Addressing unfinished learning has become a major focus of instructional planning and resource allocation in school systems across the country. Although the scale of the pandemic-related challenge may be novel, unfinished learning is nothing new. Addressing skill gaps, incomplete learning, or learning loss after a hiatus in instruction, such as summer break, is a long-standing challenge—and one with which educators have traditionally struggled.
School systems across the country are pursuing a variety of strategies for academic recovery. Some of these approaches appear promising, with ample emphasis on acceleration over remediation, building a district’s instructional capacity, and providing social and emotional learning opportunities to meet the full range of students’ needs. At the Council of the Great City Schools, we’ve also observed districts that in their rush to “fix the problem” of unfinished learning are choosing approaches that may very well contribute to disparities in academic achievement and opportunity.
What should instructional leaders in schools and districts do to effectively address unfinished learning and meet both the short- and long-term needs of students? We recommend the following strategies.
1. Clearly define the problem to implement the right solutions.
When unfinished learning is defined as a learning deficiency, educators are quick to respond with remediation or pullout interventions that isolate students and keep them from rigorous, engaging, grade-level content. Instructional leaders can help classroom teachers define the problem differently. When we take a moment to identify the root causes of our current tidal wave of unfinished learning, we see that students are struggling with gaps in skills and knowledge because of the pandemic.
The priority should thus be on equipping teachers with the skills and resources to address this lack of instruction. An overreliance on low-quality tutoring or other instructional tactics in which expectations for students are low runs the risk of exacerbating the problem rather than addressing it.
2. Stick to grade-level content and instructional rigor and ensure the inclusion of every learner.
How should educators address unfinished learning if not through reteaching and remediation? Instructional leaders should put the focus on rigorous content with teachers addressing learning gaps as needed within the context of grade-level work.
Teachers can encourage “productive struggle” with grade-level material by, in part, allowing students sufficient time to make sense of texts, tasks, or problems before intervening. Some students need more intensified instruction to address skill deficits, but these additional layers of support should not come at the cost of core-content instruction.
The daily reengagement of prior knowledge in the context of grade-level assignments will add up over time. It will result in more functional learning than if teachers resort to watered-down instruction or try to reteach topics out of context or below grade level.
Instructional leaders should put the focus on rigorous content with teachers addressing learning gaps as needed within the context of grade-level work.
3. Focus on the depth of instruction, not on the pace.
Districts should avoid the temptation to rush to cover all gaps in learning from the pandemic. The pace required to cover all this content will mean speeding ahead of many students, leaving them feeling abandoned and discouraged. It will also feed students a steady diet of curricular junk food: shallow engagement with the content, low standards for understanding, and low cognitive demand.
As educators, we need to remain focused on the learning that should be happening today, providing just-in-time rather than just-in-case teaching. “Just-in-case” wastes time teaching content and skills from earlier grades in case students need it for grade-level work. “Just-in-time” concentrates on needs that actually occur during grade-level work. When teachers take the time to provide patient, in-depth instruction in new content, the signs of unfinished learning arise naturally, and teachers can address them.
4. Identify priority content and learning.
To help teachers find the time for in-depth instruction and just-in-time learning, curriculum leaders need to articulate what is most important to teach for each subject and grade. Prioritizing learning does not mean that students will be deprived of critical knowledge or a rich learning environment. Just because a topic is important doesn’t make every underlying or related skill or concept vital to a student’s ultimate understanding of that topic. Prioritization gives students the time they need to work through challenges and teachers the time they need to provide feedback.
5. Identify and address gaps in learning through instruction, avoiding the misuse of standardized testing.
Instructional leaders also need to ensure that assessment data are not misinterpreted or misused by teachers or administrators. While assessment companies tend to market their adaptive assessments as providing “diagnostic” information for every child, what the assessments are more often designed to do is measure growth over time so that trends among student demographic groups can be monitored.
Teachers and administrators can confuse standardized-test results with a student’s capacity to learn. Consequently, they place kids into high- or low-ability groups or relegate lower-performing students to easier work. That is not an appropriate use of assessment data, nor is it an effective strategy for addressing unfinished learning.
The success of Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court and a graduate of a public high school in Miami, shows that children from big-city districts can achieve at the highest levels. But for education to be both equitable and effective, schools must offer strong, grade-level instruction. Only that choice fully honors the potential of all our students.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2022 edition of Education Week as Tutoring Is Not the Best Path To Learning Recovery