Ages ago, when my now grown-up children could be mesmerized by Bert and Ernie skit on the television, I sometimes found myself equally drawn to the antics of Jim Henson’s compelling creations. In one, which apparently I’ll never forget, Bert was wondering what to do with the large capital L standing before them.
Ernie instantly introduced the La La La song and asked Bert to chime in with interesting L words. Bert, being Bert, quickly came up with such winning L words as lemon, lightbulb, and lump-in-my-oatmeal. (Bert has always had a thing for oatmeal.) Ernie encouraged him to use lovelier, more lilting words, suggesting lollipop, lullaby, and light-in-the-sky. Instantly grasping his buddy’s idea, Bert counters with “linoleum.”
Bert, in other words, is boring (OK, lackluster) but Ernie, at least, is always there to bail his old friend out of his humdrum ways.
I was reminded of the La La La song recently when educators began speaking of the thing they feared most emanating from the pandemic and the school closures it spawned: learning loss. And not just because of the “L” connection. There is also the Bert connection. Was “learning loss” really the best tag, the finest descriptor educators, could come up with to inspire the American public of his menace? It seems disturbingly closer to linoleum than lollipop.
Learning loss, defined as the deficit, created by school closures, distancing learning, quarantines, etc., between what students in the school know compared to what they would have known sans Covid, is an enormous concern among educators. The problem is that we don’t really have a good sense of just how enormous learning loss really is.
We don’t because when schools closed to in-person instruction and lapsed into the very substitute of all-eLearning, schools also closed for state assessments. Across the country, high stakes assessment required by NCLB/ESEA federal mandates became suddenly, astonishingly, optional. Less than optional, in actuality, as they simply weren’t offered. Thus, just when we need to measure student learning the most — in an attempt to figure out just how disastrous the pandemic has been — we have it the least, or not at all.
That hasn’t stopped most educational leaders and researchers from asserting that learning loss is real and immense. The loss has been so large and lamentable, in fact, that some educators are now cautioning that we must go to great pains not to unfairly label this lost generation of students — analogous to the lost generation of soldiers, artists and writes following on the heels of World War I — or we will stigmatize them, convincing their countrymen and -women that they are a permanent intellectual underclass, a group to be coddled, cared for, ultimately pitied.
But how real is learning loss? I frankly don’t expect the effects of the pandemic to be all that perilous or all that permanent (I wonder if Bert and Ernie did a song for the letter P?), primarily because young people and, dare I say, young Americans in particular, are pretty resilient.
In the educational research on early childhood education, there is a frequent problem that I call the “Third Grade Effect.” This effect is simply the tendency of the effects of all educational interventions with preschoolers/kindergartners/first graders to fade and finally evaporate altogether in grade three. It is frankly very discouraging.
But it has its upside. Students who miss out on some skill set or course or semester frequently ameliorate the effects of that temporary loss over time, sometimes a fairly short period of time. While students with learning disabilities or fundamental early lags in, for example, reading comprehension won’t necessarily automatically find their way to mastery and thus require careful, targeted instructional assistance, many students will just “regress to the mean.”
Their minds will leap forward from the pandemic-provided plateaus. Or this may just be a reality with those schools, such as ours, who managed to have in-school class this year while those in other states, out for a year plus, really do suffer learning loss.
Interestingly, this spring’s testing data may very well tell the tale. Whether this is a tale of lament or laughter remains to be seen. Or depends upon whether you are a Bert or an Ernie.