Why Oregon Children’s Learning Is “Unfinished, Not Lost”

Interrupting deficit-based thinking and narratives can transform how Oregon schools support students during and beyond COVID-19.

Children play at the Chinese Friendship Association of Portland's 2021 summer learning program. (Photo by Sarah Arnoff Yeoman.)
Children play at the Chinese Friendship Association of Portland's 2021 summer learning program. (Photo by Sarah Arnoff Yeoman.)

Louis Wheatley is Strategic Communications Director at Foundations for a Better Oregon.

Louis Wheatley is Strategic Communications Director at Foundations for a Better Oregon.

“When I think about being student-centered, I consider, what are we talking about when we talk about ‘learning loss,’” said Mercedes Muñoz, a 9th grade instructional coach at Portland’s Franklin High School and Oregon’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, in an interview earlier this year with Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud. “Are we assuming that kids during this time have not learned anything?”

The dangerous assumption that Munõz calls into question underlies the ‘learning loss’ narrative that has dominated headlines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. By measuring students’ learning against traditional and often flawed metrics after an unprecedented year, the ‘learning loss’ narrative contends that children—and particularly historically underserved children—are hopelessly and irreparably behind. But Muñoz pushed back against such deficit thinking: “I have seen students mature over this year and come back with perspective and reflections, things that they’re interested in.”

The ‘learning loss’ echo chamber also obscures how the pandemic is exacerbating the systemic inequities and injustices that underserved children have faced in their schools for centuries. “‘Learning loss’ ignores how our social policies created racial, economic, and educational inequities and sustain the conditions in which they persist,” write Dr. Maxine McKinney de Royston of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr. Shirin Vossoughi of Northwestern University in an op-ed for Truthout. Disrupting this harmful narrative, they explain, is key to making systemic change in education: “Redefining the purposes and practices of education toward meaningful learning and well-being requires refusing the idea of ‘learning loss.’” 

Students, educators, and staff at North Salem High School, one of Oregon’s most racially diverse schools, began countering the ‘learning loss’ narrative in a powerful video released in the spring. “When we return to school, we need you to listen to us,” said students, asking their teachers and school leaders to help them make sense of the change and disruption that they’ve experienced firsthand.

“Our brains did not go into hibernation during this year,” explained the students, many of them trading back and forth between English and their home languages throughout the video. “Our brains have been focused on where our next meal was coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with the loss of a loved one. We need you to welcome us back and help us write that history.”

Interrupting the ‘learning loss’ narrative is key to shifting how Oregon schools support children and young people during and beyond COVID-19. In March, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) released Student Learning: Unfinished, Not Lost, a new resource to help school districts and educators reframe deficit-based narratives into strengths-based approaches. “Start with what students can do,” it says. “Listen to their stories. Assess with the lens of what they are ready to learn next.”

In this resource, ODE outlines how “[a] responsive system, grounded in equity, meets students where they are and accelerates their learning by building on strengths and needs.” To move forward, Oregon’s education system must honor students’ voices, invest in strong relationships and focused supports, and provide culturally responsive instruction that uplifts every child’s strengths to accelerate their unfinished academic learning. “In contrast to remediation efforts, which perpetuate low expectations and lead to disparate outcomes,” ODE explains, “students who access accelerated learning and advanced coursework demonstrate consistently higher learning outcomes, increased engagement, and agency.”

Earlier this summer, we spoke with Jennifer Patterson, the Assistant Superintendent for the Office of Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at ODE and part of the team that authored Student Learning: Unfinished, Not Lost. In this interview, she shares how changing language and narrative can tangibly change our education system’s practices to better serve children in these historic times.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does the notion of ‘learning loss’ fail to capture the experience of Oregon's children and young people during this turbulent time?

At its core, ‘learning loss’ misses how we're hard wired as humans to be learning every day. We learn from one another and we learn from our lived experiences. We’re meaning-makers, synthesizers, and pattern-seekers. Inquiry drives the human soul in so many ways. 

There's no question that we’ve all been in an intense meaning-making space and trying to figure out what's happening in our world. Children are part of that—not only making sense of what’s happening, but asking: Where am I safe? What matters to me? They're paying attention to larger social themes around race, public health, and politics that are at the forefront for them in very real ways.

