Learning Loss: Urgent Crisis or Harmful Myth?

The pandemic has left many students needing help--but not the same kind of help

There’s disagreement over using “learning loss” to describe the effects of the pandemic on students. Whatever term you use, though, schools need to help kids make up for what they’ve missed—and how they do it should depend on what kind of learning is at issue.

The data is clear: students haven’t been learning at the same rate as in a normal, pre-pandemic year. According to one estimate they’ve lost four to five months of learning, on average. The figures are significantly worse for students from lower-income families. And because those students are less likely to have been tested recently, the available evidence probably underestimates the extent of the problem.

A recent white paper produced by EdWeek and Kelly Education suggests that teachers are more concerned about this than parents. In the case of English language arts/reading, for example, 62% of teachers say that students made less progress this past school year than they would have before the pandemic. Only 24% of parents believed that was true, and 42% said students made more progress.

At the same time, some vocal educators have challenged the very concept of learning loss, warning that it could label an entire generation of students as “broken.” The most radical form of this critique maintains that students haven’t missed out on any learning at all; they’ve just learned different, and possibly more valuable, things.

Why not focus on “the learning found”?

Rachel Gabriel, an associate professor of literacy education, has suggested assuming that students “learned immeasurable and previously unknowable things,” like “how to reset the rhythms and patterns of their days.” Perhaps, she says, they’ve learned more than previous cohorts of students, “because of what they have lived through and lived without.”

“What if we were to focus on the learning found,” she asked rhetorically, “and then we rebuild our education systems from that learning?”

That quote led commentator Matt Yglesias to say, in a tweet that is no longer available, “Not for the first time I am left to wonder what is in the water at America’s graduate schools of education.”

It’s not the water. It’s a philosophical outlook that has long held sway at ed schools, motivated by a concern for social justice. The problem with K-12 education, according to this perspective, is that it hasn’t placed enough value on the knowledge students acquire from their families and communities. That’s not only disrespectful, some argue, it lowers teachers’ expectations and undermines students’ motivation.

But this philosophy can end up further disadvantaging the very students it aims to support. Institutions of higher learning and employers may aim for diversity, but they’re unlikely to start admitting applicants on the basis of how much they know about cooking, family traditions, or even racism.

Nor should they. It would be fine with me if, for example, my doctor had acquired knowledge about resetting the rhythms of her days from her family or community, but I would also very much want her to know about things like chemistry, biology, and anatomy. While teachers should be respectful of the knowledge all kids bring with them, school is supposed to introduce students to new knowledge—primarily, academic knowledge. That’s the kind of knowledge some kids are able to pick up at home, while others—through no fault of their own—are not. There’s a lot more that schools can do to level the playing field for those two groups than they’ve done in the past.

“Accelerate, don’t remediate”

A less radical critique of “learning loss” holds that students shouldn’t be categorized according to their reading and math scores, with low-scorers relegated to less demanding content. A new motto of “accelerate, don’t remediate” has emerged, the argument being that if kids have missed certain content or skills, it’s better to focus on grade-level material and fill in gaps as needed rather than go back to material from the previous grade or grades.

That approach certainly seems to make sense in some contexts—for example, in elementary math, where one large-scale study has supported acceleration over remediation. It’s also probably the way to go in history, literature, or science. Trying to cover everything students have missed risks locking them into “long-term learning gaps that worsen every year,” as acceleration advocate David Steiner has urged.

But it probably won’t work with foundational reading skills like phonics. Students often need to learn letter-sound correspondences systematically rather than on an ad hoc “acceleration” basis. Many kids were getting ineffective ad hoc phonics instruction even before the pandemic because of defects in teacher preparation, leading to lasting reading problems. It might also not work with upper-level math, where many students struggle because they never fully grasped key concepts introduced years before—again, often due to problems with teacher training.

And it certainly won’t work with what many schools are undoubtedly planning to focus on, especially for students whose reading scores are low: reading comprehension skills and strategies. Through elementary school and often beyond, schools spend many hours every week on the same round of “skills”—finding the main idea, making inferences, comparing and contrasting. The skills are the same every year, so “remediation” would mean having students practice the skills on easier texts—the same approach schools have been taking for decades, with dismal results.

And what would “acceleration” mean? Most likely, giving students skills practice using harder texts on a random collection of topics. That approach could just frustrate students who lack the background knowledge or vocabulary to understand what they’re asked to read. This skills-focused approach to comprehension also underlies much of the tutoring virtually all schools are planning to double down on: according to the EdWeek white paper, 97% of district leaders say they are or will be offering tutoring to address perceived pandemic-related gaps.

Any attempt to help students make up for what they’ve missed—whether you want to call it learning loss or something else, like “unfinished learning”—has to begin with the recognition that our standard approach to literacy instruction is fundamentally flawed. The idea that the solution to low reading scores is more work on isolated comprehension skills was producing learning loss even before the pandemic, in the sense that students who started out with less academic knowledge fell further behind their more advantaged peers every year they spent in school. The last thing we should do now is perpetuate that failed practice.

So yes, let’s accelerate rather than remediate—but through curricula that focus on rich content rather than illusory comprehension skills, and through read-alouds and class discussion for students whose reading ability doesn’t yet allow them to access complex text on their own. And let’s acknowledge that schools can teach all kids valuable things, even if they haven’t done a great job of that in the past.

This post previously appeared on Forbes.com.