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While failing student learning outcomes is all the education, community, and media are talking about, right now, I have mixed emotions about this red alert in recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores concerning learning loss

On the one hand, this is the largest drop ever recorded

That said, I am frustrated by what’s been overlooked. It’s comparable to when the “woke” world suddenly woke up to racism after witnessing the murder of George Floyd the same day we saw Amy Cooper calling the police on a Black birdwatcher. Suddenly, there was an urgency about combating racism – as if racism had just materialized (see Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Emmett Till, etc.). 

The reality about learning loss and kids of color

I have been racing against learning loss my entire life. I was but one of many American children who came through a lackluster K-12 education experience. 

As a result, I have spent much of my life playing catch-up with other students in nearly every subject. I have had to cultivate my own love of learning in adulthood because my K-12 education was limited to the bare minimum state graduation requirements. 

On top of that, as a Black man, my parents and I had to seek out a more complete history of America that I could feel represented in and that could better explain the world I saw around me. So, how can we claim learning loss when the learning never occurred in the first place?

The sudden urgency and the implication of “getting back to where we were” makes me wince when I consider “learning loss” has existed for more than a century if you are poor and Black, Latinx/a/o, or Native in this country.

NAEP Why Weren't We Urgent Before "Learning Loss"?

NAEP Score Reality 

Headlines point out that the NAEP scores have plummeted to the lowest in 20 years, and it’s an unfortunate reality. However, this is where we scored as a country for all students in aggregate.

Another tragic fact is that when we disaggregate these outcomes, we realize that our Black, Latinx/a/o, and Native student populations have never attained the NAEP outcomes in 4th or 8th grade Math or Reading compared to where we were in aggregate 20 years ago. 

Literally, the “bottom” we just plummeted back to when measuring all children that we are stressing over has never even been achieved by our Black, Latinx/a/o, and Native children populations.

What has been present for as long as NAEP and other measures have been counting is the Achievement Gap – the difference in outcomes between children across different racial and ethnic groups. That has never changed, and with the pandemic, it has widened.

What I really think about the Achievement Gap

This next statement might be unpopular, but I hope you hear me: We will never close the Achievement Gap – the reason most of us do this work – unless we stop centering privilege. This sudden urgency on learning loss puts the emphasis on where we were, a status quo where marginalized students were being left behind every day.

It ignores a persistent gap in student NAEP Math and Reading for 4th and 8th-grade outcomes that impact real-life opportunities. It props up the loss privileged parents suddenly feel, or we, as education reformers, see at scale while neglecting to acknowledge the horror of a racialized gap that has very little to do with Achievement but is more than a century old. 

When we get urgent about learning loss for certain people’s children and ignore how we have never delivered learning for our most marginalized children, we perpetuate the inequities at the heart of this problem.

Our emphasis and urgency right now are warranted only if it is about truly transforming education forever so that all children have a real opportunity and we eradicate the Achievement Gap altogether. 

Yet, it’s hard not to see this as panic tied to our eagerness to validate the collective reform efforts of the last three decades while blindly omitting the systemic racism that has been glaring at us in these scores forever.

The pandemic caused an unprecedented decline in student outcomes – certainly cause for a red alert. But the alarm sirens should have already been blaring. The silver lining is that maybe sounding the alarm today generates the interest convergence necessary to finally seek out the root causes tomorrow.

Daniel Anello

Daniel Anello has served as CEO of Kids First Chicago since 2015. Daniel brings deep quantitative analytical skills and authentic lived experience to his role in supporting parent-led and data-informed change within Chicago’s public schools.

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