The Real Learning Loss

All, Reflections

Our spring of pandemic teaching was a mess. Our fall of pandemic teaching was a mess. It was always going to be a mess. In hindsight, we should have just shut the schools down in March instead of shifting online and committed instead to some serious thinking and planning over the summer. In hindsight, we should have been more honest with ourselves and the constituencies we serve, but we were forgivably ignorant in the spring.

Our wasted summer is much less forgivable. Far too many school leaders never gave up on the dream of returning to a normal school schedule even as we watched the virus ebb and flow and eventually settle in every nook and cranny of the country. We were ignorant and scared in the spring, but by summer we knew how to live with the virus and how to prevent its spread. We also knew that everyone is at risk and the risk of long-term health consequences strike everyone. We had the tools and the knowledge to protect ourselves and chose instead to blunder ahead with school reopenings and zoom-dominated hybrid educational plans designed to destroy the mental and physical health of teachers, students, and families while delivering minimal educational value. All in the service of an education system that has long been underfunded, overtested, and twisted to serve missions contradictory to the intent of its foundation. Why has so much time, money, and energy been focused on preserving the very worst parts of education (for example, the surveillance and control of teachers and students) instead of capitalizing on the real world opportunities offered by this epic event? Why is there so much focus on learning loss, a made up term invented by our corporate overlords, instead of the learning gains made by students who created their own challenges and projects and mastered a broad spectrum of new skills? Why is there so much focus on lost seat time instead of celebrating the students who have found joy in learning again now that they are no longer facing bullying, devastating anxiety, and systemic abuse?

Yes, there are very real problems faced by students and their families during the pandemic, but the truth is that we always had the tools to address those problems and instead deliberately chose not to do so because we have always treated our public education system as a one-size-fits-all operation and designed it to meet the needs of only a very specific (often mythical) student. We could have opened our preschool and primary schools for half days to provide the essential literacy lessons for those students combined with important social opportunities and breaks for caregivers. We could have opened our other school buildings (and provided transportation) for limited hours to provide support and interventions for students with special needs ranging from therapy to tutoring to simply providing meals, technology, and internet access. We could have set up learning pods sprinkled around communities, we could have set up project-based learning focused on solving community problems, and we could have made sure that every student had books to read — all things that would have reduced social isolation and supported student growth and development while preventing learning stagnation (which worries me much more than the mythical learning loss because it was endemic in education pre-pandemic and I think is the thing many confuse for learning loss (which again is not a real thing!).

Now as we prepare to enter our second spring of pandemic education we should not rush to re-open schools. The virus is still rampant in our communities and everyone involved in schools from staff to students is still falling ill or suffering from the long-lasting impacts of the virus. Plus the rise of new virus strains makes it even more important for us to remain vigilant. Too many people latch onto the studies showing that schools are not the cause of virus spread but ignore the second part of that finding: if safety measures are followed. In far too many schools safety measures are not followed: Some classes contain too many people too close together, ventilation is inadequate, mask usage is problematic, and testing is inadequate. The truth is we really don’t know how much virus is present in a school – or even the community it serves – on any given day because we have never had an adequate testing regime anywhere in the United States.

The truth is that school days never involved seven hours of learning and much of the core content lamented in those rants about learning loss is no actual loss, so why are we still so determined to replicate the old school day via zoom and pile on unreasonable expectations that are breaking teachers, students, and their families? Think I am practicing hyperbole? Check out this post by Julie Mason: This Isn’t What We Meant By Hybrid Learning. I know my friends and colleagues in K-12 education share similar experiences. If I hadn’t put my foot down I would be living this same experience in higher education (nod to my privilege). The solution is not to expect teachers to do two or three times the work. Who is this helping?

This is also a tremendous burden on students and their families. Too much synchronous learning requires too much of everyone with very little reward. In fact, I hear from my students and my friends who are parents that too often synchronous learning is damaging students’ ability to cope. I know that after a week filled with too many meetings following agendas set by someone else that my ability to focus is shattered. Pandemic living is already hard and we are making pandemic learning impossible. This constant drive to return to normal school when nothing else is normal has simply resulted in a disruptive on-again-off-again hybrid education model that makes it impossible for anyone to plan or learn.

Our education system is in crisis. It was already in crisis and had been for decades, but now the pandemic has highlighted the weaknesses of a system built on inequitable funding models and even more inequitable local politics. We still have the opportunity to transform education in the United States into something meaningful that makes pandemic life better rather than worse. We could use this opportunity to address the learning stagnation so prevalent in pre-pandemic education and now masquerading as pandemic learning loss, but I am not optimistic. Our failure to use is this opportunity to improve education is the real learning loss that we should be lamenting.

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