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On ‘learning loss’ and the critical need to address existing inequities in education

Perhaps unintentionally, “learning loss” demonizes some family and community experiences, while maintaining oppressive, dominant race and class-based views of education.

student desks

As educational researchers and teachers, we are hearing more and more discussion from educators, communities, and policymakers regarding “learning loss.” Within concerns about pandemic recovery efforts, there is a presumed urgency to fight against a loss of learning — so much so that legislation, district policies, and classroom practices are being organized to combat this loss. We are sensing some tension and anxiety around learning loss and wonder what it will mean for teachers and students.

“Learning loss” seems like a very real problem in need of being addressed. However, like others, we question what is being articulated through the use of terms like “learning loss.” We are critiquing the notion of learning loss for how it is assessed, how it frames learning in deficit perspectives, and for the damaging work it can do through policy.

To be clear, we do agree with the idea that “the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted traditional forms of education and continues to create challenges for K–12 school systems in the United States and the students they serve” (Kuhfeld, Tarasawa, Johnson, Ruzek & Lewis, 2020, p. 2). And while students leaving schools, or not being accounted for, is absolutely of concern, any hasty calls to action may perpetuate misconceptions and cause lasting damage to young people, teachers and schools.

Perhaps unintentionally, “learning loss” demonizes some family and community experiences, while maintaining oppressive, dominant race and class-based views of education. Could something other than school-based, oppressive structures (like testing, in particular) become indicative of students’ learning?

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Many of the studies that point to the reality of learning loss (see the NWEA studies for example) are built on year-to-year testing comparisons of students returning from summer breaks, and assessing what academic skills have been lost. This model for measuring learning loss presumes that completely different scenarios are comparable.

Perhaps most importantly, this comparative move evades the question of whether learning loss can and should be measured.

Jennifer Diaz
Jennifer Diaz
Left unquestioned, this seeming “loss” will be measured. It will become visible through testing that is aligned with state learning standards, outcomes, and (new) policy measures. Within this logic, students will be — and already have been — “welcomed” back to school by tests. In efforts to prove the realities of assumed deficits and fix the problem, the tests will appear to show the learning that students apparently lost.

What appears as a benevolent mode of operation effectively reinserts comparative and deficit theories of learning that further marginalize students of color, students with learning disabilities, multilingual learners and students experiencing poverty. The data and outcomes that are the driving force behind efforts aimed at fixing learning loss may seem necessary for states and districts. However, they will be harmful to teachers and students because of how that “loss” is located and made measurable. Presumably it will be possible to identify who demonstrates the greatest deficits, using comparative measures that point to some students and teachers as the problems to fix.

The “post-pandemic” policies may stake claims as equity projects — represented as special programs or monetary resources aimed at “remedying learning loss.” Yet, legislative policy and schooling practices enacted in response to “learning loss” should center equity in ways that address the education debt and continued education disparities. Without attending to the inequity that existed long before the pandemic, education will continue to pathologize and marginalize certain youth and teachers.

Joaquin Muñoz
Joaquin Muñoz
If the conversation will be framed by “learning loss,” it is important to consider the loss we are ignoring. What critical knowledge about intercultural competency, about anti-racism and anti-oppression, about history, about the needs of Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities are we losing? Will the policies and practices enacted to respond to “loss” also address loss of joy or loss of identity, as Dr. Gholdy Mihammad points out?

This is a moment for advocacy. A moment where teachers, schools and communities can voice a belief in collective resiliency that expand visions of who students are and can be through education. This is a time for nurturing humane pedagogies and policies that acknowledge the complexities of lived experience and hear students’ dynamic stories of enhanced learning. Our advocacy work can produce multidimensional pictures of children and their communities, value student’s funds of knowledge, and reject subtractive schooling. What can we create by troubling “learning loss” and moving toward the real work of critically centering equity?

Jennifer Diaz, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Education Department at Augsburg University. Joaquin Muñoz, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the American Indian Studies Department at Augsburg University. 

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