There are monsters afoot in the land. Their names: Learning Loss, and his devoted sibling, Falling Behind. (In Greek: Scylla and Charybdis.) They will devastate our children’s lives, if they don’t devour them first, at least this is what we are told by politicians and pundits. Children risk life-long failure if they suffer “learning loss.” Parents cower. Children grow anxious. The country cringes in collective horror. The answer: we must get the kids back into school, unvaccinated, even in the face of the highly contagious Delta variant, as soon as possible.

Sadly, if we believe in them, phantoms can lead to real hardship and pain. In this case, the belief will lead to illness and death for children, their relatives, and members of the community, especially because too many of our schools are not properly prepared to address the pandemic.

How did the current fear of Falling Behind and Learning Loss become so prevalent?* People didn’t always think of schooling and academic achievement in these terms. This view is partly an artifact of the preoccupation with judging academic achievement in terms of standardized tests in the last couple of decades. No Child Left Behind and The Common Core produced a great deal of anxiety in parents and students because of the signals they sent and the ways in which they were implemented. (Parents take heed: if your children’s test scores are too low, then they will be left behind.)  And while there has been serious criticism of teaching to the test, a generation of parents and students have had to imbibe and adapt to this culture. The fact that we still are using the language of Falling Behind and Learning Loss is a monument to the damage done by the testing craze.

The grounds for asserting that kids are falling behind is a house of cards, using a deck which can be reshuffled, for example, states can use different tests, set different benchmarks for passing and proficiency, and change the benchmarks. What counts as proficient one year may be different in the next. And passing in one state can mean failure in another. (If Nicole or John is not passing, consider moving to another state. Problem solved.)

Tests have been criticized from various angles, including for leaving the specious impression that they provide us with accurate and objective evaluations of learning, which in turn can tell us how much so-called learning loss has taken place. Here’s John Erwing, who served on the faculties of Dartmouth and Indiana University, and a past executive director of the American Mathematical Society.

But what’s it mean—”five months of learning loss”? What exactly is lost? Do students forget facts? Skills? Are memories erased? Can they find what’s lost? And what does “five months” mean? Yes, I know, it’s calculated from a mathematical formula, but formulas are only as good as the data and assumptions that go into them. Mathematics is not magic. What are the assumptions? What’s the data? Where does it come from? When people discuss learning loss, they generally don’t know the answers to any of these questions. And if the notion is so vague, how can it be so easily and precisely measured?

Of course, the term “learning loss” comes from the language of test enthusiasts. For them, learning is a substance that’s poured into students over time. One measures the accumulated substance by the number of correct answers on a test (standardized, usually multiple-choice). By administering two comparable tests at different moments in time, one measures success or failure for learning. An increase in correct responses is gain; a decrease is loss.

Learning loss is usually illustrated by the summer break. We are told that students experience about three months of loss each summer. Again, what’s this mean? If a student does more poorly on a test in September than in May, is learning really lost? Seems doubtful, or at least incomplete. . . .

Learning is complicated. Plutarch famously wrote that minds are not vessels to be filled but fires to be kindled. Fires don’t leak. You don’t measure them in months. Learning loss is a calculation masquerading as a concept—a rather shallow, naïve, ridiculous concept.

The system is so crazy that parents are forced to start worrying early, panicking about very young kids suffering learning loss. In fact, they’re so worried that they are willing to risk sending their unvaccinated children to elementary school in a pandemic, with a highly contagious variant still out of control. This distress is unnecessary and cruel. It’s based on hype. After explaining how states could cook the books to produce desired results for the Common Core, Carol Burris, a High School Principal of the Year in New York, goes on to tell us: * *

Here is the bottom line. There is no objective science by which we can predict future college readiness using grades 3-8 test scores. You can, at best make assumptions, based on correlations, with score thresholds that are capricious. To make college readiness predictions for 8-year-olds is absurd and unkind.

