Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner

We’ve failed our children for far too long. The numbers are so astonishing it’s hard to even process what this means for our students and our society as a whole.

Statewide, over three quarters (76%) of sixth graders are behind grade level in math. Over 60% of third graders are not reading on grade level, which we know is a key predictor of future academic success.

Put differently, more students in Colorado are behind grade level than are on track in reading, writing and math.

District by district, the numbers tell more depressing stories. In Aurora Public Schools, less than 10% of all students in seventh grade can read at grade level. While 2021 data reflects the impact of the pandemic, results in 2019, pre-pandemic, were not all that better with only 13% of Aurora seventh graders on track with their reading skills.

In District 11 in Colorado Springs, only 5% of Black students in elementary schools are on grade level for math. I’ll say that one again — only one in 20 Black students are proficient in math.

If you believe in educational equity, that statistic should make your blood boil. We are failing our children in a morally unforgivable manner.

In Adams 14 School District in Commerce City, where 87% of students are Hispanic, only 10% of third graders are reading on grade level and only 4% of eighth graders met grade level expectations in math last year. Participation rates on the state tests were low in 2021, but performance in prior years was not much better. The district has been identified by the state as the lowest-performing district since the ratings system began in 2009.

What these numbers mean for our children, and for our state, is that we have a generation of kids not reaching their potential. Masses of our young students will be unprepared to take grade level classes, let alone honors courses, in high school. They will be unprepared to enter college without the need for remediation. They will be unprepared to find and succeed in a job that pays family-sustaining wages. And our society and economy will suffer as a result.

You thought we had a shortage of engineers and doctors now? With only 24% of our sixth graders on track in math, our future STEM sector isn’t looking promising.

Thankfully, we can measure the academic progress of our students and identify where we need to send targeted support and resources to catch up those who are furthest behind.

Last year, the state’s leading teachers unions fought to cancel statewide academic assessments for the second year in a row. Had they succeeded, parents and policymakers would be flying blind right now. Fortunately, assessments resumed, and we have data that allows us to understand just how much work we have to do as a state.

These numbers are hard to see, but we cannot hide the harm. Behind every number is a child whose potential is not being reached. We can and must strive to do better.

Shuttered schools stunt growth

But how do we move forward if we are stuck going backwards? The risk of further backsliding is a real and present danger.

There is an ever-louder chorus of coordinated special-interest voices urging schools to shift to remote learning due to rising COVID cases with the omicron variant.

I understand that Omicron is wreaking havoc and that in some schools there simply is not enough staff to handle in-person learning. But that decision should be made on a school-by-school basis and only when absolutely every other option to get enough staff to the building has been exhausted.

For the most part, Colorado schools have been following that approach. The superintendent of Denver Public Schools made a clear statement that schools will remain open in-person despite demands from Denver’s teachers union to switch to districtwide remote learning.

Remote learning is not a suitable alternative. When it comes to remote learning the only thing remote is the chance that kids learn, according to almost every single study since the beginning of the pandemic.

For example, a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that districts that had longer stretches of remote learning last year saw bigger declines in academic achievement than districts that moved back to in-person learning quicker. No surprise.

This pattern was seen internationally as well. A researcher studying schools in the Netherlands reported to the Washington Post: “What we learned from our study is that children learned basically nothing at home… And it’s clear that this learning loss has not been completely recovered, even now, one and a half years later.”

From these international studies to local Colorado data, we also know that the learning losses have been largest among kids who were poorly served by our inequitable education system even before the pandemic.

Educational experts have described the pandemic’s unequal impact as having wiped out any gains schools had made over the past two decades in closing the achievement gaps. We’re back to square one.

A study by McKinsey & Company found that these learning losses will translate into real dollars and cents lost for future families. McKinsey found that learning loss due to the last round of school closures would mean “today’s students may earn $49,000 to $61,000 less over their lifetime” and that “the impact on the US economy could amount to $128 billion to $188 billion every year as this cohort enters the workforce.”

Beyond academic proficiency and reduced future earnings, school closures have had an immense impact on the mental health of our kids.

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “mental health emergency” for youth mental health, a first in the highly respected organization’s history. Nationally, hospital visits for suicide attempts for 12- to 17-year-old girls have risen by 51%, according to the CDC.

Despite these profoundly harmful impacts, teachers unions across the country are increasingly calling for schools to be closed. Not for how it would help kids, but solely to serve the demands of adult special interests.

This month in Chicago, the teachers union declared, at midnight on a Thursday, that their members would refuse to show up to work the next day, alarming parents that woke up the next morning to find out their kids’ schools would not be open and that they would need to scramble to find childcare for an indefinite period of time — not an easy task in any circumstance, let alone at a time that finds childcare services to be suffering unprecedented staffing shortages.

As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt put it, for the past two years Americans have accepted more harm to children in exchange for less harm to adults. That is an unacceptable tradeoff and one that Colorado should never again allow, most especially with the expanded resources our schools now have.

