Editor’s Note: This is part one of a five-part series

As the 2020-21 school year begins with remote learning as the norm for most students in the U.S., educators across the nation are talking more about equity than ever before.  The state superintendent in Maryland recently announced that schools would have to provide an average of 3.5 hours a day of “live learning” for each student, in the interest of equity. The effort to standardize or equalize hours of instruction appears to be a response to the chaotic and varied education delivery efforts of school districts in the spring when the vast majority of school children in the U.S. were no longer able to learn in a classroom setting.  At one extreme is a college preparatory school in Illinois where the faculty pivoted over spring break and were prepared with a well-planned and coordinated program for every student from JK through 12th grade.  At the other extreme is a school district in Virginia that elected to provide no instruction at all for its students as a default response to concerns that they would not be able to provide the same instruction to all students and that some would be disadvantaged. 

The consensus is that most students accomplished little in the way of progress towards mastering grade-level standards.  (We don’t say they didn’t accomplish much in the way of learning because a lot of learning certainly took place.)


The COVID slide

The impact of school closures and spotty remote learning on students has been estimated based on the typical “summer slide” – the degree to which students regress over the summer months when they are not in school.  The so-called “COVID slide,” according to estimates from the Brookings Institution, means that the average student is starting school this fall having lost 30 percent of their reading progress and about 70 percent of their progress in math from the 2019-20 school year.  For the lowest quartile of students, regression likely exceeded a full year of learning. 

So, the scramble has begun. As an article in Education Week characterizes it, “Just how much students could regress remains a matter of some debate …  and every district must devise ways to diagnose and respond.”


Asking the right questions

But perhaps that isn’t the right question. Instead of asking, “How far have we fallen,” we should be asking, “Where were we before the fall?”

The unfortunate truth is that most children in the U.S. were not performing at grade level prior to COVID.  63 percent of 4th grade students were reading below grade level.  60 percent of 4th grade students were performing below grade level in math.  And, as low as the levels of proficiency are for students on average, the most vulnerable groups of students experience gaps that are even wider. The gaps in reading and math for students who qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches had persisted, largely unchanged, year after year after year.  The gap had widened and was larger than it had been since the last century for students with disabilities. And even though the gap has narrowed slightly for English language learners, it is still substantial.

These statistics became very personal this past spring as parents came face to face with their children’s learning (or lack thereof).  Many were dismayed and frustrated as they realized their children were struggling with grade-level work and expectations in ways the schools had not communicated.  Many were disappointed in their children’s performance, knowledge and lack of skill development.  Some were even stunned and angry.

Parents worry, not just about this school year, but about what this means for their children’s long-term prosperity and success, and their ability to have a satisfying career that will support them and their families.

As we know, education and economics are really two sides of the same coin.


Learning economics

An analysis by McKinsey estimated the impact of different instructional formats and a “return to the classroom” at different points in time on our nation’s productivity.  If it takes until fall 2021 to get students back into the classroom, the drain on GDP could be in the range of $200 billion, according to this analysis.

That’s a big number, for sure.  But it is dwarfed by the impact of the longstanding educational achievement gaps on the economy.  A study by the Organization for International Cooperation and Development (OECD), pre-COVID, estimated that the US economy would gain $72 trillion if average student performance reached the minimum level of proficiency in academics.

Current US GDP is about $20 trillion.  The entire world produces about $80 trillion in goods and services.  According to this study, the relative economic impact of COVID is almost trivial by comparison. 

So, let’s talk about learning for a moment and why it isn’t happening at the level that could change the whole world’s economic prospects.

Every teacher knows that every student learns differently. And that “differently” has to do with processes that our brains use to learn.  These include processes such as attention, and working memory, and processing speed, visual and auditory discrimination. These, and others, are what enable each learner to take in information from the outside world, to organize, store and retrieve it and to create new things with it, in short – to learn.  These processes are called cognitive skills.  Every student has a unique cognitive profile or set of cognitive strengths and weaknesses.  You do.  We do.  Everyone does.

While there are many cognitive skills involved in learning, there is one set of cognitive skills – three cognitive processes called Executive Functions – that have been shown to have a particularly significant impact.  Executive Functions are the directive capacities of our minds, working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.  Not only do these skills predict classroom behavior, they are essential in reading and math.  They are at the heart of Social and Emotional Learning.  And they are correlated with academic success in general - lifetime income, future health outcomes and even whether someone will end up in prison.

We reminded ourselves earlier in this article about three groups of students where academic achievement gaps are most pronounced and most stubborn – economically-disadvantaged students, students with learning disabilities and English language learners. 


The effects of poverty on cognitive capacity

Over the last few years, the evidence regarding the impact of poverty has become compelling.  Poverty affects the development of attention, working memory, inhibitory control (the three Executive Functions) as well as other cognitive processes.  Students from poorer communities, on average, come to school two to three years behind.  Not only are they two to three years behind academically, they may be two to three years behind cognitively.  So, what happens when you put a 1st or 2nd grader’s brain in a 4th grade classroom? 

The case of students with learning disabilities is, if anything, is even more clear.  Learning disabilities involve less well-developed cognitive processes.  

The situation with English language learners (ELL) is a little different.  There is nothing inherent in having a primary language other than English that predicts cognitive skills (except maybe in a positive way for those students who are already truly bilingual).  However, there is significant overlap between ELL and students in poverty and so, for many students in this group, the development of their cognitive skills is likely an issue.

The importance of cognitive skills is underscored by the previously cited OECD study, which found that educational attainment (years in school) is not related to economic growth whereas measures of cognitive skills are.


An equity issue

This suggests to us that the greatest obstacle to equity that our students face is their cognitive capacity.  As a nation, as educators, as parents, we want to ensure equitable access to educational experiences through technology, by providing well-trained effective teachers with evidence-based curriculum, and other means.  As important as all of these are, students also need the cognitive capacity to access learning experiences. Cognitive skills, through which students actually access learning, are simply a matter of equity.

Now that we have identified the problem, how do we solve it?  Let us think for a moment about what a solution would entail.  We would need to be able to do the following:

  1. Understand each student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses
  2. Remediate, build and strengthen both weaker cognitive processes and those that are already strong
  3. Construct learning environments (technology, instruction, curriculum, etc.) incorporating science rather than folklore


Coming in part two of the series: Making personalized learning truly personal: How to determine each learner’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses.


About the authors

Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience.  She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts.  She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management.  She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.

Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of BrainWare Learning Company. For the last decade, Stark championed the effort to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of everyone. It started with a very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, he pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool based on over 50 years of trial & error clinical collaboration. Stark also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive cognitive literacy training tool delivered online in the world.