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Redefining “Learning Loss”

Our teacher community shares their thoughts about “learning loss” and whether this catchphrase paints an accurate picture.


Every back-to-school season, “learning loss” re-enters the conversation. This year, as the public tries to understand the impact of COVID-19 on education, the term has been in the media more than ever. With the first wave of schools starting, we’re diving into how the term is being used. We asked our teacher community how they are thinking about “learning loss”, and whether this catchphrase paints an accurate picture of what students experienced over the last year and a half. 

The history of learning loss

Before the coronavirus pandemic even began, the idea that students “lost learning” based on their home environment over the summer was dubious. 

Prior to COVID-19, learning loss typically referred to the “summer slide” — the idea that students lose progress over summer break — and how it impacts achievement along economic lines. In 2017, the National Summer Learning Association posited that the achievement gap (i.e. different educational outcomes based on economic lines) was largely due to learning loss over the summer.

But whether or not that conventional wisdom holds true isn’t certain; for example, remedial summer programs have not had huge successes, and in a recent study by the Iowa Reading Research Center it was suggested that learning wasn’t lost over the summer, even among communities considered to be most vulnerable to the summer slide. 

Assumptions about learning loss and the achievement gap

Home environment was the focus of most articles about educational inequity during the pandemic, but it may not be the main factor in disparities present when students return.

As the pandemic progressed and schools started to close, concerns about equity and student access to learning took over the conversation. Sources from the CDC to The New York Times talked about how the pandemic would widen existing equity gaps and put students of color and students from low-income households at risk of falling behind.

Much of the news focused on the hardships students faced learning from home, but few articles discussed the existing and systemic inequities in the education system. As the pandemic progressed, a new inequity developed: who was staying home, and who was receiving in-person instruction?

Moving the focus from resources available at home to resources available in the classroom

“The ‘achievement gap,’ then, isn’t inevitable. It’s baked into the system, resulting from the decisions adults make, consciously and unconsciously, about which students get what resources. It’s a gap of our own design.” — The Opportunity Myth, TNTP.org, 2018

In the United States, not all school communities have the same access to resources. During the pandemic, the most precious resource became in-person access to teachers.

A recent report from McKinsey & Company found that “Black and Hispanic students are twice as likely as White students to have received no live contact with teachers over the previous week and are... less likely to be receiving consistent live instruction.” Our survey of 1,100 DonorsChoose teachers found the same: teachers at schools in low-income communities were more likely to report that they were providing all instruction via remote learning, compared to teachers at schools in more affluent communities. The same was also true for teachers at schools that serve a majority of Black, Latino/a, and Indigenous students, with more of these teachers reporting being fully remote than teachers from schools with mostly White students.

Where students are learning according to community income level

Where students are learning according to race

New ways to think about COVID-19 learning outcomes

Rather than attributing student academic struggles to traditional terms like “learning loss”, there are other ways to think about educational inequity that get closer to the heart of the matter: Access to the classroom and the resources in it (including teachers themselves) widens the equity gap. Moving away from the idea of “learning loss” opens up new avenues to help students succeed, and — as usual — teachers are way ahead of the curve here.

Berkley Scholar Chunyan Yang says, “When we talk about learning loss with teachers, it triggers a lot of questioning and resistance. Teachers feel that they have been making so much effort during the pandemic. They’ve imposed on their family’s time and neglected their own mental health to try to minimize the loss among their students.”

The pandemic had an undeniable impact on students, but the impact wasn’t as simple as students failing to absorb information. Researchers such as McKinsey & Company use the term “unfinished learning” to “convey the reality that students were not given the opportunity this year to complete all the learning they would have completed in a typical year.” 

Similarly, when asked about the term, DonorsChoose teachers say it doesn’t give a clear picture of the year and its challenges. Instead of the term learning loss, they would use labels like:

  • Impact learning: “Students that have lost a year of learning will need extra support routines and practices in place to build skills and confidence… Learning loss implies that kids have lost the ability to learn or that learning has not occurred. Learning takes so many forms and occurs in so many ways it’s unfair to say students have learning loss because they were not physically in a school building. ” - Leslie, New Jersey
  • Digital Learning: “There is no learning loss. Our children just focus on a different set of skills — mainly life skills — and learn to adapt to a different style of learning (mostly digital).” - Katie, Massachusetts
  • Pandemic disconnection: “We shouldn't approach this year with a deficit mindset but rather what our students have gained. They've learned technology skills that will benefit them in their future. Many have learned more life skills. There was a great deal of learning last year, just maybe not with the standard curriculum.” - Becky, Massachusetts
  • Nothing - the term shouldn't exist at all! “Our educational system is so focused on outdated scheduling and materials that were intended back during the Industrial Revolution, rather than skills and subjects that would benefit today's technological-based society. While students as a whole may not know the same things the previous generations knew, how many times has someone said ‘I didn't need _______ in my adult life’?” - Shaylyn, California

Supporting students this school year and beyond

When asked about their top priorities for the back-to-school season in a recent survey, most DonorsChoose teachers shared their focus was on developing relationships with students and their families and building and fostering a classroom community.

“For many students, their mental and emotional health need to be stabilized in order for learning to take place.” — Crystal, Pennsylvania

There is also the learning curve that comes with re-entering the classroom. Many of our teachers note that their students haven’t been in a classroom for the last 18 months. They are excited to see each other and it will take time to relearn the behaviors and norms that make a fun and engaging classroom.

“We need the kids to be safe and rebuild the engagement with school...if they feel like it is too much, they are going to become permanently disengaged from school.” — Laura, Connecticut

Over the last year and a half, teachers have adapted to a whole new teaching style, which often requires additional resources. This back-to-school season, public school teachers have already submitted over 80,000 requests on DonorsChoose, and our recent back-to-school site-wide matching campaign supported by Bill Gates was our first big giving day of the school year. Our donors know that the way to give students access to the education they deserve is to support teachers; by listening to the wisdom of teachers on the frontlines, and ensuring they have the resources they need we can set students up for success academically while giving them much-needed social emotional learning support.

Ready to help students access the resources they need? Support a classroom today!

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