Stein column: Ensuring all students are Ready to Learn
Everywhere I turn these days, educators and policymakers are talking about “lost learning.” Even the federal government has allocated millions of dollars to schools in emergency relief funds for the purpose of “recovering lost learning.”
Given how disruptive the pandemic has been over the past year, it’s no wonder that people are concerned our students have some catching up to do. But before we spend millions of dollars and further disrupt students’ lives, let’s make sure we are on the right track.
The rationale behind pandemic-related lost learning is that students had fewer learning opportunities because of distance learning, disruptions to their lives and families, and constant changes to the program this year. We have concern about how the pandemic affected student learning and are focusing our efforts on ensuring that all students are ready to learn at grade level when we start the 2021-22 school year. We will be doing so by monitoring student work and adjusting instruction based on actual learning data, accelerating learning rather than remediating, and focusing on key grade-level concepts and skills.
In many parts of the country, students have not been learning in person at all this school year, and there is broad consensus that distance learning is less effective. But in our part of the state, students have been learning in person for most of the year. And while school days have been shorter, netting less learning time, most schools have continued to prioritize key subjects such as literacy and math. And given the increased repertoire of distance learning tools that our teachers have been using to complement in-person instruction, students in our online programs are making great gains.
Unfortunately, at a time when we need better data on what students have learned this year, the state has decided not to assess all students in key subjects and grade levels. That’s why one of the key adjustments we will be making next fall is to take a more data-driven approach to monitoring student learning and adjusting as necessary.
By “data” I don’t mean standardized tests, but looking closely at student work samples for evidence of skills that students have mastered and gaps in their understanding. Teams of teachers will be reviewing student work on a weekly basis, collaborating around how to adjust their instruction, and helping students to overcome missed learning opportunities.
Another key commitment we are making is to accelerate students back to grade level rather than slowing down or backing up. Think about what you do when you’re running late, say, to the airport. You accelerate and avoid unnecessary detours to catch up. And yet, as intuitive as this sounds when making up travel time, schools often do the opposite: they back up and then move forward at a slower pace.
Holding kids back a grade level and then proceeding at a slower pace makes no more sense when you’re trying to catch kids up than it does when you’re trying to catch a plane. An overwhelming body of research says that putting students into slower, remedial groups or making them repeat a prior grade only causes them to fall further behind.
Therefore, we will also maintain a commitment to providing students with grade-level learning opportunities, focusing on key concepts and skills that are essential for understanding in each discipline, and only backfilling gaps as needed to move forward. By taking a targeted approach to what students really need to know and be able to do, we will better be able to help all students learn on grade level and to develop deeper knowledge that will endure.
In addition to these key instructional strategies — monitoring and adjusting based on actual learning data, accelerating rather than remediating, and focusing on key grade-level concepts and skills — we need to work especially hard to maintain a strong sense of belonging for all students and to attend to their social-emotional as well as academic needs. Our philosophic and programmatic commitment to having all students be members of a crew served us well in monitoring students and families during the pandemic, and it will be an important support structure moving forward.
So that all students can come to school every day ready to learn, we will be infusing some of those federal recovery funds into increasing social-emotional support, mental health services, and family resources as well as academic supports. We want to make sure that all students and families have the resources they need to meaningfully engage and succeed in school.
I also hear from teachers and staff that the notion of lost learning doesn’t honor the many gains our students and community have experienced over the past year. Our students, staff and families have shown enormous perseverance and resilience, developed deeper empathy, and expanded pathways of collaboration. Just as my parents’ generation, who experienced hardships during the Great Depression and World War II, emerged as the “greatest generation,” so, too, might today’s students look back on this as a transformative year that shaped their generation.
When we talk about what we might have missed over the past year, let’s also keep in mind the incredible lessons learned.
Rob Stein is Superintendent of Roaring Fork District Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
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