Early in the pandemic, schools rightly complained they didn’t have the financial resources to tackle the challenges an unprecedented global pandemic brought about. But since then, the federal government has given Colorado over $3 billion in emergency funding for K-12 schools. Complaints related to a lack of resources are falling on deaf ears.

We need to make sure state and federal funds are spent keeping schools open and helping kids overcome the tremendous amount of learning loss they have suffered as a result of previous school closures.

The Adams 14 School District in Commerce City — which has been chronically failing to adequately teach children for decades — shifted to “remote learning” in January and has extended that closure once already.

Parents at some schools in the district reported that their children — as young as first grade — were given iPads, were told about some programs, and have not seen a teacher since they went remote.

Kids who have been failed by the Adams 14 school district (and the state as a whole) long before COVID are now missing out on crucial time to learn. It’s unclear that the district even has the ability to reopen a number of schools next week due to the ongoing turmoil and chaos the district is experiencing and increasing numbers of staff quitting. Adding omicron to the mix of an already dysfunctional system has become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Before the pandemic, 30% of parents of kids living in the boundaries of Adams 14 voted with their feet and chose to send their kids to public schools in another school district. Almost a third of families leaving their home district is a stunning number, and one that I suspect would be higher if not for the red tape our state has put up.

Colorado law prohibits schools from providing transportation to students across school district boundaries. Many working-class parents do not have the time or the financial means to drive their kids to and from school five days a week. However, 30% of families in Adams 14 have found a way to drive their kids every day to schools located in Adams 12, Denver Public Schools, Mapleton and other nearby districts. How many more would be fleeing if there was transportation available?

School choice works

One bright spot in the Adams 14 tragedy is that a new high-performing charter school, University Prep, is slated to open its doors in the fall of 2022. The charter school network has a track record of success and is known for turning around a failing school in Denver. Within a year, the newly opened University Prep Steele St. in Denver earned the highest academic growth rating in the district.

At least two-thirds of students in every single school in Adams 14 are behind grade level in reading, writing and math. Even before the pandemic, no school had proficiency rates over 30% in 2019.

Compare that to charter schools writ large. If Colorado’s charter schools were their own state, they would be the No. 1 in the nation for fourth-grade math, No. 2 for fourth-grade reading and No. 2 for eighth-grade reading.

The numbers don’t lie. School choice works. Colorado’s charter schools are undeniably serving their students well. And the students they serve represent a diverse population. On average, charter schools serve a higher percentage of students of color and English language learners than non-charter schools in Colorado, according to state data.

Charter schools demonstrate that all students, regardless of their background, can succeed if given the right environment and opportunity. With University Prep opening in Adams 14, elementary students in that district will at long last have the opportunity to attend a school that will actually prepare them to enter middle school with strong reading, writing and math skills.

Colorado’s K-12 education system was a broken mess of inequitable opportunity for way too many Colorado children even before the pandemic. For too long, we’ve accepted mediocre, and frankly flat out appalling, results and resisted any attempt at transforming the system.

Everyone seems to agree that education is the foundation for life-long success and the one proven way to break cycles of poverty.

Accepting the results of our current public education system means being okay with consigning thousands of children and their future families to a life of poverty and struggle.

Parents take power

But change is coming — if only because it must.

Parents from across the political spectrum rose up and ran for their local school board at an unprecedented rate in 2021, with the number of school board candidates double that of previous elections. From Grand Junction to Greeley, Colorado Springs to Castle Rock, new school board majorities of parents were swept into power.

Those new school board majorities must ensure the schools within their own districts remain open during this COVID surge and any future surges. They need to buckle down and urgently focus on helping students recover learning losses. And they need to project their voices across the state, for far too many school boards remain under the control of politicians more beholden to special interests and the system itself than students and families.

We don’t have to accept our current reality. We can choose to put kids first. There is no doubt in my mind that children from Commerce City to Aurora and Colorado Springs are capable of greatness. They have the capacity for excellence. But too many schools are failing to provide them the opportunities to learn, let alone thrive.

It’s time for transformation. It’s time to pursue any and all strategies that give parents true access to high-quality schools for their kids.

This legislative session there will be a bill introduced that gives parents in failing school districts, such as Adams 14, a portion of their per-pupil funding to attend any school of their choice, including private schools. There will also be a bill to create better transportation opportunities for all kids, which could support the roughly 100,000 students attending a school within their district that is not their neighborhood school. An effort to fund state-authorized charter schools on par with district schools would bring much-needed funding to high-performing schools that currently receive 25% less funding than other schools. Additionally, legislation to ensure the state continues releasing school performance data publicly to parents, community members and policymakers will be on the docket. These are examples of critical changes that, put together, could lead to radically better outcomes for students.

If we fail to transform our education system, it won’t be just our kids that suffer. It will be all of Colorado.

Brenda Dickhoner, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Ready Colorado, an education-reform advocacy organization that believes all children have a right to a high-quality education.

Dr. Brenda Dickhoner is President and CEO of Ready Colorado. Ready Colorado is an education reform advocacy organization that believes all children have a right to a high-quality education.

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