“Learning loss” is problematic, but so are some of the solutions it’s generating


Jun 8, 2021

The events of this past year have clearly had an impact, in many ways deeply inequitable, on student academic learning. Failure rates are up, the digital divide persists, many marginalized and vulnerable students have gone “missing” from school, and academic growth scores for Fall 2020 compared to Fall 2019 suggest a decrease in student progress in many states. 

What’s far less clear, based on ongoing public debates, is what to do about it. 

How we define problems shapes the solutions we develop to solve them. Casting the academic impacts of COVID as “learning loss” is no different. As Steve Holmes, superintendent at Sunnyside Unified School District, a high-poverty, urban district in Tucson, AZ, warned at a conference last month, “No one loses learning, but it becomes part of the narrative and rhetoric. It drives ideas, and more importantly it drives solutions.” 

Many of those solutions, Holmes suggested, are more problematic than productive. “We have seen this before,” Holmes said. “We start creating gaps by addressing gaps.”

In search of student-centered, asset-based solutions

COVID’s impact on learning is certainly a challenge to be addressed. But it’s one that’s tied up with a number of other challenges, ranging from systemic racism to one-size-fits-all instructional models. So in the search for solutions, it’s critical that educators and policymakers take a hard look at ideas that sound like solutions to learning loss, but also risk exacerbating other problematic practices. In the process, they can seek student-centered, asset-based solutions that set students up to thrive, not just recoup learning.

1. From more learning time to more…learning

In a system where time is accepted as a reasonable proxy for learning, many of the solutions proposed to combat learning loss hinge on increasing learning time, like repeating the school year or extending the school day.

Here’s the problem: a review of the relevant research shows only minor—or no—benefits. As Hechinger Report’s Jill Barshay writes, “Even advocates of longer school days and years emphasize that extra time by itself often doesn’t have an impact. What you do with the time matters.” Indeed, according to student surveys during COVID, students spent more time on schoolwork during the pandemic compared to before, but they were less engaged. So time mattered far less than the nature of the learning experience.

No doubt, some school systems will succeed in following the research-backed recommendations for how to structure extended learning time to yield the most impact for students who need it. But schools willing to look beyond learning time alone will find competency-based learning far more intriguing because it prioritizes students’ individual progress over lockstep schedules. Competency-based approaches make learning a constant, while time is a variable. By articulating the knowledge and skills students need to demonstrate, then assessing student progress towards those skills individually, schools (not to mention families) can more precisely pinpoint where students are achieving progress and where they need support, rather than resorting to more learning time as the catch-all solution.

2. From satellite data to street data

Another proposed solution for learning loss is to use standardized tests as a diagnostic tool to assess how much students have learned. This has naturally reinvigorated the heated debate over testing. Last spring, states were given a reprieve from implementing federally-mandated standardized tests due to COVID. But this year, the Biden administration instructed states to proceed with testing because policymakers need the data to identify areas of inequity and direct resources accordingly.

The inadequacies and injustices of standardized testing have been detailed in many books, articles, and podcasts. But when considering testing as part of a solution to combat learning loss, one problem sticks out most prominently: teachers aren’t planning to use standardized test data to inform instruction, so these tests—however well-intentioned—aren’t acting as diagnostic instruments. (But can’t tests help determine if students should be held back a year? Yes—but see #1 above.)

What are the more effective data-driven approaches for assessing what students need? In their new book, Street Data, Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan propose that school systems need to rebalance “satellite data” (testing results that capture a high-level snapshot of student achievement but don’t explain what caused the results or what to do about it) with “map data” (more real-time, formative, and diagnostic assessment) and most importantly, “street data” (rich, ground-level information about students’ experiences, prioritizing perspectives from the margins).

Shifting focus from satellite data to street data recognizes that students know a lot about what makes it harder and easier for them to learn, and seeking their perspectives is far more likely to illuminate the myriad academic and nonacademic reasons why learners may be struggling—and thus, what to do about it—than statistics on a dashboard.

3. From remediation to acceleration

When students aren’t performing academically at grade level, the most intuitive solution would seem to be to review content from earlier grade levels to catch students up before proceeding on. Otherwise known as remediation, this approach is commonly used across the country—but turns out be rife with problems, according to a TNTP report showing that an overreliance on remediation can harm students and worsen racial inequalities.

A new report from TNTP and Zearn demonstrates promising evidence for a different approach: acceleration. In this approach, rather than reviewing lower-level content before moving students forward, teachers move forward with grade-level content, only pausing to teach or review earlier concepts if students need them to keep making grade-level progress. The new report found that students experiencing acceleration learned more than those experiencing remediation—and that acceleration was particularly effective for students of color and those from low-income families, who are often most likely to experience remediation in schools. (There’s a valuable and nuanced discussion of this report, including caveats to keep in mind, in the second half of the latest Class Disrupted episode.)

In addition to the evidence against remediation as a reliable strategy for getting students back to grade level, some critics have pointed out how sticking students with lagging academic achievement in remedial classes shuts other doors. As education scholars William Penuel and Katherine Schultz point out, funnelling students—many of them low-income, Black and Latinx students—into remedial math and literacy classes can cause them to miss out on experiences with the arts, social studies, and science. Academic support to help students catch up this year should create opportunity, not worsen the gaps in access to deeper learning and additional disciplines.

Semantics matter

Among critics of the term “learning loss,” perhaps the most frustrating aspect is the implication that learning somehow existed, but has been misplaced—and that students who have struggled the most this year must work harder next year to “find” it. Rather than solving for learning “loss,” we should be solving for the longstanding challenge of creating equitable conditions that promote learning. The best solutions will remove barriers to those conditions, and optimize for reaching students who experience the most barriers. That means that mental health, relationships and social support, antiracist lenses for teaching, and basic needs security are all part of the solution—just as much as academics.

As for an alternative term, I’ve heard lots of suggestions, from unfinished learning to accelerating learning. But ultimately, the one we need is one that reflects a design challenge on the part of our school systems, not a failure on the part of our most vulnerable students. Maybe we should just call it “learning”—and approach it with a renewed commitment to making sure the most student-centered solutions don’t get lost.

Chelsea is a research fellow at the Institute, where she analyzes how innovation theory can inform the evolution of student-centered learning and the advancement of student agency. As part of this work, she leads the Canopy project, a collaborative effort to build better collective knowledge about school innovation.