It appears enough time has elapsed post COVID that mainstream education journalism is ready to discuss the effects of widespread shutdown policies on students. However, as you might expect, not necessarily in a way which is helpful. Illustrating just that is a recent NPR piece, focusing on what keener observers have been warning about for over two years: learning loss.
When the pandemic began, educators everywhere found themselves thrust into a situation wherein they had to become familiar with how to run their classrooms virtually. As many struggled to do just that, concerns arose about the effects this switch in routine would have on students.
In this piece published in April of 2020, amidst what many naive commentators were referring to as “the new normal,” Robert Pondiscio expresses precisely this concern: “It is a fantasy to believe that we can stem the effects of months without real school by ginning up instructional capacity on the fly in unfamiliar forms in the midst of a public health crisis.”
After two years without real school, we are seeing the consequences. Teachers widely report worse behavior than they are used to encountering in the classroom. Chronic absenteeism is on the rise. Both of these factors, combined with poor teaching practice and two years away from the classroom has resulted in poor performance by students, which should come as no surprise.
So, when a piece like the one in NPR is published, wherein teachers lament their students being at the academic level of second graders upon entering fourth grade and claiming that “we’re back to working miracles” to get students to grade level, it is encouraging to see these issues beginning to gain widespread attention. But the question must be asked: what took so long?
When looking at the data on student performance, behavior, and attendance, it is hard not to view school policies on shutdowns as a slow-moving disaster, observable by anyone bothering to pay attention. And what we need to solve it is not a cadre of teachers as “miracle workers.” If teachers were in the business of working miracles, or if the miracle workers of the world were attracted to this particular profession, we would not be in the spot we find ourselves in.
What is needed, instead, is much simpler: reading instruction informed by cognitive science; behavioral policies which are consistently applied and come with consequences; content emphasized over skills; high quality curricular materials which focus on rich literature and history, and teaches math according to sound pedagogical principles. And all of this needs to be delivered untainted from ideological motives.
If schools fail to commit to the above, along with other common-sense approaches to curriculum and instruction, but we instead do what we seem primed to do, which is to forgive poor behavior, rely on ineffective reading methods, and indoctrinate students in the political leanings of activist teachers, then we are looking at a generation of students who will simply not receive a meaningful education.