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Learning Loss - Yes, It's A Thing.

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Back in May 2020 when we were only a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, an opinion piece in the Washington Post suggested a different approach to the idea of learning loss. The author, Rachael Gabriel, suggested that rather than focusing on how little students were learning during the initial school closures, we should instead concentrate on the life lessons students have inevitably gained --

“Students are learning how to reset the rhythms and structures of their days. They are learning different patterns and modes of communication…

Some are learning from the outdoor world on walks that go slower and last longer than before. Others are watching nature change day-by-day out their window, in their gardens, and along trails and bodies of water. Some are spending more time in their imaginations because it’s the only place to go...

Students cannot help but learn about themselves, others and the world around them in this time when solitude has steadily increased alongside disconnection and uncertainty.”

I might have bought this a year ago.

As both an educator and a parent of elementary-aged children, of course I want my children to learn how to navigate the “rhythms and structures of their days” with independence. Of course, I would love for them to take leisurely nature walks “along trails and bodies of water.“ Of course, I think it is valuable for them to spend “more time in their imaginations” and engage in self-reflection.

Of course, I want all of these things for my children.

I also want them to learn how to read.

I also want them to engage in mathematical problem-solving.

I also want them to partake in age-appropriate social activities that don’t involve staring at a computer screen for hours on end each day.

Is this too much to ask?

In fairness to the author, her initial article was written under the premise that students would be returning to school in September 2020. Were that the case in the majority of places, I might have been able to overlook this idealized version of students enjoying a quiet quarantine at home, reflecting on nature and learning valuable life lessons with their families.

A year later, however, many schools across the country remain fully remote or hybrid, while others have only recently opened their doors to in-person instruction. By this point in time, we owe it to our students to recognize the tremendous impact of school closures on their learning and development. This is why I am so perplexed that some individuals continue to argue that learning loss is not real.

The Learning Loss Debate

In a Forbes’ December 2020 article, The Ridiculousness of Learning Loss, John Ewing claimed that “learning loss” is a term derived “from the language of test enthusiasts for [whom] learning is a substance that is poured into students over time.” More recently, the Washington Post published a follow-up to Rachael Gabriel's 2020 opinion piece which stated, “There is no such thing as learning loss...It is loss of a previously imagined trajectory leading to a previously imagined future.”

I don’t consider myself a test enthusiast. Nor do I believe that students should be passive receptacles of knowledge who regurgitate facts passed on to them by teachers. I am, however, concerned about learning loss, and I do worry about the impact of students veering off the “imaginary” trajectory of school for an entire year.

Preliminary research on the impact of student achievement during the COVID-19 pandemic is not favorable. A December 2020 report by McKinsey and Company predicted that students will have “lost” an average of five to nine months of learning by June 2021, with even worse outcomes for students of color. A more recent study out of Stanford University found that the oral reading fluency of students in grades two and three are thirty percent lower than in years prior, posing significant concern respective to literacy development.

From "Imaginary Trajectory" to Clear Path

The data is compelling. But beyond that, to argue that learning loss is an imaginary construct is to devalue the profession of teaching. If months of missed or limited instruction are viewed as inconsequential, what does that communicate about the value we place on our schools, our educators, and our curricula? Are YouTube videos and Google slides presentations acceptable replacements for skilled teachers? Is covering half the expected content sufficient because that’s the best we could do?

An oversimplified view of pandemic learning is problematic beyond academics. It discounts the important social-emotional learning and community-building that occur everyday in schools. Beyond learning loss, there is friendship loss. There is emotional instability and trauma. There is anxiety and depression. There is a lack of structure and routine. While these losses may not be quantifiable, they are certainly impactful.

Rather than viewing pandemic education through rose-colored glasses, we owe it to our communities to acknowledge and address the many challenges that have plagued learning over the past year. Instead of minimizing the impact of these very real losses, let’s recognize the incredible challenges our students, teachers, and families have faced. Only in doing so can we forge a new path - one that is not an “imaginary trajectory” - but a bold, clear route to accelerating learning.

A photo of a Kindergarten girl with wavy short brown hair and large brown eyes wearing a gray long-sleeved shirt and large necklace.  She is looking intently at a laptop while her mother, a 30-something woman with dark hair pulled back into a bun who is wearing a long sleeved gray shirt also, looks at the screen as well.

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