The constant buzz this year in the press and social media about the year of at-home schooling has centered on the question of learning loss. Children did not learn enough this year, according to someone’s arbitrary standards, and therefore our students are behind some arbitrary benchmark created to make everyone who has a child feel as if there is some undefined and, well, arbitrary looming crisis. This mob social anxiety is connected with the entire school re-opening debate as well.
The learning loss debate is a means for parents to express their frustrations over closed school doors and what it has been like for parents to experience teachers teaching through digital and technological means. Parents are real insiders now to the educational process, and, while most parents understand how difficult it has been for teachers to make this transition to digital platforms, much of what they see in terms of teacher practice is raising concerns. Often for the first time.
Children did not learn enough this year, according to someone’s arbitrary standards, and therefore our students are behind some arbitrary benchmark created to make everyone who has a child feel as if there is some undefined and, well, arbitrary looming crisis.
I am not here to get into a debate about whether schools should or should not be open right now. We all need to rely on the people, namely scientists and public health officials who have the information and knowledge to best guide us at these moments. One of a school's primary social contracts with the communities they serve is to work hard to provide physical safety for students and children. Teachers also deserve to feel that schools are providing a safe and at least non lethal environment in which to work.
The reason I see this as a false debate is because, for centuries now, certain children in the United States have been experiencing learning loss because of racial, gender, ethnic, and class inequalities in the system and these inequities have only gotten worse for some groups with well funded public school districts and private schools able to properly provide what students need and everyone else needs to figure it out. Learning loss was not part of the public vernacular under these persistent and generational conditions, why is it now such an issue? Because the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Multitudes of wealthy districts and their families during the pandemic are experiencing what poor and underfunded school districts in this country have experienced for decades. Now we are supposed to care about this thing called learning loss?
The other piece is that children are not the real focus of this conversation. School re-opening conversations are really only about that: reopening the doors of the school building. What goes on inside is of course another matter. The real issue is getting those kids out of the house and back into school for most of the day. And, there is good reason to understand why that is so critical in our current society and with its economic realities for parents.
Learning loss was not part of the public vernacular under these persistent and generational conditions, why is it now such an issue?
Families in the United States are stretched to the brink economically. Many families rely on both parents working in order to survive and pay the bills which can include not just two earning jobs, but multiple jobs. Nevermind single parents who the pandemic must be creating an unsolvable puzzle of providing the necessary resources, both technological and human, just to keep it all together for their children and their schooling
But from my standpoint and which has been reported on from the perspective of adult/parent struggles during the pandemic, there is a type of learning loss which could set gender equity and feminism back an entire generation.
According to Tracy Brower in Forbes unemployment for women has increased by 2.9% more than for men, with women being also 3 times more likely to leave the workforce in order to take care of the tsunami of household and family needs created by the pandemic. 1.5 million, by March, had left the workforce. Women just have less options when it comes to work. Less of everything: furlough time, flexibility to work at home, less paid leave and less access to child care.
Scholar Rachel Renaldo, in her blog Gender & Society, reports that the persistence of the pay gap has left women with, as usual, the inevitable falling back into gendered roles; their work needs to be deprioritized, by what is perceived as necessity, rather than by the sheer injustice of persistent pay discrepancies in the first place.
These realities are now re-calcifying what young children see in their homes, in a much more pronounced and round the clock way, in terms of what gender inequality looks like, particluarly in heterosexual homes. Children are experiencing learning loss in terms of hard fought gains by women in the workplace and the expected new roles that men should be playing in the fair balancing of household responsibilities.
Indeed, Jessica Grose reports in the New York Times that the psychological states of women versus men during the pandemic is a master class for children in terms of hegemonic gender norms. Women are not just left with increased physical burdens but the mental focus, worry, and anxiety associated with running the home as well. “Women’s antenna seemed to be constantly up and looking for these things. Whereas men were often very happy to help once their partner had alerted them to the issue and they might’ve gotten to it eventually on their own, but women were consistently getting there first and either doing it themselves or saying: ‘Hey, this is the thing you need to handle. Are you thinking about it?’”
Children are experiencing learning loss in terms of hard fought gains by women in the workplace and the expected new roles that men should be playing in the fair balancing of household responsibilities.
The word “help” here is a telling one. Why are women expecting help and men thinking they are helping in what should be perceived as shared responsibilities and expectations? Why are women the ones needing to interact and negotiate with their relationship to work to ensure the education of their children, and everything else? Are men making clear to their superiors and workplaces that they need flexibility to assist their children with online schooling during the day?
Children are more than sponges when it comes to learning. They are micro-processing every bit of information they experience by being at home this past year. What might be the unfortunate lesson that comes from watching their parents do this all too familiar dance around gender equity is that not much has changed.