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Nancy Bailey’s Education Website: McKinsey & Company Uses Falling Behind Talk to Ramp Up School Toughness

For years McKinsey & Company has had a premier seat at the school reform table for the U.S., England, and worldwide, despite faulty reporting. Because of Covid-19, plans are being put in place to get tougher on students to make up for lost learning time. They use terms like high impact and high dosage tutoring. These plans often echo how students must learn for the future economy. But such pressure, after a year like no other, could be devastating to children.

The narrative goes like this: poor children of color from Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities have fallen behind in school due to Covid-19, so the country needs to ramp up instruction.

McKinsey & Company’s report “COVID-19 and learning loss—disparities grow and students need help,” outlines their ideas of equity and what they think should be done with students falling behind. They partnered with Chiefs for Change for the study.

They state:

Given the scope of learning loss so far and the limitations of remote learning, students will likely need additional learning hours to make up the loss. That can come through extended school-day and structured after-school programsweekend school, and summer school programs that already have proven benefits.

To catch up, many students will need step-up opportunities to accelerate their learning. Now is the time for school systems to prepare postpandemic strategies that help students meet their full potential.

Students who have not been afforded laptops and broadband connections, who have struggled due to poverty and the loss of proper schooling due to the pandemic, need well-staffed schools, with curriculum studies that include the arts and extracurricular activities that make learning exciting. Any extra school time should be about the needs of students and parents.

If students have schools that consider their strengths and interests and give them well-prepared teachers who have the resources they need to teach, they will do well for their own futures and the future of the country.

Helping children get back on track should not be about forcing them to spend long hours grinding out assignments, likely online. This sounds like the same “no excuses” track that has dominated the conversation for years due to the terrible policies of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act. High-stakes standards were originally driven by the school reformers and those like McKinsey & Company themselves.

Frank Coffield, an emeritus professor of education at the Institute of Education at the University of London, wrote in 2011, “Why the McKinsey reports will not improve school systems.” Coffield showed how McKinsey & Company’s reports on schools and schooling were widely accepted, despite problems. Politicians associated them with improving the economy by making changes in schools even though the reports were flawed.

Diane Ravitch wrote in 2019, When I worked in the first Bush Administration In 1991-92, McKinsey consultants were everywhere. Gaggles of very young, well-dressed people marched in and out of the White House with briefcases and plans. McKinsey has advised school districts, given them business plans to fix their problems. Does anyone ever check up on how their proposals turned out? Do they ever admit failure? I never figured out what they were doing or why they were there. Like Pearson, McKinsey is always there, although there is no evidence that they are education experts.

McKinsey & Company promote other school reform groups to help. It’s like a big club, and teachers and those who actually do the work with children don’t belong. If they did, McKinsey would not have relied on iReady to collect the information for their study.

They used iReady.

They found weak Math results in their report, analyzing assessment data from the Curriculum Associates i-Ready platform. 

While the worst-case scenarios from the spring may have been averted, the cumulative learning loss could be substantial, especially in mathematics—with students on average likely to lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year. Students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students. While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.

But iReady is distrusted. Consider this blog post by a math teacher, “Why iReady is Dangerous.”

She states:

…the iReady Universal Screener is a dangerous assessment because it is a dehumanizing assessment. The test strips away all evidence of the students’ thinking, of her mathematical identity, and instead assigns broad and largely meaningless labels. The test boils down a student’s entire mathematical identity to a generic list of skills that “students like her” generally need, according to iReady. And yet despite its lumping of students into broad categories, iReady certainly doesn’t hesitate to offer very specific information about what a child likely can do and what next instructional steps should be.

I came across many troubling questions that made me seriously question whether the makers of this assessment have any business writing a math test, let alone making instructional recommendations. 

Problems with iReady have also been exposed by Tultican in i-Ready Sells 50-Years-Old Education Failure, and me in “Common Core, Camouflaged in Testing and Technology,” and others.

Why are districts still using iReady, and why did McKinsey rely on it here?

McKinsey & Company were already predicting catastrophe last spring with “COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime.”

McKinsey refers to the following. 

Some of the above might have something useful to use with students like BRIA which could provide assistance to students in Broward County.

The focus now and when the pandemic is over should be on the child. Funding should go to public schools for programs run by teachers and those prepared to help children learn. Students don’t need to be browbeaten with nonstop, mostly online instruction, repeatedly hearing claims they’ve fallen behind.

Many students have fallen behind, or maybe they haven’t. The teachers I know have done an outstanding job of helping students adjust to the pandemic.

Students need a break—a time to breathe and be kids, to have some fun with their friends and deal with and get over this nightmare like the rest of us.


Coffield, F. (2011). Why the McKinsey reports will not improve school systems. Journal of Education Policy, 27 (1), p.131-149

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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...