Could Learning Loss Be a System Gain?

Dr. Scott Seaman, Executive Director, AWSP
Oct 28, 2020


In 1975, Congress passed the “Education for All Handicapped Children Act” (Public Law 94-142). In 1997, it was amended and enacted as the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Almost 50 years later, so much—and at the same time, so little—has changed in the landscape of public education.

Districts throughout the country have been following some version of an IEP process for decades focused on helping improve educational results for children with disabilities. And, according to the US Department of Education, “The IEP is the cornerstone of a quality education for each child with a disability.”

IDEA was landmark legislation in 1997 aimed at helping children facing incredible, but not unattainable, odds. Now, we sit here in 2020 in a situation that none of us could ever imagine, and our children—not some, but each and every one—are facing incredible, but not unattainable, odds. Those odds require courageous conversations within and across every voice in education to rethink how we might make an immediate shift to help all of our students. We don’t have time to delay and our students can’t afford our inability to break away from the traditional approach used for way too long. 

Educational gaps have persisted for decades. That question is not for debate. Another point that we need not waste valuable time discussing is the ever-widening gaps across the system with each passing day. We are starting to hear the term, “learning loss” bubble to the surface of educator conversations. Call it what you want. “Learning loss” to me is a nice way of saying “even wider gaps in achievement, access, opportunities, expectations, relationships, and hope.” That’s learning loss. Let’s call it what it is—most of our students are suffering massive unintended consequences of remote learning.

Almost two months into the school year we are seeing and hearing increases across the system, but not the kind of increases we should be celebrating: increased failure, disenfranchisement, depression, anxiety, disconnect, isolation, and lack of hope. And, although we have some schools that have opened in hybrid models, students largely are still suffering, and the adults in the system are suffering right along with them.

So, what’s the answer? Besides taking the opportunity that COVID has presented us and completely dismantling and rebuilding the system, perhaps, in the short term, we should consider taking a closer look at the IEP system and consider applying it to all students. And yes, I’m serious. I have not had a single conversation with a student, teacher, parent, grandparent, guardian or school leader who isn’t witnessing or experiencing firsthand the impacts of COVID on learning. While “learning loss” is real across the board, students are also learning and experiencing other valuable life lessons. Addressing both the losses and gains requires immediate action.

This crisis needs a collective yet individualized response. Why can’t we scrap the one-size-fits-all approach with some on IEPs and move toward everyone on some version of an Individualized Educational Plan. No, the IEP system isn’t without flaws. And no, this won’t solve all of our problems. But, it will put the focus on the immediate needs of each and every student in the system and how COVID has impacted their mental, physical, social, emotional and educational health. Again, according to the DOE, “The IEP is the cornerstone of a quality education for each child with a disability.” I hope I’ve made an argument that supports that nearly all of our children have been disabled in this crisis.

Humor me and look at the IEP process identified in IDEA:

  1. Child is identified

  2. Child is evaluated

  3. Eligibility is decided

  4. Child is found eligible for services

  5. IEP meeting is scheduled

  6. IEP is held and IEP is written

  7. Services are provided

  8. Progress is measured and reported to parents

  9. IEP is reviewed

  10. Child is re-evaluated

Now look at it through the lens of our current reality:

  1. Child is identified = Every child needs individualized attention

  2. Child is evaluated = We need complete assessments of mental, physical, social, emotional and educational health (this includes access to technology and connectivity)

  3. Eligibility is decided = Again, I think I’ve made my case

  4. Child is found eligible for services = See #3 above

  5. IEP meeting is scheduled = This involves the school leadership team w/ students, parents, community and university partners when possible

  6. IEP is held and IEP is written  = Don’t let your past experiences of legal-binding, painful, and often conflict-filled IEP meetings move you off-target here. But rather, think about a group of students and adults working together to determine what approach might be best to address “learning loss” right now

  7. Services are provided = The “Team” works collectively and collaboratively to close the gaps and provide necessary, targeted, and differentiated supports. This means that we “do” education differently and will require redefining time, resources, responsibilities, CBAs, definitions, partnerships, RCWs, etc.

  8. Progress is measured and reported to parents = This will force us to move away from summative assessments (the autopsy approach) while simultaneously building a robust formative and ongoing progress monitoring system.

  9. IEP is reviewed = This should be formative, not summative. Again, see #8. Just like an end-of-the-year employee evaluation is a mundane act of compliance, we should all embrace ongoing learning in our learning organizations and therefore all move toward ongoing formative systems.

  10. Child is re-evaluated  = See #9...and #8.

We literally have students all over the spectrum in terms of learning loss. And, you are probably thinking right now, “Scott, it’s always been that way.” Well, you are right, but not to the degree, complexity, or consequence that we are seeing right now. As COVID rolled into our lives back in the spring, we all quickly became weary of the words “unprecedented” and “pivot.” Why? Because the impact on society (and education) was unprecedented and forced us all to pivot in just about every avenue in our lives.

People have also been talking about returning to “normal” and how they can’t wait to get kids back in our schools. I agree on my excitement to hear students interacting in the halls and classrooms, but also hope that “normal” is the last thing we return to. Let’s take full advantage of this opportunity presented by COVID to redefine public education and create something way different than normal. Let’s think big and bold around an individualized educational system where we truly examine the full health (mental, physical, social, emotional and educational) of our students. Why not create a holistic approach designed to build individual futures instead of our antiquated one-size fits all system. We’ve spent decades creating systems to react and respond to learning loss. We truly have an opportunity to create a proactive and individualized system for each and every student.

If you are thinking right now about all the reasons why we can’t, then join the club of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Instead, start thinking about what the system might gain if we, with our students, don’t use what was normal as our starting point.


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  1. DeAnna Kilga | Nov 02, 2020
    Yes! This- "Let’s take full advantage of this opportunity presented by COVID to redefine public education and create something way different than normal." Let's create a NEW normal.