It’s all over the news and all over Facebook. It’s all I hear at parent-teacher conferences. “Our children are falling behind.” “We need testing to see how far behind our children are.” “How far behind is my child?” Let me be very clear. Many children are not falling behind. Many children are learning so many skills that aren’t always taught in schools or that aren’t representative in the state standards, and I want to highlight those gains here, speaking as a remote educator who’s district has set up a successful remote education set-up. Yet, the children who are falling behind are continuing a widening gap in this pandemic between the wealthy and the poor.
Widening the Gap
It is really important to note that the students who are losing academic growth and falling behind in their knowledge growth and skill development, are the students that are so routinely forgotten by society – students of color, students from low-income families and neighborhoods, and students with severe special needs. The achievement gap is widening, and our country is to blame.
Since the founding of the public school system, we have underfunded schools for lower-income and/or families of color. When our schools needed funding to provide proper resources for remote learning, like technology and internet, they received little to no extra funding. When our schools needed funding to socially distance students, hire more educators and provide them with PPE, they received nothing. And it is the students who suffer. Data shows that after the sudden shift to remote school in the spring, White students were set back one to one to three months in math, while students of color lost three to five months (Washington Post).
Falling behind in standards
Standards are a social construct. Someone, or more likely a group of someones, decided that at this grade-level, students should learn x amounts of concepts. The standards are not like the critical periods of child development, where if children don’t develop a skill at a certain age they won’t ever develop it. Many standards come back every year or every couple of years. For example, if students in second grade don’t retain or learn as much of their erosion and geology standards as they would in a typical year, guess what, those standards come back in later years. In math and ELA, every year builds off of previous standards.
Additionally, teachers are trained to meet students where they are, fill in any missing gaps, and support them in progressing forward in the year’s standards. If there are gaps in standards from the effects of Covid-19 in education, teachers are prepared to address them. It’s what we’ve been trained to do!
Falling behind socially-emotionally
Our children’s social-emotional well-being and development is definitely a concern for parents, educators, and policy-makers everywhere (so much so that no one is considering the social-emotional well-being of our teachers). After teaching remotely for 4 months this school year, I can tell you that my students are craving social time with their friends. However, there are ways we can provide it safely in a remote environment. Speaking with hybrid teachers, their students are not getting to interact socially with their peers either. There is no talking at lunch or snack time, because they are unmasked. They can’t work in group projects because they have to socially distance. So no matter the type of education your child is receiving, they are all experiencing this lack of social experience. We all are in the pandemic.
Yet, students are learning more social-emotional skills that they wouldn’t typically learn in schools. They are learning how to emotionally process a very difficult time in their lives. Because we are all experiencing it together, teachers and parents can model for their students how to process the grief and sadness of not being able to be together, of so many things being taken away from us, of not knowing what will happen from day-to-day.
Students are learning to talk about these hard feelings and they are also learning to find positives in their day-to-day life. For example, my class talks all the time about how it is sad that we can’t all be together in person. However, we also talk about how it is nice to wear pajama pants to school, or have a blanket on us while we do our work, or how we can sleep in or have our pets near us.
Students are also learning how to safely and appropriately socialize with others on the internet or on digital media. This is never something we would learn in schools, yet after this pandemic, it is a skill many of us will have to use in our professional lives.
I also think that, like us adults, this pandemic has taught children to really value the times they can be together in-person with their friends. I think that going forward, they will have a much greater appreciation for their playdates and recess times. Many children prefer to play alone at recess because they don’t know how to initiate play with peers or they want to play what they want to play, and don’t want to compromise with a peer. I wonder if going forward, those students will instead choose to play with others after missing those peer connections for so long.
So what are they learning?
All of this to say, that I really hate the argument that we need standardized testing this year to find out how far behind our students are. If they are “behind”, they are behind in what the state says they should learn by a certain grade-level. The tests will show that. The tests won’t show all the amazing skills that students are learning.
Besides the social-emotional skills already mentioned, students are learning incredible technology skills. They are learning typing at an early age. Also, they are learning how to use different technology platforms like Google Drive or Seesaw, and how to navigate these online resources appropriately and safely.
Students are also developing incredible executive functioning skills. My students are keeping track of time and learning what works best for them to be on time for a meeting – is it setting a timer, an alarm or keeping a schedule nearby? My students are learning how to keep track of all their assignments. They have learned that making to-do lists really help keep themselves organized. They are learning to set up their environment to help them stay focused on their work and how to tune out distractions around them. These are not skills automatically taught, practiced, or learned in the typical classroom. These are skills that will be so beneficial to students in their future.
Children are also learning how to entertain themselves. More and more over the years, I have seen children not know what to do when they have some unstructured down-time. They have to be taught what they can do to entertain themselves when they have a few minutes with nothing to do. My students are discovering talents and hobbies they wouldn’t have had time for normally. Some are writing books, some are learning to knit or crochet. Others are discovering how to make convincing powerpoints for issues they care about. Some are making codes on the computer.
No, most children are not falling behind. They are just learning different skills, trying out different hobbies and talents, and exploring different interests. What will the effects be from this Covid-19 pandemic on this generation? It’s too early to say. But I for one am optimistic.