The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss has been posting reflections on the definition and meaning of learning loss for children during this academic year dominated by disruption, online learning and disruptive hybrid schedules. A primary theme in these columns is the danger of branding this cohort of students as victims of a lost year, as far behind, and as unlikely to progress well in school from here on out. None of the authors Strauss has published believes our fear of learning loss is justified, and not one thinks remedial drilling on “lost” content is what should happen now.
In her column on Tuesday, Strauss published an article by Michael Matsuda, a teacher at a California high school, and Debra Russell, researcher at TeachFX. They demonstrate the connection of misplaced but widespread fear about learning loss with what they believe is the Biden administration’s misguided decision to continue requiring standardized testing this year. Ironically, while the existence of the testing puts the spotlight on learning loss, the tests themselves will generate no valid or reliable data to help educators as schools open up: “‘Learning loss’ is emerging as the dominant theme in K-12 education for 2021… But one might argue that the most concerning thing that has been ‘lost’ is our focus on doing what is right for students. The Biden administration’s decision recently to proceed with standardized testing—albeit with expanded flexibility and lighter repercussions—is perplexing where it’s not problematic.”
Matsuda and Russell worry that the test results will be worthless because the data will be, “marred by uneven rates of participation and the varied pace of learning in schools. If (the tests are) administered remotely, these concerns are compounded by the stability of home Internet access, potential help from family members, and proper accommodations for the students who need them.” Referencing the first column Strauss published—by Rachael Gabriel, a professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut—Matsuda and Russell conclude that this year we must rethink the way our current test-and-punish education system posits that children learn by absorbing a rigidly defined progression of increasingly difficult academic content year after year.
Rachael Gabriel’s was the first piece in Strauss’s series. An expert on learning, Gabriel contradicts the entire theory underneath the No Child Behind Act, which assumes children can master material only in the rigid order prescribed by standards: “There is no such thing as learning loss. When it comes to K-12 schooling the truth is that some of us are more used to interruptions than others. Those of us who have to move around a lot, are living between two countries, or have experienced a major injury, illness, or are chronically ill, and even those who just changed schools once, know what loss feels like. But it is not a loss of learning. It is the loss of a previously imagined trajectory leading to a previously imagined future. Learning is never lost, though it may not always be ‘found’ on pre-written tests of pre-specified knowledge or preexisting measures of pre-coronavirus notions of achievement. The legacy of the standards movement of the 1990s, and the high stakes testing it inspired in the early 2000s, is a version of education that is assumed not to exist or matter unless or until it is predicted and measured. The pandemic has illustrated with searing definition how wrong that assumption is.”
Instead, learning happens relationally as students work together and with their teachers. Gabriel continues: “Children will learn most and best when adults around them believe in their ability to learn, create reasons for learning, and provide opportunities for meaningful practice. Catch-up is an impoverished reason for learning and remedial experiences are rarely contexts for meaningful practice.”
Strauss’s second “learning loss” column was by Bridget Terry Long, the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a school that has been more supportive than some others of standards based education theory. But this year Long seems to support letting school teachers themselves, the people who work directly with the children in their care, design their own ways to measure what each student needs. She prefers “formative assessments” designed personally by teachers who know their students instead of standardized “summative assessments” mandated by the federal government to sum up the content mastered by cohorts of students from place to place (and compared to established standards): “Formative assessments—those that teachers use to evaluate where students are at a particular time—would give insight to what has been lost as well as gains we’ve made. This is likely to differ by student and classroom due to the disparate impact of the pandemic—which has differed by family and neighborhood.”
The third of Strauss’s “learning loss” columns is by William Penuel and Katherine Schultz, professors in the School of Education and Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder: “We argue that learning loss is a faulty way to diagnose the challenges faced by children and youth as a result of the pandemic. Of course, many students have been disconnected from school learning, particularly those children who have not had consistent access to the Internet…. We also know that far too many students have suffered from isolation, making it harder to focus on traditional school tasks… Educators might first center their attention on the importance of connections… Many teachers called students’ homes for the first time, and some even delivered materials to children who couldn’t download them. Rather than typical phone calls that relay disciplinary news, these have been calls to check in with families out of concern for their well-being and a desire to connect… We suggest that teachers continue to reach out to families and to students….”
Penuel and Schultz are particularly alarmed by what we too frequently hear prescribed—a remedial approach: “Recently, school leaders from across the country have discussed proposals that teachers focus only on the reading and mathematics skills that are central to high stakes standardized testing in the coming year, to the exclusion of the arts, science, and social studies. We are concerned about these proposals for several reasons… Rather than narrowing the curriculum…supporting our students in the coming months means cultivating and repairing relationships. It means listening to students and inviting their curiosity, passions and ideas into the classroom. And it demands keeping the curriculum broad, not limiting it to reading and mathematics. All that will come from narrowing the curriculum is more loss and disengagement, rather than healing and repair.”
Finally Strauss published a fine column by Stephen Merrill, a former high school teacher and currently a writer and editor. Merrill warns: “It’s perfectly sensible to worry about academic setbacks during the pandemic… But our obsessive need to measure academic progress and loss to the decimal point—an enterprise that feels at once comfortably scientific and hopelessly subjective—is also woefully out of time with the moment… If there’s a pressing need for measurement, it’s in the reckoning of the social, emotional, and psychological toll of the last 12 months. Over 500,000 Americans have died. Some kids will see their friends or favorite teachers in person for the first time in over a year… Focusing on the social and emotional needs of the child first—on their sense of safety, self-worth, and academic confidence—is not controversial, and saddling students with deficit-based labels has predicable outcomes… (I)f we make school both welcoming and highly engaging… we stand a better chance of honoring the needs of all children and open up the possibility of connecting kids to topics they feel passionate about as we return to school next year.”
It is instructive to review these warnings about the real danger of fixating on learning loss among the students of the COVID-19 generation. The writers represent a variety of points of view on learning theory and the challenges students and their teachers are facing as school resumes. They all share, however, a belief that school must be a safe place for students, a place children and adolescents feel nurtured and supported as they learn, and a setting for intellectual engagement. Not one of them supports any widespread use of this year’s federally mandated standardized testing to hold schools or teachers or children or adolescents accountable in this bizarre year. Not one of these experienced educators endorses the application this year of the sanctions usually imposed as part of the scheme of No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act. None of them endorses branding particular schools or particular teachers or particular students as failures—by ranking and rating schools on state report cards that identify so-called “failing” schools, by judging teachers by students’ standardized test scores, or by holding kids back with the Third Grade Guarantee or high school graduation tests. And none of them endorses the imposition of numbing remediation at the expense of helping kids engage with the books and subjects they most enjoy.