Among the ironies present among the equity-obsessed left these days is their insistence that only certain numbers matter. When results on test scores or school admissions do not perfectly match the demographic breakdown of the country by race they point to such numbers as evidence of a lack of “equity” and seek to enforce equal outcomes. The recent attempts to eliminate standardized tests to gain entrance to competitive, application-only public high schools in cities such as New York, Boston, and San Francisco are the most visible recent efforts.
But when the numbers reveal inconvenient realities (about school attendance and graduation rates, for example, or about the time that students of certain racial and ethnic groups are willing to devote to homework and study), equity advocates are notably silent about them. Assessments are anathema to the progressive worldview. That is, unless the assessment exposes inequality of outcomes by race or sex or some other approved marker on the identity politics wheel of fortune.
The most recent example of this trend is the discussion of learning loss suffered by school-age children during the previous year’s COVID-related school closures.
A McKinsey and Company report published this summer found significant and disturbing failures to educate: “The impact of the pandemic on K–12 student learning was significant,” the report notes, “leaving students on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year.” Worse, children from poor families and students of color suffered the most: “The pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest. In math, students in majority Black schools ended the year with six months of unfinished learning, students in low-income schools with seven.”
The McKinsey study only surveyed students who had some in-person learning during the last school year. It didn’t measure the learning loss among students who suffered through all-virtual learning, as many students in cities where powerful teachers’ unions kept schools closed unfortunately did. It’s not just learning loss that poses long-term risks to these children. The report also found rampant absenteeism among students (particularly middle school and high school students) during lockdowns. “We estimate that an additional 617,000 to 1.2 million eighth-12th graders could drop out of school altogether because of the pandemic,” the report read.
Contrast that dire assessment with recent statements by those whose job it is to help educate children. In a remarkable and in-depth piece in Los Angeles Magazine about Cecily Myart-Cruz, the head of the Los Angeles County teachers union, Jason McGahan asked her about her concerns about learning loss during the extended, union-supported closure of schools in Los Angeles. She managed to sound simultaneously ignorant, belligerent, and unhinged in her response, which is worth quoting in full
“There is no such thing as learning loss,” she responds when asked how her insistence on keeping L.A.’s schools mostly locked down over the last year and a half may have impacted the city’s 600,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students. “Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience. They learned survival. They learned critical-thinking skills. They know the difference between a riot and a protest. They know the words insurrection and coup.” She even went so far as to suggest darkly that “learning loss” is a fake crisis marketed by shadowy purveyors of clinical and classroom assessments.
In other words: Who cares if Johnny can’t read or write? He knows about riots! So what if Jill’s mental health is suffering? Here’s a teachers’ union boss telling her she should just be more resilient.
In school districts where unions are powerful, union leaders, school officials, and local politicians are resisting the notion that the education children received via screens and lackadaisical teacher input was in any way subpar. This narrative began building in the spring, as some previously closed school districts started to partially reopen—and to assess how well their students had done during nearly a year of virtual learning.
Talking about learning loss quickly became almost taboo. The New York Times went so far as to ask, “Does it hurt children to measure pandemic learning loss?” The newspaper interviewed some entitled (and clearly misguided) parents who refused to accept objective assessments of their children’s abilities when those assessments were negative. When one woman’s son, a fifth-grader, was told by his teacher that he was reading years below his grade level, the mother’s response was as follows: “That was very offensive to me,” she said. “I’m not putting in myself, my hard work, his hard work, for you to tell me that he’s at second-grade reading.”
As the Times noted, “Others are pushing back against the concept of ‘learning loss,’ especially on behalf of the Black, Hispanic and low-income children who, research shows, have fallen further behind over the past year. They fear that a focus on what’s been lost could incite a moral panic.”
Teachers’ unions and school officials in places like New York City actively encouraged parents to opt-out of any assessments of children, as if the see-no-evil approach to education would magically make the reality of learning loss disappear: “We do not want to impose additional trauma on students that have already been traumatized,” Richard Carranza, then-New York City Schools Chancellor, said. Or, as a Seattle high school teacher chimed in, perhaps instead of measuring learning loss, we should celebrate just how well children learned from the “trauma” they are supposed to have experienced. “They are learning about how our society works, how racism is used to divide,” the teacher said. “They are learning about the failure of government to respond to the pandemic.”
L.A. union boss Myart-Cruz likes to boast that, unlike elected politicians such as California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, she can’t be recalled and, thus, can revel in her unchecked power. She spends far more time on trendy woke initiatives than on preparing her members to cope with student learning loss. As Los Angeles Magazine notes, “Other controversial non-COVID initiatives pushed by Cruz and the union involve calling for the elimination of the LAUSD school police and revamping curriculum in ways deemed more ‘culturally relevant,’ which include getting a bigger commitment from the district to fund ethnic studies.”
Under Myart-Cruz’s leadership, the union that fought sending teachers back to work (and lobbied to limit the hours per day that they had to teach virtually during the past year) nevertheless found time to argue for “racial justice, Medicare for all, the millionaire tax, financial support for undocumented families, rental and eviction relief,” and a boycott of Israel.
Teachers’ union rhetoric about racial equality, in particular, rings hollow given the disproportionate impact that school closures had on the educational and mental well-being of minority students. “The general pattern is that the kids who come from the poorest communities are the ones who have been most affected,” Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education, told Los Angeles Magazine. The McKinsey report on learning loss projected that African-American students are likely to suffer significant lifetime earnings loss due to missed schooling as well—more than twice what their white counterparts are projected to lose.
Rather than tackle that reality, and get teachers back in classrooms, teachers’ union bosses like Myart-Cruz spent last year posturing and race-baiting: Myart-Cruz “posted an article to Facebook in which a school superintendent in Chicago charged that parents pushing to get kids back in the classroom were fueled by ‘white-supremacist thinking.” According to Los Angeles Magazine, she also “ordered a study to determine the ethnic backgrounds of her more vocal critics.”
The overwhelming evidence demonstrates that students held hostage by unions that kept schools closed suffered tremendously during the last school year. To deny that reality is to deliberately harm the children that our schools and their teachers are supposed to serve. But that might, in fact, be the point. Unions leaders care little for children so long as their ideological goals are achieved. As Myart-Cruz argued, “Education is political. People don’t want to say that, but it is.” She also boasted, “We’re re-envisioning what the future of public schools will look like.” Unfortunately for parents and their school-age children, if the behavior of teachers’ unions and many elected officials during the past year is any guide, that future looks bleak.