Rethinking Schools: The “Learning Loss” Trap
The editors of Rethinking Schools offer some important insights into the trouble with the current Learning Loss panic.
The learning loss narrative shrouds itself in moment-in-time data from standardized tests, but it is not really about this moment. Rather, it is a weapon wielded against the past, to shift blame for pandemic school closures, and against the future, to narrowly frame the policy choices ahead.
Yes there have been losses suffered from the pandemic. But where are we shifting attention.
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.
In short, learning loss panic is just a distilled recap of the old “failing schools” narrative. Schools are in trouble, and it’s all the schools’ fault! We’d better do something else!