Some families, educators and experts are arguing the past 13 months weren’t a loss at all — and a debate is growing over how best to support students moving forward.
There were some tough days for Alanna Barber’s kids in remote learning the past year.
Barber’s third-grade son, Sean, lost patience at times. She had to juggle Sean’s classes with her kindergartner’s first year in school. Barber ended up leaving her job as a school cafeteria manager in another district to stay home with her children.
So when Chicago Public Schools classrooms reopened this spring with safety protocols she felt comfortable with, Barber sent both kids back to in-person learning.
But through it all, was Barber ever concerned about this being a lost school year for her children?
“No, definitely not,” she said late last week outside Beasley Elementary in Washington Park. “They definitely have great teachers. It was an adjustment for the teachers also. … But they were able to pinpoint little things like, ‘OK, this is what we’ll do to get them focused and bring them back in.’”
John Carter said his grandson, also a third grader at Beasley, was an “excellent student” the past year given the circumstances.
“There’s no substitute for individualized, person-to-person teaching,” Carter said. “There’s no substitute for it. But all you can do is try to make the best of it.”
Asked if he was worried about his grandson falling behind during the pandemic, Carter said “it’s more the social aspect of it.” His grandson enjoyed being home with his family, but he missed his friends and being in school — that’s why he went back. “I think we need to listen” to students’ worries, Carter said.
Growing debate on next steps
All CPS schools have now reopened for in-person learning, more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced them shut. But even as two-thirds of students have chosen to stay remote for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, all eyes are turning to the recovery effort that’s set to follow an unprecedented disruption to education.
“There’s a lot that we’re going to have to address when it comes to learning loss and achievement gaps that have widened, unfortunately,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at Walter Payton College Prep the first day high schools welcomed students back in April. “We’re up to the task and excited about the opportunity.”
But with many officials focused on how to make up for any perceived drops in academic performance over the past year, some families, educators and experts are arguing the past 13 months weren’t a lost year at all — and a debate is growing over how best to support students moving forward.
Dr. Kira Baker-Doyle, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Literacy and an associate professor of education, said restarting children’s social, mental and emotional development is more important over the next few months and years than trying to recover any academic material that may not have stuck with kids during the pandemic.
“If you’re not feeling safe or well or socially integrated, you’re going to have a real challenge in engaging in academic work and learning,” Baker-Doyle said.
Literacy, for example, is critical to health and wellness, both for young people now and in their futures, and there is a “point of no return” in elementary school when students need to have developed language skills for long-term success, Baker-Doyle said.
But she didn’t think one year of remote learning would make a big difference in students’ academic development, especially given that learning standards have arbitrarily been pushed earlier into students’ academic careers over the past few decades.
“Social growth leads to our ability to engage in literacy in all kinds of different forms — reading, writing, speaking, all those kinds of things are social acts,” Baker-Doyle said.
“This ideal kid who reads at the end of kindergarten or by the middle of kindergarten is a new idea. And in many cases, that standard even in other countries around the world is not the same.”
Some benefits to remote learning
While the past year hasn’t been traditional in any sense of the word, there have also been benefits, Baker-Doyle said. Studies have found — and families and educators have said — remote learning has caused teachers to build deeper relationships with parents, which helped create better understanding of family and cultural structures that in turn can improve the classroom experience.
“If you limit your understanding of learning to this very academic standard, then you also limit your opportunity to potentially find ways to connect and engage with young people,” Baker-Doyle said. “You’re missing out, essentially, on possible other ways to grow from the challenge.”
CPS is getting $1.9 billion through the latest coronavirus relief bill to help reopen schools and begin the district’s recovery, with at least 20% of the money having to to be spent on academic support. The district is expected to announce a plan in the next few weeks to address “unfinished learning,” as officials are now calling it, that could include expanded tutoring and summer school options, and provide additional social and emotional support. CPS has already moved the start of next school year up a week to start an earlier recovery.
Elsewhere, Los Angeles district officials extended next school year by two weeks — one on each end of the calendar — to give teachers and staff additional training and planning time and offer students more space to “process the trauma and anxiety they’ve experienced the past year and work on learning fundamentals,” the superintendent said.
Using its federal relief funding, the Los Angeles school system is also planning to add more staff for expanded tutoring, hire more social workers, bring in additional reading and math teachers in elementary schools, and hire more high school teachers to reduce class sizes, officials said.
The Chicago Teachers Union and groups of parents and students have demanded a say in how Chicago’s money is spent. Advocates have also urged leaders to stop focusing on “learning loss,” arguing similar deficit language has guided harmful practices in the past.
Baker-Doyle said the framing of the recovery has a significant impact on policy and students’ feelings.
“If you only focus on ‘learning loss,’ what ends up happening is you kind of focus on the student and what their problem is and you don’t actually see those systemic issues and you don’t end up focusing on those things,” she said.
Elaine Allensworth, the director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, said the commotion over learning loss started with a troubling report released last year by NWEA, a nonprofit that creates standardized tests used by districts across the country, including CPS. That April 2020 report predicted large setbacks in student performance and standardized test results during school closures.
But she said those early reports made a lot of assumptions that weren’t likely to come true, and then concerns snowballed. The Consortium, which partners with CPS for research projects, is still studying the issue.
“This has been really difficult, huge stress on families and students and teachers, and then we have all this concern about learning loss, and it’s become an overwhelming concern for a lot of people,” Allensworth said. “We don’t know at this point the extent to which students might be behind where they otherwise would be.
“It’s really elevated this concern, but it’s elevated it to the point where people are saying this is a fact that all of these students are really far behind, and we have this lost generation, when we don’t actually know that that’s the case, and there are reasons to think that’s not the case.”
Tutoring, one-on-one help key to moving forward
Not all families are like Barber’s and Carter’s — the Beasley mother and grandfather — who had parents able to work from home or quit their jobs to stay home with their children. So Allensworth said there’s likely a lot of variation between families’ experiences with remote learning. But just because some students had a harder time than others doesn’t mean they weren’t learning.
The way to proceed isn’t to address previous “losses” by going over prior grade material or teaching to a test, Allensworth said. Districts should instead promote students and continue teaching at their grade level, then support those who are struggling with additional opportunities for tutoring and give teachers time to offer one-on-one help.
School officials should look at grades to figure out where to target support, Allensworth said, because they’re a strong indicator of whether a student has quality access to education and engagement. Test scores, meanwhile, are rarely indicative of a student’s experience, she said.
Asked about learning loss in early March, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said she was “very concerned about that” and lamented what she saw as a lack of attention to the issue. But Jackson acknowledged a need for different language than “learning loss” because “the kids in many cases haven’t even had an opportunity to learn some of these things.
“And I want to be clear, the goal is not remediation. I think if we approach this with a remediation focus, kids are going to be set back. We have to make sure kids are presented with grade-level appropriate curriculum, and we have to provide as many resources and supports as possible to help them access that curriculum.”