The Imaginary Learning Line

I remember learning imaginary numbers back in intermediate Algebra. The concepts of a number that wasn’t real but allowed you to do complex operations was a little strange at the time. Potentially stranger to me is the imaginary line of learning that students “fall behind.”

Summer school and extended school days or years are being thrown around currently as ideas for the lost learning. Policy makers, teachers and researchers can’t stop talking about students “falling behind” from this ill-fated year of distance learning.  Certainly, there is plenty of early evidence that students aren’t learning the same quantity of content or developing skills at the same rate as normal times.  Yet the assumption that the solution is extending the learning time or that there is a line of learning is built on false pretenses.

1. The assumption is that there is a line of learning that occurs each year and that we meet that line.  Our education system has slowly built itself up around this line through standards and testing that gained momentum following the 1983 report A Nation at Risk.  At some point we decided that when you finish third grade you should have skills x, y and z.  Each year has a set of standards, for math and English. We actually have little evidence to date about a “learning slide.” And even if there was one, it’s not exactly normal times. Children have 12 years to learn material that we as a society have deemed important. But really how different are the skills between each year of English. If they graduated high school with 11 years of English instead of 12, would they be non-functional? Sometimes you have to evaluate the purpose of education.

2. Even if you accept that distance learning is largely ineffective, what is the purpose of extending the school year unless students are going to be back in the classroom.  Teachers are largely resistant to returning to campus with students.  While there is significant evidence that it’s safe for students and teachers to be in the classroom, and teachers are being vaccinated, there appears to be no educator willing to open campuses. So are we really asking students to spend the summer sitting inside on zoom for what is largely little gain in learning?  But even if schools do open for summer or extended learning which seems a bleak possibility at this point, what is the purpose? Perhaps we should remember that this has been an especially difficult year for children of all ages. They have been limited from social interactions. They have largely lost extracurricular i.e. fun: dance, sports, music, theater, and more. Publicly funded in-person camps to make up for the poorly managed year, I am all for. More distance learning…count me out!

Sometimes (most of the time) I wonder if the policymakers and educators were ever children or even like them.

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