The Problem with Education’s Problems: (Part 3) Achievement Loss
By LeiLani Cauthen
Editor’s Note: This three-part series seeks to identify the problem to act on, rather than approach each challenge as isolated. In part one, we addressed the teacher shortage and found that it is not the problem, it is a challenge. In part two, we addressed student attrition, loss of enrollment to any alternatives, and found that it too, is not the problem. It is a challenge.
The Pandemic Issue
The first thing to wonder about the achievement loss centers on the pandemic. However, the pandemic is not the cause of the achievement problem because academic scores went flat just prior to the pandemic. “Long-term trend data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that 9-year-old students scored, on average, five points lower in reading and seven points lower in math in 2022 than did their pre-pandemic peers in 2020. The declines represent the largest drops in decades; for the past two decades, student scores have gradually trended up before flattening just prior to the pandemic.”
Whoa, that’s not the talking point right now, is it? There is social agreement that the pandemic caused steep drops, and it did, but not for every student. The knuckle-biter is the fact that achievement had gone flat just prior. Therefore, even though it is a problem right now, it is not the problem. The problem of achievement started earlier and has been an unrelenting issue in schools, but not all schools. That’s not to say there is not some catching up to do, but with current courseware, students have been known to be able to get through modules in record time, sometimes finishing whole grades worth of work in a quarter of the time, while still having teacher interaction. Achievement digitally can be levered flexibly, achievement tied to old-fashioned whole group methods of teaching is not as flexible.
The Lingering Questions Issue
The questions to be asking are then not as much related to achievement itself as the components that go into it, which include the make-up of the student body, the difference in awareness and interests of the new generation being centered on tech channels, social-emotional issues, new health dynamics, culture shift, what teachers are doing, what constitutes true digital versus digitized only in curriculum, and the biggie: the logistics of teaching and learning in this age.
- The Student Body Question
There is no doubt that the American student body has shifted. The degree to which it is different is evident in districts like Salt Lake City, Utah, where over 100 different foreign languages need to be served. Please see Part 2 of this article series for info on the potential that the top-line Federal Department of Education (DOE) and the NCES have a total enrollment 13.5 million students short of the total number of actual K-12 aged persons in the United States. That is an enormous number to go missing. It was speculated that these may be immigration because the Census may know more than anyone else about what is really happening with both legal and illegal immigration. The language and numbers of English Language Learners is evident to nearly all schools as markedly different than only 10 years ago. Some districts even run programs to let members of the Latino community who recently immigrated from some South American countries know that education over the 8th grade is free, and they can in fact continue. In South American countries it is not free, and so the apparent drop out and lowered achievement might look huge.
- What Teachers are Doing Question
The question always arises, what are teachers doing that achievement was flat before the pandemic and apparently dropped precipitously during it? Well, there are plenty of reasons that things went wonky, but very little was blamed on teachers. In fact, teacher reviews are almost universally great even while student achievement may be down. A curious anomaly. No one knows if this is because one or more teachers is flawed but seemed to give a good review, or if it is the nature of schooling that divorces the student path from the individual teacher’s responsibility and spreads it across multiple teachers or institutional processes. No one knows if it is the structure itself, the students who are just different than earlier generations, or what is happening. Teachers, then, are not the problem in achievement because they cannot be isolated as the problem.
- The Health Protocol Changes May Equal Developmental Delays Question
While this is mere speculation, recent years’ protocols to offer legions of vaccines in close array which earlier generations did not have, are now seeing similar negative effects to the findings around Gulf War Syndrome where a multiplicity of vaccines and medicines were offered in few shots. In fact, parents have been concerned with schedules of too many shots, many with adult dosages, in their under-two-year-old children for a long time. While numerous government institutions have forwarded studies seeming to disprove a link to autism, which has been cited as due to the aluminum contents in vaccines, the same heavy metal now tied to Alzheimer’s, a learning concern lingers that an epidemic of autism is a relatively new phenomenon which logically would come from something being newly done. Or not, but again, the worry lingers. Research doctors have come forward citing studies that do not necessarily look at the shots themselves but at the comparison between the health of the unvaccinated with the heavily vaccinated over time – and these are now reputable scientific sources citing serious differences.
