Do students really learn what’s taught?

Though I’ve retired from the practice, I’m still very engaged on education issues … especially whether our students (at all levels) are being adequately schooled to compete in the real world.

So, one of my summer reads is “What Schools Could Be” by Ted Dinterersmith – a well credentialed, experience-deep educator.

In a nutshell, author Ted Dintersmith spent a year visiting schools across the nation to identify outstanding teachers and catalog their secret sauces.


One of the anecdotes that he recounts in the book hit one of my longstanding questions: Do students really learn what they’re being taught?


In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell observed  a learning dynamic that he coined the “summer slide”.

Simply stated, during their vacation, students naturally “forget” much of what they had learned in the prior school year.

For more detail, see How much “learning” is lost during summer vacation?

Gladwell concludes that the summer slide is less for rich kids because their parents can (and do) provide them with academically enriching summer activities.


Dintersmith reports a study that ‘kinda’ confirms the summer slide …  and raises an even bigger question:

As students work harder to cover ever more content, it’s tempting to conclude they’re learning more than ever.

But consider Lawrenceville Academy, one of our nation’s elite private schools. Highly selective and expensive ($61,240 annually for boarding students), this school’s outstanding faculty teaches some of our nation’s highest-performing students, who then go on to our most elite colleges.

A few years ago, Lawrenceville conducted an important experiment, something all schools should replicate.

Students returning in September retook their final exams from three months earlier.

To be fair, faculty removed low-level material they didn’t expect students to retain over the summer.

On tests of just the essential concepts, the average grade fell from a B+ to an F.

Lawrenceville conducted this experiment for two years, with many students and several subjects.

Not one student retained all of the essential concepts that the school expected every student to have mastered.

This raises a vital question. Are even our highest-achieving students really learning?

Note that this wasn’t just a study of haves versus have nots … and a drop from B+ to F can’t be sluffed off as a nuisance-level summer slide.

It spotlights a bigger issue: Are students really learning what they’re being taught?

More on that in subsequent post.


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2 Responses to “Do students really learn what’s taught?”

  1. Chris Wargo Says:

    Was there much detail in what these “essential concepts” are? Are they critical skills for gainful employment and post-college success? Reason I ask, if they aren’t all that critical to long-term success, is the summer slide a major concern? I would argue it’s more important to learn *how* to learn than it is to retain the specific content. For example, the only thing I remember about calculus is that I got a 5 on the AP exam. I’ve never used it since, haven’t retained a single concept, but that hasn’t held me back in any way. However, I am sure I learned important life lessons through the time and effort required to achieve that result in the first place – I learned how to learn an advanced concept, and that has become a repeatable skill.

    Now if these “essential concepts” truly are table stakes for success in most walks of life, that may be a different story. Curious to learn more.

  2. Gelder panickle Says:

    No! Wildavsky(1975) showed they filter out anything that disagrees with their core beliefs as soon as they spit it back into exams.

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