Last May, I published a post with this title: “Can we stop telling the ‘corona kids’ how little they are learning?”

Written by Rachael Gabriel, associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut, it made the case that students were actually learning when schools closed last spring as the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States — just not all of the things they would have learned in class:

Students are learning how to reset the rhythms and structures of their days. They are learning different patterns and modes of communication. They may be taking on different roles in their homes and learning how to complete new tasks, engage in new games and develop or sustain new and different activities.
Some are learning from the outdoor world on walks that go slower and last longer than before. Others are watching nature change day-by-day out their window, in their gardens, and along trails and bodies of water. Some are spending more time in their imaginations because it’s the only place to go, but this is not unimportant work.
Students cannot help but learn about themselves, others and the world around them in this time when solitude has steadily increased alongside disconnection and uncertainty. Even those who are too young to verbalize their understandings understand their world has changed, and are changing right along with it.

Gabriel is back with a new look at “learning loss” and what it really means.

Gabriel has written or edited five books for literacy teachers, leaders and education researchers, as well as numerous articles, and teaches courses for educators and doctoral students pursuing specialization in literacy.

By Rachael Gabriel

There is no such thing as learning loss.

When it comes to K-12 schooling, the truth is that some of us are more used to interruptions than others. Those of us who have to move around a lot, are living between two countries, or who have experienced a major injury, illness or are chronically ill, and even those who just changed schools once know what loss feels like.

But it is not a loss of learning.

It is loss of a previously imagined trajectory leading to a previously imagined future. Learning is never lost, though it may not always be “found” on pre-written tests of pre-specified knowledge or preexisting measures of pre-coronavirus notions of achievement.

The legacy of the standards movement of the 1990s, and the high-stakes testing it inspired in the early 2000s, is a version of education that is assumed not to exist or matter unless or until it is predicted and measured. The pandemic has illustrated with searing definition how wrong that assumption is. We have all learned, every day, unconditionally.

Students continue to learn about themselves and school when we tell them that their efforts to engage with school this year were simply not enough. They learn about inequality when they see some districts open in person and others not, some people vaccinated and others not. They learn that the world still assumes all children live with their parents, and that it is safe to do so.

They learned to take gym class on YouTube, that people you have never met can be your greatest teachers, that the ability to go outside and play during the day makes every day brighter, and that their safety depends on the decisions of others.

They learned that, contrary to the messages in some schools, learning does not require feet on the floor, hands on their desks, and eyes tracking the speaker. They learned what taking breaks does for them as learners, and what conversation and companionship means for them as individuals.

Teachers learned too — that their already lean curriculum could be even leaner and more focused. That practice and application could and should look different at home, and that family members, friends and neighbors are a resource not only for supporting what happens in school, but for extending and elaborating on it in ways we cannot predict.

The knowledge of adults from different generations may be different from what we’re teaching now — another indicator that knowledge isn’t a finite commodity to be bought, sold and learned in linear order — but it adds depth and context nonetheless. This has all been part of our “covid curriculum.”

The truth is that we are all in the process of learning and unlearning; of being schooled and unschooled. Our imagined trajectories were disrupted, and this particular disruption with its layers of grief and edges of uncertainty cannot be overestimated in scope or impact. This is precisely the reason we must stop telling the Corona Kids that they fell behind and have to catch up. Anything other than acknowledging unconditional learning is a lie that sustains fear-fueled systems of inequity.

As Rachel Cargle, curator of “The Great Unlearn,” reminds us: sometimes you have to unlearn things in order to get them right.

Where this is the case, then the academic version of so-called “covid loss” should be considered humanity’s gain. Some of us unlearned taken-for-granted assumptions about our neighbors, ourselves and our history. Some of us unlearned our relative contempt for teachers when we saw how hard it was to teach our own children at home.

Now, it is time to unlearn our trust in companies that stimulate fear of low achievement to sell tests and remediation programs. It is time to relearn what learning really looks like.

According to Yvette Jackson, a scholar at the National Urban Alliance, learning often looks a lot like what we call enrichment: with opportunities to collaborate, make choices, diverge from an original plan, be creative, and with varied ways to demonstrate what you learned.

For some students, summer is a time for enrichment. For others, well-intentioned summer reading programs construct the opposite experience: with assigned texts and tasks, and requirements to track minutes and pages read, because, it doesn’t matter unless it is predicted and measured.

