While they weren’t necessarily a surprise, many experts saw the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress results as a “catastrophic” sign of learning loss and a sobering sign of how much it would take to rebound after the pandemic. But some teachers brushed off the declines, arguing that this year’s scores weren’t comparable to prior releases and that students will recover.
The three teachers who sit on the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees and sets policy for NAEP, have a unique view of the situation: They’re both in the classroom and at the boardroom table, seeing student learning on a micro and macro level.
The educators—Patrick Kelly, a 12th grade government teacher in Columbia, S.C.; Michael A. Pope, an 8th grade science teacher for a Department of Defense school in Japan, and Nardi Routten, a 4th grade teacher in New Bern, N.C.—were here for a board meeting this month. They met with Education Week to discuss their takeaways from the NAEP score release and what they think policymakers need to do to support teachers as they work to help students progress.
(Kelly is also the director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, South Carolina’s main teacher group.)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
There was a lot of discussion and debate about the NAEP results. What do you make of them?
Kelly: I think with the results, they’re alarming—period. As an educator, there’s not a whole lot that can be taken away from historic declines that’s encouraging. But I think that it’s an important release because I hope it will shake us out of complacency in two areas when it comes to looking at student-achievement data in the United States.
The first one is that everybody is in a rush to get back to normal after COVID. That’s something I heard so frequently in South Carolina, from families, from students, from educators. “I just want to get back to normal.” The reality is, normal wasn’t working for too many students before the pandemic hit. Yes, there was a record decline in 2022, but I wasn’t satisfied with where we were as an educational system in 2020.
We’ve got to do better. And maybe this is a galvanizing moment where, because of the just sheer mass of the decline, we can regroup and recognize that the complacency of, “Well, this is just always the way it’s been, that this percentage of students will score ‘below basic’ on NAEP"—that’s not acceptable. Maybe this will help shake us out of that.
To the point about educators saying, “Well, what did you expect?” I mean, as a teacher, I’m alarmed by record decline in 8th grade math, but I’m not surprised by it because I’m also a parent of a current 9th grader and 6th grader. I lived this world of trying to teach Algebra 1 to a kid who’s at home. I’m a certified teacher, a government teacher. But that’s hard. It’s really hard to teach something like math when a student’s not having consistent in-person learning.
So, of course, we shouldn’t be surprised. But I think what that gets at, at a deeper level, is we should always look at achievement data within context. We see a large portion of the students in our nation not performing above NAEP “basic” or at the level that we want them to be at, NAEP “proficient,” because of their context. It shouldn’t surprise us. If students don’t have equitable access to learning opportunities, to highly qualified teachers, to safe school environments, to technology, what do we expect?
We so often get absorbed with talking about the outcome of achievement data that we forget that outcomes are affected by an input. And in this moment of the pandemic, people are rightly pointing to, “Of course, scores went down because of the pandemic.” We need to extend that same logic to looking at achievement data more holistically. And instead of getting so fixated just on the output, we need to ask the hard questions of what inputs are impacting this.
Routten: No one was surprised, but I don’t think it should be ignored, either. Some things that I read, it’s like, “Oh, you know, it was because of the pandemic, so I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing.” No, I think we should use the data and especially the contextual questions [about students’ access to technology, tutoring, and other resources, as well as teachers’ confidence in their work], because that was very enlightening as well.
The surveys of teachers found that most are not very confident they can help students recover academically. What do you make of that finding?
Routten: I see that at my school because we do have gaps. I teach 4th grade. It was prevalent how many 4th graders lacked just basic phonemic-awareness skills, [the ability to recognize and distinguish sounds in English]. And then when you think about it, during the COVID [shutdown] year, that was during their 2nd grade year. That’s huge when it comes to phonemic awareness.
A lot of my colleagues are like, “I don’t know how to fix that because I’m a 4th grade teacher.” Our state, North Carolina, brought in LETRS [training on research based on how students learn to read]. So I feel confident—this is my second year in it, I do know how to help them there. But then again, not all educators do that.
And even with the math, it’s like, OK, I have 4th graders who are like, “What’s 3 plus 2?” How do I fix that?
Kelly: For me, I don’t read that data to mean that teachers doubt their pedagogical competency. What I read it as is that teachers doubt their ability to do the hard work of catching kids up from a generational pandemic on top of all the other things that are being layered on top of them right now. In a vacuum, if all I had to do was worry about the academic success of my students, I can pull that off.
