Why white journalists need to stop focusing on ‘learning loss’

People affected by news stories should find the reporting insightful. So it’s been disappointing that I’ve struggled to find insight or meaning or value in many news stories about how the pandemic affected teenagers in public high schools – especially in pieces written by white journalists.

So much of teenagers’ lack of success in stories about the pandemic and education that I’ve read remains grounded in whiteness, which, according to DismantlingRacism.org, is defined as “the idea that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.”

In many stories supposedly investigating the “learning loss” because of the pandemic, readers come away with a superficial examination that only promotes perfectionism or catastrophe.

The ideas of perfectionism, closed-mindedness, and the obsession with objectivity generate news stories leaving readers misinformed and paranoid about what students lost during the pandemic.

My theory is that when journalists come from backgrounds where they usually found success in traditional systems — systems that perpetuate inequality — they report from that worldview, bypassing the insights that would be meaningful to people with a different reality.

The damaging part is that obsessing over the “learning loss” highlights misperceived student deficits and promotes views of inadequacy rather than strengths and a need for educational reforms.

Through this white lens, we see low-income Black and Brown students as a uniform group victimized by the pandemic rather than as complex humans whose experiences hold insights into how our educational systems and worldviews must change.

Post-pandemic, education journalists — especially white ones — need to report beyond the “learning loss” narrative and, instead, focus on helping readers understand how issues affecting low-income Black and Brown students must be addressed.

Post-pandemic, education journalists — especially white ones — need to report beyond the “learning loss” narrative and, instead, focus on helping readers understand how issues affecting low-income Black and Brown students must be addressed.

Once upon a time, I was a low-income Brown kid educated and miseducated in parochial and public schools on Chicago’s Southwest side. I understand now the nuanced views of inadequacy that permeated many of my classrooms.

When I decided to go to a public neighborhood high school because my parents could not afford tuition at a popular Southwest Side high school, my white eighth-grade teacher told me I was making a huge mistake. My sophomore year, when I told a white substitute teacher I wanted to go Princeton like she had, she talked about other options. I had a handful of great teachers in high school: two English, one geometry, one French, one chemistry. Still, I made it to and through college despite my elementary and high-school education, not because of it.

Now in my 20-plus years as a Chicago Public Schools English teacher, I continue to teach as I’ve always taught — aiming to give students that education I did not get. And I see my students come through this unprecedented time with courage, determination, and optimism. Some worked after school. Some joined the virtual debate team. Some led an effort to change our school’s name because John Hancock owned slaves. Others cared for sick family members. Others laid loved ones to rest, just as I did.

A handful of students in each class felt overwhelmed. They disappeared sometimes. Honestly, this wasn’t different from other years — a handful always needs extra support. Those who know where I teach might chalk up my students’ perseverance to the fact that they test into the school. But more than 90% of the students continue to come from the surrounding working-class and immigrant ZIP codes that populated the school before kids tested in. Over 80% are low-income. We are a neighborhood school in Chicago. Our school’s ZIP code of 60629 got hit hard by the pandemic.

My students — like so many others — persevered during the pandemic. And they’re not alone. In an interview with the Big Brains podcast, the University of Chicago’s Elaine Allensworth explains that if students who are close to losing half a year of instruction, they “will still mostly be at a normal range, a range that’s typical. And so they might need a little more support, but they won’t require a major change in terms of how teachers are going to be teaching for their grade level.”

For students who are further behind, Allensworth recognizes, schools need to dedicate different types of resources. Therefore, instead of catastrophizing a “learning loss,” education journalists need to cover and uncover the resources that struggling students need post-pandemic.

I see my students come through this unprecedented time with courage, determination, and optimism. Some worked after school. Some joined the virtual debate team. Some led an effort to change our school’s name because John Hancock owned slaves. Others cared for sick family members. 

So I struggle to make sense of the coverage that I’m seeing from education news outlets and teams in Chicago and nationally. And I have some ideas about how to improve things:

Suggestion 1: Let Go of Perfectionism in Reporting

A recent “analysis” by Chicago’s WBEZ public radio talked about the “story of a devastating year for many Chicago students.”

But this analysis failed in revealing anything new to students or educators affected by the situation. The reporting focused on third-quarter grades — grades after the first semester that usually drop and do not go on students’ transcripts.

For 26 years as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I’ve seen this drop every third quarter. It’s well-referred to as “the third-quarter slump.” So it’s no surprise that 30% of the grades in some schools were F’s. A more insightful story would have analyzed grades at the end of the first semester — grades that do appear on high-school transcripts and could lead to bigger struggles.

WBEZ reported, “Grades at the end of the third quarter were also startlingly low at the 40 schools, which are clustered on the South and West sides. One in every five grades handed out in math or English was an F.” But the reporting never explained how this is different from other years.