Children have obviously learned so much around technology. They are mapping onto a digital space with an incredible amount of fluency and proficiency, understanding how to practice learning in a different dimension. Then they’re telling their parents, “Hey Mom, you've got way too many tabs open,” or, “Didn't you know there was an easier way to leave a Zoom meeting?”

There’s also so much intergenerational learning happening right now, where there’s a richness of connection and identity in the family and community. Children are learning the stories of their grandmother, or making breakfast for their younger niece, nephew, brother, sister, or neighbor. Someone even told me about a child who wasn’t yet enrolled in school, but was part of an older sibling’s distance learning experience and truly felt like part of the classroom community.

So there’s been an abundance of learning—it just looks different. It might not be centered in grade-level standards, but it certainly is learning and growth. It’s an asset-based understanding of what learning is, where it happens, and that it’s always alive if it’s nurtured and cultivated.

The Oregon Department of Education’s (ODE) message is that student learning is “unfinished, not lost.” Why does this narrative shift matter, and how will it make a difference for children?

We need to shift the way we think about children as abundantly ready for the learning that they're going to do next. When we recognize that learning happens everywhere, we can see our children are full of capacity.

When we think about it any other way, we’re more likely to come alongside children from a deficit perspective and deem them to be ‘behind’ or ‘failing’ or not yet proficient. This ‘gap-gazing’ tendency often happens with our Indigenous, Latinx, and Black children, and fixates on what our kids can't do. They’re held to a standard or compared to a dominant value that fails to capture ways that they have assets, skills, and talents far beyond what we're primed and ready to measure.

Without question, there are areas where children will need a lot of nurture and care and attentiveness. There will need to be incredible focus on getting children back into the practice and experiences of traditional academic subjects. Some have asked, “Does this mean that kids don’t need to learn how to read?” Of course not. We don’t want to gloss over that.

The way we typically respond to children that need additional practice or skills is to remove them from the rich learning nest of the classroom. It's driven by a theory of action that if you sort and assess children by skill, and then do something different for the kids who are ‘behind,’ they'll get what they need. However, what we find is the opposite: Children who are treated differently will feel differently, behave differently, learn less, and get pushed out of our system. So often, it’s our Indigenous children, our Latinx children, our children of color, or our families navigating poverty who are pushed out.

This stigma erodes children’s souls and pecks away at their own identity as a learner, which becomes very hard to restore. That identity the taproot of what children need most to do the hard cognitive work of learning, such as how to read, think about what they're reading, and write in response to what they've read. 

We really need to tend to the conditions of learning that are so fundamental for our children and will be ever more important in the coming year. The children are whole, and our job is to help them understand who they are, what they can do, and to build from there. Then they can do the lifting and the stretching and the growing and the learning.

How can a change in language lead to a change in practice and outcomes?

My practice as a teacher was shaped by Peter Johnston’s work about how language frames learning. I recognized that the words I chose were like the Lego bricks of the house I was able to build with children. If I pick the wrong Lego brick, it wouldn't click in the right way and we wouldn't be able to co-construct something that we felt equally proud of.  It takes a lot more words and time to say what you really mean and in a way that tends to identity, belonging, culture, and care.

If you apply this approach to the way we talk about learning in Oregon, the same is true. We have to practice a deliberate apprenticeship, replacing our mindset and our language with different words and different constructs. It takes a lot of intentional undoing and patterning, but language is one of the most fundamental places to start. What words are we going to choose? What mental models do those words represent? How we use language can create different energy and different experiences for ourselves as educators and for the children that we care for and teach. 

How have you seen the conversation around ‘learning loss’ shifting in Oregon?

In the spring, it seemed like everything we were reading had a headline about ‘learning loss.’ At ODE, we really wanted to fuel reflection and inquiry around this dominant narrative because we're always trying to re-examine the assumptions that underlie our work.

With Student Learning: Unfinished, Not Lost, our goal is to interrupt this narrative and discourage practices like grade retention. We hope this resource helps educators, principals, superintendents, and district-level leaders in Oregon find a different way to think and talk about how we support students. We’ve been excited to see deeper discourse around what our children need most in the coming year: What conditions are we committed to cultivating so that our children come back into a system that feels different and creates opportunity for them to sprout and grow? It's up to us all to get it right so they're able to continue in their educational journey.