Beware of Learning Loss!

Kurt Hatch | Associate Director, AWSP
Jan 27, 2021
students videoconferencing on teacher's laptop


As the pandemic continues pressure-testing the system, many people are expressing concern about the possibility of a “lost generation.” The notion of learning loss has gained traction as a problem to be solved via new policies, procedures, and practices. Research firms are publishing reports citing precise calculations of learning loss.

Dr. John Ewing, a mathematician currently serving as president of Math for America, noted about learning loss, "'s become the central educational feature of the pandemic." In his article, “The Ridiculousness of Learning Loss,” Ewing asks what it all means.

But what’s it mean—“five months of learning loss”? What exactly is lost? Do students forget facts? Skills? Are memories erased? Can they find what’s lost? And what does “five months” mean? Yes, I know, it’s calculated from a mathematical formula, but formulas are only as good as the data and assumptions that go into them. Mathematics is not magic. What are the assumptions? What’s the data? Where does it come from? When people discuss learning loss, they generally don’t know the answers to any of these questions. And if the notion is so vague, how can it be so easily and precisely measured?

It can’t.

Dr. Ewing continues:

Learning is complicated. Plutarch famously wrote that minds are not vessels to be filled but fires to be kindled. Fires don’t leak. You don’t measure them in months. Learning loss is a calculation masquerading as a concept—a rather shallow, naïve, ridiculous concept.

The term “learning loss” comes from the language of testing corporations. It seems as though they conceptualize learning as a substance poured into students over time. What might their motivation be for the education system to return to frequent testing? How can we, instead, push the system into a space that authentically serves students? A friend and colleague, Kelly Niccolls, has clear ideas about accomplishing this.

Mrs. Niccolls recently co-wrote an article with Rebecca Midles titled, “Getting Clearer: Schooling Loss is not Learning Loss.”

Transformational leaders, Ms. Niccolls and Ms. Midles point out how “the narrative of ‘learning loss’ is weaponizing static achievement against young people and families in ways that further harms them in a time of global pandemic and disarray."

They write:

We will never be back to what was; we are all changed. We must let go of standardization and turn towards personalization and actualization. Our ability to do this well will be a turning point as the entire world shifts into a new way of being, post-pandemic.

A new way of being requires us to understand learning loss research is driven by deficit thinking. David E. Kirkland, Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools, tweets:

Learning loss research is driven by a deficit theory, just as word gap research is driven by a deficit theory. And the thing about deficit theories is that they are usually expressions of racial bias more than they are objective statements of truth.

Deficit thinking emphasizes what students can’t do, rather than what they can do with meaningful instruction, pathways, and objectives that reflect their desires and aspirations.

Deficit thinking also tragically defines the ways of speaking and knowing of youth of color as problems rather than cultural-historical practices essential for ongoing, deep learning.

Besides, just to be real, learning loss isn’t what we should even be talking about right now, anyway. We shouldn’t waste time and resources on an ill-defined, immeasurable, problem that is unimportant to students’ or their futures. Doing so would only cause us to languish in current inequitable systems of teaching and leading.

We should be discussing how to provide meaningful learning, as well as mental-health systems that prioritize belongingness and wellbeing. We should focus on creating environments that will welcome students back to a transformed system.

After reading “Getting Smart: Schooling Loss is not Learning Loss,” I invite you to also read “Fixating on Pandemic “Learning Loss” Undermines the Need to Transform Education” by Maxine McKinney de Royston & Shirin Vossoughi.

Both articles are well written, easy to read, and help create a clear pathway, with tangible steps to a new future that centers students’ strengths and desires while utilizing evidence-based, racially literate, practices.

  • Virtual Learning
  • learning loss
  • Distance Learning
  • Online Learning
  • Standardized Testing
  • racial bias

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