The stats are in and confirm what we already knew: academic achievement is in trouble. This crisis parallels the mental health crisis students face.
We already knew that student mental health struggles dramatically increased during the pandemic; I’ve written about this often enough. Suicidal ideation and completed suicide rates have both risen. New data from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 34, and the rate for people aged 15 to 24 rose 8 percent. Last July nationwide hotline for mental health emergencies experienced a 45 percent increase in calls, texts and chats in its first month after changing to a simpler phone number [washingtonpost.com]. The stats from the Center for Disease Control offer little hope:
- From February to March 2021, the number of hospital emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts jumped by 51 percent for girls and 4% for boys compare to that period in 2019.
- Provisional data for 2021 showed an increase in the national rate from 2020 to 2021, especially for people ages 15 to 24.
- Nearly 45 percent of high school students were so persistently sad or hopeless in 2021 they were unable to engage in regular activities.
- Almost 1 in 5 high school students seriously considered suicide.
- 9 percent of teenagers surveyed by the CDC tried to take their lives during the previous 12 months.
- The percentage of gay, lesbian, bisexual, other and questioning students reporting a suicide attempt is even higher.
- Nearly 30 percent of students said an adult in their home had lost a job, and 24 percent said they went hungry for a lack of food.
- More than 230,000 U.S. students under 18 are believed to be mourning the ultimate loss: the death of a parent or primary caregiver in a pandemic-related loss, according to research by the CDC, Imperial College London, Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Cape Town.
- The loss for Black and Hispanic children was nearly twice the rate of White children.
- Schools don’t have enough mental health professionals. Professional organizations recommend one school psychologist per 500 students, but the national average is one school psychologist per 1,160 students, with some states approaching one per 5,000, well below the recommended rate of one for every 500 students. Similarly, the recommended ratio of one school counselor per 250 students is not widespread. [washingtonpost.com]
Now layer that with the disappointing test results for academic achievement. The National Educational Assessment of Progress scores released in April show stark declines, especially in math. “Math scores for eighth grade fell by eight points, from 282 in 2019 to 274 this year, on a 500-point scale, and in fourth grade, by five points — the steepest declines recorded in more than a half century of testing.” These declines come on the heels of a pre-pandemic decline in both math and reading for 13-year-olds [washingtonpost.com]. Many 2019 scores were bad, and current scores are even worse. And the declines play favorites: low-income students and students of color fared far worse [nytimes.com]. Older students – with less time left in their public education to make up learning losses – are recovering more slowly than younger children [washingtonpost.com]. Support for virtual learning during the pandemic varied dramatically among communities, and students who were in virtual learning longer fared worse as well [Ibid.]. I live in Illinois, where schools were closed for a long time. That choice may have supported how much better Illinois did with Covid than many states, but our state’s children now pay the price.
Expressions of concern and hand-wringing over troubling scores will not move us off the dime. I support the call for a historic investment in education published by leading educators in an opinion piece for the Washington Post entitled “To help students shoot for the moon, we must think bigger and bolder” [washingtonpost.com]. Their metaphor of a moonshot is apt; we must support a major effort to address these losses that is both immediate and effective. Under President Kennedy, NASA realized they would need a much bigger rocket to reach the moon than we’d ever built, and major investment allowed the development of the Saturn V that took us to the moon. Research offers several solutions to our current crisis in education:
- Providing students with three hours of tutoring, with three or fewer students per teacher — each week can produce a year’s worth of additional growth.
- Summer school provides an academic quarter of growth.
- One additional period of algebra instruction can teach a semester’s worth of algebra [Ibid.].
I would add a number of other strategies:
- Offer classroom teachers more support and professional development.
- Offer parents/guardians specific work that they might help their students accomplish.
- Increase the teacher pipeline so we don’t have classrooms being combined and supervised by non-teachers, a serious problem now. We need teachers to feel valued and supported, not exhausted.
- Increase mental health services on site for both students and faculty/staff.
- Increase the mental health pipeline.
- Find a way to limit political attacks on school board members so that they can focus on the urgent issues we all face.
None of this will be inexpensive. As a nation, though, we need a 21st century work force of critical thinkers, collaborative workers, and quality producers. We need a comprehensive approach to mental health issues, behavior, and academics. That won’t happen unless we seize this opportunity for another “moonshot.”