There has been a good amount of commentary lately about how the coronavirus pandemic and the closure of most schools in the United States for at least a few months will affect youths in the long term. Some have gone so far as to declare that we have a “lost generation” on our hands.

The New York Times editorial board, for example, wrote a piece about learning loss and quoted researchers who say some students could lose an entire academic year of learning. It also said, “A learning reversal of this magnitude could hobble an entire generation unless state leaders quickly work to reverse the slide.”

The Washington Post recently published a story (I was one of three authors, along with Laura Meckler and Joe Heim) that said millions of students could see their learning “severely stunted” and referred to research findings suggesting that “a generation of students” could be “forced to play catch-up.”

The researchers quoted by the Times and The Post measure learning in months, but mathematician John Ewing challenges that approach in this post. He writes: “I don’t know the full effect of the pandemic on education. I do know it shouldn’t be measured in months of learning.”

A new working paper makes the point that important educational policy decisions are based on “a mostly untested assumption: that growth in achievement is linear throughout the entire school year.” Researchers Megan Kuhfeld and James Soland say their research shows that such an assumption “is often not justified.” Kuhfeld is a research scientist at the nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association; Soland is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and an affiliated research fellow at the association. The paper was published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

Ewing is president of Math for America, a New York-based fellowship program for highly accomplished teachers of math and science. He held faculty positions at Dartmouth College (1971 to 1973) and Indiana University (1973 to 1995), as well as other visiting appointments in the United States and abroad. And he served as executive director of the American Mathematical Society, the world’s largest scientific society for research mathematicians.

A version of Ewing’s piece appeared in Forbes.

By John Ewing
For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth. — Plutarch

Schools are closed across the country. We are told by education experts and the media that the pandemic has created an educational catastrophe, that millions of children’s learning will be severely stunted, that we may have created a lost generation. Various groups are calculating the months of lost learning, which, we’re told, will be far worse than the “summer slide.” It might be up to year in mathematics! Some suggest making up those losses through compulsory summer school. Others absurdly recommend holding all students back a year — or perhaps the requisite number of months?

The primary advice one gives in a pandemic is not to panic. Stop panicking. Get a grip!

Don't get me wrong: School closings are devastating for many students and their families. Disadvantaged students are especially affected by the closings. Those without financial or parental support will suffer the most. This can be exceedingly difficult for families in which parents must work and therefore leave children in precarious situations. We should all be concerned, both by the current inequity and the inequity inherent in American education. But seriously, a lost generation?

The notion that you can measure education by “months of learning” is one of the conceits of the student achievement movement, led by the same folks who gave us endless testing and the notion that teachers can be judged by mathematical models. It’s a way to quantify educational success or, more often, failure — this intervention adds two months; when this happens, they lose three.

You can only believe that months-of-learning makes sense if you think education is filling up students each month with some educational stuff. It’s the opposite of Plutarch’s view above, which is often abbreviated as: The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. That’s a sentiment shared by the greatest philosophers of antiquity; it’s profound. The notion that education is something we pour into empty minds is a shallow, sad view of education.

I don't know the full effect of the pandemic on education. I do know it shouldn't be measured in months of learning.

No one understands this better than teachers, whom the experts seem to view as hapless victims in the current closings. The teachers were “put online,” we learn. They may not have realized that online education is not streaming a classroom lesson. We are told that online education “is ineffective” because a study of virtual charter schools proved it. We should cancel the spring break to make up for lost learning, even though it gives teachers less time to prepare. In short, teachers are incidental, except to do the pouring when the time comes.

Here's another view of the role teachers play in our current situation.

Teachers were not put online. They went online, sometimes with little advanced notice (less than 24 hours here in NYC) and frequently with little support. In some cases, they frantically gathered materials as schools were closing and personally gave it to their students.

Teachers agonized about how to deal with students who had no computer equipment. They spent days and weeks constructing new materials in new formats for online instruction. They formed support groups, shared materials, created innovative approaches. And they continue to spend vast amounts of time answering questions, working with students individually or in groups, and communicating with parents.

No one needs to tell teachers that online instruction isn’t merely streaming classroom instruction; they know it firsthand; they live it every day. And when schools reopen, they will place their lives and their families’ lives in jeopardy, as they meet with students, just as they did before schools belatedly closed.

Teachers may be struggling to undertake a difficult task in difficult circumstances, but so are we all right now. Yes, online instruction is imperfect. Yes, disadvantaged students become even more disadvantaged. Yes, no matter how resilient, students will need to make up some work. But millions of students are continuing to learn, to kindle their fires, because teachers are persevering.

We acknowledge and celebrate doctors, nurses, and other first responders who have worked so hard and accomplished so much during this pandemic. Teachers are education’s first responders.