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State leaders must act to close education gaps post-pandemic, advocates say

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With new evidence showing the pandemic erased years of academic progress and widened existing achievement gaps, education advocates from across Massachusetts on Wednesday called on the state’s political leadership to focus harder on education.

It’s a crucial moment for public schools, several dozen advocacy organizations said Wednesday: Elections in November will deliver a new roster of state leaders, and the federal government has sent billions to states to help close achievement gaps exacerbated by the pandemic.

Yet education has gotten very little attention thus far in state races for governor and other offices, they said.

“Given the kind of intractability of the disparities that we have, given how hard it is to tackle those disparities, that’s frankly been really worrisome,” said Natasha Ushomirsky, the Massachusetts director of Education Trust, one of the members of the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership.

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A spokesperson for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey said the campaign is reviewing the report and directed the Globe to the candidate’s education platform, which includes some of the recommendations of the report, such as recruiting educators of color and expanding early college programs. Republican candidate Geoff Diehl’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But it’s also exactly the right time to turn things around, the advocates said. While the pandemic has worsened disparities, districts also have access to billions of dollars of new funding, from both federal pandemic relief and the Student Opportunity Act, a 2019 state law.

“We can and must do better with this generation of students, particularly at this time in this moment, when we have the revenue to make a difference,” said Edith Bazile, a former Boston Public Schools teacher and the founder and executive director of Black Advocates for Educational Excellence.

The groups released a report Wednesday outlining the widening gaps and proposing over 30 steps the state can take to address them, including requiring districts to publish pandemic recovery plans with specific numeric targets.

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The report comes two weeks after the National Assessment for Educational Progress, often called the “nation’s report card,” reported that test scores nationwide fell further over the pandemic than they have in decades.

The national assessment, covering math and reading tests taken by 9-year-olds in 2020 and 2022, showed that the lowest performing students suffered the most, and Black and Latino students’ scores declined more on math than white students.

Stephen Sireci, the director of the Center for Educational Assessment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the NAEP offered a clear diagnosis: Many kids need help, and those who’ve struggled most historically need urgent attention.

“We need to go beyond noticing and recording the decline to actually doing something about it,” he said in an email.

The Massachusetts report, “There Is No Excellence Without Equity,” makes that case using recent state data, although 2022 MCAS scores are not yet available. From 2019 to 2021, the report notes, the percentage of Black and Latino third graders meeting expectations on English language arts MCAS dropped significantly, while white students’ performance only declined marginally. Less than a third of Black and Latino third graders met expectations on the English test in 2021.

“The research informs us that 95% of students can be taught to read effectively by the end of grade one, that research is clear,” Bazile said. “But why doesn’t it happen? Because we need stronger policies that are guided by the research on how to do that work effectively across all populations of students.”

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The report recommends expanding public subsidies and scholarships for both child care and higher education. The state must diversify its teacher workforce, it said, and help districts set up and expand dual language programs.

The potential cost of these investments could reach into the billions, in addition to the $1.5 billion per year from the Student Opportunity Act and the roughly $3.7 billion in federal pandemic relief.

Amanda Fernández, the founder and CEO of Latinos for Education, described survey data showing Latino parents are concerned about their children’s mental health, socialization and learning loss, and argued that it was important to have Latino teachers who understand their students’ concerns. Fernández called for the state to diversity the teacher workforce, pointing to a proposed bill that would establish alternative certifications for aspiring teachers and grant funding, among other measures

“We’re currently in this really unique moment where we have the financial resources,” said Devin Morris, co-founder and executive director of the Teachers’ Lounge. “All we need to do is push state and local leaders to set the tone.”

The groups also recommended turning schools into “community hubs” to connect families to other resources and services, ensuring state standards “reflect and affirm the identities of all students” and requiring middle and high school students to take classes that help them make plans for college and careers.

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The advocates said individual teachers and schools are already doing this kind of work, but they want to see systemic change to ensure academic excellence statewide.

“We have a choice to make,” said Amanda Seider, the executive director of One Goal Massachusetts. “We could go back to doing what we did before the pandemic and go back into our old ways, and so many of these challenges and disparities will continue to be cemented into our system. Or we have an opportunity. We can do things differently.”


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.