Why these 4 areas are key in tackling COVID learning loss

'The rush to get back to normal is my greatest concern because normal was not working for hundreds of thousands of kids'
By: | December 1, 2020
(GettyImages/Laura Olivas)

Though one analysis finds COVID learning loss wasn’t as severe as expected, the absence of a large number of underrepresented students from the data has policy implications for educators, elected officials and communities, one expert says.

Most importantly, this COVID-disrupted moment presents an invaluable opportunity to transform education to make it more equitable for all students, says Aaliyah Samuel, executive vice president of government affairs & partnerships at the nonprofit testing firm, NWEA.

“I believe, now more now than ever, that what we’re seeing with learning loss and unfinished learning is an opportunity to think differently about the fundamental structure of education, to think about how do we modernize the system,” Samuel says.

Data released by NWEA Tuesday found that students in grades 3 through 8 made steady gains in reading but lost ground in math during COVID-19 school closures. Shortly after schools closed in the spring, the company had predicted much deeper learning loss.

Rethinking the school day (or night)

The shift to hybrid and online learning should encourage district educators and policymakers to consider more flexible schedules and modes of instruction post-COVID. For instance, many classes have gotten larger as they moved online, making teachers responsible for more students, Samuel says.

But districts could find teachers eager to work remotely and outside the traditional school day to accommodate students seeking an alternative schedule. For instance, this could help students who are sharing a home computer with siblings and aren’t able to log on.

Better than expected: Click on the image to read more about NWEA's research into COVID learning loss. (GettyImages/Westend61)

Better than expected: Click on the image to read more about NWEA’s research into COVID learning loss. (GettyImages/Westend61)

Administrators could also assign the most effective teachers to small groups of students who need support in specific content areas, she says.


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Policymakers should also consider allow teachers to work in multiple counties so districts could share effective teachers in high-need subjects, such as math and STEM.

“The rush to get back to normal is my greatest concern because normal was not working for hundreds of thousands of kids,” she says. “Let’s build back better. Let’s rebuild this thing in a different way.”

Reaching out to the community

Samuel encourages more districts to adopt a community schools model in which administrators partner with community organizations to provide services and activities beyond the classroom.

This is particularly critical for the many districts facing budget constraints post-COVID.

Innovative assessments

In the coming years, it will also be important to track student growth, along with proficiency, as kids catch up from unfinished learning resulting from school closures, she says.

This will also require more innovative assessments that provide teachers with more real-time data about students progress so educators can offer quick interventions when gaps are identified, she says.


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“Who we assess and how we assess them tells us who we value,” Samuel says. 

Strategic policy decisions

To make the education system more equitable post-COVID, NWEA also recommends:

  • Continue federal and state funding to address long-term impacts of COVID: The safe return to classrooms and the additional educational and social-emotional interventions needed for recovery all require additional funds.
  • Transparency in data reporting to target resources to students most in need: Data on students’ opportunity to learn, academic achievement, and social and emotional wellbeing will provide important insights into helping students recover. Data should be broken out to show differences for students of color, English Learners, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families.
  • Equitable access to high-quality math instruction: NWEA math expert Ted Coe encourages educators to focus on packing, rather than unpacking, standards. This will allow educators to figure out how students are thinking about math rather than how well they do math procedures. Powerful student thinking will be much longer lasting and flexible even if results are less immediately evident.

“We need to be thinking about this as a game of chess, not checkers, because we have to be strategic with we every move we make right now,” Samuel says. “There will be unintended consequences—positive and negative three to five years down the line. This is not going to be a one- or two-year fix.”