What if we have the narrative of pandemic learning loss wrong? – Eduwonk

What if we have the narrative of pandemic learning loss wrong? – Eduwonk

Parenting is a constant set of failures, small and big, only outweighed by all the love and joy. When I think about parenting moves where I would like a mulligan, technology and screens are at the top of the list. So recently in Chicago with Tim Daly we were brainstorming the trends on learning loss various data are highlighting. When he mentioned screens I asked, more please? Tim’s CEO of Ed Navigator. Here’s his take:

By Tim Daly

Until recently, there has seemed to be a consensus about the pandemic and education: remote schooling was ineffective. Teachers struggled to teach and students struggled to learn. The longer students spent at-home, the more substantial were their learning setbacks. One study after another found this to be true.

But do difficulties associated with school closures capable explain all of the recent declines in student achievement? Especially after the most recent NAEP results found only a tenuous relationship between school re-opening patterns and state performance, I worry that we may be overlooking other factors. After all, worrisome trends were surfacing before the pandemic. 

In 2020, national results from the Long-Term Trend Reading Assessment showed that scores for our lowest performing nine year-old readers – those at the 10 percentile of the distribution – had dropped precipitously to compared to the last time the test was administered, in 2012. The pandemic couldn’t be the cause because students completed the assessments just before it began. 

In the first decade of the 2000s, the story was quite different. Lower performing readers were improving rapidly and chipping away at the gaps between themselves and their higher performing peers. It felt like a success story. By 2012, though, the gains plateaued. Due to budget cuts, the Long-Term Trend Reading Assessment was not offered again for eight years. Then, in 2020, the average score for 10thpercentile readers plummeted. There was no comparable drop for high performers at the 75th or 90th percentiles.

Why? Several plausible explanations have been suggested, from the lingering effects of the 2008 economic crash on lower income households to the introduction of Common Core. But I can’t stop wondering about one in particular: screen time. 

Screen time for American children has been on the rise for years. According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, the average child in 1997 aged 0 to 2 years experienced 1.32 hours of screen time. By 2014, such children averaged over three hours. Researchers reported significant differences across demographic groups, with more screen exposure for infants and toddlers whose families had lower incomes and levels of parental education.

A separate study examined screen usage among children aged 9 and 10 using data collected between 2016 and 2018. The authors found average screen time was 3.99 hours per day. Notably, over an hour of that time was spent streaming videos, which makes sense given the technological innovations that had made streaming more accessible by 2016.  YouTube launched in 2005. The iPhone arrived in 2007. And in 2010, Apple supercharged the market for kid-friendly tablets with its introduction of the iPad. The balance of screen time began shifting from big screens (televisions, computer monitors) to little ones – and children born around the time of the 2008 financial crash were the first generation to have widespread interactions with these tools during their early years.

One can’t help but notice that during the same span when screen time surged – particularly for less-privileged children – we found ourselves facing significant new challenges with struggling readers.

A connection between screen time and literacy performance shifts seems plausible. Young children who spend hours streaming videos each day are not interacting with adults or forming rich conversation habits that build a foundation for literacy. We know that high screen time was not distributed evenly – rather, it was more common in households where students already faced higher risks in learning to read. 

Why does this matter? For me, it raises the possibility the traditional narrative of the pandemic is incomplete. If students are struggling because schools closed, the best solution is not just to get students back to in-person learning but to replace the lost instructional time with extended days/years, high dosage tutoring, and so forth. That’s largely what we’ve been doing.

But there’s an alternative explanation that encompasses more than the pandemic. Under this scenario, by 2020 we had been living through more than a decade of innovation in personal electronic devices that put screens literally in the hands of young children for the first time. Parents eagerly embraced the flexibility of entertainment and learning options – and some kids ended up on screens far more than pediatricians advised. Fewer children were reading for fun, with increasing numbers not doing it at all. All of this happened outside of school.

Then, at a moment when the effects of screen time were already becoming evident for a subset of learners, kids began to spend more time on their screens than ever before. School was screens. Free time was screens. What else was there to do? By April 2020, the average US child was on YouTube for 97 minutes per day.

So, what does screen time look like today? Data from Common Sense Media suggests that screen usage remained at elevated levels through 2021, when most schools were open full-time, and that video streaming was now the most preferred screen activity for tweens and teens. Once again, children in lower income households spent far more time on screens.

Meanwhile, newly released results for the Long-Term Trend Reading Assessment show a continuation of pre-pandemic trends, with 10thpercentile nine year-olds suffering substantial losses compared to 2020 while the highest performing students seem barely affected by the pandemic. If the pandemic forced all students to learn remotely for some length of time, why did only some students learn substantially less?

It’s not a slam dunk case. There are reasons to doubt that screen time is behind our present literacy struggles. For one thing, math scores showed a similar pattern of general improvement for 10th percentile performers until the 2012 administration of the Long Term Trend exam, then a drop in 2020 and a larger drop in 2022. Because math learning generally happens in school and tends to be less influenced by what’s happening at-home, this may suggest that the root of the problem is instructional rather than screen-related.

Nonetheless, the issue of rising screen time for educationally vulnerable children deserves more consideration. We may discover that a key strategy for getting our students back on-track can be executed only through partnership with parents who have greater ability than schools to influence how much time their children spend on devices and what they’re accessing. 

Tim Daly is CEO of EdNavigator.

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