What Do We Owe Children of the Pandemic?

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 inefficientdata 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.


  1. As far as I am concerned, we owed your list to our children before the pandemic. I would tack on an examination of what did work during the pandemic, so we are better prepared for the next crisis. Teachers did an admirable job of retooling their instruction. Those successes need to be recognized and built upon too.



    1. Exactly. During the first months of the pandemic, when it was still terrifying, I wrote an optimistic blog on all the things we could learn from the experience of surviving a crisis, together. When I read it today, it’s the same perspective you had–we should have done all these things long ago, but, hey, no time like the present. The fact that none of this has happened–in fact, we’ve gone off in the wrong direction–is so discouraging. https://teacherinastrangeland.blog/2020/04/10/a-dozen-good-things-that-could-just-maybe-happen-as-a-result-of-this-pandemic/



  2. YES. Thank you. That is just the question: What is education for? Or maybe, *who* is it for? People? Or that abstract machine we call “the economy?”

    In the last two years, over 140k kids in this country lost a parent or guardian to Covid; hundreds of thousands more lost grandparents, uncles, cousins. They struggled with illness and loneliness; they couldn’t go to movies or clubs. Through it all, they had to log onto online classes from parking lots, shared laptops with siblings, and went without recess, parties, sports, games, prom.

    In my fantasy USA, where people actually matter, this cohort would always have had all those things you describe (health care, family support, and a curriculum designed to develop individual talents rather than stamp out economic meat-widgets). In addition, we’d have had school districts that had the luxury, and the authority, to ask themselves – NOT, “How can we make sure that kids continue to meet standards?” but, “How can we keep kids connected to each other, to services, to their community, and to learning, through this crazy time?” I imagine my school district holding an emergency community meeting in summer 2020, and (for instance) deciding to ditch the existing curriculum for a year, and instead to prioritize specific goals, and come up with creative ways to keep kids engaged and active and connected to their communities. Imagine if we’d focused on getting kids involved in projects to help local nursing home residents, or collecting data on butterflies, or organize reading clubs, or – whatever. And, when they came back to school, they’d be welcomed. There would be a national conversation celebrating their resilience. This cohort would be invited to tell their stories, share how they got through, talk about what they lost and what they maybe gained. And we’d throw them a goddam national party to make up for all that they’d missed.

    Instead, all they’re hearing is that they didn’t score well on the NAEP, and as a result, the Economic Machine may not run as smoothly as it apparently should. And the last hilarious point is – it’s not even true!!!



    1. “I imagine my school district holding an emergency community meeting in summer 2020, and (for instance) deciding to ditch the existing curriculum for a year, and instead to prioritize specific goals, and come up with creative ways to keep kids engaged and active and connected to their communities.” Exactly. There were so many things schools could do (in addition to the obvious–feeding children and keeping them safe and feeling as if we were working on solutions to the pandemic problems).

      Your final point is also true–none of this matters in the long run, with the long run being economic well-being for every person, not who gets into the most prestigious college. It also strikes me that the people the most concerned about test scores and standards those who usually win. If public education were to abandon tests and hierarchies, we might actually be able to work on equity. The rising tide, etc.



      1. Exactly.
        I mean, it’s really interesting that we have allowed this tyranny of “measurement,” where we fixate on goals and targets we have made up, to control our response to life. WW2 threw an epic, multi-year wrench into the lives and schooling (not to mention safety, health, etc) of millions of young adults and kids in Europe & the US. When life resumed, the US government didn’t say “oh no, these guys have lost prime career-establishing years fighting in Normandy and have fallen behind on their earnings / education.” The government said, What do these guys need? And they passed the GI bill, and ushered in a period of staggering prosperity. In Europe, children who’d spent the war years hiding in basements went on to establish the EU. Covid was always going to be a tragedy; we are making it so much worse.


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