The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released earlier this year, set off tremors and alarm bells across the country’s education landscape. NAEP reported what we already knew: our kids are paying the price for the pandemic, with those most at-risk being hit the hardest. NAEP measures student performance in grades 4 and 8. It reported the largest decline in reading skills since the 1980s, and the first-ever decline in mathematics skills. Decades of educational progress have been wiped away.

The situation in younger classrooms is not measured by NAEP, but we know from our classroom work that for too many of our earliest learners, those building blocks for a lifetime of learning—foundational skills like literacy and numeracy—simply are not there.

In a world moving forward at an astonishing speed, too many of our kids are actually going backward.

In the aftermath of disrupted learning, while we struggle as a nation to sort through what worked, what didn’t, and why, our kids are struggling to recover. All the kids. Scores declined across all demographics, but the sharpest drop in progress was among low-income and at-risk students.

The truth is this: our preK-12 educational system failed its stress test. Had we maintained years of steady investment in education, if all schools were equitably equipped and resourced, we might have been able to save us from where we are today. When the pandemic hit, we faced education’s “perfect storm”— and now school boards, administrators, and educators are trying to navigate through the resulting learning crisis.


Against this background, Learning Without Tears launched Phonics, Reading, and Me™, a breakthrough supplemental phonics program that allows K-3 teachers to identify precise student shortfalls in the literacy skills needed to become proficient and effective readers. Phonics, Reading, and Me uses voice-enabled technology in a cutting-edge way: to "listen" to each student read, asses their skill level, and leverage artificial intelligence to provide personalized learning paths.


The situation today is dire for millions of kids—meaning millions will need their learning levels assessed and gaps identified. Quickly. To raise student math performance, for example, we need to know what skills students have mastered and which are missing. The same is true for reading. Providing accurate assessment is a herculean task.

It's common to hear there’s no “silver bullet” to fix America’s ailing education system. That may be so, but when it comes to preK-12, we know what works. We know how to teach kids the foundational building blogs of learning. What is our silver bullet? Teachers.

We all know the pressure facing teachers—they need to do more and reach more. With teacher populations in decline and morale plummeting, the pressure on those still teaching is reaching a concerning level. Fortunately, technology provides some of the answers. A teacher’s greatest resource is time. If we can save a teacher time, help them do something more quickly, and show them how to reach more children, we will give teachers the precious resource they covet most: time.

In any year, assessing and monitoring student reading progress is laborious and time-consuming—a teacher can only listen to one student at a time read. Now, with this breakthrough voice-enabled tech from SoapBox Labs (innovation-focused magazine Fast Company called it education’s “Next Big Thing”), teachers can use technology tailored to understand young voices and language to assess multiple students at the same time. Thanks to these assessments, each student is put on an individualized learning path, maximizing the most important part of any education effort: the teacher. In essence, technology is enabling education to scale the teacher.

While some edtech companies seek to replace teachers, we believe that empowering a teacher is the most effective way to address current needs.

First lady Dr. Jill Biden has said that “education makes us whole.” We suspected, but the NAEP findings made clear, that our students are not whole; our communities are not whole. To bring our country back to the learning levels of previous years and make our students whole will require work, support, and effort from all of us. We can overcome the destruction from education’s perfect storm.

We need to debate what went wrong so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past. More importantly, we need to pull ourselves up and together forge forward to find the learning solutions that will empower our teachers and get our kids the tools they need to learn to read—the right of every child. If we don't help our youngest learners today, they—and we—face a very bleak future ahead.

 Terry Nealon ( is CEO of Maryland-based Learning Without Tears, a privately held early learning company, boasting 40 years of successful literacy instruction for young learners.

Around NSBA

A group of high school students paint on canvases during an art class.

2023 Magna Awards Grand Prize Winners

School districts rethink and reinvent education for their students, staff, and communities.