Dallas ISD Students Struggling with 'Devastating' Learning Loss Because of Pandemic

Online learning doesn't work for everyone.
Online learning doesn't work for everyone. Photo by bantersnaps on Unsplash
The coronavirus pandemic has been tough on everyone, but it’s been hitting Dallas students especially hard. During last Thursday’s school board meeting, Dallas ISD administrators suggested lowering educational goals because of drastic learning loss.

Overall, 50% of district students have lost learning in math and 30% of students have lost learning in reading, according to data from the Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) test. Even those students who maintained or gained knowledge still may not be working at grade-level.

Trustee Dustin Marshall said these “devastating” losses are a “worst-case scenario” of what could have happened during the pandemic.

“We’re talking about a generational impact here to children, and we can’t abide this,” he said. “We’ve got to act boldly and quickly.”

A vote on whether to lower the goals will occur in two weeks.

Some Dallas ISD trustees agreed that lowering learning goals is appropriate because of pandemic-related challenges, such as adapting to online learning and a loss of teacher-student interaction. Others weren’t so sure, expressing worry that changing goals now could set a precedent for arbitrarily doing so in later years.

Trustee Joyce Foreman said students are doing poorly this year because they don’t feel like getting online to attend virtual classes. Even those with good attendance can do poorly if they have a difficult time learning in online class formats, she said.

Teachers are also struggling to educate in both virtual and in-person scenarios, Foreman said. The school board needs to have more conversations with the students and educators on the “frontline” to understand how to better assist them.

“These are difficult times for all of us and these are strange times for all of us, but lowering the goal doesn’t make it better,” Foreman said. “It just means it makes us look better in terms of we’ve been able to meet a specific goal, so I’m going to have some concerns with it.”

Attendance has also greatly suffered, said Jolee Healey, Dallas ISD’s chief of school leadership. Around 5% of middle school students and 8% of high school students aren’t engaged for more than three days at once, she said.

Only 13% of the district’s third-grade students are on track to meet the district’s math learning goals, the MAP data shows.

“No one wants to be lectured to period, actually, but it’s even worse in an online setting.” – Stephen Waddell, education professor

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Latinx and Black children are having the most difficulty in learning achievement, according to the data. That’s particularly problematic considering those students make up more than 90% of the district’s student population.

Such students are also less likely to have access to the internet at home, which is a problem that Dallas ISD has sought to mitigate by providing families with internet hotspots, according to a district press release. Dallas ranks No. 1 in Texas, and sixth in the nation, for urban cities with families lacking internet access at home.

This comes as the Texas Education Agency issued new guidelines on Thursday that allow districts to mandate students with poor grades or attendance return to the classroom, according to the Houston Chronicle.

“If the parent does not appeal or if, at the conclusion of the transition meeting, the (district) does not conclude with the parent that the student can be successful learning from home, the (district) may require the student to transition to on-campus learning,” the guidance reads.

But Dallas ISD isn’t alone; many school districts are struggling to pivot to online learning, said Stephen Waddell, education professor at the University of North Texas. It can be difficult to quickly come up with engaging lesson plans to accommodate a virtual learning format, he said.

Trying to “jam” an in-person lesson into a Zoom lecture won’t be very effective, Waddell said. Students who don’t want to be doing schoolwork will find plenty of reasons not to, he said.

“If what they’re asked to do is not particularly interesting to them or engaging to them, they’re going to be less inclined to do it,” Waddell said.

“Who wants to be lectured to online? Good grief,” he continued. “No one wants to be lectured to period, actually, but it’s even worse in an online setting.”

Moving forward, the district needs to invest time in figuring out how to engage kids in virtual settings, he said. They also need to implement a game plan for assisting impoverished kids, he said, since studies have shown they’re more likely to experience learning regression than financially secure students.

If learning loss continues at this rate, some children may have to repeat a grade in the future, or they may never catch up, Waddell said.

The pandemic shows no sign of slowing down, so Dallas ISD needs to learn to adapt, he said.

“I understand [the district’s] anxiety, and they should be anxious,” Waddell said. “It’s not a good thing.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter