December 11, 2020 - Podcast

Episode 69—Judgment, and student learning

Last month, a war erupted in America over whether to celebrate Thanksgiving if it involved visiting family and friends. People railed against scenes of crowded airports, as if those traveling to see loved ones were attacking them personally. As Christmas approaches, people again will make a decision whether or not to travel, and people will again sit on the sidelines, voicing their opinions. But Aaron Carroll, professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, says that judgment is counterproductive even when the behavior in question is reckless. Carroll says drawing attention to unwanted behavior risks “normalizing” it. For example, only about 1 percent of parents give children no vaccines at all but widespread condemnation of the so-called anti-vaxxers makes it seem as if they are a significant movement. The same is true of anti-lockdown protesters, Carroll says. Another problem with judging people for engaging in risky behavior, he says, is that it leads to judging them for the consequences of that behavior. It’s a small step from belittling people who don’t take sufficient coronavirus precautions to belittling people for contracting Covid-19. Carroll says viewing illness as a personal failing is not only morally misguided; it’s also damaging from a public health perspective. Many people don’t want to find out if they are infected, even if they are sick, because they worry that others will wonder what they did wrong, he says. Some who are infected even hide their status, for fear that those they’ve been near will be angry at them for putting them at risk. Carroll says such fears are entirely rational. Lots of people get angry when they find themselves infected with the coronavirus, wanting to know which person they came into contact with is to blame. Carroll says we can all do better; we’re all in this together. The only shame we should associate with Covid-19 is that our country has done so little to fight it.

In addition to creating an environment that turns neighbors against the neighbors, the pandemic is creating potentially long-term, negative effects on students’ learning. A recent study from NWEA, the company which administers standardized MAP testing for elementary students in Indiana, found that this year's reading test scores are similar previous years' reading scores, and that this year's math scores are only moderate lower than what we might have seen if not for the pandemic. These small changes in test scores, however, are likely to underestimate the pandemic's rue impact on students. In fact, says Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at IU, the number of students taking the test this year is substantially lower than in the past and those likely missing from the data are students that come from disproportionately disadvantaged backgrounds – like students from low-income families and students of color. Many students in rural areas in Indiana don’t have access to the high-speed internet that they need to get connected, she says. Meanwhile, and because of pandemic's particularly harsh impact on communities of color, Black and Latino children are disproportionately learning from home and are also disproportionately dealing with the trauma of family members lost to the pandemic, both of which may make it difficult for them to stay on track with learning this year. Calarco says missing data could lead to a false sense of hope regarding the impact the pandemic has had on children. Local school districts need more federal assistance to better help struggling students in the future, she says. In fact, it was estimated that schools needed $254 billion to reopen safely with the staff and supplies needed. However, only $13 billion was awarded through CARES Act funding. Calarco says there are not enough computers and laptops and access to high-speed internet for the students who need them, leading to a tremendous need for extra resources. Districts also need resources to hire additional personnel to provide support and effective curriculum for students learning at home.