Children between birth and age 6 receive up to 36 vaccine doses to protect against 14 different diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommended schedule (2020.) By ages 1 and 2, the CDC recommends approximately 21 and 28 such vaccination doses, respectively. The number of vaccine doses received by infants and children has increased most notably since the early 1990s, when the hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenzae type B vaccines were introduced. Currently, children in the United States are vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, Haemophilus influenzae type B, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, rotavirus, pneumococcal pneumonia, influenza and varicella.
Do these developmental delays hold and have an effect life-long? It seems probable, but we do not know for sure since no studies exist that care about this. It could be a part of the problem because the big spiking of shots on the schedules happened in the last 20 years and is now increasingly showing up to cause more work for teachers and schools. In the 1980’s children in America had half-doses of only a handful of shots, which are now full doses and four to five times the number total. Perhaps we will never know the extent of this as an impact or if there is in fact any long-term impact at all, but it has one research point of interest and that is date coincidence with progressive achievement loss despite increasing hard work by teachers and innovations in curriculum. The achievement loss inflection going higher in the pandemic, is just one inflection point among earlier ones that have date coincidence with other changes – vaccines being added is only one of them.
The Tech Channels Generation Question
Another one is that in the past twenty years mobile phones and iPads have been in the hands of children at very young ages for long lengths of time. There are several repercussions of this that could be resulting in lower academic achievement which could be:
- Transactional “Language” Pattern Shift. There is a noticeable habit of shorter information ingestion, a sort of “language” pattern that is more transactional. It is not necessarily met by instructional materials or instructors in traditional classrooms. Much of the classroom is “long-form learning,” not the bite-size sorts of chunks today’s learners are inculcated in for years with social media. It could be said that long-form learning, mostly lecturing and long discussions, are a remnant of earlier ages when an hour to two hours in church with lengthy sermons was almost universal. Local political gatherings of elders or whole communities would have many hours of lengthy discussions with rotations of speakers and audience rules.
- Attention Truncation. What used to be a rather rare disorder has exploded now that short-form information is a habit for most youth. This habit lays in a mental mechanism of “seeking the next bit” within a short time frame after encountering the first bit or piece of information. If information is delivered in too long a format, the mind through habit will wander after the same usual short length, stopping the rest of the long format from arriving while the mind seeks skips to the next bit. This could be one of the most significant reasons why achievement loss continues to perpetuate. It is tied to the transactional language pattern shift of short-form versus long-form, but here we’re beyond the structure of the learning resource or the delivery by the teacher and into a routine habit of the minds of present youth. Attention truncation is a problem calling for a range of solutions that include orientation to long-form learning, re-habituating that level of attention. Another solution is to move more of learning delivery and resources into truncated chunks divided by the same sorts of breaks experienced in texting and social media.
Average attention spans: 7 minutes for 2-year-olds, 9 minutes for 3-year-olds, 12 minutes for 4-year-olds and 14 minutes for 5-year-olds.
Continued attention to a freely chosen task range from about 5 minutes for a two-year-old child to a maximum of 20 minutes in older children and adults.
- Radiation. Phones with 5G, and blue light from any computing screen have raised some concerns that youths may be being exposed to more radiation which is known to create a depressing of mental state.
- Schools digitize and have not transitioned to true digital. An aspect of the difference on mobile or desktop devices is that most students have used consumer-grade items on them that are highly professional with quality user-interface and user experience, such that two-year-olds can use them without any instruction but only mimicry of adults seen swiping screens. Yet schools still hand out paper packets and teachers use mere digital documents to delivery most of the discrete items that constitute the knowledge to be relayed. These forms are “flat” in terms of their clickability for instant definitions of words, their animation, their personalization and the thrill of shooting-star rewards when a student gets the question right. This is another level of being out-of-sync with the digital age. Non-pro digital has an intense number of levels of wrongness to it when considering all aspects of pro-grade crafting a piece of knowledge could be delivered including numbers of minutes a piece of knowledge is allowed on screen before quizzing to ascertain rate of absorption and then speeding up or slowing down accordingly.
Other questions center around social-emotional issues and changing culture. Both things are currently having an impact on achievement, there is no doubt, but these seem to be presently tied together. The greater shift is around a culture that is in the midst an exodus from cities, from the routines of life pre-pandemic, and has yet to settle. This is a major trend of social and cultural change that accelerated during the pandemic but was already going on. The differences socially will be as stark as they were when society moved from the agricultural age and farm life to the industrial age and city life. Society is now once again moving, this time out of high-density cities. The social-emotional shift is not just the pandemic, but something much larger. It is not temporary but founded on a new yearning for slowing life down that includes a back-to-family, back-to-self-reliance in myriad ways like home gardens, cooking skills, and doing things more naturally that have less impact on the environment. The frenetic driving everywhere constantly for the last nearly one hundred years is being dialed down and is reputedly a major causation of the homeschooling and alternative or community schooling growth.
