The Brave Solution to Learning Loss

by Laura Overdeck

In the debates over pandemic learning loss, there are as many opinions on solutions as there are students who need help. Children have fallen behind on a wild range of skills this past year, but life and school keep moving forward, with new material continuing to wash over unprepared students. In a cumulative subject like math, how will students regain their academic footing?

The (mixed) good news is, America teaches a lot less than one year of math per year. While that is contributing to our demise as a world power, in the current situation it gives us an odd window of opportunity for students to catch up on lost school time. The bad news is, we will squander that opportunity for our highest-need students if we fail to acknowledge some fundamental realities.

How did we get here?

For decades, America has taught students less material than they are capable of absorbing. How can that be possible, when only 33% of students are proficient in math by eighth grade, and some states have proficiency levels as low as 21%? We have landed here not because we cram too much content into each year, but because our system does not use that time efficiently or effectively.

A 2018 study by the New Teacher Project observed 900 lessons in schools, and found that a mere 8% of them required students to think. Using math as an example, many lessons simply mechanize the steps for solving problems, such as “carrying the one” when adding, or “bringing down the zero” in long division. Place value worksheets allow students to slot digits mindlessly into correctly positioned slots for the hundreds and tens. It’s little surprise that EdReports rates so many major for-profit curricula as “red” for lack of rigor, or that the US ranks below thirty other countries on international measures such as the PISA.

Not all students learn the same way

An additional factor is our lack of true widespread personalized learning. Students are unique, all learning at different paces with different learning styles. Hence, different students hit different stumbling blocks where they need more time to master a concept, but possibly less time on the previous skill or the next one. Unfortunately, we push students through a forced march of units and chapters on one uniform timeline for all.

Thus the same student who waited around last month on addition now struggles to keep up on subtraction. If that student had been allowed to move ahead last month, she could have spent more time on subtraction now, and by the end of this month would be ready for the following unit. By preventing such flexible use of time, our classrooms ensure that on every chapter some students will be stagnating as they wait for everyone to catch up, while others lack sufficient time to grasp the concepts. As a result, every lesson must drag on for the maximum allotted time, and we shortchange our students of the full content they could learn per year.

If you can’t add, it’s impossible to learn how to multiply

It isn’t just a matter of suboptimal use of time. The deeper problem lies in students’ lack of a foundation to level up. We routinely ignore a very basic premise: if a child cannot add, it will be impossible to learn to multiply. Likewise, if a student cannot read at the third-grade level, handing that child a fifth-grade textbook will result in incomplete learning. And yet this is exactly what our schools have done both before and during the pandemic, in lockstep assembly-line fashion.

In a nutshell, we pour resources every day into instruction that cannot and will not stick. In a state that spends, say, $10,000 per student on 1 million K-12 students, that costs $10 billion per year. If only 40% of students are proficient for their grade level, then for 60% of them the material is sailing over their heads. Multiply that across our country, and we literally pour tens of millions of dollars per day down the drain.

How do we recover from this?

The pandemic has shone a bright light on these longstanding lurking issues. Educators can no longer deny that students are far behind where they would have been. We have a promising opening to take a very new path forward as we emerge from the pandemic and prepare for next school year. How do we handle the varied levels of learning loss among so many students?

Unfortunately, some solutions being proposed may compound the problem. One of the most misguided may be the notion of “acceleration” instead of remediation. The premise is that students should continue to be exposed to the new content for their grade level, and simultaneously work to master the foundational material of previous grades.

While we appreciate the intention to boost students’ confidence, and it may be effective for literacy and other language arts skills, it goes against the cumulative nature of math. If a student could not master the material at the slower lockstep pace, why would the student succeed on an accelerated timeline while also bearing the workload of new material? And it’s new material for which the student lacks the scaffolding. Learning to multiply two-digit numbers while still grappling with place value or addition is overwhelming and may simply backfire, compounding students’ social-emotional struggles. It is likely to stoke math anxiety, a persistent feature of the American public that stymies adults in routine situations.

What’s the solution to learning loss?

A far better approach is to let all students start at the very beginning and move through material at their own pace, ensuring that every skill gap is filled and checked off. This has been implemented with success in numerous examples. In his book One World Schoolhouse, Sal Khan describes a case study where an elementary school allowed a class of non-proficient students to return to kindergarten material and work their way up to fifth grade; in the end they outperformed the stronger classroom of students.

In Newark, NJ, the public elementary Alexander Street School tossed its entire curriculum and had all students from kindergarten to fifth grade begin with basic phonics, and work their way up through the grade levels of literacy – with similar awe-inspiring results. Other whole-school initiatives like New Classrooms give students the time and support to master each skill before moving on to the next.

We need to think big

It is time to get serious about shaking up our assembly-line approach to school and allowing students to learn for real. It does mean letting go of preconceived notions about grade levels and students’ chronological age, and restructuring the use of classtime. But we must remember we are navigating a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes. We need to think big and depart from our usual ways if we are going to dig our way out. The good news is, there are very attainable steps we can take that put success within reach.

Laura holds a B.A. in astrophysics from Princeton University, an M.B.A. in public policy from the Wharton School, and an honorary D. Eng. from Stevens Institute of Technology. When not playing with numbers, Laura likes quantifying the mysteries of chocolate and wine.