Learning loss is genuine and must be tackled, but how people go about doing so should be proportional to the magnitude of the problem. Despite our natural skepticism and all the adaptations and sacrifices we’ve come to expect, a kind of miracle is looming on the horizon. According to studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the immunizations are working slowly but steadily, and the state of California just declared that they aim to be “completely back to business by June 15.” The siege looks to be easing, and while it may be months away, a full return to schools throughout the country is almost probably not a fantasy this time.
Large-scale interruptions, such as the one that is currently ending, are always a pain, occasionally a tragedy, and frequently an opportunity. In his recent post, Our Kids Are Not Broken, posted in The Atlantic online, Ron Berger, a former teacher of 25 years, the writer of eight books on education, and a senior consultant at EL Education, points out that they’re frequently all three.
“Our kids have suffered so much—family members, ties to friends and teachers, mental well-being, but for so many, financial security at home,” the essay opens, sifting through a now-familiar list of misery before moving on to a different kind of difficulty. “Of course, they’ve squandered part of their academic gains.”
But, according to Berger, our obsession with measuring academic success and loss to the decimal place effort that feels both scientific and utterly subjective—is also terribly out of step with the times. “I kept hearing about remediating learning loss,’ and I had this idea that school would be a venue where all the kids would come in and be checked and categorized and sent to different regions to be healed,” Berger stated, almost cringing as he described why he wrote for The Atlantic. Our children are strong, not broken, and “as long as youngsters believe they have to come to school to be cured,” he says, “their hearts won’t be in their work.”
An Imagination Failure
If there’s a compelling need for quantification, it’s in the assessment of the past 12 months’ social, emotional, and psychological toll. Over half a million Americans have perished as a result of the war. For other students, it will be the first time they see their classmates or favorite professors in person in almost a year. Others will be overcome by the pure delight of recess, band practice, athletic activities, and the plethora of intellectual and social interests they’ve missed. Teachers, too, who have been wrongfully chastised for demanding safe working conditions, are yearning to see their children, to connect, teach, uplift, and love them. The need to repair the shredded social fabric of our learning communities, which has been shown in study after study to be essential to actual learning, should take precedence.
The implications of misallocating our priorities and prioritizing material over the kid are substantial and long-lasting. “We get into this trap of believing that if a student misses three months of arithmetic material, that’s a problem,” Berger says, reflecting on the high cost of remediation and tracking. “The fact is that if your child stays sick at home for three months and loses her confidence, it wouldn’t be a major deal in her life. However, if her confidence as a mathematician is shattered as a result of labels placed on her, it will be a lifetime problem for her. She’ll never be able to trust herself in math again.”
By definition, everything we do when we recover will be historic. It will be a catastrophic failure of imagination if all we come up with is giving out diagnostic tests to assess learning loss and then tracking kids into groups for rehabilitation. “You know what’s going to happen when the sorting comes to the kids who couldn’t get online last year because they had to support their kids or because they were homeless?” Berger wonders. “They’ll be arranged in such a way that the equity concerns will only get worse.”
As we finally make our way down the slope of a high mountain, gathering up the pace as we enter a hopeful new year, we appear to be focusing on the wrong problem.
Is There More Damage Than Good?
We do have reason to believe otherwise.
States are already required to conduct standardized exams by the federal government, and Berger is concerned that districts may add extra evaluations and diagnostics to find a battery of “student deficiencies.” He emphasizes that we should utilize the data properly, not “to criticize and rank kids, teachers, and schools,” but rather to direct our reaction to the individual learner to focus our time and resources on developing a resource culture where everyone belongs.
Focusing on a child’s social and emotional needs first—on their sense of safety, identity, and academic confidence—is not contentious, and assigning deficit-based labels to pupils has predictable consequences. Stereotype danger is a genuine phenomenon, according to decades of study, tying adolescents to a self-fulfilling prophecy of decreased expectations.
Meanwhile, simple actions like greeting children at the entrance increase academic engagement by 20%, while the sheer sight of photographs of women in scientific texts increases inclusion by 20%. Assuring that all children have at least one caring adult in their lives protects them against negative experiences such as poverty, aggression, and neglect. Pamela Cantor, MD, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Karen Pittman, among others, issued a study on the science of learning and development last year that said it bluntly: “The existence and quality of our connections may have a greater influence on learning and development than any other aspect.”
It’s not that learning loss isn’t a problem, or that emotional and social interventions will address it on their own. “Districts are dealing with a harsh reality,” Berger admits. “Last year, many students lost a significant amount of academic development… Districts must identify which pupils require more assistance, such as tutoring in and out of the classroom. However, instructors must assess students’ abilities in a way that encourages them to improve.”
However, he writes that high schools are full of students who have “begun to tune out academic instruction,” and that his colleague Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin, has conducted research that shows “that when students wanting to pursue mathematics were designated remedial work, it was probably a dead end for those students’ future in math.”
To motivate students now, as well as in the future, we must address learning gaps, they “should learn mathematical realities and build literacy skills”, but do so in the context of challenging work that demonstrates to them that schools, like the athletic field or there own after-school lives, are a “domain where they can contribute something great,” according to Berger. “They’ve realized that school isn’t the place for them to accomplish it.”
It’s an unusual and even radical concept, but if we make school both accommodating and highly engaging—even difficult, according to Berger—we’ll have a better chance of honoring the needs of all children and opening up the possibility of integrating kids to topics they care about when we return to school next year. In one of his most startling remarks, he adds, “Addressing worries about learning loss by boosting levels of difficulty may seem paradoxical, but with solid connections and support, this method may be unexpectedly beneficial.”
Responding To The Circumstance
The previous twelve months have been a sustained attack on the senses. The in-person school year was first halted, then unexpectedly terminated in March of 2020, which seemed like the blink of an eye. Many students from historically oppressed groups simply did not show up online, pointing to long-standing, systematic disparities in our educational institutions. Only a few months later, as our collective sense of displacement grew increasingly tense and unpleasant, George Floyd was assassinated in Minnesota, sparking months of some of the country’s greatest demonstrations.
Perhaps it’s time to realize that growing learning science and our national confrontation with injustice and inequity are both going the same route. Perhaps the magnitude of the situation necessitates a proportionate reaction. We have a greater understanding of the tools we’ll need to complete the task, as well as the extent and content of the issues.
Can we—should we—find the will to contest the testing program, return some organization to both our teachers and our students, carry the science of learning into our classrooms, and honor all children with difficulties, engaging work that heralds in a new, better, fairer era in education in the aftereffects of the clarifying events of the last year?
About the article
Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, firsthand accounts and analyses have centered on what was lost in the abrupt shift to “emergency remote learning.” In this article, we discussed how too much focus on ‘Learning Loss’ will be a historic mistake.