“Learning Loss” and the Crisis of Education

More than two years since the emergence of COVID-19, the effects of the capitalists’ mismanagement of the pandemic continue to reverberate throughout the world. While the pandemic itself has abated for the time being in many countries, the long-term impacts are only starting to be understood. A recent UNICEF report on the state of education revealed strikingly regressive trends for children worldwide, as hundreds of millions have seen their schooling disrupted since 2020.

Young Students—UNICEF
Disruption to education has meant millions of children have missed out on the learning they would have acquired in the classroom. / Image: UNICEF-UNFPA, Flickr

Summarizing the findings, UNICEF writes:

Children have lost basic numeracy and literacy skills. Globally, disruption to education has meant millions of children have significantly missed out on the academic learning they would have acquired if they had been in the classroom, with younger and more marginalized children facing the greatest loss.

The report goes on to describe the extent of learning loss in the US and across the world:

In low-and middle-income countries, learning losses to school closures have left up to 70% of 10-year-olds unable to read or understand a simple text, up from 53% pre-pandemic… In the US, learning losses have been observed in many states including Texas, California, Colorado, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Maryland. In Texas, for example, two-thirds of children in grade three tested below their grade level in math in 2021, compared to half of children in 2019.

“Quite simply,” said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Chief of Education, “we are looking at a nearly insurmountable scale of loss to children’s schooling.”

This squares with the findings of many other studies. In Virginia, one study found reading skills to be at a 20-year low this past fall. In Boston, The New York Times reported recently, “60% of students at some high-poverty schools have been identified as at high risk for reading problems—twice the number of students as before the pandemic.” As is always the case under capitalism, Black, Latino, low-income, disabled, and non-English-fluent students have been hit the hardest.

Another study last year also found a dramatic drop-off in math scores, with the findings also showing that the US education system disproportionately fails minority students:

In one stark example, third graders who attended a low-income school tested 17 percentile points lower in math this spring compared with similar students in 2019, moving the average performance of low-income third graders from the 39th to the 22nd percentile nationally. Scores for their peers in wealthier schools, who have historically performed in the 71st percentile, declined by just seven points, leaving them in the 64th percentile, well above the typical national average.

Reading and math are important for anyone’s general cultural level, learning capacity, and life skills. But it is not only these skills that have suffered, important as they are. Additionally, millions of students missed out on the socialization, life-experience, and other more intangible benefits that schooling provides.

Children reading
The literacy crisis did not begin with the pandemic, for over twenty years, less than half of students have read at grade-level. / Image: US Department of Education

It is not only elementary-age children who have been affected. From infants and young children, to elementary school age children, to high school age students, young people are dealing with many different aspects of stress and strain as a result of the pandemic years. Indeed, another study published in Nature showed downward trends in cognitive development in babies and non-school-age children since the start of the pandemic.

This is all part of a broader social crisis among youth, manifesting along with rising suicide rates, behavioral and mental health issues. As with so many other social crises, the pandemic merely compounded what was already a dire situation. As The New York Times observes, “The literacy crisis did not start with the pandemic. In 2019, results on national and international exams showed stagnant or declining American performance in reading, and widening gaps between high and low performers.” In fact, for over twenty years, less than half of students have read at grade-level, and math skills were also shown to be stagnant in an international 2019 test. These statistics give a picture of the miserable state of the education system in the wealthiest country in history.

Schooling during the pandemic

It is clear that for the US capitalist class, continuing education throughout the pandemic was an afterthought. The stress and complexity of providing services was pushed onto teachers, students, and parents. Teachers were expected to seamlessly transition between entirely different modes of instruction. Students had to follow suit. Working-class parents, the vast majority of whom rely on in-person schooling to watch after their children while they work, were expected to magically make the situation work. A Washington, DC teacher summarized the experience of remote learning for the New York Times:

The families with the fewest resources were left with nothing. No child care, only the pallid virtual editions of essential services like occupational or speech therapy. If they could work out the logistics, their kids got a couple of hours a day of Zoom school. If they couldn’t, they got attendance warnings. In my fourth-grade class, I had students calling in from the car while their mom delivered groceries, or from the toddler room of their mom’s busy day care center… Even under optimal conditions, virtual school meant flattening the collaborative magic of the classroom into little more than an instructional video. Stripped of classroom discussion, human connection, art materials, classroom libraries and time and space to play, virtual school was not school; it was busywork obscuring the ‘rubber-rooming’ of the entire school system.

