Learning Loss

At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, the COVID-19 pandemic had been in full force for a year and a half. Vaccine rates were up and both new cases and death rates were down. And everyone was tired of closures and social distancing and, you know, the effects of an international plague. People wanted to “get back to normal.” 

My school, and many others, opened up fully in-person. But as cases started increasing again, teachers, parents, administrators, and pretty much everyone started noticing that something else wasn’t “normal.” Students didn’t enter their new courses with the same level of academic knowledge and skill that previous cohorts had. Their behavior was different. And their attitudes were different as well. 

The phrase “learning loss” had been trickling through educational discourse all through the previous school year, particularly with regard to the disparity between students from wealthier families, who were more likely to have better access to resources for effective remote instruction and better support, and students from poorer families, who were less likely to have access to those same resources. Educational achievement has always correlated closely with wealth (or the lack of it), and think tanks and pundits were warning that the pandemic was likely to widen that gap.

So the concern back in 2020 was that, due to school closures, the loss of instructional time, and other changes brought about by COVID-19, each cohort of students had learned less during the end of the 2019-2020 school year than they otherwise would have, AND, that students from less affluent families and communities would face a greater opportunity cost than their peers whose families had high-speed internet, parents with the option to work from home, heck, that students would have a dedicated PERSONAL space for their instruction, separate from siblings who were also stuck at home trying to connect with THEIR classes.

Students in wealthier communities have greater access to resources. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this issue.

However, during the summer of 2021, into the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year and throughout the first semester, there’s been a shift. The difference in the way the pandemic affected instruction for wealthier and poorer communities is rarely part of the discussion. Instead, it presents an illusion of equality, and the focus is on the learning loss that ALL students have experienced, and what we’re going to do to get ALL students “back on track.”

This completely ignores the fact that IF all students HAD been affected equally, there would be no need to get anyone back on track. Let’s be honest – while grade-level standards aren’t completely arbitrary, but are based on what a majority of students are typically able to achieve – they’re not locked in to some sort of age-encoded biological law. Bloom’s Taxonomy is not secretly the Fifth Law of Thermodynamics. 

If all students had been affected equally, we could just re-set the bar. Assessment is always subjective, even a standardized, multiple-choice test scored by computer. People decide what questions are on that test. People decide how the correct response should be presented, and what the distractors should be. People decide how many questions will be on the test, what the time limit should be, how much each correct response is worth, and what the penalty will be for incorrect responses. People decide what counts as “passing,” or “meeting expectations,” or “exceeding expectations,” or whatever you want to call that bar. 

So. We could just … move the bar. 

Throughout last school year, I thought there was actually a good chance that we might do that. And then we didn’t. Standardized testing is back, in full force, and schools and teachers are being asked what we’re doing to get students “caught up” to where they “should be.” 

There are no words for how awful this is, or how much harm it is doing to the children people are supposedly concerned about. 

The loss of instructional time is not the primary reason that students are struggling. They are very aware of the challenges that their families and communities are facing.

So, most obviously, it’s incredibly insulting to teachers, because it assumes that there’s something that we could be doing to help students that, for some unknown reason, we weren’t doing. Guess what? That’s not how it works. Teachers meet students where they are academically, and then help them learn as much as possible. That’s what we do, regardless of the circumstances. That’s what we’re doing now, in the middle of a global plague that is continuing to mutate into new variants. But, surprise, surprise, that’s what we were already doing before the pandemic hit. 

Additionally, the pandemic is still going on! As I’m writing this, there are concerns about the “Omicron” variant. There’s a part of me that’s horribly curious about what happens once we get through the rest of the Greek alphabet. Do we go for like… double-Alpha? Or do we move to a different set, starting with Aleph in Hebrew or Su in kanji?

Not the point. The point is that the pandemic is still going on, and nobody can tell these children when their classmates and friends are going to stop disappearing for weeks at a time – and, unfortunately, sometimes not coming back. I cannot understand how anyone would possibly think that it’s somehow a good idea to just ramp testing back up and accelerate instruction for students, who are stressed and exhausted and despairing and wondering what the point of any of it is anyway. 

Which is a valid question, by the way. The curtain has pulled back, and they aren’t going to un-see the man behind it. Back in the spring of 2020, we just didn’t do any standardized testing at all, and schools that did do state tests the following school year had them significantly reduced. 

And the world didn’t end. 

I believe that this is part of the reason for the change in attitude that we’re seeing in the vast majority of our students. They saw that we were able to just not do standardized testing, and they’re not aware of its originally intended purpose (though in fairness it isn’t really being used for that anyhow), so now that it’s being put back into place, they’re wondering why. And they’re not wrong to do so!

Students have always been more interested in playing games and talking to their friends than in paying attention, following directions, and doing their work. As the classical Greeks would say, “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

Complaints about “the youth these days!” are nothing new. However, what is new is the disillusionment and hopelessness behind modern student apathy. It’s not the carefree indolence of even a few years ago. What it reminds me of is the Billy Joel song “Allentown,” about the decline of the steel boom in Pennsylvania, focusing particularly on the plant in the neighboring town of Bethlehem. There’s a sad sort of resignation in the lyrics:

Well we’re waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all

Joel claimed that the song was hopeful, that the unemployed workers caught in this situation had resolved to keep trying. The song came out in 1982. The Bethlehem Steel Mill, which had opened in 1857, finally closed in 1995. 

Abandoned mills and factories serve as reminders of former prosperity to struggling communities.

In his 1987 concert in Leningrad, Joel said, “Their lives are miserable because the steel factories are closing down. They desperately want to leave… but they stay because they were brought up to believe that things were going to get better.”

The students in my classroom are already questioning the value of the diploma we’re encouraging them to work toward, of the grades and credits and test scores that surround them. The vast majority of them aren’t planning to stay. They want to get out. They rarely have a clear plan for that; it’s more the sense that anywhere else has to be better than here. 

There is nothing wrong with our children – at least, nothing that isn’t wrong with all of us. Our children are smart. They’re not particularly interested in jumping through hoops that have been revealed to be unnecessary and unhelpful for them. They are more aware than ever that neither a high school diploma nor even a college degree will guarantee a stable job with a living wage. 

Yes, there has been a drop in students’ academic skills. But that is not an isolated problem. Rather, it’s a symptom of a much, much larger problem. Students are learning from what they see around them. They are seeing that the adults in their lives need schools to be open because if they miss work to take care of their children, they can’t pay their bills. They are seeing that there is minimal support for illness or injury. They are seeing that if a corporation decides to increase profits by laying off workers, letting wages stagnate, or outsourcing to countries that literally allow slavery (Nestlé, I’m looking at you, but you’re definitely not the only one), there’s next to nothing they can do about it. 

The truth is, students haven’t lost any learning during the pandemic. They’ve just learned different things. 


You can watch a video version of this post on my YouTube channel.


Here are some articles I found useful:

https://www.edweek.org/leadership/overcoming-covid-19-learning-loss/2020/08

https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-learning-loss-disparities-grow-and-students-need-help

https://archive.org/details/schoolsofhellasa008878mbp/page/n103/mode/2up?q=indictment&view=theater – via Kenneth Freeman

https://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2021/11/a-reminder-about-uselessness-of-test.html

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