PHOENIX — Teachers tend to bristle at the term "learning loss." For many educators, sagging test scores are a symptom of missed opportunities and unfinished business in the classroom. Teachers say their students need more than remedial "catch up" programs like summer camps. A return to normal, they say, requires a recognition of the trauma so many students have endured during the pandemic.
"I’m used to having students come in at all different reading levels," said Kristin Roberts, a high school English teacher. "I teach 9th grade and I regularly have students starting several years below grade level and several years above."
Roberts said teachers are already prepared for students who need extra help, but school districts and lawmakers should also recognize what students have learned during the pandemic— progress which isn't always measured in-state assessment testing.
"I am seeing students come in with sharper technology skills, problem-solving skills, and even self-advocacy and speaking up for what they need," she said.
In low-income districts, teachers said, students have weathered two years of traumatic experiences— from the loss of family members due to COVID-19 to students even quitting school to support their families during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
"Standardized test scores... they are important, we understand that," said Raquel Mamani, a substitute teacher in the Madison School District. "They [test scores] don't cover everything, and they don't take into consideration the whole child."
Teachers said lawmakers should consider mental health as an important component of getting kids caught up on academic progress.
Teachers say schools should hire more counselors, social workers, and aides to focus individual attention on students who are struggling. Those recommendations require more money, a scenario that appears unlikely during a legislative session that has focused more on subjects like critical race theory and school vouchers.
Nonetheless, in districts that have found extra help, teachers say they are already seeing tremendous progress in a school year in which nearly every Arizona student has returned to in-person learning.
"Because of federal dollars, we’ve been able to hire a few aides at my school to make sure the kids are getting rolled for more small groups and getting very specific math instruction and I see a huge success story. It has been amazing," said Beth Lewis, a teacher in the Tempe Elementary School District.
Lewis, and other teacher activists, point to perennial issues in Arizona schools, like teacher shortages, low teacher pay, and ballooning class sizes -- all of which have a direct impact on students' education.
On Monday, the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association released findings of its bi-annual survey, showing the teacher shortage is getting worse. Of the vacant teaching positions at the beginning of the school year, nearly a third, 31%, remained vacant a few weeks into the school year. Nearly 2000 teaching positions statewide are still unfilled. Of the positions which were filled, nearly half, or 47%, were filled by individuals who were uncertified -- meaning they failed to meet the state's basic requirements for teaching in the classroom.
ASPAA notes, the crisis has worsened during the pandemic, with more teachers opting to leave the profession, or leave the state for better-paying jobs elsewhere.
The National Education Association, a national teachers union, released a report in April 2021, showing the average salary for an Arizona educator is $52,157, ranking the state 43rd in teacher pay. The average teacher salary in the U.S. is $65,090, according to the group. Adjusted for differences in cost-of-living, educators say, Arizona remains at, or near the bottom for education spending in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.