Most recently, [according to a federal survey conducted in January], 57 percent of schools said they had an increased need to use teachers outside of their intended duties, 26 percent of teachers were experiencing increased class sizes, 62 percent of schools increased need to use nonteaching staff outside of intended duties. So, of course, you’re going to doubt your ability to help students overcome the most significant public-health crisis this country has experienced in 100 years when you’re not just the teacher anymore. Because we can’t adequately staff and resource the schools across this country.
I think that’s what that data says to me—it speaks to the larger feeling of being overwhelmed that America’s educators have been shouldering for the last three years.
We know from surveys that teachers are burned out and have been since the start of the pandemic. What can help turn that tide?
Routten: I think the burnout started before COVID. I think COVID made it worse, but I think we were heading there before COVID. I don’t know how to fix it. I hear it all the time. I remember at the beginning of the school year, one of my colleagues said, “My goal this year is not to quit.” And that’s sad. That’s really sad. How do you fix that? That’s a million dollar question.
Pope: More than a million. I remember being a younger teacher and I was told that the expectation of a teacher is three to five years. It’s like, why would I go into a profession when in three to five years, I’m expected to burn out and be gone?
I think it’s because of the demands. The burnout is not necessarily always because of the work, because of what you do in the classroom. It’s the demands that are put upon you because you care. Because you want to help kids, you want to make change. You want to be impactful. You want to be that light or that inspiration for that individual that they may not have [elsewhere]. You may be the only positive person in their life.
It’s not always the job, it’s the emotional collateral that you pay.
Kelly: How do we break a trend? It takes something seismic. It takes something so unique that it shakes us out of a stasis. And I think we’re at this moment and I think NAEP can be instructive in this. For the past month, so much of the narrative around NAEP has been rehashing what has been—NAEP scores went down because this state implemented this policy or did not implement this policy. OK, great. We’ve had our moment to talk about what caused it. I’m ready for us to talk about what comes next and how do we break the trend of this academic cycle with our students.
State and local and federal officials have got to change their priorities. We’re talking about a lot of things in education right now in this country that have nothing to do with addressing educator shortages. And in fact they exacerbate them. But all those other things, whether they’re important or not, they’re all multiplied and amplified by not having enough certified individuals in a school building. I don’t care if you care about curriculum or instruction or student mental health or student safety—if you’re not fully staffed, you can’t address those issues.
And then we need a true moonshot moment in this country around the educator workforce, ... where this country invests and says, “We are going to provide every child in this country with the most highly qualified, talented individual possible as their teacher, as their counselor, as their principal. And this is a national priority.” It will take an investment, and it will take a change in rhetoric, and it will take a change in priorities.
If we are going to change the NAEP trend, if we are alarmed about it, ... we better match that with a similar level of alarm about the trend in educator burnout in this country. Because you can’t solve the student-achievement piece until you solve the educator burnout piece.
Routten: What I hear constantly from teachers is, “They’re telling me to do this, but the last time they stepped foot in the classroom was when they were in high school.” I’m talking as a teacher, not as a NAGB person: You know what I’d love to see, I would love to see these policymakers, these decisionmakers, government officials spend time in a classroom. Not an hour, not observing. Get down on the floor, work with these kids for a month. Just come in, see what we’re dealing with. See we are professionals. We know what we’re doing.
The latest NAEP release has gotten so much public attention. Do you think we’re turning a corner in terms of the public response in prioritizing these issues?
Kelly: It doesn’t feel that way yet. We have seen NAEP results get people’s attention and we’ve seen it cause a lot of discussion. But at the end of the day, words get reactions, actions get results. And we are in a reactionary phase where people are talking a lot. It’s time to do something about all that talking.
Routten: The time is right—I mean, this would be the time. But what I’m afraid of, and we see it over and over again, all the talk, all the commotion of this and then six months from now, we’re gonna be back to the same old, same old.
Pope: It’s all about action. We’re at a pivotal moment. If we can actually look at those scores, look at that data and determine, OK, what is our unified approach? Not just, what is Alabama gonna do? What is Georgia gonna do? What are we going to do as an education system?
We need more sense of community and more sense of what’s best not only for a public education, what’s best for the American society. If we adopt that, then I think that this would be a great time for us. If we continue to be individualistic and keep our cards closer to our chest, then those that will be successful will be and those who will not will not be. And that’s not the best thing for public education. That’s not good for anyone.