Who Is Falling Behind What?

Thoughts on "learning loss."

The recent discussion about how students are at risk for “falling behind” because of the impact of the pandemic on schooling has me thinking about my entry into Kindergarten.

Or rather, my almost non-entry into Kindergarten, as it were. 

The year was 1975, the place the auditorium of Greenbriar School in Northbrook, Illinois, and the problem was that I could not cut or color. These were two of the core skills at the pre-Kindergarten screening being conducted, meant to test my fine motor abilities. I was lacking. For coloring I was working outside the lines. For cutting, I could not seem to find the line. 

My gross motor skills were good (walking on a low balance beam), but the experts were apparently concerned that my lack of fine motor development might make things like learning to write my letters, a key component of one’s Kindergarten education at the time, too tough. 

This next part may be partial family apocrypha, but as I understand it, as there was a debate with my mother about whether or not I should be given time to ripen further so I could hack the Kindergarten curriculum, she pulled a book out of her purse and asked if it mattered that I had already been reading for quite some time.

Couldn’t cut, couldn’t color, but I could read because I was literally raised in a bookstore my mom had started when I was a year old.

If education was a race, I was trailing the pack on some important metrics, while miles ahead on others. Thankfully, no one at the time was viewing it as a race, so me and my shortcomings were allowed to start school with all my existing neighborhood friends my age.

Those coordination issues plagued my entire school career. I was the last kid to earn a gold star for being able to zip my own coat and tie my own shoes. I cried in frustration over my shoelaces, practicing at home. My penmanship grades were a succession of “Needs Improvement” boxes checked. You know how at Thanksgiving you had to make a turkey drawing tracing your hand? My turkey was so distorted it looked like it’d been raised in a post-Chernobyl radioactive hellscape.

Even today, don’t ask me to wrap a present. Thank goodness for the invention of those reusable gift bags.

So, I started behind, and I’ve never caught up, but you know, it’s been okay. Learning to type was a huge breakthrough for me, as it allowed me to concentrate on what I was trying to say, rather than making sure my letters were shaped in a way that made them legible to others.

There’s no doubt that the coronavirus has altered the educational path of every child in America, but if we see learning as the meandering journey to a unique destination for each individual that it is, rather than a race to a common finish line, maybe we can ratchet down our anxiety over “learning loss.”

The notion that we must figure out how to catch students up to “schooling” benchmarks or they will somehow be permanently left behind is to make a fetish out of metrics that are, at their core arbitrary. I was lucky enough to grow up in an era when these variances were tolerated, allowing me to start school with my age cohort.

This is not to rationalize situations where students have been left without access to opportunities to learn. This is the pandemic merely revealing schools which were under resourced whether there was a pandemic or not. The American Recovery Act has money set aside specifically to help these schools.

Some are advocating for summer school, essentially working through the entire year. This strikes me as a dubious idea in a world where so many of us are feeling burned out from coping with the pandemic. It also presumes that falling behind is some kind of permanent state, as opposed to merely something that happened to all of us during this very trying period.

Child development experts in the UK are calling for a “summer of play” dedicated to rebuilding the social bonds disrupted by the pandemic.

Another option is intensive tutoring, which has been shown to be highly efficacious in closing achievement gaps, even among adolescents. This is something we’re well familiar with at Educational Endeavors as an organization that is oriented around close counseling of students that targets their specific academic needs.

Writing at NPR, Anya Kamenetz lists these options and more, and one thing becomes very clear, that students will need significant and sustained investment across any number of possible interventions.

If education is a race, it’s a marathon.

But it isn’t a race, or it need not be. As to what students need this summer, I think it depends on the student, but every choice should start with a focus on their overall well-being, rather than where they are in this race that does not exist.

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For those looking for a five-day on improving their writing practice this summer, check out Educational Endeavors’ Ignite: A Writer’s Practice Workshop.