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8 to 3: Is ‘learning loss’ real and how much should we worry?

Students in face masks in class.
Students at Daniel Webster Middle School in Los Angeles on the first day of school.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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This is the Oct. 18, 2021, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

Lately, I’ve felt frustrated by the public conversation around learning loss.

The nuances of the problem are being missed in favor of a louder, less helpful conversation about semantics and whether it exists in the first place.

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Based on the conversations I’ve had with educators, very few profess that the concept of learning loss is a complete farce, nor do they believe an entire generation is doomed. Most seem to think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

But you wouldn’t know that by reading some of the news coverage on the issue.

In the spirit of providing a little more context to our readers, I thought it would be helpful to unpack the significance of the pandemic’s effect on learning, as well as how we might talk about and respond to it.

What is it, and why does it matter?

Much of the discourse around learning loss has gotten stuck on what to call it. Learning lag, interrupted learning and unfinished learning are favored among academics, because knowledge did not vanish from the minds of young people. Kids just didn’t learn as much as they would have if they’d attended classes in person.

Researchers from McKinsey found that by the end of the 2020-21 school year, students were, on average, four to five months behind where they have typically been in the past. Unsurprisingly, low-income kids and students of color were disproportionately harmed by these setbacks in math and reading.

Some argue, and justifiably so, that these measurements are derived from assessments of learning that come nowhere close to capturing the many kinds of knowledge that students possess.

Yet it is inarguable that falling short of these benchmarks without being given meaningful opportunities to catch up has real-life consequences for kids.

Heather Hough, executive director of the education policy research center PACE, explained it to me this way: If a student can’t read and write fluently by third grade, for example, it will be hard for them to master more complicated content moving forward. If left unchecked, these kids may not graduate from high school, or go to college, thus widening preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps.

“The issue of measuring student learning isn’t to say ‘these students didn’t learn and they never will,’” Hough said. “It’s to say, students didn’t get the kinds of learning opportunities they would have, or they weren’t able to learn because they were sick or hungry or scared. Now we need to work really hard to make sure we organize our systems to serve those kids, to make sure they get what they need.”

Why the “learning loss” frame is being critiqued

It’s clear that kids need extra support right now — academically, emotionally, socially. I’ve yet to hear anyone suggest otherwise. But the way we talk about kids and their potential matters.

ACT, the nonprofit that administers the college entrance exam of the same name, announced last week that the 1.3 million high schoolers who took the ACT in 2021 had the lowest average score in more than a decade.

“We are seeing a number of year-over-year trends that suggest the emergence of a ‘lost generation’ that is less likely to succeed academically and in the workplace,” ACT’s CEO, Janet Godwin, said in a statement.

So many headlines have used that same phrase — “lost generation.” This is a problem, because a child’s ability to learn partially depends on their confidence (or lack thereof) in their ability to flourish in the school environment, according to Ron Berger, a senior advisor at EL Education who also teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Characterizing an entire generation by their deficits can do a lot of harm.

“The gaps are real and we need to be honest about them,” Berger told me. “But we have to remember that the ‘learner identity’ kids come to school with will be the governor of how well they do.”

A growing field of research called the science of learning and development (SoLD) supports the premise that learning is integrated with every aspect of our existence: academic, social, emotional, cognitive, physical and identity-building.

Katherine Schultz, dean of the School of Education at CU Boulder, put it another way: “When kids feel bad about themselves, they aren’t going to learn quickly, and they give up. It turns them off school.”

So what can be done?

Ultimately, educators trying to address learning gaps should capitalize on student strengths rather than remediate their weaknesses, scholars told me.

A remedial approach, such as holding kids back a grade or pulling them out of electives to teach them core subjects, is stigmatizing and doesn’t keep kids engaged, Hough said. Instead, many educators are advocating for “acceleration” — teaching students grade-level material while feathering in the skills and lessons from earlier grades needed to understand new content.

School districts across California and the U.S. have moved toward adopting this strategy in light of research that supports its effectiveness.

In reality, many schools are using a mix of remediation and acceleration, Hough told me.

“If systems were already in place for remediation, those systems are what they will continue to lean on, especially in a situation where many districts are still unable to implement basic services,” Hough said.

For example, one way to accelerate learning is to bring more adults into the classroom, so students can receive one-on-one support without being pulled from class. For the first time in a long time, hiring those extra tutors and aides is financially feasible for California schools, thanks to unprecedented funding for public education. But staffing shortages have hampered districts’ ability to hire the folks who could provide those targeted interventions and supports. Even in places that manage to recruit additional staff, many of those new hires are instead helping to contact trace and manage quarantine procedures.

“Delta shook everything up,” Hough said. There’s been a real derailing of what people intended to spend their time on.”

To vax or not to vax, and other news

There was a lot of angst about how many teachers and school staff in L.A. would get vaccinated after the Los Angeles Unified School District made vaccines mandatory. The deadline for getting the first shot was Friday, and the results are impressive: Fully 97% of teachers and administrators have now received at least one vaccine shot, according to The Times’ Howard Blume.

Meanwhile, California’s two largest school districts, in L.A. and San Diego, were sued last week over their vaccine mandates for students.

Some of you may have names that start with letters near the end of the alphabet. If so, you became accustomed to being at the end of EVERYTHING in school — and maybe that’s happening to your kids now. Wonpyo Yun writes that this happens disproportionately to Asian Americans, and suggests that perhaps it’s time to tinker with the system. (Some teachers already do.)

With Halloween around the corner, The Times’ Stephanie Breijo has rounded up some of the best bets for spooky food and drink around L.A. We’re talking Vampire Pizza, Black Magic cold brew and Creepy Crawly Critters ice cream, among other delicacies.

If you’re the parent of young children, this may seem premature, but here’s advice about how to pass along an inheritance to your kids.

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What others are reporting

A student at a Catholic girls’ high school in Sacramento created a stir by wrapping their shoulders in a rainbow flag after being nominated as a homecoming princess. School administrators reportedly warned the student, who identifies as gender fluid, “that any other public display of being gay would result in disciplinary action.” Sacramento Bee.

A school district in Marin County is under the first desegregation order issued in California in 50 years. Here’s a look at how it’s going. San Francisco Chronicle.

At least 140,000 American children had lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19 by the end of June. Not surprisingly, experts say this is shattering to a child, with lifelong effects. The Atlantic.

Advice on how to deal with the Terrible Twos (tantrum division). Washington Post.

You have a disabled child who might not be ready to go back to school. Some parents in this situation are finding that remote learning is now closed off to their children. Chalkbeat.

I want to hear from you.

Have feedback? Ideas? Questions? Story tips? Email me. And keep in touch on Twitter.


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