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‘War on learning loss’: Newark Teachers Union calls for citywide effort to catch students up

Call comes after tests show most Newark students are academically off track

John_Abeigon_pointing.jpeg

“Where is the sense of urgency with the learning loss?” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon, who challenged city leaders to support students’ recovery.

Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

Newark must launch a “war on learning loss,” the city teachers union said this week, calling for a citywide campaign to support students who suffered devastating academic setbacks during the pandemic.

The union’s call to action follows the release of mid-year test scores showing the vast majority of students in the state’s largest district are not on track to meet grade-level standards in math or reading this school year. Just 2% of fourth graders are projected to meet expectations on state math tests this spring, February assessments showed.

The union, which represents more than 6,200 district employees, said teachers and other school staffers have worked tirelessly to help students recover from two years of disrupted learning and upheaval in their homes and communities. But even as educators race to help students regain lost ground and despite widespread staff shortages and exhaustion, some city leaders and residents seem oblivious to the mounting academic crisis, said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union.

“Where is the sense of urgency with the learning loss?” he asked. “It could go on for a generation if it’s not addressed now.”

Local leaders are already stepping up to the union’s challenge. On Friday, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said the city recognizes that the pandemic has set back student learning nationwide, and will support the district and any partners in efforts to help students recover.

“We are committed to our children and will do whatever is necessary, including participating in a joint task force to address this critical issue,” he said in a statement.

The New Jersey Children’s Foundation, a Newark-based nonprofit, also said it “would welcome the chance to collaborate with other city leaders in confronting this crisis.” The organization supports Newark charter schools, which the teachers union has harshly criticized, but the group said it considers the union a “vital partner” in tackling learning loss.

“This is a natural-disaster-level crisis that requires a collective recovery effort for the next decade,” said Kyle Rosenkrans, the group’s executive director.

In a statement and interview Thursday, Abeigon and other union officials said the scale of students’ academic and social-emotional needs demands a citywide mobilization.

The union proposed a learning loss task force with government, business, community, and education leaders, modeled on an advisory board the district convened to help guide the reopening of schools. The group could collaborate to help students recover, such as recruiting local college students as tutors or hosting workshops to help parents support their children in math and reading, Abegion said, calling for a “union of forces” to address learning loss.

“Acknowledge that it exists, sit down as a group, and let’s see how we’re going to tackle this,” he said.

The Newark Teachers Union’s new campaign contrasts sharply with other officials’ more muted response to students’ academic struggles and some unions’ aversion to the term “learning loss.”

The Newark school board and Superintendent Roger León have acknowledged that students suffered socially and academically while classrooms were closed and many families faced financial and personal hardships. The district has taken steps to promote academic recovery over the past year, including after-school tutoring, expanded summer school, and additional teacher training. 

However, during public events and meetings, district officials have largely focused on COVID safety measures and other initiatives, such as opening new schools and carrying out León’s 10-year strategic plan. They have provided few details about their academic efforts, leaving questions about what the tutoring programs entail and how many students participate.

A district spokesperson did not respond Friday to a request to comment on the union’s proposed campaign.

Meanwhile, some teachers unions and individual educators bristle at the concept of learning loss. Critics say the term inaccurately suggests that students stopped learning or regressed during the pandemic, when data suggests most students continued learning at a slower pace. Others worry the term will lead to an overemphasis on standardized tests and a narrow focus on students’ academic progress rather than their overall wellbeing. 

Educators “must resist getting sucked into the contrived notion of ‘learning loss,’” an analyst for the Chicago Teachers Union wrote last year. “To say our students have not learned during the pandemic is an insult to them and to their teachers.”

Newark union leaders share some of those concerns. For example, they said the mid-year assessments only measure students’ command of grade-level material, which can miss the progress made by students who are far below grade level. The union officials also said schools cannot go back to “business as usual,” but must tend to students’ mental health and other needs along with academics.

Yet the Newark union is not denying that students are far behind and need intense help to catch up. Instead, they’re arguing that schools can’t solve the problem alone.

“We know the loss is there, but how are we going to move forward?” said Silvia Pereira, a vice president of the union who also teaches English as a second language at a district school. “It has to be on everybody.”

Pereira, who spoke in her capacity as a union leader, said educators have worked overtime trying to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on students. When Pereira herself contracted COVID, she continued teaching remotely rather than risk her students falling further behind. Yet teachers continue to face incredible challenges, including students who are struggling to readjust to school and educators’ own burnout, she added.

But the most daunting obstacle has been staff shortages, the union officials said. In just the past week, the union has logged 15 school employee resignations, and León said 115 instructional positions remain unfilled. Support staffers have been reassigned to fill some of the vacancies, leaving fewer people to work individually with struggling students, and class sizes are too large for some teachers to provide the individual support many students need, Pereira said.

“If you don’t have the staff to support students at their level, it’s not going to work,” she said. “That’s where we’re having the struggle: We have the tools, but we don’t have the personnel.”

Abeigon also said too few students participate in the voluntary after-school tutoring program, which he argued should be mandatory.

He implored Newark leaders and residents to remember that even as COVID cases decline and restrictions lift, young people will be living with the fallout of the pandemic for years to come.

“As long as there’s learning loss,” he said, “it will not be over.”

Patrick Wall is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city and across New Jersey. Contact Patrick at pwall@chalkbeat.org

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