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Federal education policies will trigger a second wave of learning loss

A second wave of learning loss is on the horizon, though this one is rooted in well-intentioned federal education policy rather than in virology.

Since 2001, federal education law has been oriented around a bipartisan effort aimed at raising standards, administering rigorous assessments and holding educators accountable for outcomes. These laws were particularly championed by a coalition of business leaders and civil rights advocates who rightfully understood that many students attended schools that simply didn’t expect enough of them.

The mechanisms to raise the expectations bar involved revamping what students are expected to master at each grade level. So whether a New York state seventh grader lives in Scarsdale, Schenectady, or Stuyvesant Town, they now all learn how to calculate compound interest and solve two-step inequalities. Meeting each year’s grade-level bar signals that a student is on the path to college and career readiness.  

But raising the standards provided little guidance to teachers on what to do when students haven’t mastered all that they should have learned in prior years. And in math, where grade-level concepts often require foundational knowledge taught in prior years, students who fall behind for whatever reason can struggle to ever fully catch up.  

The pandemic has made that journey even harder.

The American Recovery Act includes billions to address learning loss, but no matter how much money is available, addressing this challenge in the context of grade-level instruction is much easier said than done. When schools fully reopen in the fall, the seventh grade teacher will still be charged with using a seventh grade textbook to teach seventh grade students seventh grade material, and held accountable for results on the seventh grade state test. 

How exactly do we expect teachers to both cover grade-level material and address learning gaps unique to each student that can go back multiple years?

Teachers are heroes, but they are not magicians. 

Standardizing what kids are taught based on their age and grade-level has been a hallmark of our national educational system for more than a century. It’s worked reasonably well for the roughly one-third of students who graduate high school each year ready for college or a career. They tend to keep up without ever falling too far behind. 

But for students who do fall behind in math for whatever reason, catching up is hard. The learning gaps that students have at the beginning of the school year can end up accumulating as teachers focus their instruction on grade-level material, regardless of students’ starting points. Persistent academic failure can then itself lead to a host of social-emotional implications that can wreak havoc on a student’s sense of self-identity, much less interest in a STEM career.

Addressing learning loss now and for the future requires staying steadfast to the idea of college and career readiness as the ultimate goal, but allowing more flexibility in the time and pathways that individual students take to get there. It means that some seventh grade teachers will need to spend part of the year focused on key learning gaps from the fifth or sixth grades without fear that their expectations will be viewed as insufficient. They’ll need the tools, the training and the permission to do so. 

The alternative is simply magical thinking — a belief that teachers assigned to teach grade-level material will somehow just figure it all out once students fully return. While there will no doubt be heroic efforts and noteworthy successes, the aggregate effect will be a quieter, but no less devastating, wave of learning loss that will have its deepest impact in the most economically disadvantaged communities. 

Expectations matter — but expectations are not all that matter. Each student needs a viable pathway that connects where they’re starting from to where they’re expected to be. Reversing learning loss requires new ways to enable student acceleration that separate individual student needs from the expectations attached to their current grade-level.

Joel Rose is the cofounder of New Classrooms Innovation Partners, a non-profit organization focused on bringing transformative innovation to K-12 schooling.

Tags Education Education reform Educational practices Philosophy of education

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