RICHMOND — Virginia must make up for steep learning losses in public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the state is losing teachers far faster than it is replacing them, a new study concluded on Monday, challenging lawmakers to invest more funds to retain school staff, while boosting math and reading achievement.
The study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission confirmed steep declines in 4th grade math and reading achievement, but also documented a widening gap between the number of qualified teachers leaving and entering the profession that’s on the front line of helping students recover from their losses.
Those findings prompted strong reactions from commission members of both parties, with Republicans focusing on achievement declines that Gov. Glenn Youngkin has called “catastrophic” and Democrats worrying about the long-term damage to a demoralized and exhausted school workforce.
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The National Assessment of Educational Progress showed 4th grade reading scores plummeting in Virginia from seventh to 34th and 4th grade math dropped from fourth to 20th. “Those are appalling numbers,” said Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, a retired teacher, who asked how other states had managed better.
Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera, speaking to the commission after the JLARC staff presentation, said states such as Utah and Wyoming performed better because “they kept schools open.”
“They kept students and teachers working together in vibrant learning environments,” Guidera said.
Democrats say they support efforts to overcome learning loss and raise standards for students and schools to meet, but challenged Youngkin to include funding in the budget he will propose next month to support struggling schools and address a crisis in school staffing, especially for teachers.
The JLARC report showed a 12% increase in the number of teachers leaving the workforce, about 1,200 more in this school year than before the pandemic began 32 months ago, and a 15% drop in the number of teachers entering the workforce, about 1,300 fewer this year than two years ago.
“That should worry everyone in this room,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William.
McPike also urged Guidera to ensure “we put our money where our mouth is” in the state budget and a “substantial, meaningful” proposal by the governor “to fund these schools.”
“I hope the accountability is here at the state level, not just picking on different school systems,” the senator told Cabinet official.
The JLARC study showed critical needs for Virginia to address in almost every aspect of the educational system—increased student absenteeism, bad classroom behavior and mental health concerns; declining student achievement; and an overarching need for more support of teachers, including investments in instructional assistants to balance attention to students with the most needs and their classmates.
“The current state of the teacher workforce is a major concern,” JLARC Director Hal Greer said in introducing the study, which the General Assembly requested last year.
“The state needs to do all it can to support teachers in the classroom,” Greer said.
Some of the things the state could do include:
addressing a growing number of vacancies for school psychologists by allowing qualified, licensed psychologists to be licensed provisionally to work in schools, an approach that Vice Chairman Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, a retired teacher, suggested may work better by contract than by hiring them;
increasing investments in new state programs to improve reading and literacy skills, while creating a new initiative to address declines in student math skills (which Orrock said also may stem from lack of reading comprehension);
investing in instructional assistants to help teachers bridge a growing “variation” among students in academic skills and achievement, requiring more one-to-one interaction with some students than others.
Part of the challenge of hiring instructional assistants is finding the money. JLARC staff estimates the cost at $3 million to hire one assistant per 100 students in the 20 schools that have fallen below five more accreditation standards and $34 million to hire one assistant per 20 students in the 59 schools now below three or more accreditation standards.
The larger challenge may be the shrinking pool of trained teachers to do the work. The study found that fewer teachers are fully qualified in the fields they teach in Virginia schools.
“My initial question is, “where are we going to find these teachers?” asked Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham.
As teachers have left, those who remain have taken on heavier workloads. They face worsening behavior by students and more with mental health issues, a “lack of respect from parents and the public” and relatively low pay.
The General Assembly has worked with the past two governors to raise teacher pay. A year ago, departing Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, proposed a pair of 5% teacher pay raises that the legislature protected in the two-year budget that Youngkin, a Republican, signed in June.
“It’s a very real impediment. ... It’s hard to be a teacher right now,” JLARC Associate Director Justin Brown said.
The study also confirmed that learning loss during the pandemic most hurt students who already were falling behind, particularly Black and Hispanic pupils, and those learning English as a second language, in kindergarten through second grade.
“If they start behind, they stay behind,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, an educator who said the state must invest more in early childhood education.
“If a child is having problems in the third grade, it didn’t start in the third grade,” Locke said. “It didn’t start in the second grade. It started earlier on.”
Guidera promised to work with the assembly to address school funding needs and to identify how much of the $3.3 billion in emergency federal pandemic relief to the state and local school divisions is unspent and where.
JLARC said the amount of unspent funds is substantial, although some has been used to boost school attendance, early childhood reading and teacher compensation.
“That money is to be spent for [reversing] learning loss,” Guidera said. “It’s money that needs to be spent now!”