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Column: Fears of learning loss are alarmist

  • Sunnyside Elementary School fourth-grader Miriam Amacker does school work in her room at her family's home in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 4/20/2020 10:10:08 PM
Modified: 4/20/2020 10:10:04 PM

As if families didn’t have enough to worry about. On Thursday, The New York Times editorial board published an alarming piece about the devastating loss of learning that will accompany school closures. It was hyperbolically titled, “The Coronavirus’s Lost Generation of Students.” Other opinion pieces and supposedly well-sourced news articles sound the same warning bells.

Schools everywhere are ramping up online learning and redesigning curricula for virtual instruction. As a former head of school, I receive daily, jargon-filled email promotions from enterprising folks offering “state of the art” courses to keep developing those young brains. Many parents, having no other sources of information, are anxiously engaging in daily battles of the wills with their children. In the most extreme manifestations, the anxiety is expressed as “Children will fall so far behind they’ll never catch up,” or “They’re losing any chance to ever go to college.” This language is used when describing elementary school kids!

It’s nonsense — for two reasons.

First, the original research that coined the phrase “summer slide” has been debunked. The studies, from decades ago, were structurally flawed and poorly executed. But even if they were “right,” they were wrong.

That original research, and most other educational research efforts, are based on test scores and other standard measures. Those variables, then and now, are poor representations of what matters in cognitive development.

It is true that some facts and simple skills degrade when you don’t practice them for a while. The rote learning and standard curriculum in many schools are among them. Even in the best of times, the “gains” and “losses” chronicled in the standards and accountability era are cognitively unimportant anyway. But even if they were important, the understanding of this decline is flawed.

For example, some studies show that gains in acquisition of a second language are seriously eroded if a student takes a semester or year off. Therefore, eager administrators force kids to plug away without interruption to ensure continuity or parents enroll their children in summer language school so they’ll not skip a beat. What actually happens is quite different.

It is true that retention of skill drops off several weeks after “instruction” stops. But after the initial “forgetting,” the level of knowledge or skill doesn’t drop off much more after six months or a year. The important thing is that knowledge and skill “ramp up” very rapidly when the learning is restarted, regardless of the length of the hiatus. From a cognitive point of view, a six-month hiatus from school matters little more than a two-week winter break.

If children “learn how to learn” and develop deeper cognitive skills, relearning is relatively simple and rapid. While space precludes thorough explication, at least one fascinating study showed that a group of students who had no — zero, nada — math instruction in fourth and fifth grades actually did better in sixth-grade math than their regularly drilled peers. This counterintuitive finding was attributed to the experiential measuring and fun experimentation those kids did instead.

There is some evidence that the rote skills drilled into young children actually inhibit their understanding of mathematics. In many ways school, as constituted in this severe era, may be bad for the brain. For too many kids, school is most assuredly bad for the heart and spirit.

While there are terrible inconveniences to families in these trying times, children’s brains are not becoming addled by a few months of freedom from being “taught.” If kids read a bit, count birds or estimate the heights of blossoming trees outside their windows, they might learn more than they would in school. The worst part of the isolation and closing of schools is that millions of children are not with friends, learning to navigate the world and finding their places in it.

Being privileged and relatively comfortable, the effects of social distancing and relative isolation are a nuisance, not a crisis, for my wife and me. But for millions of families, the loss of life, loss of income and fear about the future can be paralyzing. The last thing they should do is worry that the coronavirus is robbing their children of future opportunity.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at stevehutnelson@gmail.com.

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