February 23, 2023

Rethinking Schools Editors: The “Learning Loss” Trap

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The editors of rethinking schools responded to the narrative of learning loss by explaining how that narrative is being used as an attack on schools.

Given the importance of schools, and the magnitude of the pandemic’s devastation, what is puzzling is not that students’ academic skills were impacted, but that anyone would imagine otherwise. We are almost three years into an ongoing health crisis that has shaved years off the average life expectancy in the United States. Of course it has left marks on us.

But the learning loss narrative does not invite reflection on the whole range of collective losses we’ve suffered, nor does it encourage asking why our government — and our political and economic system — failed so spectacularly in anticipating, planning for, and coping with the coronavirus.

Shifting blame away from the for-profit healthcare system and the government’s response to the coronavirus is part of what makes the learning loss narrative so valuable to politicians who have no interest in challenging existing patterns of wealth and power. It is a narrative meant to distract the public and discipline teachers. Here’s the recipe: 1. Establish that closing schools hurt students using a narrow measure like test scores; 2. Blame closure of schools on teacher unions rather than a deadly pandemic; 3. Demand schools and teachers help students “regain academic ground lost during the pandemic” — and fast; 4. Use post-return-to-normal test scores to argue that teachers and schools are “failing”; 5. Implement “teacher-proof” (top-down, standardized, even scripted) curriculum or, more insidiously, argue for policies that will mean an end to public schools altogether.

The path ahead looks eerily like what Naomi Klein has called the “shock doctrine,” where powerful actors, like politicians, corporate tycoons, and pundits, use people’s disorientation following a collective shock — whether a devastating earthquake or a deadly pandemic — to push pro-business, neoliberal policies. The Washington Post quoted a statement from former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that the pandemic test scores proved children were “hostages” in a “one-size-fits-none system that isn’t meeting their needs.” Her solution, of course, is what she has long pushed: more “school choice” and privatization.

Read the full editorial here. 

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