Special Report
Student Achievement Explainer

Overcoming COVID-19 Learning Loss

August 19, 2020 4 min read
6 land hero

One of the most difficult tests facing schools this fall is how to pull off widespread intervention and assistance for students who begin the 2020-21 school year with learning loss.                      

The challenge is not a new one. American classrooms have always been heterogeneous, serving students of vastly different backgrounds. But those gaps will be intensified due to the disparities in access to health care, the internet, and robust teaching wrought by COVID-19 since last March. 

Historically, efforts to “catch kids up” have been disappointing, with so-called turnaround programs and even much-heralded approaches like Response to Intervention producing mixed results in practice.

Still, researchers and educators emphasize, there are ways to mitigate the damage that will inevitably be done to students as the pandemic rages on. Many are rooted in centuries-old practices and common sense but require considerable planning and finesse to make them work. 

All the approaches depend on having a few key elements already in place: a solid curriculum; a commitment to grade-level teaching; and strategies to engage students, including tracking them down and contacting them if they aren’t showing up for remote or hybrid learning.

By far the most effective intervention for students who have fallen behind—intensive tutoring—has high start-up costs. While there are ways to lower some of them, severe budget cuts could put it out of reach for all but a fraction of districts. Indeed, the federal government’s feckless response to the pandemic means that leaders can’t count on additional help to defray the cost of doing more for students who will return to school with less. 

For this installment on how to address students’ learning losses, Education Week interviewed two dozen researchers, teachers, and principals, and reviewed hundreds of pages of empirical studies and planning documents to identify interventions that are well supported by research—and other approaches that are unlikely to move the needle. 

About This Project

Sixth in a series of eight installments.

These times are unprecedented. Through eight installments, Education Week explores the steps administrators need to take to ensure the safety of students and faculty.

How We Go Back to School is supported in part by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.


The pieces in this part of our series all come with a caveat: They are extrapolated from studies conducted during traditional, in-person schooling. Superintendents and principals bear the difficult responsibility not only of deciding which of these options are technically and financially feasible, but also adjusting them creatively to the realities of fully remote or hybrid schooling. 

—Stephen Sawchuk

Downloadable: A Guide to Help Students Catch Up

FOUNDATION

Installment 6Foundation

Interventions and services aimed at restoring lost learning are most likely to succeed when schools are layering them on top of a solid academic foundation.

That means districts should prioritize several things first: grade-level teaching for all students, a way to track each student’s whereabouts, a curriculum synched across schools and delivery methods (in-person and remote), plenty of uninterrupted teaching time, and schedules that benefit the students most likely to need additional help.

Deep Dive: COVID-19’s Harm to Learning Is Inevitable. How Schools Can Start to Address It

CLOSE TRACKING

Installment 6Tracking

The first step in an effective intervention is identifying the students who need extra help. Early-warning systems can be interwoven with the individual teacher-led gauges of student learning. These systems track indicators like attendance and quarter grades throughout the year and identify students who are slipping and need extra academic or social-emotional assistance.

But districts must be creative to adjust some of the indicators in these systems to the realities of remote or hybrid learning—especially as things like attendance take on new meaning.

Deep Dive: Remote Learning Is Tough for Many Students. How ‘Early-Warning’ Data Can Help Schools Support Them

TUTORING

Installment 6Tutoring

Study after study identifies intensive, one-on-one or one-to-two tutoring as the most effective way to help students who are falling behind in their learning to catch up. The challenge for districts is figuring out how to pay for this expensive approach, and how to make it translate in a remote setting.

Research suggests that using paraprofessionals and volunteers can be effective. Beginning with slightly larger tutoring groups may also be an approach to consider.

Deep Dive: High-Dosage Tutoring Is Effective, But Expensive. Ideas for Making It Work

EXTENDING TIME

Installment 6Time

Extending learning time in creative ways, such as weeklong “academies” during spring or fall breaks or Saturday sessions, show promise for significant learning gains. These so-called acceleration academies are showing real promise in a group of districts in Massachusetts.

In targeted, small group environments, teachers use research-based strategies to improve students’ foundational skills and content and to build strong relationships. Districts will have to take the lead in administering and planning for the extra teaching.

Deep Dive: Students Lost Time and Learning in the Pandemic. What ‘Acceleration’ Can Do to Help

Contributors:
Reporter: Stephen Sawchuk
Designers/Visual artists: Laura Baker, Emma Patti Harris, Gina Tomko, Francis Sheehan
Illustrator: Stephanie Shafer for Education Week
Photo editor: Jaclyn Borowski
Web producers: Mike Bock, Stacey Decker, Hyon-Young Kim
Visuals project editor: Emma Patti Harris
Project editor: Lesli A. Maxwell

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2020 edition of Education Week

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
The Social-Emotional Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on American Schoolchildren
Hear new findings from an analysis of our 300 million student survey responses along with district leaders on new trends in student SEL.
Content provided by Panorama

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Achievement Quiz Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About Student Achievement?
Quiz Yourself: How is your district doing with student achievement?
Student Achievement Chicago Is Spending Millions to Get Students Back on Track After COVID-19
Targeting more than 100,000 students, Chicago Public Schools has launched an initiative aimed at reengaging at-risk students.
Karen Ann Cullotta, Chicago Tribune
4 min read
Pre-kindergarten teacher Sarah McCarthy works with a student at Dawes Elementary in Chicago on Jan. 11, 2021. Chicago Public Schools has launched an initiative aimed at reengaging at-risk students and ensuring they’re back in the classroom once the city’s public schools fully reopen in the fall.
Pre-kindergarten teacher Sarah McCarthy works with a student at Dawes Elementary in Chicago on Jan. 11, 2021. Chicago Public Schools has launched an initiative aimed at reengaging at-risk students and ensuring they’re back in the classroom once the city’s public schools fully reopen in the fall.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Whitepaper
Download Your 2021 Back-to-School Toolkit
Download our free toolkit for action steps and aligned resources, worksheets, and other tools to help you develop instruction and interve...
Content provided by Illuminate Education
Student Achievement Quiz Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Education/Workforce Readiness?
Quiz Yourself: How are students doing with education and workforce readiness?