Lost and Found?: Addressing COVID-19 “Learning Loss”

By David Nurenberg

At just about a month away from the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year, two words are on the mind of every school administrator: “learning loss.” Learning loss describes the gap between how much students have learned during a year in school and how much they are normally expected to learn, in terms of progress towards state-defined learning standards. Over the past year of the pandemic, students missed out on a great deal of in-school instruction. Just how much they missed varies, as every one of the 13,000 public school districts in the nation made different choices. A report by McKinsey And Company estimates approximately 60% of K-12 students started last school year fully remote, with 20% in a hybrid model and 20% fully in person – but the report doesn’t track at what point during the year, if at all, students returned to full-time in-person instruction, and firm figures as to how much learning loss occurred during that remote time are even harder to come by thanks to uneven data collection and measurement. Suffice to say, almost all teachers (97% in one recent national survey) report some learning loss among their students, and the degree of this loss varies enormously depending on which children we’re talking about. There are vast inequities, both between schools’ ability to provide more in-person learning and/or higher quality remote instruction, and between students, based on the financial and physical health of their families during this time, the robustness of their at-home support systems, etc. Many white, affluent families were able to leverage their usual advantages to maintain or even advance their kids’ academic progress during this time, while many Black and Brown children, especially those from less wealthy backgrounds, fell even farther behind. COVID made these always-present disparities even more pronounced.

While there have been scattered efforts by parents’ groups to try and hit the “reset” button on school curriculum and instruction for this fall, so far state departments of education have been firmly instructing schools to not act as though students missed out on last year’s instruction. In other words, if a large number of seventh graders in a class essentially missed out on sixth grade math last year, their math teacher is not supposed to re-teach sixth grade material come September. They’re instead supposed to teach seventh grade material while somehow “catching up” the kids by squeezing two years’ worth of instruction into one.
I’ve opined before that the way state learning standards are articulated, in terms of breadth of coverage, makes it nearly impossible to cover even one year’s standards during a year. Teachers often “cover” them by having a learning goal of the day, going through a lesson, administering a quiz, and marching forward, even when many students haven’t acquired more than a surface-level understanding, if that. The model of “one size, one pace, fits all” instruction, still dominant in so many classrooms, goes too quickly for many students, and too slowly to engage others. Now that COVID has made those classrooms even more disparate in terms of student needs, schools absolutely must sacrifice some breadth for depth. They need to select the most core, fundamental things students need to know and be able to do, and then allot sufficient time in the school year to allow students who are behind to “catch up” (both during class time and, if necessary, during X blocks or elective blocks) and provide them with more scaffolds and opportunities for practice and revision. Simultaneously, they must give students who are already at, or even beyond, grade level the chance to go deeper with more complex, cognitively demanding ways to engage with that same topic. Class needs to look more like a workshop, where not everyone is always doing the same thing at the same time. I can attest from 21 years of experience that it is much more difficult to teach this way than by simply preparing a single lecture or problem set per lesson. But decades of research tells us this is the way to teach for equity. Districts should spend some of that new federal funding on training teachers in how to use these methods.  
But there’s another aspect of this whole “learning loss” issue that bothers me, and that’s the very specific and narrow way in which we discuss education during the pandemic. As Valerie Strauss argues in the Washington Post, students have in fact learned a great deal during this COVID year – lessons about resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity, about the work/school/family balance, about injustices in health care and policing and electoral politics. If schools – and the news media – continually cast this past year as simply one of knowledge and maturational deprivation, then it denigrates the incredible growth that many students, especially some of our most economically disadvantaged kids, have in fact undergone. To be effective in reaching these students, their teachers need to acknowledge and celebrate those learning gains, and incorporate discussion of those lessons into the classroom as well.

This speaks to how, come this fall, one of the best things teachers can do is re-establish and strengthen relationships with their students, connecting with them as people as opposed to just scores that need to be quickly brought up. Relationship loss is as important as learning loss; much research attests to the fact that addressing the former helps with the latter. As Edutopia editor Steven Merrill puts it, “Whatever we do when we return will be historic by definition. If all we come up with is passing out diagnostic tests to quantify learning loss and then track kids into groups for remediation, it will be a terrible failure of imagination.”

David Nurenberg, PhD, is an associate professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA. He taught high school ELA for 21 years, and now trains teachers and consults for schools in the Boston area. David is also the host of the progressive-education podcast Ed Infinitum. His latest book, What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?, was published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2020.

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