Special Report
Student Achievement Explainer

Overcoming COVID-19 Learning Loss

August 19, 2020 4 min read
6 land hero
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

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
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
Teaching Live Online Discussion Seat at the Table: How Can We Help Students Feel Connected to School?
Get strategies for your struggles with student engagement. Bring questions for our expert panel. Help students recover the joy of 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
Science Webinar
Real-World Problem Solving: How Invention Education Drives Student Learning
Hear from student inventors and K-12 teachers about how invention education enhances learning, opens minds, and preps students for the future.
Content provided by The Lemelson Foundation

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 From Our Research Center Academics or Fun? Principals, After-School Providers Differ on Priorities
Principals are twice as likely as after-school program providers to say academics should be the top priority.
4 min read
Kyengye Asende (left) and Donat Jean, both sixth-grade students at John P. Fishwick Middle School, celebrate completing a worksheet during an after school program for English learners at the middle school on February 14, 2022, in Roanoke, Va.
Kyengye Asende, left, and Donat Jean, both 6th grade students at John P. Fishwick Middle School in Roanoke, Va., celebrate completing a worksheet during an after-school program in February for English language learners.
Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP
Student Achievement Opinion The Pandemic’s Toll on Academic Growth Wasn’t Uniform. Recovery Efforts Can’t Be Either
Returning to "normal" will not be enough next school year, write three researchers.
Dan Goldhaber, Andrew Mceachin & Emily Morton
5 min read
Conceptual illustration: Some students were more impacted by pandemic
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and iStock/Getty
Student Achievement With So Many Kids Struggling in School, Experts Call for Revamping 'Early Warning Systems'
A new collaborative says the indicators developed to flag students at risk of not graduating need an update for post-pandemic schools.
4 min read
Woman sitting at a desk in front of a monitor showing a database of different types of charts.
DigitalVision/Vectors/Getty
Student Achievement What the Research Says Pace of Grade Inflation Picked Up During the Pandemic, Study Says
But the ACT found that the higher grades were not reflected in college-admission test scores.
4 min read
A+ in chalk on a traditional blackboard.
E+/Getty