The phrase “learning loss” has become as widespread as “you’re on mute” in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. Commentators, politicians, parents, research firms, educational technology organizations and policymakers have decried how remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic caused students to fall further and further behind educationally.
These same individuals and organizations have promoted “solutions,” such as getting students back in school as fast as possible, extending summer school, increasing the amount of time spent in school during the year and relying on parents to expand learning opportunities. Even President Biden’s American Rescue Plan earmarked funding for summer enrichment and after-school programs to aid learning recovery. Many of these solutions are not only lacking in evidence, but also they leave out the most important influence on student learning—the teacher.
Decades of research have confirmed that teacher quality is “the most influential factor in students’ educational outcomes,” according to one study on the subject. Put simply, the teacher is the most important factor in how well a student does in school. Highly-qualified teachers influence student success both short and long term, and as teachers gain more years of experience, they are more likely to positively influence student outcomes beyond academic achievement, including reducing absences and disciplinary offenses.
Yet teachers have been leaving the profession at an alarming rate for quite some time. In a piece for Psychology Today called “The Teacher Burnout Epidemic,” author and education expert Jenny Grant Rankin noted that approximately 15 percent of U.S. teachers leave the profession every year, more than 40 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years of starting, and a full two-thirds of the nation’s best teachers end up leaving the profession for other careers. The Learning Policy Institute estimates that annual teacher shortages in the U.S. are higher than 100,000.
The loss of teachers to the profession has been exacerbated by the shift to emergency remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, as teachers who were already stretched to their limits were faced with impossible work situations. Some doubled their workload by teaching in-person and remote students simultaneously with no extra support, while others had to determine whether losing their life to the COVID-19 virus was worth the risk of continuing to teach. The “An Anonymous Teacher Speaks” Padlet by shea martin, in which educators freely share their concerns without retribution, is fraught with examples of teachers feeling burned out, stressed out, undervalued, overworked and pushed to the brink of no return.
Teaching has been described as being “lonely in a crowded room.” This sense of professional isolation has been deepened by the pandemic. Educators must seek to balance multiple and conflicting responsibilities in caring for and supporting students, collaborating with families, designing and delivering effective instruction, assessing student learning, managing classrooms and developing new ideas, all while reflecting and improving their practice as educators as they seamlessly move between in-person, remote, online and blended learning environments.
Even though scholars have repeatedly identified teacher quality as the most influential factor shaping student learning, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, most schools and districts did not focus on creating better support structures, improving working conditions and increasing professional growth opportunities to motivate teachers to stay. There was a clear mismatch between what education researchers have found to be true and what educational administrators and policymakers decided to do during the pandemic.
As a result, schools and districts across the U.S. have been scrambling to figure out how to get students back in-person as quickly as possible, while also facing teacher and substitute teacher shortages and early retirements from veteran teachers. Some states and districts have had to loosen the certification requirements for substitute teachers, while other states and districts asked college students to step in.
States, districts, and schools continue to focus on short-term fixes rather than long-term solutions. Reducing the certification requirements to hire more substitutes, recruiting college students to fill in, extending summer school, and increasing days and time spent in school during the traditional year will not truly address what was lost during the pandemic. The “teacher loss”—losing teachers to burnout, turnover and death or long-term symptoms from the COVID-19 pandemic—will negatively impact student learning for years to come.
However, it does not have to be this way. There are things that policymakers and educational administrators can do right now to reduce teacher loss, including increasing teacher pay, increasing teacher autonomy, giving teachers an opportunity to be part of the decisions that influence their work, hiring more professional staff (e.g., counselors, nurses, librarians, paraprofessionals) who can help address challenges teachers face, providing more support for professional growth, increasing stability in teacher job assignments, creating a more collegial and collaborative working environment, and working with teachers to identify ways to reduce job stress.
Schools can even be reimagined to function more like cooperatives that operate in a democratic fashion—giving teachers and students, in partnership with families and policymakers, opportunities to make decisions about day-to-day policies and practices.
However, while these recommendations are critical for moving in the right direction, they are missing an essential element—the valuing of teachers and the teaching profession. Teachers have become a scapegoat for all problems in education. They have been vilified by the media and public for going on strike to demand higher pay and refusing to return to unsafe classroom environments. They have become the victims of toxic positivity. This negativity and blame game must stop. The media and public must change the narrative.
Everyone, from parents and administrators to policymakers and the media, must work together to value the ideas and contributions of teachers and encourage the implementation of common sense reforms such as those proposed by the National Education Association. Valuing and supporting teachers seems to be the single best mechanism for addressing any academic losses and social-emotional traumas brought about by the pandemic.
In the end, learning loss is not the problem. Teacher loss is.