Another piece in the NY Times, yesterday morning, all about the learning loss ‘crisis’ created by the pandemic. The article starts with the usual—essentially true—statement about test scores dropping as a result of the disruption of dealing with a global pandemic. But paragraph two goes full-on hype:
Nine-year-olds lost the equivalent of two decades of progress in math and reading, according to an authoritative national test. Fourth and eighth graders also recorded sweeping declines, particularly in math, with eighth-grade scores falling in 49 of 50 states.
I am always curious about why these easily debunked, alarmist claims appear in all the NAEP (‘authoritative national test’) reporting. Because we wouldn’t want to have a calm, rational, evidence-based discussion about how we can help all the kids whose lives were turned upside down by a pandemic, would we?
Instead, we’re left with arguments about whether remote learning is inefficient— data on that are not clear-cut, coincidentally —and panicky faux statistics on lost decades of learning. Faux statistics that the general public does not fully understand, by the way—you have to wonder WHY they’re appearing in the New York Times.
What the analyses of NAEP data do reveal: Nationally, we have accepted the idea that test scores are reality, our only reliable indicator of whether a school is doing its job and individual children are learning. There is no test that measures resilience or student well-being—that information would actually be useful.
There is zero doubt that schoolchildren were negatively impacted during the pandemic. Most of them had to stay home, to protect their own health and the health of their families, at some points in the pandemic—and those viral spikes in the population are not over. Remote learning was patchy and less than ideal, for many children. The world, for all kids, from preschoolers to high school seniors, became an unpredictable and often disappointing place.
The question now is not How Bad Was It? followed by handwringing and blame.
The question is: What Should We Do Now? (Notice that I did not say ‘now that the pandemic is over’?) How can we help kids who have been through a rough patch find stability and comfort, even joy, in a school setting?
What do we owe to those children and youth, some of whom are experiencing their first ‘normal’-ish year at school and some who have cut their K-12 losses and moved into the world of college or work?
I have some ideas about that. But first, some essential questions.
The foundational question: What are our real end goals in educating children?
Improving their test scores is a demonstrably terrible goal, as we have learned with the latest round of NAEP data. If all we offer kids, in school, is instruction designed to bump up scores, and then spend all our media capital bemoaning a three-point drop after a massive health disaster, it’s no wonder they feel disconnected from schooling.
Another question: Is remote learning ever beneficial? Under what circumstances and conditions?
I would argue that remote learning, while a long way from ideal, served a positive purpose in 2020. And further, having experienced it under triage conditions, we could use that experience to explore better uses of distance learning, instead of deciding that it was both a failure in terms of learning, and, somehow, the teacher union’s fault.
Finally: How much of this panic over test scores is driven by what the pandemic laid bare: Our society-wide reliance on schools for childcare. Parental angst and fears being politicized by opportunistic partisan groups, funded by dark money.
We need our community schools. And we desperately need to reassure the next generation that we believe they can learn whatever they need to learn to become functional adults—and that we will help them toward that goal, as best we can.
What do we owe the children of the pandemic?
- A universal health care plan, available to every American.
- A high-quality, fully funded public education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table, and baseline funding to bring schools in poverty into alignment.
- Additional free or low-cost education and services for those who need or desire them: Free community college. Free auxiliary tutoring for kids with special needs—ESL, disabilities, long-term health issues, etc. Free apprenticeships. Free preschool. Free career counseling for all ages.
- High-quality, affordable childcare, and adequate parental leave.
- Plenty of well-trained and well-paid teachers, pre-K through university level.
- Rich curriculum that acknowledges all children have different gifts and interests.
We had a crisis-opportunity to examine the stressors and weaknesses in our education system. Let’s not fumble that away by pointlessly crying wolf over an incremental but understandable drop in standardized test scores.