Jeb Bush: How to end the epidemic of failure in America’s schools

Editor’s note: This commentary from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, founder and chairman of ExcelinEd and ExcelinEd in Action, appeared last week on wsj.com.

While much of the U.S. has returned to normal after the pandemic, the long-term academic harm to students endures.

This school year is the first time many public-school students returned to in-person learning without mask requirements or learning disruptions. That’s nearly 2½ years since the beginning of the pandemic. For younger children, that’s 25% or more of their lives so far.

Since March 2020, we’ve seen the largest learning loss in modern history. This catastrophe wasn’t inevitable. But what began as school closings in response to COVID-19 morphed into an intentional effort by teachers unions to block the schoolhouse door. On Monday, the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores will be released, and they are likely to be appalling.

(Editor’s note: You can read about the results here.)

This congressionally authorized 50-state analysis, officially styled the Nation’s Report Card, will show exactly how much U.S. students have fallen behind. Last month, the NAEP long-term trend assessment was released. That report found that between 2020 and 2022, average reading scores for 9-year-olds declined 5 points, nearly half a grade level, and math scores dropped 7 points, more than half a grade level. This is the greatest average score decline in reading since 1990, and the first ever score decline in mathematics.

The U.S. has a choice: Give up on a generation or confront this challenge head-on.

Some adults find it easier to give up. They won’t say it out loud; they’ll simply lower expectations. Or, they’ll explain away the drop in scores, blaming the pandemic when scores had already begun to decline before Covid hit. Rather than raise the bar, they’ll dodge accountability, allowing today’s low math and reading scores to become tomorrow’s ceiling.

That is unacceptable.

We can move forward rather than back. Doing so is a priority if the U.S. is to be a competitive nation in a competitive world. It also is a human necessity, as every student has God-given potential and deserves a great education.

The solutions are simple. There are math and reading policies every state should immediately enact and there are ways parents can contribute. Start with a call to all parents, guardians, and families—those who know their children best. You were called on to step up when Covid kept kids at home. Now you are needed again to help close those learning gaps.

Any trusted adult in a child’s life—parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, whoever—should lean into this moment. Help students recover lost learning by reading for 20 minutes a day. That can be a parent reading to a child, a child reading to a parent or children reading to themselves. In addition, research has found that 30 minutes a week of extra math work can help students who are struggling or behind. If you aren’t up to writing math equations for your kids, seek out free, high-quality online math tools.

Lawmakers must step up, too. One way to help parents is eliminating the barriers students face in accessing a better education. This year, Arizona became a national model by creating a universal education savings account program with flexible, portable and customizable funding. That kind of legislation is transformative for student learning.

Early literacy is the foundation for long-term reading success. To ensure every child can read by the third grade and be ready to succeed in life, policy makers must ensure that all educators are trained in phonics and the science of reading—an evidence-based approach to teach the understanding of sounds, decoding, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. This may require changing teacher-prep programs in colleges of education as well as installing literacy coaches in every elementary and middle school.

Literacy practices and curricula that fail to teach students how to decode words should be banned. Teaching models that include the “3-cueing” approach, which asks students to look at pictures and guess instead of sounding out words, should be scrapped. It’s a failed approach.

Every state should require that students be screened in reading three times a year in grades K-3 and offer assistance to those struggling to learn to read. These critical years are too often ignored until it’s too late to catch up.

The same is true for math instruction. States should ensure that students have access to trained, effective math teachers. That may mean not all elementary teachers should teach math, only those who specialize in it.

Students graduating from high school should have mastered at least Algebra I. Curriculum should have high-quality content focused on procedural and conceptual problem-solving skills and knowledge of whole numbers, fractions and geometry. Students who are behind need personalized math support, including tutoring two to three times a week.

Overcoming the pandemic-related education crisis is possible. For the next generation, we must abandon failed practices, rally around education excellence, and commit to helping children reach their full potential.