Later this week, New York children will face another round of testing, this time in mathematics. Thousands will opt out, while the majority will try their best. Their moms and dads will be disappointed by their low scores, which result from the machinations of the score setting process.

I suggest they do something worthwhile with the score reports when they get them in August — line the birdcage. Then parents should hug their kids and read them a great book, just for fun. It is time for the fools with the tools to move on.

Yet the acolytes of the “fools with the tools” are pushing us every day now to send our unvaccinated kids to back to school, because, God help us, they will otherwise suffer learning loss, and then they will be doomed, as if they have caught not COVID, but some kind of  learning leprosy. And to make matters worse, behind all of this is the assumption that schooling as it now exists in America is a positive experience for kids. The reality is that school is often detrimental to the mental health of children: for example, there is evidence that emergency psychiatric visits, suicides and suicidal ideation increase when kids are forced to go to school.

However, there is another reason Learning Loss and Falling Behind have such a hold on us. They are surrogates for the way we think about production in the economy. Growth, economic growth, requires moving ahead. If you fall behind, your business will not grow. It will die. As employees, if you fall behind, if you are not sufficiently productive, you will lose your job. Businesses must keep up with certain benchmarks, expressed by the numbers, if they are to survive and show a profit.

Rising test scores become markers of success in education, as do increasing profits during a business cycle. It’s the educational equivalent of growth in productivity. Are children more productive, that is, getting higher test scores, making a profit or not? That’s the question parents have, in fact, been instructed to worry about, just not in so many words. Yet, any so-called profit for kids, which comes out of teaching to the test, will yield only short-term gains, because, as Plato teaches us, no forced learning remains in the soul. Push kids to learn enough to get by on the tests? Come back a decade later and see how much they understand or use. Not much: they never really understood what they were supposed to have “learned.” (How much of that Algebra II or Trig is still at the fingertips of most students only a few years after they graduate high school or college? Probably every high school or college grad would likely appear to have fallen way behind if tested a few years out of school in most subjects!)

Why are business leaders, politicians, and some educators so concerned about kids missing school?**** It’s not because they have thought carefully about what education means. They have an unquestioned, unexamined, belief: kids must be in school. But ask them, why? And you will almost inevitably get something like, well, they should be in school, they must be in school. No thought. No real reflection on education. Just mouthing what they have heard. This is the way it is, and it’s not really bad for those who believe this. Businesses, for example, depend on the schools to socialize students into certain kinds of behavior. Learning to tolerate school is good preparation for careers and jobs in a competitive environment, in which you fear falling behind because it might cost you your job.

While losing a job because you were perceived as falling behind is certainly distressing and sad, watching our children suffer from long Covid or even die because of a meaningless quest to avoid Falling Behind is tragic.


* The “falling behind theme is not new.  It was invoked when the Soviets launched Sputnik. We were in danger of “falling behind” then too. Our response, a massive investment in education. This time around the first thought was to punish teachers and schools that didn’t raise their test scores.

** Some of these machinations are explained by Carol Burris in her article, “The Scary Way Common Core Test Cut Scores Are Selected.” In introducing her article, Valerie Strauss explains:

You may have given no thought to the “cut scores” that are set for various tests, but they make all the difference in who passes and who fails. What exactly are cut scores? The Educational Testing Service describes them this way:

Cut scores are selected points on the score scale of a test. The points are used to determine whether a particular test score is sufficient for some purpose.

Notice the word “selected.”  Cut scores are selected based on criteria that the selectors decide have some meaning.  Unfortunately, it is often the case that the criteria have no real validity in revealing student achievement, which is the supposed mission of the test — and that means the scores have no meaning either.

*** In the introduction to the above mentioned article we learn, “Burris was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010, tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by thousands of principals teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens.”

**** Of course, some people insist that we must reopen schools because it’s the only way we can implement nutrition programs and provide childcare.  These are serious issues.  Ideally, our schools should not be responsible for either of these basic social functions.  But neither has anything to do with Falling Behind and Learning Loss as motivators to return to school.


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