Dust in the Wind


As you grow older, you become more conscious of the passage of time. It’s not that young people are unaware of it, but other matters are more pressing. The pursuit of love and money tends to take precedence, and if years go by in the process, then they do.

At a certain age, though, the concept becomes less theoretical and more demonstrable. Health issues multiply, usually accompanied by a variety of prescriptions, and capabilities gradually diminish. All that applies, of course, only to those who are fortunate enough to survive into their seniority.

When I was younger, I often wondered how my parents felt as their siblings and old friends passed away. I never asked them and they never really brought it up, but then that wasn’t very surprising. Their generation was not exactly given to complaining.

Now I’m in their place, and I think I understand how they must have felt. It’s a matter of perspective. Love and money do not lose their importance, but they become more relative to time. As the rock band Kansas put it, “All your money won’t another minute buy.”

Everyone can understand why time is precious to older people, but we don’t always get that it is also critically important to kids. They seem to have so much of it, you might think they could lose a couple years without doing any lasting damage. Not so.

On Jan. 30 of this year, The New York Times published an article entitled, “Students Lost One-Third of a School Year to Pandemic, Study Finds.” The study in question, published a few days earlier by the Center for Research on Social Inequalities in Paris, states that the losses have not been recovered more than two years after schools re-opened. It does not appear that the efforts to conduct “distance learning” succeeded in preventing this gap, at least among disadvantaged students and those growing up in developing nations.

In general, people who study educational trends are convinced that just getting schools back to normal is not going to solve the problem of the missing semester. Thomas Kane of Harvard says that absent some sort of aggressive intervention, “learning loss will be the longest lasting and most inequitable legacy of the pandemic.”

The study, which combined the findings of 42 previous studies from 15 different nations around the world, concluded that the loss amounted to about 35 percent of a school year, and remained very stable in the following years. Losses were greater in math than in reading, and among poorer rather than more affluent students. It is thought that poorer students generally had spottier internet connections, less optimal study spaces and less access to materials and equipment.

It also found that learning losses were consistent across grade levels, and were often accompanied by a decline in socialization skills. Upon returning to schools, teenagers were much more likely to develop anxiety disorders than they had been in the past.

In spite of the wealth of data backing up these assertions, they do not necessarily square with the perceptions of parents. Surveys conducted last year indicate that nearly half of them do not believe that their children suffered any loss of learning at all. Only 9 percent said they were concerned about their kids catching up with their grade level.

I don’t know which parents fall into which income groups, but if the more affluent ones are also the ones that feel more confident about their children’s progress, they may be correct. In the United States, even in school districts that were shut down for an entire year, poorer schools lost twice as much academic progress as richer ones.

Internationally, results have been similar. Low-income countries were excluded due to a lack of data, but upper-income nations such as Australia had lower losses than middle-income nations such as Mexico and South Africa. In Scandinavia, Sweden never closed schools and, as you would expect, suffered no loss of academic progress, but other nations did quite well also. High income and high welfare levels may have contributed to their relative success.

Like most Americans, however, I tend to be a little self-absorbed and more interested in our own problems than everyone else’s. That’s why a piece by the columnist David Brooks caught my attention in mid-February. It was entitled, “America Should Be in the Middle of a Schools Revolution.”

In the column, Brooks described five problems in American education that had been caused, or exacerbated, by the pandemic. First was shrinking enrollments. In the 2020-21 school year, enrollment fell by 1.1 million, and dropped another 130,000 the following year. Research indicates that 26 percent of the drop was caused by students switching to home schooling and 14 percent by switching to private schools. The rest is uncategorized, but includes truancy, unregistered homeschooling and a decline in the school-age population. As a whole, it will translate into a decrease in public school funding.

Second is academic regression. Math scores on standardized tests had gradually risen since the 1970s, but 20 years’ worth of gains were erased by the shutdown. That by itself could result in the loss of almost a trillion dollars in future wages.

Next is rising absenteeism. Bad habits are hard to break, and millions of kids simply became accustomed to attendance not being required. In 2022, for example, 41 percent of public school students in New York City were chronically absent.

Number four is worsening discipline problems. A vast majority of public schools report that discipline issues were made much worse by the pandemic, with increased violence among students and aggravated social and emotional problems.

Finally, there is surging inequality. Polarization was going on long before the pandemic, with a growing gap between high-scoring and low-scoring students, but it has grown more dramatic.

These are serious problems, folks, but I’m not hearing much discussion among our elected officials about finding solutions. Instead we get debates about cultural issues such as gender identity or historical significance. I’m not suggesting those debates are unimportant, but it’s like having someone in the emergency room with a broken leg who also has tooth decay. Let’s fix the leg first.

But how do we go about it? David Brooks’ five problems are all interrelated; shrinking enrollments, absenteeism, discipline problems and inequity all contribute to academic regression. Each problem deserves its own intervention. To address content and instructional practice, I asked my wife, Karen, who is a school administration consultant, to put it as simply as possible.

“To close gaps and accelerate learning,” she replied, “all students should receive grade level core instruction (with appropriate scaffolds) and be engaged in grade level complex texts and tasks. Standards-based common assessments will reveal the students who have mastered the standards, students who are approaching them and students who require academic intervention. A personalized learning plan should be created that will provide students with the learning experiences they need to become successful.”

In other words, it’s not rocket science. It’s just teaching and learning, but we’re on the clock, and time waits for no one.

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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