Turning Losses Into Wins

By Jason Mendenhall
Principal, September/October 2020. Volume 100, Number 1.

A few days into stay-at-home and social distancing orders, it became apparent that preexisting inequities and infrastructure issues in our education system were about to be amplified, and students who were struggling prior to the pandemic would likely bear the brunt of its impact.

A few weeks later, NWEA researchers released projections of the potential impact of COVID-19 school disruptions on learning based on historical data of learning loss patterns over the summer and past natural disasters. What researchers found was that while learning losses can be expected across all grades and all subject matters, younger students might be more impacted than older ones. Since the elementary grades are still learning to read, remote strategies are less effective.

In addition, the research found that the impact by subject might not be uniform—mathematics potentially taking a bigger hit than reading, for example—and that preexisting achievement gaps in those subjects will most likely widen.

Similar research from Scott J. Peters, Karen Rambo-​Hernandez, Matthew C. Makel, Michael S. Matthews, and Jonathan A. Plucker looked at a typical fifth-grade classroom, finding that under normal conditions, the grade-level skills within a classroom can span up to seven grades. This level of variance within a classroom, they noted in an NWEA report, will only be exacerbated by COVID-19’s disruptions.

Student Needs Go Beyond Academics

The impact of the pandemic extends far beyond the walls of the school building. Any educational “recovery” can’t be concerned only with academics, because academics alone can’t address the complete needs of the student.

Many families are facing financial problems and homelessness, some children have lost family members and friends to the virus, and others come from unstable home environments and are dealing with food insecurity, violence, and abuse. Schools will see students’ emotional needs expand alongside academic needs. They might also see more new students as family mobility increases due to job searches and relocation.

Schools might also see a greater emotional impact on staff—especially teachers. The abrupt closure of schools, shifting instruction (in most cases) online, lacking daily face-to-face contact with students, and grappling with the impact of the pandemic themselves is taking a toll. In social media posts and news interviews, teachers are sharing personal stories of struggle, emotional burdens, and exhaustion as they engage in heroic efforts to provide some semblance of stable instruction to students. 

For many children, teachers are some of the strongest pillars of social and emotional support outside the home. As we transitioned quickly to distance learning, it became difficult for teachers to fill that void. Social-​emotional wellness must be at the forefront of any recovery effort.

Assessing the Impacts

COVID-19 continues to highlight problematic, preexisting issues in many areas of society. As we start the recovery effort, we have a unique opportunity to reimagine learning and schooling to be more equitable, resilient, and effective, starting with an understanding of where students are at in terms of learning when they return to school.

As with an effort to recover from a natural disaster or crisis, one of the first things leaders must do is assess the level of impact and target resources to the most needed areas. In this case, the assessment will discover where students are in their learning after months away from traditional school; most will have been learning remotely from home, but some will have had little to no instruction due to lack of access to Wi-Fi or connected devices.

This learning assessment will help identify how far behind students have slipped or—in some cases—how far ahead some have progressed. Educators will need this diagnostic data to triage the needs of each student and formulate plans to maximize learning based on developmental needs, as well as by subject.

This was one of the key lessons shared by Jeff Trudeau, principal of the American International School of Monrovia (AISM), Liberia, as his school recovered from a six-month closure in 2014 due to the Ebola virus. Upon reopening, one of the first things he did was administer NWEA’s computer-adaptive, grade-level test, MAP Growth, to get clarity on students’ current academic skills and knowledge. From that data, he and his staff developed an academic recovery plan to address the learning needs of their school.

Reimagining Beyond Recovery

Having a data-informed picture of students is a critical first step that can help educators target resources effectively, adjust school structures, and prepare for future disruptions. And preparing for what’s ahead offers opportunities to reimagine learning that fosters growth for all kids.

Here are just a few areas to consider:

Rethink grouping, especially at the elementary level. Once Trudeau’s team at AIMS had clear data on the academic health of their students after the Ebola-​related school closure, it became clear that traditional grade-level groupings weren’t going to move them toward recovery. Instead, his team implemented grouping by skill mastery, and it worked so well that the school continues to use this grouping model today.

This type of rethinking might now be more necessary than ever, given the uneven learning experiences of students due to COVID-19 disruptions. Most students will experience learning losses, and some might have made learning gains. Extreme differentiation in a single classroom isn’t often scalable, but grouping cohorts of learners across a school might be.

Keeping cohorts of students with the same teacher all year should be less important than addressing each student’s readiness to learn. Being innovative in student grouping provides the opportunity to continue high expectations for all and propels everyone to grow and stay on a path toward career, college, and life-readiness.

Invest in distance-learning infrastructure. American Medical Association experts say that until there’s an effective vaccine for the novel coronavirus, we will continue to grapple with COVID-19 and additional disruptions to society. Therefore, schools must consider blended learning as an instructional strategy, not just a short-term response to a worldwide pandemic.

This means teachers will need professional learning and practice to be effective with remote and blended strategies—especially for elementary school children. It is critical to leverage technology to enhance educators, not replace them. Effective distance learning incorporates active learning centered on human interaction, in which the instructor considers how the student interacts with the content, other learners, and the surrounding world, and specifies what sort of reflection the student should do with the activity. This kind of planning or instructional style could be overwhelming for educators who have not taught in a remote learning environment previously. They will need support and professional guidance.

Distinguish schooling assumptions from learning assumptions. Educators should look to connect with supplemental and community-based learning opportunities. Some students might have access to camps, at-home instruction, and local programs. Schools should be ready to adjust accordingly when learners enter their classrooms with preexisting knowledge and skills that they haven’t taught yet.

Rethink assessment to account for differentiated pacing. As the school year moves forward, educators will need to generate regular feedback that allows them to challenge each learner with appropriate placement in a curricular progression; this will allow them to close gaps among students and accelerate growth. With wider variances in learner needs, short checkpoints throughout the year will help realign pathways and optimize learning opportunities—especially for students who need to catch up or need to access challenges beyond the regular curriculum.

Reexamine school time. The impacts of COVID-19 on student learning might reveal themselves over a period of years and might spur a reexamination of the traditional school calendar and day. The current structure builds in breaks that disrupt the pace of learning, and a typical school day doesn’t always allow enough time for teachers to properly plan and instruct students, much less engage in professional learning that enhances their skills. There’s an opportunity to reexamine these longstanding, traditional structures and allow school communities to innovate toward more effective systems of learning.

Ultimately, reimagining learning means building capacity for flexibility and tapping into collective resources to generate the greatest impact. There is no doubt that COVID-19’s disruptions will affect students—it would be naive to believe otherwise. But the education community has a rare opportunity to come together to create a learning environment that helps all students thrive and feel safe and welcomed, and to open doors to opportunities.

Jason Mendenhall is president of the State Solutions Division at NWEA.

Copyright © National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP's reprint policy.