The idea of summer learning loss, particularly summer reading loss, has become so well known that it is a forgone conclusion rather than a possibility in some communities. We may need to unlearn this.

Recently, Deborah Reed of the University of Iowa and her colleagues reported that whether or not data from U.S. schoolchildren show any “summer slide” in reading achievement depends on the methodology used to measure it. Some approaches show no loss at all, and sometimes even gain across all student demographic categories.

This is not the only study that has suggestion assumptions about the inevitability of summer slide may need to be revisited. A small choir of studies suggest minimal or no loss across demographic groups, with patterns that look more like stagnation than slide, and a handful of others point toward nonacademic interventions, like Sesame Street, or book distribution programs, that are associated with literacy development while more prescriptive programs like summer school are not.

A few years ago, sociologists studying school as a potential social equalizer reported that African-American students in their sample were more likely to lose ground during the year and gain it over the summer. This finding was likely drowned out among the many infographics and white papers published by companies that sell reading tests and support programs.

The finding that some students learn more in the summer and less during the year is only counterintuitive if you assume that learning always happens in school settings, and all our best teachers are in school instead of at home, or out in the community.

If school is not a time for creativity, empowerment, choice and engagement, it is not likely to be a time of growth either. Why have we held on so tightly to the idea that students must lose ground over the summer if it isn’t necessarily true?

Because it reifies a narrative of white exceptionalism that says rich White parents can provide for their children’s education over the summer, but poor parents and parents of color cannot — all they can do is rely on public school. This must be unlearned because it is a lie. The truth is that families and communities of all varieties provide opportunities to learn, without exception.

It isn’t a lie that families rely on schools as an access point for things like books, daytime supervision of children, nutrition, therapeutic services, and sometimes health care. But it is certainly a myth that families must rely on school for learning to occur. Learning can and has always occurred outside school, even and especially in communities that depend on school for specific services.

That is why research shows that book distribution programs that target laundromats and barber shops have a positive impact even when summer school and summer reading interventions, often, help students maintain but not grow.

Fear of summer slide has led to campaigns to get students to track and prove their reading by logging pages, minutes and numbers of books. These campaigns limit what counts as reading to what can be measured: pages of books, and frame students reading experiences as a race against loss rather than an opportunity to grow.

When summer reading is about increasing access to texts, but not requiring students prove they read, it looks much more like the kinds of reading experiences reserved for those we assume will grow over the summer.

As Jackson reminds has demonstrated, providing pedagogies most often reserved for the gifted and talented to those who are not identified supports achievement more than remediation designed for those considered to be low, slow or unlikely to learn.

Children will learn most and best where adults around them believe in their ability to learn, create reasons for learning and provide opportunities for meaningful practice. Catch-up is an impoverished reason for learning and remedial experiences are rarely contexts for meaningful practice.

What if instead of assuming summer is a time to fear even greater loss, we imagined it as an opportunity to fuel up on imagination, purpose, and connection that can drive the engine of formal education in the Fall.

What if we thought that, like muscles, minds need time off to rest if they are to build back stronger.

What if we thought that, like a child’s physical development, growth comes in unpredictable fits and starts, not steadily over 9 months of the year only to come to a screeching halt?

What if instead of buying into the fear of what might be lost if we don’t schoolify summer, we followed existing research about summer school, summer tutoring and summer reading loss? This is the evidence that has accumulated:

  • Free voluntary reading has a larger positive impact on reading achievement than summer school if students have access to text they can and want to read.
  • Students can develop reading skills with short-term tutoring provided by minimally trained volunteers, and those who struggle with reading can accelerate progress if tutoring is 1:1 with an expert teacher.
  • Overprescribing academics is expensive, ineffective, and usually only foisted upon those we assume will struggle to learn.

What if we imagined the “corona kids” had learned more than previous cohorts.

What if we assumed they were more resilient, well-rounded, creative, and had even more potential than previous cohorts because of what they have lived through and lived without?

What if we assumed that instead of behind, they were advanced in ways matter beyond measure?

What would summer programming look like? What would next fall be like?

If we narrow what counts as school to the aspects of school that can be counted and compared, we will certainly lose opportunities to engage students in formal schooling, but students will still learn. They always do.

If educators and policymakers want to be part of guiding that learning, they need to honor it where it exists, and fuel it where it thrives.