Helping Kids Catch Up

Topics: Pandemic Leadership

The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted everyone’s lives, and it has deeply affected our students. This is especially true for systemically underserved students—Black, Latino, and Native students; students from low-income backgrounds; students with disabilities and learning differences; English learners; students who experience homelessness or are in the foster care system; students who are incarcerated; and undocumented students.

Studies indicate that fewer students—especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds—are achieving at grade level than before the pandemic. Beyond interruptions to instruction, the pandemic also demonstrated that school communities must provide vital resources for students and their families—food, technology, and other supports.

It’s important to acknowledge that COVID-19 didn’t cause learning gaps; it merely exacerbated them. And these gaps are the direct result of structural inequality and systemic racism; for too long, our nation’s schools haven’t provided students of color or students with greater needs with the resources and school experiences that can help them achieve their dreams. Ensuring true equity in our schools—and in America—will require confronting longstanding injustices and resource inequities.

In response to this crisis, the federal government has made an unprecedented investment in education. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) provides almost $125 billion for education, with the vast majority of that funding—at least $109 billion—going directly to local school districts. The amount of funding each state and each school district receives is based on its share of Title I funding under federal law. This once-in-a-generation investment presents an opportunity for schools to put policies and programs in place that research shows can accelerate learning for the students who need it most.

Here are three ways to make the most of this unique opportunity:

Targeted, intensive tutoring

When implemented effectively, targeted, intensive, or “high-dosage” tutoring is one of the most impactful strategies for accelerating student learning. High-​quality programs use small tutor-​to-student ratios (less than 1:4), provide pre-service and ongoing training to tutors, and use a skill-building curriculum that prioritizes acceleration by addressing missed concepts and skills that students need to engage in upcoming grade-​level content instead of remediation.

In its most effective formats, the same tutor will work regularly with the same students over an extended period of time on academic skills such as math or reading. The skill-building approach aligns with the math or reading curriculum used throughout the school and targets each student’s areas of academic need.

Research shows that targeted intensive tutoring is particularly effective with younger students. When I worked as an instructional coach with kindergarten and first-grade teachers in high-poverty, rural elementary schools in North Carolina, I witnessed firsthand how targeted, intensive tutoring can accelerate students’ reading development.

Tutoring can be a game-changer for students of all ages, however; for example, the Saga tutoring program assigns recent college graduates to work daily with two high school students at a time as part of the students’ regular class schedule. The program doubled how much math students learned in a year, and the benefits persisted for at least one year after tutoring.

Strong, trusting relationships

Relationships between students and adults and among students will be crucial to build on the strength and resilience students, families, and educators have exercised over the last three years in the face of adverse experiences and unprecedented barriers to learning. Strong relationships provide the foundation for students’ engagement, sense of belonging, and learning, which will address the missed instruction and stress that have affected communities—and especially undeserved communities.

Most educators want to have positive relationships with students and their families, but building and maintaining those relationships requires intentional choices to give teachers the time, space, and support needed to engage repeatedly with individual students around activities related to children’s interests, goals, and aspirations.

While students from all backgrounds and ages benefit from strong relationships, strong relationships matter most to students and families who too often have been given the message that they don’t belong in their schools, such as students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities. Relationship-​building must be intentional, with the needs of students and families of color in mind, and with a strength-based lens that recognizes and values the rich cultural and linguistic assets they bring to the classroom and school.

School climate

School leaders can invest in improving their school climate, especially for students of color. School climate is not happenstance; there are concrete things school leaders can do to foster a safe and supportive learning environment, such as diversifying the educator workforce; putting fairer, more restorative discipline practices in place; and providing a rigorous and culturally sustaining curriculum.

Research shows that students who attend schools with a positive school climate have more self-​esteem, are less likely to exhibit absenteeism, and are more likely to stay in and complete school. Also, teachers need a positive climate so that they can guide, encourage, and support students’ learning.

A positive culture explicitly values adults forging nurturing relationships with students and providing teachers and school staff with the time, space, and occasion to interact with individual students—especially those who seem less engaged or disinterested.

To be sure, there are no quick fixes. Educators and school leaders have worked incredibly hard over the last few years, and they will continue to face challenges in the years ahead. Many districts and schools are facing staffing shortages, and teachers are stretched thin and feeling burnt out. But rather than cutting corners or changing the model in ways that might lessen the impact for students, school leaders can think creatively about how to channel their additional resources into approaches such as targeted, intensive tutoring that gives students what they really need.

That might mean leveraging additional adults such as paraeducators, retired educators, pre-service educators, and afterschool staff in the school system, or partnering with members of community-​based organizations who—with training and ongoing support—can provide additional capacity.

Research shows that paraprofessionals are nearly as effective as teachers when tutoring one-on-one or in small groups. Data will determine which students are most in need of additional help and in what areas, and initiatives should prioritize those students for academic, social, and emotional supports.

Any of these new initiatives will be more successful if they are co-constructed with educators, and especially educators of color, whose voices and leadership are the key to creating more equitable and just schools. And while educators work to accelerate learning for students who need additional time and support and students are eager to be challenged, many Black and Latino students continue to be denied access to the rigorous coursework that sets them on a path to higher education. Engage them and provide them with the opportunities that will set them on a path to college.

Targeted supports, strong relationships, and a positive school climate are the things that school leaders and educators know their students—especially the most underserved—have needed for a long time. Many school leaders have wanted to put these strategies in place, but they may not have had the resources to do it. Now, the federal government’s investment in our school systems is giving school leaders an opportunity to lay the groundwork for systemic change that creates more just and equitable schools than existed before the pandemic. Armed with newfound resources and resolve, school leaders can make their schools better than ever so that students across the country can live up to their full potential.

Allison Rose Socol is vice president of P–12 policy, practice, and research at The Education Trust and a former teacher and instructional coach.