New federal data provide a glimpse into what strategies schools have used to support learning recovery, and which ones school leaders think are most effective.
The results show that while some research-tested models—such as intensive tutoring—have become popular, other strategies touted by prominent education groups haven’t gained as much traction. And schools report that the learning recovery methods they have been using have had mixed effects. That may partly be because both student and staff quarantines and absences continued to disrupt time in classrooms this past year, and schools reported high levels of teacher burnout.
The data are the latest results from the National Center for Education Statistics’ School Pulse Panel, a monthly survey on the effects of the pandemic on K-12 schools. Responses were collected in June from a nationally representative sample of public schools, with 859 respondents.
“It feels like there’s a bit of a story here that schools are working to catch students up, but a lot of that’s happening on the margins, and there’s still a lot of opportunity lost during the actual school day. And that makes sense when you … look at those data about student quarantines and absences,” said Bree Dusseault, principal and managing director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which was not involved with the study.
About three-quarters of schools said that student quarantines or chronic absences disrupted learning during the 2021-22 school year. (For more on the extent of absenteeism, see Education Week’s coverage of last month’s School Pulse Panel.)
And teacher vacancies portend a bumpy beginning to the next school year. As of June, public schools anticipated having 3.4 teacher vacancies, on average, for the 2022-23 school year.
These data suggest that even as schools have been open for in-person learning for a year or more, and as more districts are removing COVID precautions like masking, the ripple effects of the pandemic still have a real-time effect on student learning, Dusseault said.
“If [principals are] spending every day trying to get substitutes in the building and make new policies because new challenges are arising, they’re unlikely to be able to create the system that prevents learning loss from happening in the first place,” she said.
Tutoring and remedial instruction among most popular approaches
Even so, these data show that schools are trying to enact academic recovery plans.
Remedial instruction—in which teachers go back to prior grades’ content to teach skills or concepts that students have missed—and sustained tutoring stood out as some of the most popular strategies.
High-dosage tutoring—one-on-one or small group instruction offered three or more times a week—is one of the most research-tested strategies for raising student achievement. The evidence base shows some of the highest effect sizes in education.
Consequently, high-dosage tutoring has become an oft-promoted solution to pandemic-related learning disruptions, with many states launching tutoring initiatives and philanthropic organizations funding tutoring projects. Last month, the Biden administration also announced an initiative to bring 250,000 tutors and mentors to U.S. schools.
Given these policy developments and advocacy, it’s not surprising to see that many schools say they’re using the strategy, said Bailey Cato Czupryk, vice president for practices, diagnostics, and impact at TNTP, which consults with districts on teacher training, instructional strategy, and other education issues.
But it’s less clear how well these tutoring programs are being implemented, said Cato Czupryk, who was not involved with the NCES study.
Among academic interventions that schools reported using, they reported high-dosage tutoring moved the needle the most: 43 percent said that the strategy was either “extremely” or “very” effective. Still, that means that more than half of schools using tutoring found it only “moderately” or “slightly” effective, or not effective at all.
For tutoring to have the highest impact, it needs to be aligned with the rest of the instruction that students are getting throughout the day—and that’s not always the case in practice, Cato Czupryk said. For example, a 3rd grade student might be working on arrays in math class but a 1st grade skill related to fluency in tutoring.
“If I don’t see the connection between those two things, then they’re not going to be as effective as they could,” she said.
More popular among schools was remedial learning: going back to past years’ content. Seventy-two percent of schools said they used this strategy. This is in contrast to the 39 percent that used accelerated learning, a strategy that attempts to keep moving students forward while shoring up skills and content that they might have missed in previous grades at the same time.
Some states, districts, and many education advocacy organizations have promoted accelerated learning as a pandemic recovery strategy. The goal is to make sure that every student still has access to grade-level content, even if they need additional support.
Schools are working to catch students up, but a lot of that’s happening on the margins, and there’s still a lot of opportunity lost during the actual school day.
Advocates of this approach say that it’s a way to drive equity in instruction. When students are in remedial lessons, their peers move on, widening the gap between the two groups. Studies have also found that teachers are less likely to give students of color, and particularly Black students, rigorous, grade-level work. Acceleration, its proponents say, can address both of these issues.
But these NCES data show that remedial instruction is more popular—and that schools rate acceleration and remediation as similarly effective.
Part of the reason might have to do, again, with bandwidth, said Dusseault, of CRPE. Schools are likely more familiar with a remediation approach, so supporting teachers to make the switch to acceleration would require time and resources—both in short supply right now, she said. (About half of schools in the survey said they provided teachers with professional development focused on learning recovery.)
“If I were in a classroom, and had heard about [acceleration] but hadn’t gotten resources, it might just sound like another buzzword,” said Cato Czupryk.
Depending on district policies this fall, quarantines may continue to disrupt class time for students in the 2022-23 school year, Dusseault said.
That underscores the need for districts to maintain (or develop) systems that account for that disruption—even as, she said, “we keep hoping the next school year is the next ‘normal’ school year.”
The full survey results can be found here. A few other highlights include:
- About half of all schools—52 percent—said that student trauma and experiences related to the pandemic were a cause of learning disruptions this past school year. Seventy-two percent of schools said they had provided students with mental health and trauma support.
- Three quarters of schools offered school- or district-run learning and enrichment programs this summer, and 70 percent offered summer school.
- From March to June, the percentage of schools requiring students to wear masks dropped again, from 22 percent to 15 percent.