A new phrase as a result of the pandemic, “learning loss,” captures the concern that students’ learning has been compromised over the past year and a half. However, before the strategies for addressing the concern can be identified, it’s important to define and articulate what is meant by learning loss.
The observation is true that many students aren’t at the same place in their subject mastery as similar pre-pandemic students. For example, in North Carolina, where I serve as a Superintendent, a recent report revealed that just 45 percent of public school students could pass state standardized tests, down from 59 percent two years earlier. (Testing was waived for the 2019-2020 school year).
The question then for many is how do we help these students catch up? That question, however, assumes that the standard by which students were assessed two years earlier is the appropriate assessment tool for students today.
Here is the problem: Assessing student learning standards or instruction that they haven’t received is almost meaningless data.
One of the values of standardized testing is monitoring where students are in relationship with their peers — often referred to as “benchmarking.” For example, suppose a group of students within a school are testing 14 percent below their peers. In that case, staff would zero in and identify what areas needed to be addressed and would implement learning intervention strategies.
School leaders recognize that all students are unique learners who learn in different ways and at a differing pace. One of the great weaknesses of the traditional school model is that it was designed in an industrial age, and sadly today many schools still operate more like factories than individualized environments of learning, growth, and development.
However, in a pandemic, we’re not talking about a few students whose learning isn’t pacing with their peers. Today, most students in all schools, in all locations of the world, aren’t at the same place as similar students two years earlier. And the problem is that benchmarking today’s students to students of the past is invalid because today’s students haven’t received the same level and opportunity of instruction. It may be informative data, but it doesn’t necessarily help schools and teachers meet today’s students’ unique and current needs.
The greater and more important value of all testing should be to provide data to guide instruction to meet the individualized learning needs of each student. We’ve learned from the comparative data of student learning pre-and present pandemic that we need to recalibrate the tests. You can’t effectively and meaningfully assess learning that hasn’t taken place. All these reports of “learning loss” are simply confirming what we already know. During the peak of the pandemic, students didn’t receive as much instruction as before the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean students have lost something.
Moving forward, those who are keepers of standardized tests will need to recalibrate. Actually, these unprecedented times provide a tremendous opportunity for educators to reassess what students need to know to be well prepared for their future. For years we’ve known that the traditional American school system attempts to push far too much content at students. Studies have revealed that it would take up to 22 years to cover all of the K-12 core subject standards adequately. Other studies reveal that students retain only 3 to 7 percent of the content knowledge they were tested on in high school four years after graduation.
The top-performing school systems in the world, including Finland and Japan, all accomplish amazing results while focusing on far fewer learning standards — and also in much less time. Their school days are much shorter than in the U.S. However, reports have shown no consistent linkage between high levels of achievement and measurements like how many school hours per day, how many days in the school year, or the amount of homework required. What does make a difference is what teachers and students are doing with the time provided.
The critical work of school leaders is to ensure that we’re utilizing the time teachers have to assess learning needs, reflect on data to guide instruction, collaborate with their peers, ensure ongoing professional development to meet the needs of students, and prepare for instructional times that maximize the learning of current students. This may mean that, in order to better meet the needs of our students, we need fewer classroom hours so that there’s greater quality and personalization of the instructional hours.
As a former music teacher, I have great concerns about how some schools may address the learning loss in core subjects. One strategy under consideration is reducing the instruction time in non-core classes to provide more time for instruction in core subject areas. Perhaps well-intended, it will have negative results. We learned this lesson years ago when there was a nationwide reduction of non-core classes to respond to the No Child Left Behind initiative. The result? According to a Brookings report, children from disadvantaged backgrounds showed some modest gains in mathematics, but there was “no evidence that NCLB improved student achievement in reading,” which was one of the major targets of the initiative.
Reducing students’ time in non-core subjects as a way to provide more time in core subjects is misguided. It has been shown from history and research that more time doesn’t necessarily equate to closing learning gaps. Each child is unique, and when a child is highly motivated to participate in learning, the learning increases. For some students, the motivation for school participation is non-core subjects such as music, theater, technology, or athletics. To reduce or take those subjects away would reduce a student’s level of engagement and inhibit the possibility of making up for any learning loss.
To address learning loss, we must consider these known facts:
1. The number one indicator of successful schools is trusted school leadership.
2. The most trusted school leaders provide high levels of support and autonomy to their teachers.
3. When teachers are highly supported and empowered as professionals, it results in a higher level of performance in the classroom and commitment towards meeting the unique needs of their students.
4. When teachers invest in meeting the unique needs of their students, they modify the instruction to be authentic to the needs, aspirations, and interests of their students.
5. When students learn in an environment of a trusted relationship with their teacher, and where the learning is differentiated to students’ needs, interests, and aspirations, it results in greater student engagement, internal motivation, and ownership of their learning.
Trust and support are the secrets to higher levels of achievement, regardless of the learning gaps. These two necessary components need to be part of all strategies for student learning as we move forward.
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