Most of the students at these schools are, not surprisingly, Black or Brown and low-income.

Ignored was a conversation about how the school calendar requires students to attend school three months straight between winter and spring breaks. Should the pandemic make us reconsider the school calendar and the longer school day Chicago implemented in 2012?

Then we get a quote from a white education advocate who catastrophizes the situation by saying, “All of the evidence we have suggests that failure of any kind during those first few years of high school, whether it’s due to a pandemic, or whether it’s due to a normal year and struggling with subjects or having other struggles at home, is really, really hard for students and can be detrimental to their future.”

Ignored is the role that failure can play to improve our lives and that we need to distinguish between short-term and long-term failure. A more insightful analysis would have compared F’s at the end of first quarter with F’s at the end of the first semester. How did those failing grades turn out and what can we learn to improve second semester outcomes?

Ignored is a conversation about the contributing factors to the low grades. Was it attendance? Was it homework? Classwork? Projects? Tests? Were the F’s a cause of failing to comply with the classes’ demands or the failure to learn the content? Ignored is a conversation about how inadequately the system was meeting kids’ needs before the pandemic.

But for white journalists and advocates who’ve lived life focused on the white supremacy characteristic of perfectionism, every failure means catastrophe.

Instead of obsessing on the 30% who failed, the story should have focused on what happened with the 70% of grades that were not F’s. What strategies or lessons can they or their teachers share? Those lessons needed to be uncovered in WBEZ’s analysis.

Suggestion 2: Stop Oversimplifying

Another characteristic of white supremacy in media coverage of kids and schools is the oversimplification of the mental health issues teens face in the ProPublica article “The Lost Year: What the Pandemic Cost Teenagers.”

The subtextual premise posed by the journalist seems to be “we wouldn’t have these mental health issues if schools opened during the pandemic.”

The journalist emphasizes the efforts of Denver City, Texas — population 5,000 — where the city built a new high school a couple of years ago with profits from oil and gas revenue. Of course, the new school had good ventilation.

With an entire school district of only 1,700 students in the town where the median household income is $67,000 and the median property value is $95,000 — this does not represent most U.S. cities where low-income Black and Brown youth live. (In Chicago, the average household income is $57,000 and the median property value is $271,000.)

The reporter then compares Denver City to Hobbs, New Mexico — with a school district of almost 10,000 students and where the poverty rate is almost double. The median household income is about $10,000 less than Denver City and the median property value is $36,000 more expensive.

What comes through in the reporting is how the pandemic made families and teens who have lived comfortably confront mental health issues and situations that so many low-income Black and Brown families and youth faced for decades. But the more economically comfortable families still seem in denial of these issues. The reporting seems to suggest that once school opens, teen mental-health issues will be resolved.

Then we get extremist views from a community leader about the one-year pandemic who says, “We’re losing them … we’re losing years of educational development. We’re losing their leadership.”

Again, the sense of catastrophe and inadequacy. To Black and Brown students attending class, managing their mental health, understanding the complex and precarious nature of our world, this sounds as if they’re not doing enough within circumstances out of their control.

Instead of finding insights to guide the future, the ProPublica journalist seems obsessed with maintaining life as it was before the pandemic — even emphasizing how travel baseball proved “the only redeeming moments of an awful year.”

Journalism that oversimplifies works against young people’s abilities to examine their complex future and pushes them, instead, to preserve life as it was, as if it can be completely controlled.

During the past year and a half, so many teachers still created a sense of community as best we could. Those of us who were better at it accepted the reality of the situation as it was and did our best to help students feel like they belonged. I heard from one teacher who accommodated students who logged into class as they rode the bus to work.

Anecdotally, the high-school students I saw coping with the pandemic most effectively were the students who were used to dealing with struggle and change and the unpredictable.

The students who worked before the pandemic, the students whose lives included struggle and discomfort, the students who knew life includes the unexpected — they were the ones whose stories need to be told. What sources of strength and motivation have they found?  What support do they need in order to continue making progress in difficult circumstances? Their experiences hold insights into the problems we need to address, the inequality we need to resolve, the injustice we need to challenge.

That’s why I was so glad to see this Chicago Sun-Times article that emphasizes how we move forward. Unlike the previous examples, the reporting goes beyond summarizing the problems. As one of the experts quoted here stresses, “If you only focus on ‘learning loss,’ what ends up happening is you kind of focus on the student and what their problem is and you don’t actually see those systemic issues and you don’t end up focusing on those things.”

Education reporting fails to be insightful to the low-income Black and Brown students and families — and the educators who work with them — when all we hear about are the problems.

Post-pandemic, we need education reporting that combats the ideals of whiteness so we can find solutions to help students understand that progress is more important than perfection and comparison.

This editorial originally appeared on The Grade in July 2021.

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