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State education leaders defend COVID-19 strategies

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The state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is not acting with enough urgency to address student learning loss, according to staff members of a General Assembly committee. But leaders in DPI dispute the claim.

The Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations took up DPI’s spending of federal COVID-19 relief funding and heard a presentation that was sometimes critical of the agency’s actions during the span of the pandemic.

“It is clear that learning loss is a priority to the federal government … we are calling on DPI to strategically utilize the COVID relief funds to facilitate learning recovery,” said Alyssa Morrissey, one of two Senate Governmental Operations evaluators who presented to the committee.

But Michael Maher, head of DPI’s Office of Learning Recovery & Acceleration, talked extensively about the work his office has been doing to address learning loss over the past year and questioned the statement that DPI has no sense of urgency, saying he felt like his office had been maligned in the earlier presentation.

“My team at DPI has worked especially hard over the last year on this work,” he said, adding later, “What we are experiencing now is far and away more significant than anything we have ever experienced in this state or this country.”

The Governmental Operations evaluators reviewed both the distribution of federal funds to North Carolina for education since the COVID-19 pandemic began as well as student performance during that same time period.

They noted the severity of the learning loss experienced by North Carolina students and suggested increased urgency, better data collection, and more coordination and guidance by Maher’s office.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt began her presentation to the committee by telling lawmakers that the presentation by their staffers was full of inaccuracies.

She said in a follow-up text that the inaccuracies lead to a false conclusion.

“The inaccuracies are significant because they paint a picture of DPI as irresponsible and not acting with a sense of urgency concerning COVID recovery,” she said.

Maher and Truitt presented both what DPI has done and what it will do. Truitt noted that it was clear early on that remote learning wasn’t working for students after Gov. Roy Cooper ordered school buildings closed in March 2020. She said that as soon as she came into office in January 2021, she was pushing for a move to in-person learning to address that issue.

“While it can be an incredible tool for some children, this method does not work for every student despite teachers’ best efforts,” she said of remote learning, adding later, “I knew that my first priority had to be getting students back in schools.” 

Truitt talked about Operation Polaris, her strategic plan for improving learning in North Carolina, and she talked about how there were many students behind in subjects such as reading long before the pandemic.

She talked about the Excellent Public Schools Act legislation, which aims to reform Read to Achieve, and the emphasis of that legislation and her office on the science of reading to help teachers better ensure students can read. She said that her long-term plan addresses both the lingering impacts of the pandemic as well as looking to the future to think about how education needs to happen going forward.

“We can’t only focus on COVID recovery at the expense of planning for the future,” she said.

She also put in a plug for the importance of social-emotional learning, saying that some people are intentionally misleading others about this concept, causing some members of the public to view school mental health services with skepticism.

“We must ensure all mental health resources are available and accessible for all our students and families,” she said, adding later, “The mental health issues that we feared coming out of this pandemic are real.”

Maher and Truitt talked about how Maher’s office is working to understand where students would have been academically if not for COVID-19 so they can compare that with how students are actually faring now. Doing this will give DPI a sense for just how much learning loss has actually occurred and help them be better able to direct resources where they’re needed most, Maher said.

In a follow-up interview, Maher said that this will give the state a more accurate look at the impacts of learning loss than comparing the achievement of students during COVID-19 with a completely different cohort of students pre-COVID-19.

He also talked about some of the problems with the presentation from the committee staffers, noting in particular some of their assertions about the summer enrichment program from last year that was meant to combat learning loss. The program was voluntary on the part of families and students, though all districts were required by the General Assembly to provide it.

The staff said that the effectiveness of the program couldn’t be ascertained because DPI didn’t collect good data. For instance, they said that students were counted as attending the summer program if they attended only one day.

But Maher said in the follow-up interview that this is a mischaracterization of how the program was run. He said that DPI had data both from before the program and after the program on 70,000 K-8 students, and he said DPI asked for daily attendance, though he admitted the reporting back on attendance likely wasn’t perfect.

Maher said that while proficiency after camp might not be as high as some would like, he considers the summer camp a success for other reasons.

“From the very start of that program, I talked about how that entire year was a year of disrupted learning for kids where the vast majority were out of school,” he said.

He said that he thought about the camp in terms of engaging students who had been away from teachers and students for much of the year. The fact that DPI was able to get almost 250,000 kids to voluntarily attend camp felt like a success.

“Fifty-eight percent showed growth in reading and math,” he said. “Is it great? No. But it’s improvement. I’ll take that.”

During the committee meeting, Maher laid out the strategy that his office is taking to support the state’s schools, illustrating the three levers of change his office is using:

  • Lever of Change 1: State-Sponsored Learning Recovery Programs.
  • Lever of Change 2: Competency-Based Education Platform.
  • Lever of Change 3: Research & Evaluation.

See the full diagram here.

Lawmakers had a number of questions for Maher and Truitt, including questions around who is responsible for making sure students are not truant, how much of the federal funding has been spent by districts, and whether schools feel a sense of urgency about addressing learning loss.

Maher was quizzed at one point on the programs that have come directly out of his office. The committee staff noted when talking about the lack of urgency at DPI that Maher’s office had developed two learning loss programs but had not yet implemented them. Maher told lawmakers that those two programs are summer programs that won’t be able to start until the end of the school year. When asked whether his office had come up with any programs of its own, he said that it wasn’t possible because all of the office’s funding comes from lawmakers, so he doesn’t have extra money to launch other initiatives.

Multiple lawmakers also made a point that Truitt, in her capacity as state superintendent, doesn’t have the power to force districts or schools to do anything.

“You really don’t have a lot of say so or direction that you can send up to LEAs (Local Education Agencies),” said Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, before asking her if that was a fair statement. She agreed that it was.  

Here is the presentation from the committee evaluators.

Here is Maher’s presentation.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.