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Rethinking the Discussion on ‘Learning Loss’

By Kevin Anderson

Posted on 2021-02-22

When students were asked to discuss “learning loss” for a recent article, one said about school during COVID, “I lost time I could have been enjoying my childhood.” I thought that was a profound statement on how students are feeling right now. While it is clear that some typical school learning did not happen to the same extent as it did before the pandemic, I would like to reframe how we view the learning that did happen and learning goals moving forward. 

I contend the primary focus of schooling should not be to push students toward artificial learning benchmarks at the expense of “enjoying their childhood.” We need to focus on helping students first develop a love for learning. We need to focus on what they can do, not on whether a small change in a test score–based trajectory happens. Using a packaged program that raises their score five points on a standardized test is not worth it if it decreases a child’s engagement in school. 

And we ignore that truth when the primary focus is on “learning loss.” Schooling at its best allows students to find their identity and their passions. And it helps them see that they are loved. That should be a major lesson of COVID-19 that we recognize to move forward.

Therefore, we need to focus on meaningful learning opportunities for all students, not a deficit- and remediation-minded emphasis on making up for lost time. Post-COVID student support requires very careful and thoughtful approaches for several reasons: 

  • Standardized test scores in mathematics and literacy have been relatively flat for at least the last decade, and achievement gaps are not closing. Devoting more time to these subjects—essentially, doing more of the same—has not and will not fix that problem. Admittedly, these types of tests provide limited information about the full range of important student learning, but they are a useful barometer, particularly when considering equity. 
  • Research shows that science learning supports literacy learning, but science learning has not been prioritized for years, especially at the elementary level. Literacy learning consistently receives a larger share of the limited time available. 
  • Like mathematics learning, science learning should be about giving students opportunities to collaboratively figure out interesting problems and phenomena, not memorize facts. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning broadly should be about empowering students to make a difference in their community, with the ability to determine where that’s possible. 
  • We need to move beyond the “What Works Clearinghouse” of programs, which are often based on biased studies. As noted earlier, we’ve seen little overall impact on achievement gaps, but we’ve also realized that such programs exacerbate the opportunity gap. I taught in a school in which students were removed from engaging elective courses (like STEM) and placed at a computer for extra reading learning. These students were denied key elements of school that motivated them to attend. We must deemphasize the structures that inhibit joyful learning. 
  • A deficit focus on students who have not “learned” as much as others has historically led to tracking. Tracking needs to be dismantled, not further entrenched through new post-COVID strategies. Remediation, as has been observed in postsecondary education, is rarely the best answer. School systems need to strive for renewal- and asset-based support, as framed by this Nebraska model

Instead of continuing with more of the same strategies to support students, we need to emphasize enriched learning for all. We need to get students engaged through meaningful connections to their community and their lived experience. For example, teachers can have them build literacy skills while gaining empowerment through exploring a unit on health equity and COVID-19

As Dr. Bettina Love, the inspiration for several points in this editorial, emphasizes, we need to focus more on joy—celebrating that we made it through COVID and dreaming of what can be—not repeating the same things we have always done. 

Assessment General Science Interdisciplinary Literacy Mathematics Performance Expectations Research STEM Teaching Strategies Middle School Elementary High School

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