In a refreshing display of collaboration, the Building Bridges initiative recently released a call to action to “quickly and dramatically improve the learning opportunities for today’s students.”
They diagnose the problems in a clear but sobering way:
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a crisis in our education system—with student achievement in math and reading plummeting to levels we haven’t seen in twenty years. These losses are particularly acute among students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and students with disabilities, all of whom already faced unacceptable opportunity gaps. Beyond academics, the pandemic has also tragically spiked a mental health crisis among young people. Without intervention, the effect on our nation’s social and economic health will be staggering, and America’s youth will pay the true cost.
The report outlines a number of conditions and five action steps state and local policymakers can take to get kids back on track. As we read through those recommendations, here are our takeaways, reactions, and amplifications:
Chad Aldeman: One specific proposal I would amplify is the report’s call to rethink how staff are deployed in schools. This is a quietly growing trend with strong evidence behind it. Rather than treating teachers interchangeably, programs like the Teacher Advancement Project (TAP) and Opportunity Culture work with schools to identify “master” or “mentor” teachers who can help guide their peers. These programs provide advancement opportunities–along with extra pay–for teachers who are ready to take on more leadership responsibilities in schools, while also providing embedded instructional support for their less-experienced peers. The evidence suggests these types of programs can boost teacher retention rates and also translate into positive short- and long-term outcomes for students. However, as recent events in Dallas suggest, the positive gains from these types of reforms only persist as long as districts sustain their efforts.
Jocelyn Pickford: Given how political curriculum discussions have become across the country, I’m thrilled that the Building Bridges initiative cut through the clamor to focus on an area we can all agree on: expanding access to high-quality instructional materials and aligned teacher training. The proposal emphasizes the way strong core materials allow teachers to personalize quality instruction for their students and points to examples from the CCSSO IMPD Network for other states to follow in advancing this work. Superintendents across the country are on board as well. Recent American Association of School Administrators (AASA) survey results show that when it comes to spending remaining COVID relief funds, district leaders prioritize investments in quality curriculum. We need all the bipartisanship we can get when it comes to instructional support, so it’s exciting to see this momentum.
Dale Chu: This report was a good start, but fell short when it came to the importance of reliable and valid assessment systems—in particular the standardized variety required by Uncle Sam. The authors seemed to dance around the topic (e.g., describing the need for “trustworthy reporting of academic progress and performance”), but it was largely overlooked. With state testing facing a contentious and uncertain future, it would have been encouraging to see a brighter line drawn in support.
Indeed, advocates would do well to seize any and every opportunity between now and whenever Congress gets around to reauthorizing ESEA to make the case for protecting the equity guardrails afforded by state exams. Which is why the Building Bridges initiative may have deliberately tried to steer clear of the controversy in the spirit of cultivating bipartisanship. But there’s a risk in laying low or speaking obliquely. The efficacy of even the best improvement strategies and interventions rely on the third-party data from standardized tests. Without the durable foundation they afford, this could be a bridge built out of cards.
Zooming back out, we appreciate the report’s call for urgent action, and we agree with the overarching sentiment that, “We are not doing nearly enough, especially for students from marginalized communities.”