Dear School Board: Learning Loss Isn’t a Thing

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Dear School Board,

Thank you for taking the time to listen to what I have to say.

I remain emphatic in my belief that schools should remain virtual. But that isn’t what I’ll focus on tonight. Instead I want to discuss a claim that has been central to the back-to-school bloc: the concept of “learning loss.” I will attempt to illustrate how this concept cloaks white entitlement and selfish individualism underneath a friendly veneer of pseudo-concern and paternalism.

Learning loss is the idea that today’s kids are “falling behind in the global marketplace” or even cognitively regressing because of virtual schooling. The hand-wringing hides a racist, classist, and ableist vision of education that serves some students and families while sacrificing the wellbeing of the rest.

I want to begin by unpacking some of the key theoretical assumptions behind the concept. Learning loss draws on a theory of learning that views knowledge as a discrete thing. Something to be commodified and measured and tracked and deposited into students. Concomitant with this view is the perspective that students are empty vessels waiting to be filled by teachers. This is known as the “banking model” of education. It is outdated and teacher-centered and has no place in our district.

The concept of learning loss also lends too much credibility to test scores and grades. Consider the Superintendent’s presentation on our district’s Math and Reading Inventory scores during the last School Board meeting. These corporate assessments create the very thing they purport to measure. They could never communicate anything meaningful about a child’s education. And decades of research on assessment shows us that grades and scores have more to do with one’s proximity to white, middle class norms than anything that’s going on inside a classroom.

An unsteady theoretical framework isn’t the only thing that discredits the concept of learning loss. Many in the back-to-school crowd use the term to mask their own entitlement in the name of equity. They deploy terms like “achievement gap” and “underprivileged youth,” outdated and offensive concepts that have been debunked for their racist and classist implications.

If these folks are really so concerned with equity and justice, then why are they advocating for a position that would increase the spread of a virus that disproportionately affects our Black, brown, and indigenous communities? Where is the outrage at the inequitable discipline rates at our schools? What about the inequitable childhood poverty and unemployment rates between north and south? If these folks really are so concerned with equity and justice, then I advise them to redirect their energies towards different matters.

Despite all of this, I understand the allure of learning loss. It reduces the enormity of our community’s challenges to a single mechanistic equation. It lets us think that all we have to do to make kids okay is get them back in school. Adults work. Children learn. Normalcy. This just isn’t how it works.

And many of the kids aren’t okay. Neither are their teachers nor their families. Every day I work alongside students struggling with houselessness, hunger, and trauma. They transitioned from a summer of uprisings and police violence to an academic program that seems more concerned with math and reading scores than guiding students through this incredibly complex and fraught moment. Trauma-responsiveness, restorative justice, and antiracist pedagogy can’t simply be items on a professional development menu. They must be at the core of what we do and who we are as educators.

This is the nightmare of the 2020–2021 school year. Not that a subgroup dropped 2 percentage points on a biased standardized test but that we seem to have a leadership that is unwilling to do what it takes to center the needs of the children, teachers, and families it serves.

If we are serious about healing our children, ourselves, and our communities, then we must take this moment to rebuild the way we do school from the ground up. We know what this can look like because we have an abundance of scholarship from Black, brown, and disabled activists, scholars, and community leaders. We must follow their lead and make moves to abolish standardized testing, rewrite the curriculum, remove police from schools, provide free childcare, and pay folks to stay home.

These are big asks. Huge asks. But the exigencies of our time demand nothing less. And for the folks overly concerned with test scores and grades, the same things I just mentioned will do more to move that needle than anything related to learning loss.

In conclusion, I emphatically believe that schools should stay virtual. I also believe that every student deserves a village of adults looking after them and supporting them. A reliance on theoretically suspect concepts like learning loss will not get us there. Forcing folks back into buildings will not get us there. Championing equity to mask our entitlement and privilege will not get us there. We must be prepared to think creatively and critically about what is happening. We must be prepared to make big changes.

Thank you for your time.

Closer than you think.

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