Will my child fall behind in their education because of this pandemic? - Diana Arya 7-7-20

Tuesday, July 7, 2020
closeup of child working on math problem
Education and Applied Psychology in a Time of COVID-19

One of the many topics up for conversation among U.S. families in recent months is the potential effects sheltering-in-place orders have on the educational progress that children are expected to make in order to be prepared for the next grade level. Educational progress is especially crucial with regards to the ultimate goal of readiness for college and other postsecondary pursuits. The struggles in connecting with online instruction during the final months of the school year were real for many families throughout the country, including our local region. Now that we are well into a summer without in-person camps or other enrichment programs, there is increased concern that students are falling behind, as explained in this article by The New York Times. While the lack of access to educational opportunities is a problem for all of us, I want to provide some perspective on what we do and don’t know about this issue, and the opportunities we have for increasing access to high-quality education for all students, particularly those from linguistically and ethnically marginalized backgrounds, many of whom lacked such access long before the current pandemic.

Researchers do not yet know what effects this pandemic will have on educational progress. The New York Times article linked above used findings from studies focused on declines in academic performance following past major natural disasters and summer breaks. The logic in using such previous research is that the pandemic can be viewed as analogous to an extremely long, unplanned summer break. And given the catastrophic nature of a pandemic, the emotional and economic hardship will undoubtedly have an impact on our sense of wellbeing and safety, which have been further rocked by a sociopolitical revolution. With so much happening at one time, how can we see anything other than a bleak picture for the educational progress of our children? The prediction of declining school performance seems highly plausible, but it is still ultimately guesswork.

In a typical school year, preparation for and administration of standardized tests consumes a sizable amount of instructional time, particularly in the spring. A 2016 report on testing in schools revealed that an average of 30 days during a given school year are devoted to preparing students for standardized testing and reorganizing school schedules to fit testing needs. As a former school teacher, I was part of an instructional team that worked together in the fall (usually in early- to mid-October) and spring (starting as early as late January) to create a plan for maximizing our students’ abilities to identify correct responses to multiple choice questions and to write short essay responses on state- and district-administered tests. I believe we did our best to teach important knowledge and skills aligned with school standards in the general context of teaching how to take tests. My colleagues and I were acutely aware of the well-researched phenomenon of the “practice effect”; students often score higher on a test that seems familiar in terms of format and style. The more one takes an online reading test, for example, the more familiar one becomes with the kinds of questions that are asked on such tests. In my professional opinion, a student’s scoring high on a standardized test does not necessarily mean that they have learned more than a student with a below-average score. Given that schools were unable to implement their spring testing plans, the effects of lost instruction will likely be determined by a comparison of test scores from fall of 2019 to those of fall 2020, both of which followed a summer break. Will we see a decline in average scores? Possibly, but does that mean that there will be a decline in actual learning in the U.S. since the onset of the pandemic? I find these to be very different questions.

Youth are participating in social media practices now more than ever. A 2018 survey of parents revealed that children as young as eight years old may have their own social media accounts and that the average age of a blogger or vlogger is younger than 13. During this pandemic, I was witness to several teachers and parents who seized the opportunities available through online engagement and technological applications afforded via Google Classroom to create activities that allowed for greater interactivity than what is generally possible in a classroom setting. During Zoom sessions, for example, students can post their questions in a chat window, avoiding disruptions during whole group discussions. Background spaces within individual student windows provide a new opportunity to engage with a theme (e.g., children upload a background image of their favorite sea creature during a lesson about the ocean). Breakout rooms serve as a new opportunity for teachers to coordinate small group discussions that are often difficult to manage in a shared physical space. While many of the efforts I observed and supported were met with multiple challenges that included lack of wi-fi access, I have been impressed by our partnering organizations, particularly Harding Elementary, who worked with families to maintain connections during a chaotic period for so many of us.

I was most impressed with the technological savvy of the young Harding students, who seemed to know how to navigate various application features in order to maximize wi-fi bandwidth (e.g., turning off video before screen sharing). However, I also observed students who struggled to upload drawings and handwritten notes, so the picture of online learning was far from perfect. That stated, I did observe a type of attentional focus that is essential for meaningful learning. I had the honor of viewing via Zoom a classroom of fifth graders quietly reading their newly published book from this year’s young authorship program funded by the California Library Association. Their anthology, The Hawks and the Sea, was completed through weekly online sessions from March through May, and I can attest that the participating students learned a great deal during this period. In addition to learning about the various forms of life that exist in our maritime community, students learned about the increase in the intensity of storms due to climate change, and how this has impacted life in our local environment. Students also learned about how science can be communicated through various genres (poetry, fictional narratives, and journalistic articles) and how illustrations can support such different forms of writing. I also believe that these participating young authors gained valuable expertise in literacy knowledge and skills that will continue to evolve as new technologies come into being.

Educational reforms are focused on helping schools catch up with the technological advances that have transformed what it means to be a literate member of society. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the leading authority on what U.S. students know and are able to do across multiple disciplines at grade levels 4, 8, and 12 respectively. This assessment program is aligned with the Common Core State Standards as well as the Next Generation Science Standards and influences the nature and focus of state and district level assessments used to track individual student progress. The new NAEP Framework for Reading intended to be implemented by 2025, was released last week for public comment. This new framework will replace the one established in 2004, and highlights a complex world of literacy knowledge and skills including engagement with multiple, multimodal texts. Podcasts, videos, images, blog essays, etc. will be included as key textual sources for assessment tasks that will be organized, for the first time, around  authentic purposes. Students will be asked to read, view, and listen to a variety of textual sources and respond to questions that focus on a real-world purpose, like writing a letter to congress about a new safety law. This new NAEP assessment will be administered online for the first time, hence putting the new recent practice of online instruction to potential good use. Questions remain about the adequacy of changes reflected in the new NAEP Framework for Reading, particularly in light of the sociopolitical revolution we are currently experiencing. Will the new focus on critical reading engagement include critical thinking about racism? Will students’ funds of knowledge such as home languages other than English be actively valued in this new assessment program? Time will tell.

So, do we have to worry about the losses of learning due to this pandemic and social unrest? First, I believe that we need to be mindful of the fact that (a) missing a testing period does not mean that there was a decline in learning and skill development, (b) many teachers, parents, and caregivers have embraced the possibilities of what learning can be like through available technologies and creative problem solving, and (c) we are long overdue for a re-envisioning of what school learning should look like in the 21st Century. The sociopolitical tensions we are experiencing are real and crucial for advancement of a most just society, and I am hopeful that given the conversations that educators and educational scholars are having now, there is much to look forward to in the future.

Diana J. Arya is Associate Professor in Education and Faculty Director of the McEnroe Reading and Language Arts Clinic. She studies the development of community-based, interdisciplinary literacy practices of learning and innovation from preadolescence through adulthood.