Don’t Buy Into the Hype Around Learning Loss

I get it: “learning loss” is scary. Considering the unprecedented overuse of the word “unprecedented” to describe what our nation’s K-12 education system has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, we all get it. Sudden school closures in spring 2020. Drastic inequities for students and teachers as districts navigate the unchartered waters of virtual and hybrid instruction. Add in the inherently political task of educating our nation’s children during triple pandemics of an out-of-control virus, racial injustice, and the near-meltdown of our political system, it becomes easy to see why our school systems are struggling.

It would be educational malpractice for school system leaders to not have this challenge near the top of their agenda. But, I urge school system leaders to reject the typical, knee-jerk reaction of remediate, drill-and-kill, and intervention solutions that have long sabotaged educational equity well before this pandemic. I urge you to shirk these traditional “solutions” that position students at a deficit in terms of learning. Instead, look for real solutions that acknowledge students’ gifts and assets. 

This is not an easy shift--from deficit-based to asset-based, but it’s a necessary one if we are going to expect real change. So, before we jump to a solution, let’s look deeper. 

One of the key strategies of my work with thinkLaw, where we help educators teach critical thinking through our supplemental curriculum and instructional “Thinking Like a Lawyer” frameworks, is a root-cause analysis process. We ask “why” several times to get a deeper understanding of the problem before jumping into “something must be done!” mode.

As school and district leaders, we would do well to follow a similar practice when trying to break systems within our schools and districts. Getting to the root of any given problem is the key to a resolution.

So, let’s start with a high-level “why” question. 

Why is COVID-19 learning loss felt so acutely by students in marginalized populations?

And the simple answer would be that these students often already struggled with academic achievement before the pandemic. Why did they struggle academically before the pandemic? Well, this answer requires a deeper dive into “academic achievement.” According to The New Teacher Project’s (TNTP) groundbreaking report, "The Opportunity Myth," students from low-income backgrounds were successfully completing 71% of what educators asked of them, but only 17% of the work they were asked to do was at grade level. 

So, why are too many economically disadvantaged students coming to school every day, doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, and receiving below-grade-level work? My initial thoughts three years ago would have led me to believe that teachers didn’t think their kids were up to the task. But, after posing the question directly to the educators I work with across 38 states, I soon learned that “these kids can’t” is more complicated than it looked.

The vast majority of the time, “these kids can’t” educators truly meant to say that they have no idea how to create the learning conditions, deliver their curriculum, or set up their instruction so that “all kids can.” This was not simply an issue of belief; it’s a myriad of preparation, professional development, academic achievement and standards issues, among a host of others. 

This pandemic revealed so many challenges students face with access to technology and connectivity to the internet. But the reality is so many students have, for too long, lacked access to meaningful, grade-level content and had no connection at all to the type of learning experiences that could spark their interest and excitement.

Getting to the root of this issue yields an inspirational call to action to try something radically different to address learning loss. I applaud you for wanting to buck the traditional ideas of remediation to serve as a band-aid over our students’ “learning loss” bruises and, instead, get to the heart of achievement. 

Colin Seale
Colin Seale is the founder/CEO of thinkLaw, an award-winning resource that helps educators teach critical thinking to all students using real-life legal cases and the president of the Charter School Association of Nevada. His new book

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