educators have access to such resources. Furthermore, even when it comes to math, I encounter 4th graders who struggle with basic addition problems like "What’s 3 plus 2?" This begs the question of how to address these challenges effectively.
In my perspective, this data does not necessarily suggest that teachers doubt their pedagogical competence. Rather, it signifies that teachers are uncertain about their ability to successfully help students catch up academically amidst the backdrop of a generational pandemic and the additional burdens placed upon them. If all I had to focus on was the academic success of my students, I would be able to handle it. However, recent federal surveys conducted in January indicate that 57 percent of schools reported increased need for teachers to fulfill duties outside of their original roles, 26 percent of teachers faced larger class sizes, and 62 percent of schools increased their reliance on non-teaching staff for additional responsibilities. It is understandable, therefore, that teachers doubt their capacity to assist students in overcoming the most significant public-health crisis the country has faced in the last 100 years. They are no longer solely educators but are also facing challenges in adequately staffing and resourcing schools across the nation.
To me, this data reflects the overwhelming feeling that educators in America have been grappling with for the past three years. Teachers have been experiencing burnout and this predates the onset of the pandemic. COVID-19 may have exacerbated the situation, but the signs were already there. I’m uncertain about how to address this issue. I frequently hear colleagues express their struggles. At the beginning of the school year, one of them even stated, "My goal this year is not to quit." That is truly disheartening. How do we find a solution? It is a question with no easy answer.
Our country needs a significant breakthrough when it comes to the educator workforce. We should invest in providing every child in the country with highly qualified and talented individuals as their teachers, counselors, and principals. This should be a national priority. It will require investment, a change in rhetoric, and a shift in priorities. If we want to change the downward trend in NAEP scores and address the pressing issue of educator burnout, we must show the same level of concern for both. We cannot solve the issue of student achievement without addressing educator burnout.
Teachers often express frustration with policymakers who dictate what they should do in the classroom without actually having recent teaching experience. As a teacher, I would love to see these decisionmakers and government officials spend time in a classroom, not just for an hour of observation, but to actively work with students for a month. This would give them a true understanding of the challenges we face and the expertise we bring to our profession.
The recent attention to the NAEP results has been significant, but we have yet to see a genuine shift in public response and prioritization of these issues. While the results have sparked discussions, we need action, not just words. We are currently in a phase where people are talking a lot, and it’s time to move beyond that and start taking concrete steps to address the problems.
This is a crucial moment, and we must come together to develop a unified approach to education. It shouldn’t be about what individual states or regions are doing, but about what is best for our entire education system and society as a whole. We need a stronger sense of community and a focus on what will benefit public education and the American society at large. If we embrace this mindset, it could be an excellent opportunity for progress. However, if we remain individualistic and keep our own interests at the forefront, only a select few will succeed, and this will ultimately be detrimental to public education and society as a whole.