Student Achievement

Why Districts’ Initial Learning Recovery Efforts Missed the Mark

By Caitlynn Peetz — January 10, 2023 4 min read
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Districts’ struggles to implement widescale, academically intensive interventions stunted their ability to boost students’ academic performance, regardless of the recovery approach they used, according to new research.

In a working paper, researchers at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research found that across the 12 mid- to large-sized school districts they studied, math and reading test scores saw gains that mirrored the pace of pre-pandemic years. But the districts weren’t able to exceed that pace—despite funneling millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 recovery money into intervention strategies like tutoring, small group instruction, extended school days or years, and expanded summer school opportunities.

The efforts often fell short of expectations because district leaders struggled to implement the programs at the intended scale and intensity, the research said. Districts faced difficulties in getting and keeping students engaged, staffing, scheduling, and getting buy-in from parents and community groups.

“Given the many extraordinary challenges districts continued to face during the 2021-22 school year, such as continued COVID surges and increased mental health needs of students and staff, ‘typical’ academic growth is an accomplishment,” the working paper says. “But it is not enough.”

Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank and research group now housed at Arizona State University, said her organization has done similar research with the same results.

“It all adds up to a slow-moving train wreck,” Lake said. “We have to do something, because time’s running out for the kids in the system. There’s another group of students about to graduate this June, and holding fast to what we know is not working for them.”

The working paper focused on 12 districts in 10 states that together enroll more than 600,000 students. They have higher than average proportions of students of color and high-poverty schools.

Researchers analyzed data from reading and math scores on the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress assessments for students in 3rd through 8th grades.

There was much variability in the recovery programs offered, both between districts and within individual districts—like whether the programswere virtual or in-person, who staffed them, how often they were offered, and which students they targeted.

But despite the variety of approaches, in nearly every case, the number of students who participated in the intervention was lower than planned.

Generally, the districts’ tutoring programs intended to serve between 22 percent and 35 percent of students in targeted schools and grades. However, data indicated the programs reached about 20 percent to 30 percent of the intended students, equal to about 5 percent to 10 percent of all students.

Districts that had planned to offer between 30 and 60 hours of math tutoring per year actually provided between 12 and 14 hours of the tutoring, the working paper says.

Better communication could be a key to more success

It will take a focused effort to increase the efficacy of interventions in the coming years, according to the researchers.

Most importantly, districts need to beef up communication with their communities about what is available and why it’s needed.

It’s common knowledge now that students generally have fallen behind academically. But parents tend to think their own children are doing OK academically and that the problem lies elsewhere, the paper says. Districts should be clear and direct when communicating how students are doing, whether they are on track for recovery, and what else can be done if they aren’t catching up fast enough.

That communication could bolster buy-in to the programs both from students and the community organizations that could assist with staffing or other logistical challenges, the research concluded.

State and civic organization leaders could help provide “political cover” for more controversial interventions, like extended learning time, and can help encourage community support.

“Complete academic recovery—and, ideally, academic acceleration—is as urgent as it is challenging,” the working paper says. “Especially in the places hit hardest by the pandemic, academic recovery from COVID-19 is likely to require an all-hands-on-deck response for the next several years.”

Lake added that support from state and federal agencies, who have been mostly cut out of the pandemic recovery funding in favor of districts, could help districts feel supported enough to try new approaches to staffing and caring for students’ pressing academic and mental health or behavioral needs.

For example, education departments taking initiative to create statewide tutoring programs would take the pressure off local districts to staff them.

“I do think that district leaders that we’ve spoken to are very, very eager to find solutions, but that outside support is important,” Lake said. “We have to act like it’s a national crisis and ask everybody to come to the table and help with this problem.”

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