Read Part 1: How Can We Overcome Pandemic Learning Problems?
Are the Schools Approaching the Problem Correctly?
There are almost as many answers to that question as there are people. Everyone has an opinion. Let’s be careful not to let “mere opinions” mislead us. Yes, there is as much misinformation plaguing education as there are “alternative facts” floating between the political candidates.
This is the second part of my look at educational loss during the pandemic. In Part 1, we looked at what parents, teachers, and students are saying about educational losses from COVID. Now, let’s ask, what are the schools saying? What are the administrators saying? What do they plan to do? What should they be doing?
We need to remember that the classroom teacher does not always control what is actually taught in the classroom. In many schools, teachers are told what they can and cannot teach. They are also told how to teach. Textbooks and teaching methods are even decided for the teacher. Such a policy has both benefits and dangers. Therefore, it is necessary to look at what administrators, school boards, and state education agencies are saying about educational loss during the pandemic.
What Are School Administrators Saying about Pandemic Learning Loss?
Just to list a few points:
- Some are saying that learning losses from the pandemic are irreversible. Wrong.
- One report said that students were two or more grade levels behind because of the pandemic. I have been working with students for years who were three, four, even nine grade levels behind in reading—all before the pandemic. Learning loss in education is not new.
- One study, conducted by a testing company (be careful when reading test scores from commercial companies who, at the end of their report, offer to sell you testing services) found from their research that in reading an “… increase from 27% well below benchmark in 2019 to 40% in 2020 is nearly a 50% increase in the number of students entering that grade at risk.” Their findings were mostly with kindergarten and first graders.
I do not doubt that kindergarten and first graders have suffered in reading development during the pandemic. As for the 50% increase, I have little confidence in their data. If you read the study carefully, you’ll notice that their study population is biased. Yet, the problem remains. We need to help all children learn to read.
- One educator stated that he thought today’s learning losses would still be around in 2060. They shouldn’t be. There is no reason that we cannot reverse any and all learning loss from the pandemic.
- Still others say that students who attended online classes lost “comprehension, focus, and engagement.” It all depends on how the school used online classes. Just being online shouldn’t necessarily reduce comprehension, focus, or engagement. I actually worked with a student who improved over the pandemic through online classes over what the student had been doing with in-class instruction before the pandemic.
- Many are saying that stress, anxiety, and depression have increased, and such has affected student learning. This I agree with. The pandemic has increased stress and anxiety for all of us. Research shows that depression has also increased. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily lead to learning loss.
What Does a Student Stay?
As one high school student said,
“I definitely struggled during the spring of 2020—which I’m sure goes for a lot of other kids. I think I was so overwhelmed by the surrealism of the entire situation that it didn’t even feel like my schoolwork was important; everything felt like a dream. Since then, I have definitely become better adjusted to online schooling—and I do think that if the pandemic had not happened I would be short of a lot of significant knowledge I gained this year. I have certainly become more active and interested in current events, but I have also grown as a person, and although living through COVID has been really hard at times, I am so incredibly lucky to say that I probably gained more than I lost during these times.”
So, yes, some students have suffered psychologically during the pandemic, but still others say that they experienced personal growth and development during the pandemic as they learned to cope with difficult situations. Again, we find ourselves talking about psychological harm. Let’s refresh our definition of psychological harm.
Psychological Effects of the Pandemic
When we say that something causes psychological harm, this means that it impairs a person’s mental development and well-being. For example, rude, hateful words can cause psychological harm. Bullying can cause psychological harm. Teasing can cause psychological harm. Mass school shootings can cause psychological harm. Reading failure can cause psychological harm. That's why I became involved as a psychologist in developing programs to help children overcome reading failure. My goal is to stop the psychological harm caused by reading failure.
No, masks, vaccines, or testing do not cause psychological harm. It is fear and not being able to control the source of the fear that causes psychological harm.
For more on psychological harms, read: Do Mask Mandates Cause Psychological or Medical Problems for Children in School?
Every single child and every single adult has been impacted by the pandemic, and yes, we definitely need to treat the psychological effects of the pandemic. As a psychologist, I am very concerned about the psychological harms caused by the pandemic, especially the increased suicide rate. The Pew Charitable Trust explains that:
“According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents jumped 31% in 2020, compared with 2019. In February and March of this year, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher among girls aged 12–17 than during the same period in 2019.”
And the Pew article continues:
“… more than 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver, with youth of color disproportionately impacted.”
We need to look more deeply to see what is causing this increase in suicidal behavior. We’ll explore this in a later discussion.
Stress and anxiety do not always cause learning loss. After all, we also know that bullying and the fear of gun violence in schools increases stress, anxiety, and yes, increases depression. Should we then say that the threat of gun violence also causes learning loss?
Can we get an accurate measure on learning loss experienced by students?
