Learning loss and education amendments: A Reformer year in review

    Tonja Henjum and her daughter Taylor struggled during distance learning this spring, and Henjum worries that if Taylor can't receive in-person instruction this fall, she'll fall further behind academically. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer

    When I tell people the Reformer launched in January this year, I end up saying something to the effect of “it’s been quite a year to get things off the ground, ha ha ha!” and then we both sigh knowingly because, well, 2020.

    It’s a cliche, but I mean it — it’s been quite a year to get a new publication started, keep it going and also publish a lot of important work, and I’m really proud to be part of a team that managed all that. 

    As our data and education reporter, I get to cover schools and a whole bunch of other topics, which this year included the opioid epidemic, politics, craft breweries, crime and vaccines. Some days I’m interviewing parents, legislators and academic experts; others I’m puzzling through spreadsheets for hours. I’m learning all the time and lucky to be doing it in my home state with the Reformer.

    Here are three stories from 2020 I wanted to revisit.

    Some big shots want to amend the Minnesota constitution to prioritize schools. Can it work?

    We published this piece in February, about a month after the Reformer launched and a month before Minnesota reported its first case of COVID-19 — which was approximately 1,000 years ago in pandemic time. But the subject is still relevant and worth revisiting.

    I pitched this deep dive into the constitutional amendment proposed by Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari and retired state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page for a couple reasons.. One, the proposal seeks to address one of the biggest and most pressing issues facing Minnesota — the state’s decadeslong, worst-in-the-nation racial disparities in education. (We have disparities in income and health outcomes, too. I covered those after the killing of George Floyd.) And two, I didn’t understand how it would work and figured other people were probably also confused.

    Way back in February, researchers told me that the amendment could lead to significant change but wouldn’t be a silver bullet. The pandemic has changed education since then, but it also has a lot of parents, educators and lawmakers thinking about how we can better serve students going forward. Critics like the influential teachers union Education Minnesota contend the amendment is just a Trojan horse attack on public schools. Advocates are sure to push legislators to take up the proposal during the next legislative session, so expect to hear more about it in 2021 — and maybe give this another read before then.

    Minnesota’s most vulnerable students may have lost a year of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic 

    Concerns about the “COVID slide” are important everywhere, and they’re especially important here, where — again — our racial disparities in education are among the worst in the nation and have persisted for decades. Early in the summer, I set out to find out what we knew about potential learning loss and how families were feeling about their children’s academic progress during distance learning. 

    This turned out to be a contentious question — some teachers and parents felt (and still feel) that it’s inappropriate to worry about academic progress during a pandemic, when we’re most concerned about health and safety. But advocates for low-income students in particular say it’s possible to do both: prioritize safety, and ensure all students have access to quality education.

    This story was the result of many conversations with parents, students, teachers and researchers, and one that I feel fits the Reformer’s mission to tell the stories of people most affected by the actions of government and business. Look out for more Reformer reporting on student learning in the new year. 

    From building damage to police payouts, the costs of Floyd’s killing are piling up

    This fall, we set out to chronicle the financial costs of the police killing of George Floyd, which are numerous, steep and unlikely to go away anytime soon.

    There wasn’t a whole lot of spice or intrigue in this reporting process. I spent hours reading academic studies, requesting public records and asking economists to talk me through papers they’d published 10 years ago. A student recently asked me what the big lessons were from the story, in terms of the reporting process, and I told him that it’s important to be creative and thorough and look into every question that might be relevant to your story. Then I talked about my organizational Google doc for several minutes.

    With the help of the Reformer team, we produced a piece that I like to think lays out the ripple effects of police actions, and gives an idea of how Minneapolis will experience the consequences for years to come.

    Rilyn Eischens
    Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.