Q & A: How to Approach Last Year’s Limited Learning Gains

The way educators frame and approach any learning gaps caused by the pandemic can make a huge difference in the wellbeing of children and youth.

Audrey Breen

Students across the country are beginning the 2021-22 school year, often re-entering classrooms physically, full-time after 16 months of virtual or hybrid learning. Many of those students will return to school academically behind where they might have been without the disruptions created by the pandemic, as indicated by notable, and not surprising, declines and widening gaps in standardized test scores nationally.

According to Nancy Deutsch, professor of education and director of Youth-Nex, the way educators frame and approach that gap can make a huge difference in the wellbeing of children and youth moving forward.

We sat down with Deutsch to discuss what school leaders should prioritize during this school year.

Q: We are seeing data that shows many students are behind where they should be going into this new school year. Is it important how educators frame that gap? If so, why?

First, I would recommend we stop using “learning loss” to describe where kids are academically. Instead, we should approach students with the assets-based assumption that, as kids begin this school year, they are academically exactly where we would expect them to be amidst a pandemic that has disrupted their lives. Framing the space between how students perform now and what pre-pandemic benchmarks would have expected as “learning loss” is neither accurate nor helpful.

Kids have learned a lot during the pandemic. Some of that learning aligns with our school systems’ standards. Some does not. If we decided to test kids on their ability to override Zoom’s mute features and put on cat face filters, they would no doubt surpass adults. If we focus only on pressing forward with academic learning framed as standards by which we know students are behind, we will lose many kids to the downward spiral of tracking and negative academic self-concept. 

To be clear, we should be concerned about the very real gaps in learning that have occurred over the past year, gaps that will continue to reveal themselves even more starkly as students return to classrooms this fall, and that will no doubt bring to the surface long-standing inequities in our social and economic fabric. But we must reframe how we think about these gaps. Nearly every aspect of our daily lives has been upended; 43% of children are living in families that have struggled to cover their basic expenses, and many have experienced illness and/or death of a loved one. A basic tenet of child development is that kids need a safe and secure base from which to explore, grow, and learn. The world has proved itself neither safe nor predictable over the past 16 months. That is a basic fact of children’s lives that has major implications for their well-being and capacity to learn.

Q: What should educators be focusing on right now?

We must acknowledge that sticking to pre-pandemic pacing guides and annual learning outcomes will not make up for the last 16 months of inequitable learning experiences. Children’s mental health is already suffering. We cannot hold kids accountable for making up learning that it is not their fault they missed.

As we begin to see a glimmer of what we hope will be post-pandemic life, it is clear that our kids face long-term struggles. These struggles amplify existing inequities in opportunities, access, and academic outcomes that will multiply for years to come. These struggles will require long-term, multifaceted solutions that begin with supporting students’ social and emotional well-being.

Q: How might we do that?

We can spend the next few months helping students regain their social and emotional balance and connection with school and teachers, maintain academic engagement, and address their mental health needs. We can recognize that where kids are now should not be considered deterministic of their future academic potential. We can work to help all kids gain the foundational knowledge and skills they will need to thrive.

We can also provide principals and teachers with the supports and resources they need to focus on how to best do that for every student. It is not just students whose worlds have been shaken. Teachers and administrators are also re-adjusting and trying to balance serving kids every day while remaining flexible and responsive to the ever-changing public health situation. All adults should be working to support both the students and the educators in their communities. This was a whole world crisis, and it needs a whole community solution.

Specifically, I think we should shift our focus away from testing and doubling down on academic remediation tagged to pre-pandemic annual goal posts. We should start focusing on supporting kids where they are now, not from where we expected them to be before their worlds turned upside down and take a long-term view of where we want them to be by the end of their K-12 journey, not the end of this one year.

Q: What have you seen that gives you hope we are on the right track?

In some places, we have seen school divisions choose not to rely so heavily on standardized testing. This past spring, the country’s largest school district, New York City made the state standardized tests opt-in, rather than universally given. That is a good start.

I also heard a lot of talk about not “returning to normal.” There seemed to be a growing consensus that we could use this opportunity to rethink what education could look like for students in this country. It remains to be seen if we are able to capitalize on this moment and really think creatively about how to use what we learned about student learning outside physical classrooms to inform how we approach learning inside classrooms.

One way to make sure we are doing that is to listen to youth themselves. They have insights about their experience that can help shape how the adults in their lives offer effective support and design successful learning environments. This summer, we checked in with three middle and high school students, each of whom offered incredible reflections on their experience.

I'll close with this quote from one of those students. Sarvasrika is a high school student in Virginia: "This experience will be a catalyst to see what our generation will become in the future. I think we as a generation have changed our priorities and realize there are so many things that are wrong in this world. We want to try and fix them, but it's not quite in our capabilities to do so yet. We don't quite have that power, but we are joining together to become an entity that will actually change the way things are happening in the future."

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