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In Virginia, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor was asked during the fall campaign to identify the biggest problem facing that state.

Winsome Sears was expected to take the well-worn path of discussing taxation, health care, infrastructure or crime.

Instead, she told the interviewer that more than 80% of Black eighth-graders in that state lack the ability to do math. Roughly the same percentage, she said, could be considered functionally illiterate. The candidate, who is Black, went on to win the election.

After her comments, the fact-checkers immediately got to work but found that Sears was largely on the mark, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress. In schools located in the shadow of our nation’s capital, too many students are falling behind.

It’s not a problem limited to any one state. Black students in Missouri produced eighth-grade math scores that were 28 points lower than white students in 2019. Nor is it a problem limited to race. In Missouri, eighth-graders in the National School Lunch Program were 27 points lower in math assessments than students who did not qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Ultimately, this becomes a problem of national competitiveness. The United States ranks 38th in the world in math skills. China, which you may have heard is our biggest economic and military rival, is first. China’s rise is not all about the theft of intellectual secrets.

At the local level, school quality often is depicted as a workplace issue, but it also can become a quality-of-life issue as students become working adults. In the St. Joseph School District, more than 50% of students tested below basic in eighth-grade math, meaning that they demonstrated a minimal command of state learning standards.

Those students, one would assume, really need to be back in school and in front of a teacher today. While much was made of the extra two days off that teachers received during the week of Thanksgiving, the criticism tended to revolve around the perceived unfairness of it all. “I work hard.” “I’m stressed.” “Where is my day off?”

This focus is too narrow, too personal. If school officials decide that the situation demands an extra two days off to recharge, then so be it.

But everyone should understand that there is nothing about an extended vacation that resolves any of the long-term problems facing educators today. Those challenges will require a persistent, community-wide focus, not a two-day quick fix.

All of us are familiar with taking a vacation and then walking through the door at work to face the same old you-know-what. Teachers today will be no different. It’s too bad for them, but we really need them in the classroom.

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