The “Learning Loss” Trap

Editors of Rethinking Schools  – 2023-01-20

This article appeared recently in rethinking schools and is republished here with permission. You can read rethinking schools by clicking here


This school year, as teachers carefully construct unit plans, build community with students, and navigate ongoing staff shortages, they also have to contend with a barrage of media coverage catastrophizing about so-called “learning loss.” Headlines suggest the losses are “historic,” “devastating,” and that students are “critically behind.” This fearmongering comes not only from the political right; there is a dangerous liberal-conservative consensus. President Biden’s Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, said: “I want to be very clear: The results in today’s Nation’s Report Card [delivered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress] are appalling and unacceptable.”

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.

The last few years have negatively impacted — sometimes terribly — young people’s lives. In what is likely an undercount, more than a million people in the United States have died of COVID-19. And the pandemic is not over; people in our students’ families continue to become debilitated or die. Each lost life is a thread in the tapestry of relationships that knit together families, communities, neighbourhoods, and schools. The very groups that make up the bulk of public school families — people of colour and poor folks — also disproportionately bear the burden of the pandemic, suffering the highest rates of infection, severe illness, hospitalization, and death.

Was the shuttering of schools and move to remote learning necessary? Yes. Did it exacerbate the emergency for families and young people? Of course. Schools matter. Schools are hubs of community and care, and without them we are all worse off. In a country that offers no public childcare to families, schools make it possible for parents and caregivers to work. In a country in which roughly 10 percent of the population struggles with hunger — again, disproportionately represented in public schools —schools make it possible for children to eat. And yes, schools are places where children learn: to read, multiply, and sing; to be a good friend and community member; to ask questions and seek answers — how photosynthesis works, what activists mean when they call themselves “water protectors,” and so much more.

Given the importance of schools, and the magnitude of the pandemic’s devastation, what is puzzling is not that students’ academic skills were impacted, but that anyone would imagine otherwise. We are almost three years into an ongoing health crisis that has shaved years off the average life expectancy in the United States. Of course it has left marks on us.

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

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.

The Biden administration has offered some respite from billionaire free market fanatics like DeVos, but its policies are woefully inadequate. (See “Activists Mobilize for Waivers and Opt Outs as Biden Mandates Tests” in the Spring 2021 issue.) The latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund allocated a relatively generous $122 billion to “help safely reopen and sustain the safe operation of schools and address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the nation’s students.” But the law prioritizes speed — schools must spend all of the money by 2024 or forfeit it — over investments in teachers, counsellors, school librarians, and nurses. Many school districts cannot quickly fill positions or, knowing that the federal windfall is only short-term, choose not to. According to Marianna McMurdock, a staff reporter at The 74, a recent survey of 291 district leaders found that districts are expanding hiring of substitutes, paraprofessionals, and tutors while shying away from hiring full-time teachers and lowering class sizes — reforms that would have more impact on student learning and better inoculate schools from the overcrowded classrooms that made shuttering schools necessary.

We know what comes next — a round of dismal math and reading scores and the right’s favourite chestnut: “See? Just throwing money at schools doesn’t work.” Schools are racing to spend short-term government funds before they run out. But the point is that adequate funding for schools should never run out. Tripling Title I funding, a Biden campaign promise popularized by Bernie Sanders, would only cost one-fiftieth of the $1.5 trillion in wealth U.S. billionaires have added to their fortunes during the pandemic. Truly confronting the many losses students in the United States have shouldered requires connecting the dots to the gains of the wealthy.

The learning loss drumbeat reveals the mainstream media to have more contempt than curiosity about what might actually improve schools’ long-term health. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, writing in The New Yorker, is an exception. Noting the recent teacher strikes in Columbus and Seattle, Taylor wrote:

A real plan for recovery from the devastation of the pandemic in public education can be found in the strikes initiated by teachers and their unions. Their demands — for smaller class sizes, better conditions within school buildings, more resources to attend to students’ mental health, and higher pay for teachers and teacher assistants — have created a map for how to boost learning achievement.

This pandemic has brought real losses, and like our friends in Seattle and Columbus, we know what schools need to help students heal from the traumas of the last several years: more teachers, counsellors, and nurses; smaller class sizes; planning time for educators to develop curriculum and pedagogical strategies centering students’ lives and realities; beautiful spaces to learn, make art, garden, and play.

Let’s not fall for the learning loss trick that shifts blame from the catastrophic results of decades of disinvestment in public goods to the victims of that catastrophe and those organizing to recover from it. It is not students and teachers who are failing the test of this pandemic, but a political and economic system that puts profit over people.



Rethinking Schools began in 1986, when a group of Milwaukee education activists — teachers, teacher educators, and community members — met to talk about how they could bring more critical voices into the conversation about public schools and libraries. These founding Rethinking Schools editors saw a school curriculum that was conservative, dumbed-down, and dominated by corporate-produced textbooks. Inappropriate standardized testing was rampant. Racial bias infected every level of schooling.