In most cases, this resulted in a lose-lose-lose situation for teachers, students, and parents alike. Overworked teachers across the country reported that some students did not sign in for weeks at a time, while others were signed in but unresponsive. And in addition to missing formal lessons, students suffered from a severe lack of peer interaction for prolonged periods of time.

Child with laptop
Remote learning has left students feeling disengaged socially and educationally. / Image: Ivan Radic, Flickr

Throughout the pandemic, the question of remote vs. in-person learning was framed as a trade-off between halting the spread of Covid and continuing in-person schooling. Marxists rejected this framework, which results from confining the problem to the constraints of capitalism. We explained the need for democratic workers’ control of the schools by teachers and school staff. On this basis, we could have fully funded any and all efforts needed to ensure the safety of in-person instruction, while pivoting to robustly funded and facilitated remote learning when necessary. This, plus a broader socialist program guaranteeing full wages to those unable to work during the pandemic, could have ensured continuity of schooling to a far greater extent.

Lingering effects

Two years of inconsistent, stop-and-start schooling has exhausted teachers and students alike. Even the 2021–2022 school year, which was expected to go more smoothly than the year before, was interrupted by the emergence of the Omicron variant—a foreboding reminder that schooling could be upended yet again in the months and years to come.

Today, teachers are depleted, fatigued, and as underpaid as ever, while millions of students suffer from missed learning and skyrocketing mental health issues. Staff-shortages plague schools across the country, with teaching vacancies in nearly half of public schools nationwide. Affluent families are spending up to $200 per hour on private tutors to make up for lost time, while the vast majority of families have to make due with the insufficient options available to them.

Students, for their part, must deal with the stress and unease of knowing that the pandemic continues to drag on, meaning that an indefinite return to “normal” schooling is by no means guaranteed. As one eighth-grader in the Chicago area told The New York Times, “Pretty much everyone hates remote learning. Well, some kids just like it because they can goof off.” Another student in Detroit also describes, “I’m just getting that experience of being back at school again. It’s like, ‘What if that all gets taken away from me again?’”

These are just some of the results of the completely mismanaged pandemic. And as the World Health Organization itself observed in a report last year, COVID-19 “didn’t have to happen.” The criminal behavior of the capitalists and their politicians is to blame for this situation. In addition to over six million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide since the start of the pandemic, millions of young people across the United States—and hundreds of millions more worldwide—must shoulder the burden of two years of interrupted schooling.

The fight for socialism is the fight to revolutionize education

Urgent measures are necessary to address the crisis in education, but a government of, by, and for the billionaires cannot achieve this. By contrast, a workers’ government would create a national education system and could invest massively in intensive tutoring, increased mental healthcare resources, a huge pay-raise for all teachers, and reduced class sizes. On this basis we could make rapid progress on the road to recovery from the decrepit state of education under capitalism. The resources for such investments exist—but they are currently held by a tiny handful of the population. Let’s not forget that the ten richest billionaires on earth doubled their fortunes during the pandemic.

COVID classroom
Children have been forced to shoulder a burden created by capitalist greed. / ILO, Flickr

Whereas the motive of education under capitalism is merely to have an educated-enough workforce to generate profits for the capitalists in competition with other countries, socialism would fundamentally transform education, turning it into a goal in itself. As revolutionary Marxists, we fight for a complete overhaul of the education system, freeing it from the factory-like system we are accustomed to and harnessing all the advances in learning sciences that go untapped under the current system.

The early years of the Soviet Union displayed a glimmer of this potential. Thousands of new schools were created in the years immediately after the Russian Revolution, and the most modern teaching methods were employed to the greatest extent possible. Literacy went from 30% prior to the revolution to 75% two decades later. As an American principle who visited the workers’ state in the 1920s put it, “Soviet Russia is actually giving to the masses in its state-supported public schools the kind of education that progressive private schools in this country and in Europe have been striving earnestly to give to the relatively few who come to them.”

The objective basis for a robust, dynamic, education system exists and has existed for some time. The fight for socialism includes the fight for a complete transformation of education as we know it, unleashing, for the first time, the creative and intellectual energies of billions of people.

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