Leave the Kids Alone

The myth of "pandemic slide"


Perhaps if summer school doesn’t work we can try bloodletting.  

On Sunday the New York Times editorial board urgently implored Education Secretary-designate Miguel Cardona to get to work remediating “pandemic slide” (my term).  The Times bemoans the horrific erosion of learning that will result from school closings and the inadequacies of Zoom education and other forms of online instruction.  Imagine the rich irony when the remediation is offered in snazzy digital packets on students’ portals!  

This panic is the mega-iteration of concerns about “summer slide,” a phenomenon first identified in a study from the 1940s in Baltimore.  Ever since, educators have gnashed teeth to the gums fretting over the devastating effects of summer vacation.   The learning losses are alleged to be more severe among children of color, for whom the losses are greater, exacerbating the so-called achievement gap.

The problem with this, as with most conventional wisdom about education, is that it is all convention and little wisdom.  The Times further implored Cardona to insist on national tests to determine the extent of “pandemic slide” and implement a national 2021 summer school program.  The “proof” they offered of learning loss was a link to their own prior editorial, (a sin I shamelessly commit several paragraphs hereafter).  Their prior editorial cites research done by The Collaborative for Student Growth whose chief executive worked for Harcourt,  an education  publishing and testing  behemoth.  These links between education policy and education profiteers are the story of decades of near-criminal conspiracy in education “reform.”

The alleged evils of summer slide have been debunked repeatedly, but the debunking receives scant attention compared to the New York Times or the unimaginative exchanges among school administrators and frantic parents.

I have neither space nor disposition to fully detail the debunk, but here’s an executive summary: The Baltimore study had significant methodological problems.  The statistical model was, by today’s standards, deeply flawed.  For a good summary of the debunking, read Boston College’s Peter Gray’s fine article in Psychology Today.

In this respect it is similar to the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, which asserted that America’s children were going to hell in an educational handbasket.  A Nation at Risk has also been discredited for statistical flaws - or intentional sleight of hand.  The erroneous conclusions therein have misguided education policy and practice ever since, rather like four decades of chemotherapy for a false positive diagnostic test.  

So what really happens with “education interruptus?”

Counterintuitively, reading comprehension seems to improve over summer.  Perhaps this is because kids are unshackled from test prep  and/or the dismal phonics drills that Frank Smith accurately describes as Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices.  Effects on mathematics learning are also fascinatingly counterintuitive.  Computation skills do decline  - slightly and temporarily - while mathematical reasoning skills remain steady or also improve.  Go figure.  Or, on second thought, go swimming.

This unexpected phenomenon is even more stunningly revealed in a 1930’s study by L.P. Benezet in New Hampshire.  His large scale study showed that the experimental group of students who had no arithmetic instruction in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, had better mathematical reasoning skills than their peers who had three years of rote learning in those grades.  

Moreover, the experimental group quickly “caught up” and surpassed their peers  in computation skills when all students were placed together in the traditional 6th grade curriculum.  If you find this hard to fathom, read a further explication in my book,  First Do no Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of  Existential Risk (shameless, I know).

The counterintuitive results of Benezet’s experiment are rather easily understood within the context of progressive education theory and practice.  When students have conceptual understanding - mathematical reasoning - computation skills can be readily discerned.  This is why some students with powerful reasoning skills will get “right” answers in the “wrong” way, according to teachers who expect rigid computational conformity.  During the arithmetic-free years the experimental group had been playing, measuring things, estimating the height of trees and otherwise engaging with the physical world.  

The reasoning skills developed through discovery are far more enduring than the rote memorization of numbers or algorithms.   It is roughly analogous to the variously-attributed proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Even in the realm of dull, traditional practices “summer slide” and “pandemic slide” are greatly exaggerated.   No matter the length of a school hiatus - winter break, summer vacation, pandemic closings - research suggests that the ramp up time to reach the point at which school was halted is about two weeks.

As a progressive educator with affection for author/educator John Holt, who coined the notion of unschooling, I often feel that children would be better off without school.  I know that’s not practical.

Mark Twain has been credited with the idea that one should not let schooling get in the way of education.  This is more reliably attributed to 19th century essayist Grant Allen who wrote:

One year in Italy with their eyes open would be worth more than three at Oxford; and six months in the fields with a platyscopic lens would teach them strange things about the world around them that all the long terms at Harrow and Winchester have failed to discover to them. But that would involve some trouble to the teacher.

What a misfortune it is that we should thus be compelled to let our boys’ schooling interfere with their education!

Children have suffered enough during the pandemic.  The last thing they need is to waste time on meaningless standardized tests only to lose the summer to unnecessary remediation prescribed for non-existent deficits.

Slides should be only those in the parks, playgrounds and water parks where kids can resume their education when the pandemic subsides.


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