Opinion
How to Contend with Pandemic Learning Loss
-Design: Vanessa Solis/Education Week, Images: iStock

Just about everybody agrees that the school closures resulting from COVID-19 will lead to some student "learning loss" and that the loss will affect students differently depending on their social advantages, the effectiveness of their schools, and their degree of trauma.

Researchers have tried to predict the magnitude of pandemic-related learning loss by making comparisons with what happens when students are out of school in the summer. Recent work by researchers at NWEA, a nonprofit provider of student assessments, estimated that students would end this school year with only about 40 percent to 60 percent of the learning gains they'd see in a typical year.

Data from the federally funded Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, however, suggest a much smaller loss. And estimates that use summer comparisons aren't taking into account the learning that schools have worked hard to provide virtually this spring.

Yet even if the loss is on the larger side-say, the equivalent of three months—this change is small compared with typical existing learning differences among students as they enter a new grade. Most schools are already set up to contend with such variability, and that can work in students' favor as schools return to something closer to normal.

Teachers have always faced students who return in the fall with unfinished learning. Research from teachers' time-use logs show that many spend the first months of mathematics instruction, for instance, reviewing prior-year content. This fall, that review period would give students a chance to achieve mastery of material missed in the spring.

Teachers also already report spending more instructional time with students who are struggling academically, another compensatory mechanism. And key topics-the American Revolution, identifying themes in a text, fractions-recur repeatedly in the curriculum. Although reformers often object to the repetitiveness of the U.S. curriculum, in this case, it will aid students who have missed material this spring.

The fact that schools are used to responding to students with unfinished learning doesn't mean we have nothing to worry about. Children who suffered trauma from other natural disasters typically lost ground academically and experienced more behavioral problems in the short term as compared with children who did not. And we know that some communities—mostly low-income communities or those of color—are being hit harder than others by COVID-19 and its economic consequences. Schools must try to marshal resources to address those additional needs.

To learn more about how missed learning may play out in the fall, we contacted several experts in English/language arts and mathematics, including Joanne Carlisle at the University of Michigan, Bill McCallum of Illustrative Mathematics, Jon Star and Catherine Snow at Harvard University, and Denise Walston of the Council for the Great City Schools. We asked each to report their level of alarm about learning loss and what strategies they would suggest schools look to in the summer and the fall.

About this series

This essay is the ninth in a series that aims to put the pieces of research together so that education decisionmakers can evaluate which policies and practices to implement.

The conveners of this project-Susanna Loeb, the director of Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and Harvard education professor Heather Hill-have received grant support from the Annenberg Institute for this series.

To suggest other topics for this series or join in the conversation, use #EdResearchtoPractice on Twitter.

Read the full series here.

All experts reported feeling more concern than alarm with regard to general pandemic learning loss. In ELA, said Carlisle and Snow, students are introduced to most content by March, though they observed that with fewer opportunities to practice new skills after the closures, levels of mastery might be lower. The ELA experts were most concerned about beginning readers, who tend to need more continual reinforcement of skills.

Math experts made similar observations—with the caveat that some math content that is primarily taught in the spring, like geometry, may be missed. All experts noted the challenge of supporting the children whose learning has been strongly affected by school closures and the effects of the pandemic.

As of this writing, there is little sense of what school will look like in the fall. However, both experts and research suggest several strategies that districts can profitably work on this summer and as school begins. These include:

* Providing opportunities for teachers to learn about material never taught to or practiced by their incoming students and to adjust new school year lessons appropriately. Teachers will need opportunities to communicate across grade-level teams about very specific missing content.

* Making sure teachers have information about what students know and can do at the beginning of the new school year. Formal assessments are unlikely to provide this information in an efficient manner, both because of the time lag in reporting results and because those results are often not granular. Instead, the experts recommend quick, informal assessments done by classroom teachers.

* Moving students immediately into grade-level-appropriate content in the new school year, rather than repeating material from the end of the prior grade. Where new lessons draw on concepts affected by the shutdown, schools can add extra review but in a "just in time" fashion. Curriculum materials may also be helpful in this effort, at least in math, because many already identify key skills and knowledge at the beginning of each lesson.

* Finding time and resources for additional high-impact supports for students most in need, such as tutoring or extra time working with a teacher or paraprofessional. Most experts cautioned, however, against a heavily remediation-focused approach to addressing unfinished student learning, for instance, by pulling students out of the classroom for compensatory instruction, because it interferes with learning new material.

* Tracking down students who have disengaged from instruction this spring. Students are more likely to disengage from instruction when it occurs in digital settings, and there is a worry that more students than in past years will drop out entirely. To the extent possible, identify students at risk (perhaps using administrative data from online learning platforms) and have teachers or other adults in the school reach out.

* Identifying opportunities to recover instructional time. Studies of U.S. classrooms show missed or wasted instructional time due to either interruptions (e.g., field trips, announcements) or to teacher and student absences. Schools can help minimize the impact of student absences by keeping kids connected while at home and of teacher absences through the use of "understudies"-staff who can cover classes and ensure instruction continues when teachers fall ill. Leaders should plan for minimizing such disruptions in the fall to the extent that returns to school buildings could make them possible.

Finally, schools will need to take steps to address students' emotional needs and to strengthen the bonds between teachers and students, especially in districts that may see intermittent school closures. In our next essay, we'll take up effective responses to trauma in school settings.


Heather C. Hill is a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and studies teacher quality, teacher professional learning, and instructional improvement. Her broader interests include educational policy and social inequality. Susanna Loeb is a professor of education and of public affairs at Brown University and the director of the university's Annenberg Institute for School Reform. She studies education policy, and her interests include social inequality.

Editor's Note: This is part of a continuing series on the practical takeaways from research.

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