What is Academic Regression?

One of many consequences arising from the current pandemic is a need to reassess the comfortable misconceptions we live with daily. One of those misconceptions is that public education is the great equalizer and prepares us for life-long learning. And that misconception has morphed to the point where political leaders now tell us the health of the economy, and ultimately the survival of the nation, rests squarely on the shoulders of educators and school districts. Furthermore, if children don’t return to school, and soon, we are apparently going to reap a nation of illiterates.

One article warned: In some instances . . . students are profoundly affected by lapses in instruction. These students may be unable to store concepts in their long-term memory in a way that can be easily recalled.

An April headline for a story by USA Today reporter Erin Richards quoted Miami-Dade County superintendent Alberto Carvalho saying he fears historic academic regression among students in his district. WebMD had a story with this headline: Pandemic Causing Kids to Regress, Experts Say

Historic academic regression? Really? Where’s the benchmark which would lead to that conclusion?Who started these hysterical cries about kids and learning? 

Allow me to acknowledge up front there are children (and adults) suffering harder lives because of this pandemic. Often, schools offer an oasis for children who come from homes where life is a series of crises. Children may live with a parent, or parents, who have psychiatric illnesses, or struggle with substance abuse issues. We know there are parents who beat their children; a parent who may allow a non-related male, who lives in the home, to have sex with a child. But those realities, while bandaged by going to school, can’t be resolved without major interventions which schools can not provide.

Educational leaders are quite aware students with 504 plans and IEPs are struggling with remote learning. They know many of those children can not understand the why of being isolated from friends and routines which make them whole. The loss of school for that population of students is profound. Respite for parents, a challenge. But the choice to keep many of those students home is really an imposed decision; medically fragile populations are most susceptible to dying from Covid-19.

Districts have students trying to learn English and subject matter at the same time. They too struggle without brick and mortar classrooms. They need English skills; they need different ways to attain those skills.

These challenges and others also reinforce the misconception that public education is responsible to provide childcare. I understand parents need to work and have no one to attend to their children. However, I would argue, this challenge should not be addressed by public education alone. Corporate leaders, people who earn millions in salaries and bonuses, can’t figure out how to provide safe childcare for employees? The same employees who generate the salaries which help CEOs buy multiple homes, fancy cars and personal jets?

No, apparently the underfunded public education system has a magic wand to cure society’s ills and prepare students for the future. And, there are many teachers and administrators who work tirelessly to make those impossibilities happen. Yes, society is seemingly calling upon public education to use its magic wand to Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo away academic regression during a pandemic, while more education dollars are going to PPE and the like, and less to educational resources.

Let me confess, I have suffered academic regression in my lifetime; it’s not fatal. The regression can sometimes be very freeing. And what is lost can usually be found. Knowledge recovery (even new learning about pandemics) involves work; but things we value most often require investing sweat equity.

Academic regression essentially means loss of learning. Think about your own lives? How much learning have you lost? My most significant loss has been Calculus. I took a semester in high school; a counselor cajoled me into taking it again during my freshman year of college. Once I finished that class (struggling to get a C) I never used Calculus again. Call it a willful academic regression. And a relief!

Has this loss come back to haunt me? Yes. In two ways.

When I went to renew my New York State teacher certification, the state told me elementary school teachers were, by then, required to have six hours in math. I had four, in Calculus. How many elementary school teachers can say that? The state was unmoved by my pleas; take two more credit hours of math, or no renewal. I moved on.

The second haunt arrived last fall. My daughter was studying for her GED. Mom, do you remember how to do quadratic equations? Can you teach me?

I might have started sweating at the thought. But as I told her, I never need a quadratic equation to grocery shop, balance my checkbook, pay my bills. What didn’t leave my lips was: Quadratic equations on the GED?! Really?

She taught herself. She passed the math portion of the test.

Academic regression is definitely a use it or lose it proposition. And the way public education looks today, most of what kids learn, they learn to pass tests, and promptly lose the knowledge. But, when grade levels of students pass tests, when individual students pass tests, everybody wins! Students, parents, teachers, administrators. Smiles abound in the silos of state departments of education. What I would posit though, is the “historic regression” crisis people fear most is the plummeting of standardized test scores.

There have been several thoughtful articles about how past pandemics have changed societies. Honestly, I don’t see this moment in education as something to fear. I see it as an amazing way to finally rid the system of feeding students information for tests; instead teaching can evolve into mentoring students in an effort to build the skills they need for life-long learning.

There’s another aspect of academic regression people don’t consider–the academic regression from the omission of academic content. In New Jersey, a student learns about slavery through a curriculum linked to the voyage of the Amistad. That’s such a narrow window on a complex subject our nation still struggles with today. But students leave school thinking they understand slavery. The 8th grade curriculum covers the Holocaust. Here is another profound moment in history which; given the swastikas we see on arms around our country lately; apparently needs to be taught very differently.

No student should graduate from high school without understanding how slavery and the Holocaust were immoral violations against individual human beings and humanity as a whole. They need to understand the underlying decisions made by people who clearly put power and money ahead of lives. But this conversation is for another day. Suffice it to say, there are people who hold high school diplomas who exhibit extraordinary gaps in knowledge, but they passed tests.

As a former journalist, I find myself assessing pandemic news coverage on a daily basis. Education reporting is still focused on doom, gloom and how to reopen schools safely–an impossible task at the moment in my opinion. Instead, education reporters need to find educators who see the potential in this pandemic: to make teaching more about learning. There are models out there, Montessori being my favorite. There are homeschoolers who have successfully taught their children to learn–my daughter is an example. Learning Cooperatives provide another avenue. There is a self-directed learning movement. There are intergenerational schools. There are professors like Christopher Emdin, Eddie Fergus Arcia and Christopher Tienken pushing for teaching and learning changes in profound ways.

This pandemic should not result in academic regression, but rather an academic rejuvenation, or maybe even an academic revolution. We owe our children nothing less.

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