Fixating on Pandemic “Learning Loss” Undermines the Need to Transform Education

Nationally, COVID-19 is further exposing deep racial and economic inequities and long-ignored educational crises: the school-prison nexus, underfunding, and narrow, test-centric curriculum and teaching. Amid an unethical push to reopen schools, our approaches to learning continue to blame students, families, teachers, school leaders and staff for failed policies, and jeopardize everyone’s well-being. While the pandemic has presented cataclysmic challenges, our educational system has also responded in ways that exacerbate many of the same racial, economic and gender injustices that have always plagued it.

Given this reality, calls to return to “normal,” even after a vaccine, are regressive. Our focus should be on systemic change. This requires prioritizing parents/caregivers, communities of color and educators as full partners and leaders in deciding what that change will look like and moving beyond top-down reforms that reproduce the inequities they were meant to address. Systemic change also requires questioning harmful beliefs about how young people learn and grow.

First, we must recognize that learning doesn’t only happen in schools; learning happens all the time and everywhere. When schools shut down last March, various media outlets and think tanks warned of “learning loss,” arguing that students (especially those without access to private “pods” and reliable technology) could fall irreparably behind. “Learning loss” suggests that physical presence in schools is the only path to education and well-being, yet many countries are providing families direct economic support. Although “learning loss” is expressed as a concern for youth of color, youth grappling with poverty and/or houselessness, disabled youth and/or those with learning differences, it often functions as a dog-whistle for white entitlement. “Learning loss” ignores how our social policies created racial, economic, and educational inequities and sustain the conditions in which they persist.

A parent’s vision for an antiracist school is posted in front of an elementary school during a Day of Solidarity action in Madison, Wisconsin.
A parent’s vision for an antiracist school is posted in front of an elementary school during a Day of Solidarity action in Madison, Wisconsin.
Youth and families’ visions for an antiracist school hang on a fence at an elementary school during a Day of Solidarity action in Madison, Wisconsin.
Youth and families’ visions for an antiracist school hang on a fence at an elementary school during a Day of Solidarity action in Madison, Wisconsin.

The frame of “learning loss” also highlights the flawed belief that learning is tightly bound to instructional minutes and synonymous with grading and testing. Yet meaningful learning is rarely “lost.” The imposed fear of falling behind on content delivery puts educators in an untenable position, and inserts a reductive version of school in the home. While not every home is a safe haven, families are now witnessing both the beneficial and harmful aspects of schooling up close, creating new conditions for advocacy and partnership. As educators, parents and learning scientists, we know that families hold valuable knowledge and have deep understandings of their children’s intellectual histories and lives. This stance is a better guide to educational policy and practice.

A parent’s vision for an antiracist school hangs on a tree in front of an elementary school during a Day of Solidarity action in Madison, Wisconsin.
A parent’s vision for an antiracist school hangs on a tree in front of an elementary school during a Day of Solidarity action in Madison, Wisconsin.

We are not “losing a generation of students” — a storyline seeded by media and repeated without question, showing how well-practiced we are at speaking for rather than with families and youth of color. We are failing students and educators by continuing to define learning through narrow tasks and standards while the world is on fire. This approach is blatantly unhealthy. Redefining the purposes and practices of education toward meaningful learning and well-being requires refusing the idea of “learning loss.”

Second, real learning is rarely quiet, seated and controlled. It is messy, affective, embodied, participatory and interpersonal. Learning is a socially and culturally rooted, everyday developmental process involving the whole person. Person-centered learning is not invested in controlling learners’ bodies and voices through punitive, ableist practices and policies. Consider how the “inability” to sit in front of a screen for six hours has suddenly become a flaw of the child rather than a flawed approach. Pre-pandemic, less screen time was recommended and working families’ technology practices were hotly debated.

Rigid participation guidelines requiring cameras to be on, learners to be seated, everyone to be on the same page in the workbook disrupt learning, criminalize youth, and operate against scientifically established principles of human and child development. How learning looks depends on what is being learned and why, and whether the learning environment values caring, dignity-affirming practices known to foster deep engagement.

We need to be asking: What kinds of learning are needed to address our current crises and avoid future ones? Where does such learning need to happen, and with what kinds of collaborators and resources? By treating youth and families as knowledgeable instructional partners, communities as learning spaces and resources, and educators as highly skilled, human development professionals, we can begin to reclaim learning as an embodied, cultural, relational, and life-long process of growth and well-being.

Centering families, educators, and communities can take many forms, such as co-designing curriculum, participatory and shared decision-making, community-based education, and recognizing the important connections between in- and out-of-school learning.

Youth and families’ visions for an antiracist school hang in front of an elementary school during a Day of Solidarity action in Madison, Wisconsin.
Youth and families’ visions for an antiracist school hang in front of an elementary school during a Day of Solidarity action in Madison, Wisconsin.

Finally, children are often seen as empty vessels to fill with academic content rather than full, agentive people we (adults) can think with and learn from. Such deficit thinking emphasizes what young people can’t do, rather than what they can do with meaningful learning goals and supports. Deficit thinking also defines the ways of speaking and knowing of youth of color as problems rather than cultural-historical practices essential for ongoing, deep learning. In fact, basing education on one way of speaking and knowing undermines critical thinking and individual and collective well-being.

Human communities throughout time have cultivated the growth of young people through intergenerational activity. Requiring all students to learn the same thing, at the same pace, with only their age group — and determining that if they don’t “succeed,” they are “behind” — is a relatively new practice more aligned with the assembly line than with what children need. It also privileges individual success within an unequal system rather than collective thinking that transforms the system itself. Moving beyond such pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approaches requires investing in the pedagogies of care, love and dignity modeled by many families and educators. These forms of educational possibility are currently nurtured within the cracks in the system, by specific teachers or in particular classrooms or schools that rarely receive adequate resources and recognition. As many justice-oriented teacher and educational organizations argue, they must be uplifted as organizing principles.

Our current crises require ethical leadership and vision. COVID-19, climate change, anti-Black racism, Indigenous erasure, xenophobia, and economic collapse represent threats to public health and demonstrate the urgent need for systemic change. We must not seek to reestablish what was “normal”: “Normal” education flattened learning to individual achievement and competition, and teaching to accountability. “Normal” education ignored the deep disconnects between academic learning, well-being and the realities of social and political life.

Systemic change requires that youth, families, and educators collectively serve as decision makers and designers of educational possibility. It also requires confronting harmful myths about human learning, and redefining the processes and purposes of education. As we witness what pandemic-era schooling has further illuminated, what lessons will we head? Will we embrace the complexity and diversity of young people’s brilliance and promise? What are we invested in and what do we need to let go of to create the future we desire?