6 Research-Backed Ways to Close the COVID Learning Gap

There’s much to consider as education leaders plan now for the 2021-22 school year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently revised its social distancing guidelines for schools from six to three feet. Vaccine trials for children and youth are underway now. These are just a few examples on a long list of social, academic, public health, and financial variables impacting instruction in the next school year. Through it all, educators have demonstrated their dedication to students and working within a continuous improvement framework to provide a path forward.

Students are now attending school in a variety of in-person, hybrid, and remote formats. Drawing on the evidence from the past year, educators have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

Strategies to Address Interrupted Learning

These six strategies for administrators will support efforts to improve student outcomes—academically and socially—and help address the issue of interrupted schooling.

1. Prioritize Social-Emotional Learning and Mental Health

The pandemic has been an event that everyone, everywhere, experienced. For many, it was a time of loss and tragedy. All that’s happened in the past year will influence today’s youth throughout their lives.

Educators had already expressed an elevated sense of urgency about social-emotional learning (SEL) issues. For the last two years, HMH’s Educator Confidence Report—published in collaboration with YouGov—has identified SEL as the top concern among educators. Recent events have only heightened this concern, raising concerns about the mental health of children and adolescents.

Most districts now have robust plans in place but feel constrained by not having the counseling and other resources needed to support students and families. Research makes clear that students perform better academically when their social-emotional needs are met, and this happens when we integrate SEL into all aspects of schooling—culturally responsive teaching, for instance, is particularly important as we strive for social justice. SEL and mental health must be a priority.

This is not just critical to student success and happiness but also to the well-being of families and adults in the education system. In a recently updated survey by HMH and Kelton International, a top concern among educators is the use of time, and juggling new initiatives in a new environment has been challenging. Student behavior and difficult conversations were replaced on the list by issues such as isolation and loneliness. Teachers also reported showing themselves and their colleagues more patience and empathy.

2. Focus on Equity

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, when writing about the urgency of racial justice, identifies education as the “essential place to focus [our] work.” Schools have responded by bolstering their culturally responsive teaching and ensuring that children are not only physically safe but also socially safe. This means schools are places where racism isn’t tolerated and where youth experience a sense of belongingness. This means children and youth feel seen, respected, and valued.

Equity is most often defined as each student getting what they need to succeed in school and life. For educators, equity is the lens for making all decisions about professional development and instructional resources (including assessments) and setting up the physical environment for both in-person and remote instruction. The latter is an area where disparities have been well-documented and a major focus during COVID.

Our commitment to equity is demonstrated by using language to better focus on student strengths as well as what they need. This asset-based approach is also more semantically precise. During these perilous times, our renewed commitment to equity is a cause for optimism. Working together, we will improve schooling so that it’s fairer and safer.

3. Make Personalization Possible

One major change coming out of the pandemic—and a positive one, at that—is that most schools across the nation have attained a one-to-one student-to-device ratio. We shouldn’t overlook the fact that there are still districts where students are underserved when it comes to devices or connectivity. But we’re closer to being able to personalize education for all students more than ever before.

Personalized or tailored learning is an approach that adapts learning experiences to a student’s strengths and areas of improvement. A student’s interests are also taken into consideration. This leads to the delivery of learning experiences that provide tailored content, pacing, and preferences.

Learning technology can help you pursue a high degree of personalization. Easy-to-administer formative assessments help teachers understand where a student is academically. A teacher gets the information they need to group students for both direct instruction and tutoring. Teachers can then maximize the effectiveness of individual practice, and digital tools can provide support. This approach will address interrupted schooling for students who now need accelerated intervention as well as students who are ready to take on more advanced work.

I intentionally mentioned how personalized learning informs grouping because sometimes the term evokes a mental model of all students working on their own. But there are ways to personalize learning with students in small groups and even with the whole class.

4. Leverage Digital Tools

Technology can enable teachers to do what they do best, starting with building trusting relationships with their students. An impediment to this—as reported in the HMH/Kelton study—is time. Technology can help you get more done.

2018

2021

2018

Time was a daily struggle.

2021

Time saved on grading and organizing.

2018

Grading, lesson planning, and talking to parents took time.

2021

Time was expended on setting up for virtual learning.

2018

Teachers were positive about the potential of technology to save time.

2021

Once digital environment is established, optimism remains about saving time.

What would teachers do if they had more time? They would offer more support to the students who need it most. When the potential of educational technology is fully realized, teachers will have more time to provide targeted instruction, elaborate when needed, and conduct collaborative conversations. They would also focus more on academic and equity issues, including how learning disruptions are handled, and lessen the potential for burnout while maximizing their time with students.

Overall, tools can support teachers in four main areas, as identified in the HMH/Kelton study:

  1. Workflow
  2. Social Interaction
  3. Data Usage
  4. Instruction

5. Deepen the Family Connection

It’s widely agreed upon that the experiences of the past year have permanently altered educators' relationships with families. Generally, families came to school for special events like Back-to-School Night, sports, arts showcases, and parent-teacher conferences. Even before COVID, there were disparities when it came to which parents or caregivers could attend due to work, childcare, and other commitments. At the beginning of the pandemic, school took place in their homes every day, and many students continue to participate in schooling, at least some of the time, away from school.

Family members are more aware of what their children are doing, including when it comes to learning. New protocols are being established for proctoring tests remotely and involving families in learning activities. There will continue to be interruptions in learning beyond the pandemic—and it’s already being proclaimed that there will be no more snow days. No longer do parents or caregivers have to wait for twice-a-year conferences to check on progress. We’re at a time when deepening your relationships with families is key.

"Drawing on the evidence from the past year, educators have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t."

I spoke with one teacher about her Back-to-School Night last year versus this fall. It was a virtual event in 2020, and for those families who couldn’t attend live, there was a recording they could view when they had the time. She’s looking forward to having families back in her classroom but will record the event for those who can’t make it. This is one way she is applying what she has learned in the pandemic about working with families, which will benefit all students.

6. Lead by Mentoring

The world of work has changed for everyone. Our heroic frontline workers keep us all safe. Educators have demonstrated resilience and flexibility. From kitchens to classrooms, we’re all working in new ways, and we have different expectations for where we work and how we work.

For educators, empathy seems to be a starting place for all interactions. Right now, teachers are less concerned about performance on tests and more concerned about the emotional well-being of their students and the communities they serve. Leaders and experienced teachers, like the rest of the world, are seeing the results of more automation. This gives teachers space to focus on more challenging tasks and personal relationships.

Those who research the future of work predict that leadership skills will be expressed more through mentoring than managing—that is, focusing more on development and less on performance or completion of tasks. Research shows collaborative learning produces positive student outcomes, and positive results are achieved when everyone in the system works together.

After one year of school interruptions, there continues to be a long list of unknowns against a backdrop of a worldwide pandemic. However, educators have demonstrated the will and skill to keep what’s working and create new ways of learning, doing, and being for our children and youth.

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Learning didn’t stop during the pandemic. It just took new forms. This article is part of a series of resources focused on COVID learning recovery and designed to help you plan now for summer school and next year.

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