The Leadership Issue
Now on to the biggie: the logistics of teaching and learning in this age.
Long-held policies have calcified the whole group methodologies, constant testing, seat-time requirements, and much more that schools find troubling to maneuver around. This burdens both leaders and teaches who must try to adapt-in-place when the obvious answer is a structural shift towards personalized learning that doesn’t use whole group but instead backwards engineers in teaching on-demand as the solution to all the problems. More about what this is exactly, later.
Design thinking isn’t even in most school or district leaders’ repertoires – they try to fix the issues they encounter with programmatic thinking. With the stack of problems shown in these three articles, none of which are the problem, program changes will not fix what ails schools but make the problems worse.
The real problem is logistics. When the issues are time and space flexibility, cultural desire for perfected personalized learning, myriad other changes, the form of institutional address must be analyzed for how it fits.
You may think in this dichotomy:
- Whole group structured classes
- Teacher-as-learning-distribution mechanism
- Teacher selected resources
- Time & space dependent
- Tech augments
- Whole group structured courses
- Mostly teacherless
- Central pre-created Resources
- Remote, flexible
- Tech mechanized
But there is a third thing on the scene:
- Individually paced
- Teacher as-needed intersection
- Pro-grade digital crafted pathways, testing, remediation
- Time & space independent
- Tech systematized
This last one, courseware, is growing faster than the rate of either of the other two. This incudes the unbelievable rate of growth of tutoring services. Tutoring spend by parents in the U.S. is already at $8.37 billion in 2021, accelerating at a CAGR of 7.61%. Total spend by consumers on digital curriculum resources of all kinds is over twice what all schools put together spend and growing much faster. It particularly accelerated during the pandemic.
An issue with schools and teachers dealing with courseware is that it is awesome. Teachers feel a bit side-lined by it, but that may be the residual clinging to whole-group orientation which is unnecessary with courseware. Instead, a willingness to let students zoom forward, even go up to another grade-level teacher, while they focus attention on students who need more help is what is needed. The learning is student-centric, teachers service those pathways on-demand. They get to plan learning and social activities around the courseware, which typically takes less time than all whole-group ingestion of knowledge simultaneously.
Reviewing these three things, traditional versus online schools versus courseware, the real problem emerges. How to use the best of all three? That’s the missing thing – the logistics of being in-person versus remote. Teaching traditionally versus letting the online course or courseware do some heavy lifting. Whole grouping versus totally flexible personalization. How to utilize human teachers for the help that is truly needed versus all the reporting, classroom discipline, trying to individualize but keep all the students roughly together in a group, creating all the lessons, etc.
For one thing the lesson-planning load on teachers is enormous. The rather sanctimonious lesson planning steps to take, “Five Easy Lesson Planning Steps (that are really nine steps, and each one takes an hour!)” is ridiculous when the age of textbooks gave scope and sequence but then mostly got ripped away leaving a black hole of work to be done. A lesson plan every single day is rarely done by most teachers anyway because it’s just too much, even when a teacher is working double overtime during the school year.
The use of time and space and personnel has changed in nearly every other industry. The wasting of time in traditional schools is a point of frequent attack. Homeschoolers commonly cite getting all their work done in two and a half hours a day. Counter-arguments are that “families need babysitters.” This may be true for some, but not for all. As work environments change, this is changing as well.
The Age of Logistics and creating the right matrix of types of learning is here. It will of necessity be a hybrid age, because all students are not the same. Some thrive on the energy of the social environment and learn better within it. Others most definitely do not. What is right for each one, were it to be executed flawlessly, will be the answer to the teacher shortage, the answer to attrition and the answer to achievement.
The problem is the structure, exactly how learning can be delivered with a hybrid fit to the local community.
A logistics inquiry by many forward-thinking educators has already formed. You can find it here: The Hybrid Logistics Project.
About the author
LeiLani Cauthen is the CEO and Publisher of The Learning Counsel. She is well versed in the digital content universe, software development, the adoption process, school coverage models, and helping define this century’s real change to teaching and learning. She is an author and media personality with twenty years of research, news media publishing and market leadership in the high tech, education and government industries.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.