COVID-19 and Learning Loss—Disparities Grow and Students Need Help

2020 Insights of Impact 

"Most students are falling behind, but students of color are faring worse." 

When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a historic shutdown of US schools in the spring, state and district leaders speculated that the disruption could last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. With a surge in new infections, the pandemic is now likely to keep many students out of the classroom until well into 2021.

Educators, parents, and students know firsthand the high cost of this prolonged period of remote learning, from rising rates of depression and anxiety to the loss of student learning. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an especially heavy toll on Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities. Along with robbing them of lives and livelihoods, school shutdowns could deny students from these communities the opportunity to get the education they need to build a brighter future.

In the spring, we examined how school shutdowns were likely to compound racial disparities in learning and achievement, analyzing the toll on learning, dropout rates, and the overall economy. We now share assessment data from this fall, which show that students, on average, started school about three months behind where we would expect them to be in mathematics. Students of color were about three to five months behind in learning; white students were about one to three months behind. The picture for reading is more positive, with students starting school just a month and a half behind historical averages.

Much has improved since the spring. States and school districts have made significant efforts to close the digital divide and improve remote learning, and the implementation of school-based health and safety precautions enabled some students to return to classrooms in the fall (although some of these gains are now at risk as COVID-19 cases spike across the country). However, Black and Hispanic students continue to be more likely to remain remote and are less likely to have access to the prerequisites of learning—devices, internet access, and live contact with teachers. Left unaddressed, these opportunity gaps will translate into wider achievement gaps. Looking forward, we consider several different scenarios to estimate the total potential learning loss to the end of this academic year in June 2021. While the worst-case scenarios from the spring may have been averted, the cumulative learning loss could be substantial, especially in mathematics—with students on average likely to lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year. Students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students. While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.

It doesn’t have to be this way. While we may not be able to control the virus without an effective vaccine, we are more prepared to deal with its consequences. The immediate priority is to prevent further learning loss through a combination of bringing students back to school where it is safe to do so and improving remote learning across the board. However, that is not enough. Much damage has already been done, and even the best-case scenarios have students half a grade-level behind in June. To catch up, many students will need step-up opportunities to accelerate their learning. Now is the time for school systems to prepare postpandemic strategies that help students to meet their full potential.


Dedicated Attention: High-Intensity Tutoring

A proven catalyst for accelerated learning is one-on-one support for students. That requires bringing more talent into the system to provide “high dosage” tutoring and coaching.24 These programs were pioneered by Match Education in Boston and scaled by Saga Education in Chicago to provide students who are behind grade level in mathematics with an individualized 50-minute class period every school day. 

Tutors work with two students at a time in each session and cover content that not only meets students where they are but also links back to what is being taught in the regular math classroom. These types of student–tutor ratios may seem unachievable, but costs are kept (relatively) low by using paraprofessionals (for example, recent college graduates) to provide the tutoring. Although certified classroom-teaching expertise is required for teaching a class of 25, trained college graduates can effectively tutor a group of two students. The results are impressive: participating students learned one to two additional school years of mathematics in a single year.

These high-dosage programs are much more effective than low-dosage volunteer tutoring provided weekly or on an ad hoc basis, which have not been shown to have any significant effect on academic progression. Broader research on tutoring finds that it has the greatest impact on reading abilities in the early years (especially in kindergarten and first grade) but more impact in math performance in later grades. Tutoring conducted during school hours is more effective than tutoring after school, and tutoring using teachers or paraprofessionals is more effective than that using volunteers or parents.

It’s unclear whether remote tutoring can have the same impact as in-person sessions, but several school systems are running experiments. For example, the Broward County Public Schools district is implementing and assessing several remote tutoring programs, including targeted high-intensity algebra tutoring for high schoolers through an external partnership with Saga Education, as well as “Ask BRIA” (Broward Remote Instructional Assistance)—a locally developed, broad-based interactive video homework helpline available to every K–12 student. The National Student Support Accelerator is working to scale quality tutoring nationwide through increased funding, clear quality standards, and communities of practice.

What this might look like at scale: Universities and school districts partner to leverage successful math-tutoring strategies, creating a national education-service program that gives college students credit to tutor K–12 students through a targeted curriculum.

Read the complete article in its entirety.

Original Article: December 8, 2020

COVID-19 and Learning Loss—Disparities Grow and Students Need Help 


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