Education Scarring And What We Can Do About It

It’s time to shine the light on where students can go from here.

Posted January 28, 2021 by Mark Perna

People are familiar with the idea of career scarring, defined as a long-term trend of lower salaries and higher unemployment rates for college graduates who launch their careers in a struggling economy. But the COVID slide—that I’m calling “education scarring”—might be even worse.

Students have lost significant educational ground since the pandemic forced them home. A recent McKinsey & Co. study found that students are averaging three months’ loss of learning in mathematics, and one and a half months in reading. These numbers are higher for students of color, many of whom may lack the resources necessary for online learning to take place.

I’ve written about four ways educators can approach the COVID slide from a big-picture view, and I’ve examined the need for employers to prepare now for an education-scarred talent pipeline. Now I want to dive deeper into a specific strategy for the classroom, for individual student counseling, and even for us as stakeholders in the education of the next generation. I call it the Light at the End of the Tunnel.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

The Light at the End of the Tunnel isn’t new; I’ve been sharing this strategy in keynotes and consulting sessions for years now. I share it because it works—and today, it’s even more critical in view of the additional obstacles young people are facing in their educational and career journey.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a strategy I have developed to leverage internal motivation. We’re all motivated by internal and external forces, but internal motivation, intrinsic to our personal goal, is by far the more effective.

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In the framework of this strategy, the Light is the reward, the thing you’re trying to reach. The Tunnel represents the work, time, and commitment it takes to reach the Light. In education and workforce development, the Tunnel stands for the education or training pathway that students need to complete. So what’s their Light?

The Light is not just the completion of the pathway, but more importantly the rewards that students enjoy as a result of their perseverance all the way through. For today’s young people, the Light is primarily the experiences and lifestyle they can enjoy once they finish their education and move into a viable and rewarding career. For these students, the career is often secondary to lifestyle considerations, but also very important to the realization of their personal Light.

Blazing the Light

You can’t get to the Light without going through the Tunnel first. We all have our own Light, our own personal desires and dreams that drive us to achieve.

What we need to do for students—what we’ve always needed to do, but now more than ever—is to help them find their Light. Their reason. The reward that matters to them.

It’s important that we don’t assume we know what their Light is; it must be something they want for themselves, not a goal we set for them. The Light is personal, individual, and unique to each person.

Then, once they’ve found their Light, we need to blaze it—letting them see, taste, smell, touch, and feel what they can experience if they keep persevering through the Tunnel. They need frequent reminders of the Light as they travel through the Tunnel. Don’t we all do better work when the rewards are set in front of us? Eyes on the prize.

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Helping students find their personal Light, and then using that knowledge to consistently remind them of their reason for persevering when the going gets tough, is a strategy that requires time, investment, and heart. Educators have risen to the occasion again and again for students this past year…and that isn’t going to change as we begin to tackle the COVID slide.

The Tunnel is longer, but the Light is still there

The pandemic’s effects on students’ learning can’t be quantified yet. But we know that education scarring is real, and there will be many students who enter the next school year at a distinct disadvantage because of all the learning lost this past year.

For these education-scarred students, it is even more critical that we blaze the Light at the end of their Tunnel. Their Tunnel is going to be longer than before because of the ground they’ve lost, but the Light is still there at the end of it.

It’s up to us to shine that Light—and help students overcome 2020’s educational scars in pursuit of a brighter future.


About The Author
Mark Perna
Mark C. Perna is an international speaker and bestselling author. He also serves as CEO of TFS Results, a strategic consulting firm at the forefront of the national paradigm shift in education and workforce development.
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