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As schools prepare to welcome back students--in person or online--identifying and addressing learning gaps caused by COVID-19 is essential

Putting interrupted learning back on track

As schools prepare to welcome back students--in person or online--addressing learning gaps caused by COVID-19 is essential

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked academic havoc. With schools closed around the country, more than 55 million students needed services from afar. And who knows what the fall will bring. Will schools open? Will online learning continue?

And then the bigger question: How far behind did students fall?

In a recent edWebinar, “Articulating a Plan for Addressing Interrupted Learning: Best Teacher Practices for Back-to-School 2020,” NWEA Strategic Content Design Coordinator Brooke Mabry highlighted instructional approaches that can fill COVID-driven academic gaps and put every student on a fast track to grade level. However it shakes out, the school day has been redefined. These few months of interrupted education call for a rethinking of how students learn.

The restart plan

Mabry said that learning loss, typically a summer phenomenon, has exploded during the COVID crisis. She urged schools to adopt a “restart plan” early to close substantial learning gaps.

Related content: Using summer to help teachers prepare for fall

The first critical step is to focus on accelerated learning to help students complete unfinished grade-level content. “Doubling down on current strategies to catch students up will widen the opportunity gap and result in lost academic ground,” emphasized Mabry, especially for vulnerable students. Instead, instructional leaders should meet students where they are to bring them up to speed.

Ensuring learners have access to technology is essential to bridge the digital divide. But, this comes with the awareness that remote learning can be uneven for students depending on their home environments, the complexity of their socio-emotional needs (that could impede learning readiness), and in some cases, transient lifestyles.

Other responsive plan factors that address unfinished learning include, as Mabry explained, effective pre-assessments, differentiation, accommodating special needs, creating learning experiences based on Universal Design for Learning to optimally engage students across the achievement spectrum, and surrounding students with learning outside of the classroom (in whatever form it takes).

Practical principles

Mabry encouraged a set of strategies that are, in many ways, what would be expected in a COVID-free climate. But, with academic gaps exacerbated, there is an urgency to amplify these approaches, which involve:

• Balancing grade-level content in areas where students are struggling and where they missed content, all the while incorporating social-emotional learning to accommodate challenges learners experienced during COVID.
• Scaffolding instruction that balances inputs to avoid tracking students in permanent ways and to adequately attend to learners at various academic levels.
• Practicing equitable learning approaches that work from learners’ strengths.
• Instituting dynamic grouping of students with a variety of activities and frequent formative assessment that ensures students get necessary instruction without leaving them behind.

Academic stakeholders, explained Mabry, must know before school starts the demands of grade-level content to put these strategies into action successfully. That requires studying standards, scopes and sequences, pacing guides, units, topics, and tasks to know what is to be studied when and how students will apply and demonstrate knowledge.

Doing this gives teachers insight into desired prerequisite skills and content knowledge students must have to tackle the work and move forward. The main question to ask: Did students miss learning they need for the coming year?

Assessing the right way

Balanced assessment is a must if teachers are to provide the supports students need. What teachers don’t want to do, said Mabry, is assume what students are or are not ready to learn.

Mabry recommended a variety of assessment strategies to monitor students’ academic progress throughout the school year. Among these methods would be a universal screener for all students, interim assessments, and/or district or school pre-assessments or curricular assessments. She also suggested that teachers work with grade-level professional learning communities to create assessments tailored to specific content and skills.

The ultimate goal of assessment, said Mabry, is to identify the size of the learning gaps to know what content to teach and how students will finish unfinished learning.

When school starts

With the pre-work done to see where students are at and what they need, the next step is to launch instructional strategies that move learners forward.
When the school year begins, Mabry recommended that teachers:
• Cultivate strong relationships with and among students (particularly in a remote environment) to address social-emotional learning needs alongside academics.
• Develop a robust culture of learning among students while reacclimating them to school, and then decide when to diagnose learning needs.
• Consider how to support students in rigorous content that allows them to complete unfinished learning in relevant subject areas in the prior grade.
• Ensure a strong alignment of standards and assessment with an eye on intended outcomes that emerge from learning targets and clearly established success criteria.
• Plan responsive lessons to scaffold up learners within grade-level content that is not remedial to move students toward academic independence.
• Determine ahead of time where students might struggle in a lesson and be prepared to help them through those challenges.
• Differentiate content for students and, in that context, consider the factors that can support the learning of the content—process, product, environment, and modalities—to provide students with what they need to have the most success possible.
And as the year progresses, teachers should regularly:
• Monitor students’ progress on grade-appropriate assignments.
• Respond to student needs and progress in real time through ongoing formative assessment.
• Use evidence of student learning (multiple data sources, emphasized Mabry) to adjust instructional planning that is central to formative practice, and that drives academic equity.

Mabry acknowledged the uncertainty ahead. Will teachers return to brick and mortar? Will there be a hybrid approach to teaching and learning? She suggested teachers look at each of these scenarios in isolation to lean on first what’s working and what they want to happen, and then apply the responsive strategies to the context in which they will be based.

Regardless of the pathway, the methods Mabry shared will help schools get a head start on planning and programming that turns an academic slide into a slowdown.

About the presenter

Brooke Mabry has more than 17 years of experience in education and joined NWEA in 2016 as a professional learning consultant. She now serves as a strategic content design coordinator of the Professional Learning Design team. Brooke began her career as a high school English teacher in Asheville, North Carolina, and holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in education from Western Carolina University. She also holds national board certification in adolescence and young adulthood English language arts. She’s deeply committed to fulfilling the NWEA mission, partnering to help all kids learn.

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This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by NWEA. The recording of the edWebinar can be viewed by anyone here.

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