Thursday, April 29, 2021

Falling Behind In An Actual Classroom

The chicken littling about Learning Loss is just never going to stop. Today I came across yet another article (that I won't link to) warning that the Learning Losses from the pandemic pause will haunt students for the rest of their lives.

The worst of the Learning Loss panickers are revealing too much about what they don't understand, but what they especially don't understand is what goes on in an actual classroom, because the whole concept of "falling behind" is a layperson's oversimplification of what actual education looks like.

I think I was a pretty run-of-the-mill example of the teaching profession in my thirty-nine years, so let me explain what my year generally looked like. 

At the beginning of the year, I'd launch the dual processes of Trying To Teach Stuff and Figuring Out What This Batch of Students Knows and Can Do. At no point in my career were the Big Standardized Test results a useful part of this process because A) the results were nothing but a score and we weren't even allowed to see the questions, so had no way of knowing what exactly students got right or got wrong and B) the results don't come until the school year was already well under way. 

In my career, I mostly taught grades 9 through 12, all tracks, so September always brought students with a very wide range of tools. One of things you get better at with experience is assessing what the students bring to the table, both academically and otherwise. And then you go from there.

This initial assessment does not tell you anything about pace. Not once in my career did I ever start the year thinking, "Oh, lordy, these guys are behind, so I will switch into my special secret accelerated mode so that I can teach them more, faster." For a couple of reasons. First, not once in four decades did I stumble upon a fast mode that let me teach more, faster, which I then shelved for some reason. Because one thing you know after just a couple of years is that there is never enough time, and so part of your practice is to squeeze the very most out of the time you have. 

Second, if there are students who are not quite as far along as you wish they were, acceleration is backwards. "Since you don't quite understand this yet, I'm going to spend less time on it," said no teacher ever. 

One other thing about that initial assessment-- you are looking at many, many items. It's not like measuring how far a runner has progressed down a single track. It's more like a pincushion, with a hundred pins sticking out in all directions, some far out and some barely progressed. A pretty good writer who doesn't read well. Students who don't write super-well, but who each write poorly for a different reason. 

And then we move into the meat of the year., with students progressing at different speeds in different directions. This, it should be noted, is never, ever expressed in terms such as ,"Pat, you are behind Sam in reading," because what possible good can come of that? Because I taught mostly 11th and 12th graders, a lot of our developing emphases in class have to do with what they are doing next. My future auto mechanics have different concerns than my future college freshpersons. 

Sometimes there are just particular issues that come with the chemistry of the class. I've had classes where if I managed to teach anything in that period, it was-- well, not a good day, but a better day than the days when nothing got done. 

Sometimes the class provides special opportunities. The year I had a class of around a dozen students, eight of whom were either pregnant or moms; what a great class, and there was some great learning that went on in there, but it didn't look like any other class I ever taught, because they had very specific interests, concerns, priorities. The classes that focused on themes and ideas in the literature that were really exciting and interesting. The class that wanted to talk about how to deal with bad communicators in a workplace.

Those developments in turn shape the year and the culminating, end of year assessments. My end of year assessments usually included take home essays to write that involved some synthesis and connection creation, but the year I had a class that just loved "deep" themes and ideas, one of their end of year essays was "What is the meaning of life?" If you laid out my various finals side by side, would you be able to say that one class was ahead or behind another? Is a student who passed welding certification ahead or behind one who completed a local history paper based on primary sources? Is a student who wrote a rap about Hamlet's fear of death ahead or behind a student who created a web-based presentation about dance? 

As I have said repeatedly--there is no question that this year, students did not get the same amount of educational stuff that they would have gotten in a non-pandemic year. There is no question that for most, remote education did not serve them as well as live and in person probably would have. 

But to reduce education to a single straight line, and then to rank students by how they are located on that line, is reductive to the point of being stupid. It's attractive and helpful for people who don't understand education, or people who think they understand education but don't want to think too hard about it, or people who want to reduce education to the process of engineering humans, or policy makers who want a simple formula for policy, or people who want to be able to make a simple, sexy sales pitch. 

But it's not real, or particularly useful, to actual teachers in actual classrooms. People grow and change and learn and mature in their own time and in their own way. Whatever quality you want to focus on, there is always someone who is more so. But what does that tell you, really. We are not all in a race, we are not all headed to the same destination, and we are not even going to follow the path we think we are. Double ditto for our students.


  1. The story of real learning loss is in this report on chronic absenteeism made possible by the ESSA requirement for schools to submit data on student attendance. The level of detail is as amazing as it is scandalous. The interactive map allows users to pinpoint data on absences in every single school district in the country. On average 1 out of every six students is chronically absent. And it does not take into account time spent with counselors or when a student is technically present but in some form of in or out of school suspension. This report should be required reading for every amateur edu-meddler who touts the baseless claim that America's schools are "failing". For example, Detroit public schools where the rate of chronic absenteeism is 51.6%! Please copy and paste this link and put a soft pillow below your jaw so it can drop safely.

  2. Oh my, this "lost learning" idea is one of those silly ideas that is going to do far too much damage. On one hand, you have jittery parents who are always ready to overreact to any perceived deficiency in their children, and on the other hand you have cynical parties pouncing on an issue that they can use as another stick to swing at the public-education pinata. Unfortunately, the truth has always been that public education is not a strictly transactional process where our students are issued a set number of skills and facts. Learning in schools is a complicated, wonderful process that is much, much more than the sum of its parts.

  3. Thank you for this. I am and will be sharing it widely.

  4. There is a vocal group of parents in my district who want everything back to normal yesterday, and they blame teachers' unions for this "harm" happening to their kids. My fear is that they'll actually go after our unions, and we'll lose the little protection we have.

  5. I have no doubt that my students learned less biology this year. They did, however, learn a lot about prioritization, time management, troubleshooting technology, and dealing with loss. Do I worry that their college classes next year will be challenging for them? Yes. But I always worried about that.