Let's look at a study that gives a fairly objective overview of the problems students have experienced during the pandemic. An article entitled, The Effect of COVID-19 on Education by Jacob Hoofman and Dr. Elizabeth Secord, Department of Pediatrics, from Wayne State University School of Medicine summarize both the educational and mental health issues facing the schools.
“Learners and educators at all levels of education have been affected by COVID-19. ...racial minorities, those who live in poverty, those requiring special education, and children who speak English as a second language are more negatively affected by the need for remote learning. Anxiety and depression have increased….”
That statement gives us a good summary of the problems that we are looking at in education. Hoofman and Secord go one step further as they cite a study from Stanford.
“Northwest Evaluation Association is a global nonprofit organization that provides research-based assessments and professional development for educators. A team of researchers at Stanford University evaluated Northwest Evaluation Association test scores for students in 17 states and the District of Columbia in the Fall of 2020 and estimated that the average student had lost one-third of a year to a full year's worth of learning in reading, and about three-quarters of a year to more than 1 year in math since schools closed in March 2020.”
Once again, I advise caution for the results. The Northwest Evaluation only looked at assessments from 17 states—not even half of the country. Also, Stanford was looking at averages and speculating. Until the Nation’s Report Card gives us an actual test score comparison, the amount of leaning loss experienced by students is basically speculation. One research firm or university may be better than the other, but we are still speculating.
So, yes, there has been learning loss—more with some students, less with others. The truth is that we entered into the pandemic with a learning loss in reading. According to the Nation’s Report Card, over 60% of students across the nation could not read at grade level in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade in 2019 before COVID began. This 60% score is based on actual test data, not speculation.
For more on the Nation’s Report Card score, read: Reading Wars are Over! Phonics Failed. Whole Language Failed. Balanced Literacy Failed. Who Won? It Certainly Wasn’t the Students.
Testing is important, but it must be accurate and unbiased. In my own reading clinic, we have moved students up in reading who were two years behind grade level, four years behind, and even nine years behind their grade level. Regardless of their age or how many years they have failed in reading, students can be brought up to their age-appropriate level in reading. All we need to do is change how we teach reading in the schools and start teaching reading correctly.
For more on the actual data from my reading clinic, read Chapter 10 in After-School Programming and Intrinsic Motivation.
Let’s look at some solutions. I primarily look at the solutions being proposed in reading because these are the students I work with. That is also my area of expertise. This is not to say that we do not have learning loss in math, science, social studies, and other curriculum areas. Since my research is in preventing reading failure, I will limit my suggestions to teaching reading.
What Are the Schools Planning to Do to Correct Learning Loss?
- Some states are planning what they call “high-dosage tutoring” over the summer. Some are even planning to hire college students to tutor children who are struggling. I think that this could be a good idea, but it depends on how the tutors are planning to teach the children. Again, it comes down to teaching materials. If you are using teaching methods that have been proven to fail, no amount of tutoring will help.
Read: What Makes A Reading Program Successful?
- Some states plan to extend the school year. Merely extending the school year will not necessarily help struggling students. Again, it depends on the teaching methods and curriculum that you are using. Failed teaching methods will not suddenly improve when you simply extend the school year. You must change the way you teach.
- Some people are suggesting “grade-level exposure.” This is basically teaching at grade level and expecting students to magically move up. Sorry, it doesn’t happen. The students are not failing because they want to. They are failing because they have not been taught how to read. This proposal is a disaster for struggling students-- the students who have been hurt the most by the pandemic will suffer the most under “grade-level exposure.”
- Yes, as always, there are those who are screaming retention is the only way to overcome educational losses. Repeat the last year. Wrong. Making a student repeat a grade never works. One researcher found that students retained between kindergarten and 5th grade are 60% less likely to graduate from high school. Never retain students (make students repeat a grade) nor simply pass them on to the next grade. Teach them instead.
For this research and others showing that retention does not work, read: Reason #6 That Reading Scores Were Lower in 2019: Grade Retention and Social Promotion
We Cannot Ignore Learning Loss. So, What Is the Best Way to Correct the Problem?
In reading, our best solution for correcting learning loss is to change how we teach reading in the classroom. We need to move away from whole language and phonics. They have both been proven to not work for many students, especially the students who need help the most. So, the solution we seek is the same solution we needed before the pandemic. If we want to correct learning loss in reading, we need to change how we teach reading in the classroom.
Read: When Phonics Fails
Yes, we have learning loss and we have psychological issues, the question still remains what should be done about these problems. These are not new problems in education. We had learning loss in reading and psychological issues before COVID. We need to be careful that we do not blame every single problem in education on the pandemic. We have many problems in education, and we have had for years—long before the pandemic.
The question that remains is: What should we do about these problems?
In an upcoming post, we will look at one suggestion on what can be done to change the way we teach reading.
The 8 years of research published in this book show that we can, in fact, teach children to read who have failed in classrooms that use phonics, whole-language, or balanced literacy. So, yes, we can undo the learning losses from COVID.
Available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle. You can also get an e-book version directly from the publisher.