“Learning Loss” Is A Dangerous Myth
How a racist, classist lie is threatening an entire generation.
Originally published July 11th, 2021 (Blogger)
In March of 2021, McKinsey & Company released a report sounding the alarm on global learning loss due to the Covid-19 global pandemic. This set off wave after wave of media stories lamenting the failures of education, and decrying a “lost generation” of students who would need a Herculean effort to catch up.
This is simply untrue. Students absolutely feel a sense of loss, but it has nothing to do with their academic standing. The entire concept of “learning loss” is a false narrative supported by racist, neo-liberal ideologies.
“Learning Loss” Is Based on Bad Data
Professional educators know that real learning doesn’t “start and stop”. Kids don’t become dumber over the weekend, or during the summer. In fact, we know that the whole idea of “learning loss” changes depending on which data collection method you use to track it. Research from the University of Iowa shows that by changing your research methodology, the same group of students can show learning loss, no learning loss, or active gains over the summer. We know that test scores are a faulty data collection method. Yet we still base policy on the bad data they give us.
Not only are we basing the lie of “learning loss” on bad information, the whole idea of “falling behind” is illogical. If the whole world is behind, then who can be ahead? We are framing education as a “pass-fail” dialectic; if you’re not excelling, you’re failing. This is assembly-line thinking that values identical products being churned out at a predictable rate, not children’s mental and social development. It’s just not the way kids learn.
So what is this sense of loss that we all feel? Professor Rachel Gabriel, from the University of Connecticut, says “it is loss of a previously imagined trajectory leading to a previously imagined future.” We’re collectively mourning the loss of what we thought was going to happen, not an actual loss.
“Learning Loss” Is Inherently Racist
Pushing the idea of “learning loss” is, to be blunt, racist.
For starters, we know for a fact that black students actually do better over the summer than their white counterparts. As for students from marginalized communities who have “dropped out” of online or hybrid learning — well, wouldn’t you? In a system where the majority of teachers are white; where the majority of BIPOC students are overdisciplined and undervalued; where every story about you pushes “white exceptionalism”, framing your family and culture as unable to provide for you — what value do you gain from participating?
We are framing education as a “pass-fail” dialectic; if you’re not excelling, you’re failing.
The reality is that BIPOC students, homeless youth, those with learning disabilities, with mental health issues; these kids have always faced “learning loss” because of the systemic oppression built in to schooling. Now we push a story about how these families can’t provide for their kids, so it’s up to the schools to force them to catch up. This deficit model of education inherently assumes the worst of the students for whom we have done the least.
“Learning Loss” Is A Capitalist Tool (No, Really)
It should come as no surprise that as soon as stories of “learning loss” spread, ed-tech bloggers and consultants come out of the woodwork to hawk their wares. A report from the Washington Post highlighted the growing influence of private education providers that have grown into “multibillion dollar industries. Peddling fear about the loss of school hours creating a gap between expected and actual learning is a great way to prop up these industries while simultaneously setting public schools up for failure.”
This technocratic fascination with measurement means anything that isn’t quantifiable is irrelevant. At the risk of sounding like a 19-year old in his first Sociology course, this really is because of… capitalism. 20th-century schooling was designed like an assembly line, for the assembly line. This “lost year” is only a problem, says this thinking, in that it will supposedly have a negative impact on the workforce and economy.
Further exacerbating the issue is the fact that we’re now labelling an entire generation as losers.
The bigger problem with this neo-liberal approach is that it covers up the real reasons for actual learning loss — the chronic, and purposeful, underfunding of the public education system; an unjust pattern of evictions that targets BIPOC families; and worst of all, the death of family members due to Covid-19. Schools are not dealing with the trauma of these issues in any meaningful way. Instead we give kids yet another round of high-stakes testing as a panacea for the real social disease.
“Learning Loss” is Ruining Student Mental Health
Mental health professionals have been sounding the alarm over school stress for years. We saw that for many kids, being home away from school because of the pandemic actually improved their mental health. However, it didn’t take long for the “learning loss” narrative to inspire a wave of fear in parents and educators, and then the stress started again. All of a sudden we went from “don’t give your child too much screen time”, to “a good student sits still in front of a camera for 6+ hours every day” — and if they can’t, it’s a problem with them, not the learning model.
The real loss students feel is the social loss. Students miss their friends, not tests. Their productivity is dropping because they are anxious and depressed, not because they can’t complete a government-mandated test.
Further exacerbating the issue is the fact that we’re now labelling an entire generation as losers. Students known when teachers are being inauthentic. They know when they’re being defined by what they can’t do, rather than what they could do. Professor Gabriel puts it succinctly:
“If we use words such as ‘slide,’ ‘loss,’ ‘waste,’ ‘pause,’ ‘gap’ and ‘cliff’ to describe their learning, literacy and achievement, what will they conclude about their own intelligence, potential and ability to learn independently?”
Let’s Lose Learning Loss
“Learning loss” may be a myth, but its a story that too many people believe. It’s shaping policy, classroom strategy, and how we view an entire generation of children. We know it’s based on faulty data. We know it’s inherently racist, classist, and detrimental to our students’ mental health.
Students know all too well what they’ve missed out on during the pandemic. It’s our role as educators to help them celebrate what they have accomplished. If we want to build a successful foundation for their future, students need to know that we care, that we understand, and that we value their abilities. Otherwise, it’s we — the adults — who will have truly lost the opportunity to learn.
Mario Mabrucco is a educator with almost 20 years experience teaching literacy, arts, and social sciences to youth in Canada, Greece, France, Italy, and Monaco. He has a M.Ed in Curriculum and Education Policy from the University of Toronto, and designs curriculum for the National Film Board of Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @mr_mabruc
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