Learning Loss Crisis Affects Grade Schoolers

Grade school is a distinct learning period in any student’s life. Solidifying foundational concepts and introducing more advanced critical thinking occurs roughly over the five-year period between first to fifth grade.

This time period is so important that an internet rumor has been circulating for some time now claiming that state authorities calculate the number of prison beds they will need in the future based on elementary school reading levels. Although this myth is false, maybe states should give the theory underlying this strategy a second look.

“In an Education Week article last year, the magazine highlighted a report by sociology professor Donald Hernandez who compared reading scores and graduation rates of almost 4,000 students. ‘A student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time,’” The Atlantic wrote in 2012.  

A study done by researchers at Northwestern University found a strong correlation to dropout and incarceration rates. “About one in every ten young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates,” according to The Atlantic.

Courtesy of The Dallas Morning News

Comparing this information with a new study from the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit organization that works with school districts to measure student performance, the coronavirus school shutdown may result in serious backtracking in grade school learning.

“[Students] might retain only 70 percent of their annual reading gains compared with a normal year. Projections for the so-called Covid slide in math look even bleaker. Depending on grade level, researchers say, students could lose between half and all of the achievement growth one would expect in a normal academic year,” The New York Times editorial board wrote in April.

From looking at other lengthy interruptions to normal schooling (e.g. teacher strikes), student growth can be undermined and can even effect success in higher education. Parents are concerned about this statistic – nearly 90 percent of parents from polls conducted in New York and California are concerned about their children falling behind in school during the stay-at-home closings.

Teachers capturing the attention of 20 ten-year-olds in person is already a near-impossible feat, but accomplishing the same thing online is plain unrealistic. In 2016, a study from the National Alliance for Public Charter schools compared a full-time virtual public charter school with traditional public schools. Not only did the online school perform worse than traditional public schools in most states, but it also had weaker academic gains for all demographic subgroups of students. More broadly, the study revealed that students disengage from virtual school extremely easily.

Not to mention, a lack of internet connection presents challenges for the underprivileged. The New York Times estimates that around 12 million schoolchildren already lacked internet access at home before COVID-19 and thus had difficulty completing schoolwork. Even in the best circumstances, according to researchers from the University of Michigan, online learning involves “hastily planned instruction in unprepared districts from teachers who were expecting to use face-to-face instruction.”

The youngest generation of students losing a foundational year of learning is obviously less than desirable. Yet solutions for learning loss are already being discussed, including diagnostic testing to determine which concepts students are missing before they return to the classroom or an expanded school calendar to make up for lost classroom time. It is important to recognize that teachers should not be blamed for learning loss and that every school can do nothing but its best.

Featured image courtesy of Catholic Schools of Dallas

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