Pandemic, school closures pose challenges for measuring trends

By Bill O’Boyle [email protected]



The series

This is an occasional series looking at economic indicators followed by The Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development at Wilkes University and what they mean to Northeastern Pennsylvania.

By examining education indicators, Teri Ooms, executive director at The Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development at Wilkes University, said it is possible to assess education and future economic development in terms of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities to prepare the tomorrow’s workforce for employment in the region’s business and industry.

In The Institute’s 2020 Indicators Report, Ooms said the data is pre COVID – 19 pandemic and school closures measuring trends going forward will pose a challenge.

“Many indicators will not be reported,” Ooms said. “This will be exacerbated by a second wave that may occur in the fall/winter of 2020-2021. The pandemic identified a number of issues where there are equity challenges not just regionally, but nationally.”

In this year’s indicators report and past reports, Ooms said she has seen wide differences in metrics of school performance and outcomes across school districts. While the region has performed near or slightly better than statewide averages in measures like the graduation rate, Ooms said districts that are more socioeconomically and fiscally challenged tend to lag behind the relatively affluent suburban districts.

“This year, education was interrupted in an unprecedented way by COVID-19,” Ooms said. “We expect interruptions in future data because key indicators could not be fully collected this year.”

That said, Ooms said the success of student outcomes based on teaching and academic performance is likely to show that wealthier school district children fared better and learned more. Some of this, she said, is due to technology.

“Educators did the best they could to maintain some continuity in utilizing remote learning technology, but we are also aware that technology resources are not equally distributed among school districts,” Ooms said. “The Institute is continuing to study the impacts of the transition to online learning and how this might affect outcomes and equity.”

Ooms added that there are a few reasons to expect that this year’s events might result in further widening disparities in education — lower socioeconomic status districts are likely to have fewer resources and technical infrastructure to make the transition to online learning, and families in those districts may be less likely to have access to technology at home.

Ooms said some 83 percent of households in the region have internet access at home in one form or another. However, she said this share drops to 60 percent among the lowest income households.

“This technology gap looks to be a significant barrier to education, especially when places with public computer or internet access, such as public libraries, were also closed by the pandemic,” Ooms said.

Ooms went on to say that the economic impacts of COVID-19 are significant and far-reaching.

“Unemployment has spiked, and while some recent unemployment data has brought good news, unemployment remains high, and we expect at least some slack in the labor market to persist in the coming months,” Ooms said. “A coordinated effort for workforce development to equip workers with in-demand skill-sets is even more acutely necessary. The Institute is conducting research on which skills are most in-demand post-COVID-19 and how stakeholders can quickly up-skill displaced workers to meet those needs.”

Ooms also expects to see significant impacts to higher education. She said the transition to online learning has disrupted both teaching and learning, as well as institutions’ financial states.

“However, our higher learning institutions will remain an important part of our region’s workforce training infrastructure,” Ooms said. “As COVID-19 has underscored the need to have an adequate healthcare workforce, our region is home to a number of education and training programs related to healthcare and social services.”

Ooms said the total of number of degrees awarded in both counties in 2017-2018 was nearly 8,400. In both Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, registered nursing was among the top degree fields by number of graduates. Social work, bio-medical sciences, physical and occupational therapy, and other healthcare and social service fields are also well-represented in the region, which Ooms said bodes well for the ability to create a home-grown workforce to meet this and future community health challenges.

“Now may be a good time for Pennsylvania to consider consolidating school districts at the county level in order for revenue sharing to create equity in elementary and secondary education,” Ooms said.

Historical indicators

Generally speaking, Ooms said the quality of a region’s education system, and the level of the education and training received by residents and workers, directly correlate with the success of that region’s economy.

She said pay level often links to high-skill jobs, which in turn link to level of education, so higher educational attainment and enhanced training can lead to reduced poverty and a more competitive workforce.

Relatively large shares of the workforce in both counties have an associate’s degree level of attainment, but their rates of population age 25 years and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher continue to fall short of the state average.

Ooms said emerging industries and occupations demand a diverse range of education and training opportunities, including apprenticeship programs, associate degree or trade school programs, on-the-job training, certificates, credentials, and college and university degrees.

In 2018, nearly 8,383 degrees were awarded in the two-county region — many of them in key fields like health care and business. Ooms said this is a slight decrease from the previous year, during which 8,639 awards were granted. Northeastern Pennsylvania’s impressive and varied group of higher education institutions will continue to be an asset in preparing students for success in the workforce.

Career and technical education at the high school level is another path to gaining the job skills that translate to economic opportunity. Between the two counties, more than 2,700 students were enrolled in Career and Technology Centers (CTCs) in 2019.

In addition to CTC programs, Ooms said Advanced Placement (AP) coursework helps students after graduation. Some districts recorded AP/IB (International Baccalaureate) course participation as high as 45 percent of students, and many districts saw large shares of students complete college coursework as well.

Among the many indicators of school performance, including attendance, dropouts, and standardized test and SAT scores, Ooms said the most notable trend is the significant variation from district to district and school to school.

“In order for more students to pursue higher education and succeed in the workforce, it is important that the schools struggling in measures of academic performance continue to strive for improvement despite the differing socioeconomic contexts of the communities they serve,” Ooms said. “These efforts must be complemented by work to improve those socioeconomic contexts — ensuring that children come to school ready to learn by alleviating poverty, food insecurity, housing insecurity, and physical and mental health challenges.”

Ooms said the four-year high school graduation rate — the percentage of students graduating four years after starting high school — has generally trended upward since the 2013-2014 academic year, though it decreased in all geographies in the 2017-2018 academic year, according to the most recent data point on record. The number of public school dropouts spiked over the 2016-2017 academic year, but declined in 2017-2018, registering 14-percent and four-percent declines in Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties, respectively.

Ooms said public school assessment has undergone a significant period of transition. She said the Keystone Exams have replaced the PSSA exams for 11th grade students, and the PSSA exam content changed between the 2013-2014 school year and the 2014-2015 school year to reflect Common Core material.

As a result, this report uses PVAAS — the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System — which measures students’ growth over time and accounts for changes in standardized tests over time, along with variability among the student population. In 2018, the PVAAS growth index showed positive results in several subject areas, including 11th grade Literature and Biology. Countywide average scores for fourth- through eighth-grade students showed room for improvement, although results varied significantly by district.

Ooms added that pre-K programs are significant in that they provide a basis to help children with early literacy.

“Students are four times likelier to drop out of school if they are not proficient readers by the third grade,” Ooms said.

In Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, Ooms said participation in publicly funded pre-K enrollments is the highest among recent years — at 43 and 24 percent, respectively.

Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.