Local Editorials

Our View: State Report Card shows where our priorities should be

The Greatest Generation pops instantly to mind when you think about generations of Americans whose lives have been interrupted by events beyond their control. That’s especially true of the more than 16 million who served in the World War II-era military and delayed careers, educations, marriages and other milestones that traditionally accompany the journey to adulthood.

Other generations have faced similar disruptions. Early Baby Boomers had to navigate difficult, disruptive challenges during the Vietnam War era, facing the choice, for instance, of being drafted to fight an unpopular war or pursue a second- or third-choice career that offered a deferment. More recently, millennials entering the job market in the 2000s endured the challenges of careers that started, stopped and started again as employers grappled with a crippling economic crisis.

Now comes Generation Alpha, the generation born starting in 2010. Think of the Alphas as Generation COVID – the children who have faced a historic interruption of their schooling. It’s difficult to comprehend: A child who entered kindergarten in 2019 has never experienced a normal school year.

The exact cost of that disruption to the Alphas was underscored by the recently released Illinois School Report Card. The report card identified at least one bright spot: Some students are better prepared for college because they were able to take more Advanced Placement and dual-credit classes.

But the gist of the report is sobering. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in significant drops in enrollment, increased absenteeism, declining academic performance and reduced likelihood of students graduating from high school on time. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, some of the worst of the fallout of the pandemic was felt by students of color.

The report, which covered the 2020-21 school year, stated total enrollment in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade schools was down 3.6% from the previous year, about 70,000 students.

It also revealed a troubling rise in chronic absenteeism during the pandemic. More than one in five students missed 10% or more of all school days, up from 13.4% in 2019, the most recent full pre-pandemic year. Increased absenteeism was particularly notable among Black and Hispanic students and English language learners. National studies have shown that school districts serving primarily Black and Hispanic students provided the least access to in-person learning.

The pandemic disrupted the schooling of students at all levels, but we’re most concerned about impact on the youngest kids, the members of Generation Alpha. The biggest enrollment declines were in pre-K and kindergarten programs, with pre-K enrollment down 17% and kindergarten enrollment falling 8%.

It hasn’t helped, of course, that some schoolchildren have been caught in the culture war crossfire, collateral damage in grown-ups’ arguments over masks and vaccines. The educational experience at times was a mere prop in a drama that seemed designed to stoke outrage and, perhaps, generate some campaign cash. Trouble is, unless “Fire Pritzker” pops up on a fourth-grade spelling test, those signs that dot the state won’t do anything to address the challenges posed by the pandemic to kids’ education.

We’re better than this.

It’s past time for everyone with a hand in educating Illinois students to stop the posturing and get on with the vital work of making our kids successful, lifelong learners. That work requires deep engagement by stakeholders across the board – elected officials and school administrators, classroom teachers and parents, and business and nonprofits leaders who must be able to count on our schools to prepare the high-quality workforce required to succeed in the 21st century.

To be sure, the pandemic has revealed heroes among us, including the educators who have found innovative ways to engage students and parents who have worked hard to keep their kids learning.

But it also revealed that too many of us are only too eager to exploit the fault lines that divide our society – political, cultural, social and racial – to advance a variety of agendas that have little to do with helping kids learn. The Illinois School Report Card shows where our priorities ought to be.

We can go a long way toward redeeming the experience of the past 20 months by making common purpose around helping Illinois schoolchildren rebound from the chaos of the pandemic. That should be something we can all agree on.