• by Hector Bojorquez • IDRA Newsletter • October 2021 •
As students came back to school this fall, a recurring theme in conversations taking place among teachers is how much catching up students need to do. Standardized testing data shows a definite decline in students’ math and reading scores. Researchers across the country shared similar observations before the year began.
Anecdotally, we hear teacher stories about “learning losses,” like students saying: “I don’t remember how to multiply” and “Which nouns are capitalized?” Teachers tell of students feeling overwhelmed with the simplest of writing assignments and anxiety about previously mastered material. The situation is even direr when we examine how Black students, Latino students and emergent bilingual students fare.
This has left many of us asking deep questions about resiliency of our institutions and the fragility of our equity efforts. There will be a time for reflection as to how we got into this situation. And the answer won’t be COVID-19.
We will have to ask vital questions concerning equity and all its current challenges: funding, capacity building, teacher training, and the trend toward lowering expectations and providing even lower supports. We will have to ask difficult questions on the balkanization of districts that served the needs of shifting pockets of wealth created by gentrification. We will have to hold each other accountable about privatization practices that weaken community schools at little to no benefit for the majority of students (or to our democracy).
That time will come.
But at this moment, in fall 2021, we must focus on what we are doing now because there is no real-time data to help us gauge the success of current recovery and reconnection efforts. We have no frame of reference to guide us. No one can claim deep knowledge of best practices for schooling during a pandemic in today’s conditions. So we must examine what is happening now in our schools and classrooms. For this reason, this is exactly the right time to ask questions, like: Where are students educationally and emotionally? And what exactly are we doing in our efforts to mitigate learning challenges and missed instruction and content?
Our reflections should be guided by the ways we value our students and hold our communities as full partners. I recommend that educators look at the Learning Policy Institute’s (LPI) Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond (Darling-Hammond, Schachner & Edgerton, 2020). This document covers a range of issues observed during the height of the pandemic in 2020 and recommendations for post-COVID-19 realities. In it, there are policy and practice recommendations that align with IDRA research and practice guidance, such as in our Ensuring Education Equity During and After COVID-19 guide developed earlier.
We recommend that teachers, grade-level professional learning communities (PLCs) and academic deans reflect on the following topics found in the LPI document: student engagement, socio-emotional learning and non-cognitive factors, interventions and practices for so-called “learning loss,” and long-term skills planning. Each is vital to developing a successful reconnection plan. For the purposes of this article, I concentrate on the learning loss interventions portion. (Learning loss unfortunately has become the prevalent term. But it misdirects the problem onto students as if they forgot what they learned rather than describing the disruption to the instruction they could receive to meet benchmarks set for them pre-pandemic.)
Restarting and Reinventing School states: “While many districts and educators feel pressure to address learning loss through remedial instruction, research shows that grade retention and ‘down tracking’ actually have the opposite effect: Students who experience these deficit-oriented approaches are more likely to fall further behind their peers, as they are often prevented from engaging with rich curriculum opportunities and are subjected to stigma, which undermines their confidence, motivation and learning.” (Darling-Hammond, Schachner & Edgerton, 2020)
While the education effects of COVID-19 cannot be underestimated and while states and schools must be transparent in reporting missed benchmarks, we must not rush into remediation tactics that simply did not work before and will not magically work now. The problem is that it is too easy to fall into remediation traps.
IDRA’s guide urges that educators maintain high academic expectations for students that prepare them for college admission, enrollment and success (2020). I encourage you to take the time to reflect on this issue. In your professional learning communities and grade-level meetings, ask yourselves, “Are we using the least challenging and least effective methods of remediation? How many skills ‘worksheets’ have we assigned? Have we sent students home with thick packets of math practice sheets?”
If you are interested in participating in IDRA’s new community of practice on serving students following the COVID-19 disruption, fill out our form, and we will reach out to you.
Reflect on the following example: If we know that students are experiencing challenges in classes that assume mastery over a sequence of skills, such as Algebra II or pre-calculus, how is our response to this issue being framed? Are we asking students to attend tutoring that solely addresses mastery of a certain skill in isolation? For example, if a student is having trouble with polynomial multiplication, what kind of tutoring are we providing? Basic remediation would have a student simply (re)learn how to multiply a polynomial but without context. Accelerated instruction would have the student attend tutoring with a problem related to that task in the class they are taking. The tutoring in this case should be about understanding how to multiply polynomials to solve an Algebra II or pre-calculus problem.
Now that the school year is in full swing, reflect on what your campus is doing and see if there is an overabundance of worksheets and skill-and-drill packets. Use them sparingly and consistently ask for student feedback.
We recommend that campus leaders and teachers spend time in frank discussions. You can shift your efforts into more holistic approaches, such as project-based learning. Take the time to have transparent conversations with your students. Rather than asking, “Are these worksheets helping you?” ask the big questions: “What are your college plans? What do you think you need to learn to succeed in the career of your dreams?” If students are feeling hopeless about their learning, take their concerns and observations seriously. It may very well be that our well-intentioned efforts are backfiring.
IDRA’s eBook Ready – Reopen – Reconnect! Proven Strategies for Re-engaging Students Who Need You the Most and related webinar provides strategies proven successful in the IDRA Valued Youth Partnership program for socio-emotional connections and helping students feel a sense of success day after day.
Remember, you are not alone as you work through this. Teachers across the nation are experiencing the same challenges. If you are interested in participating in IDRA’s new community of practice on serving students following the COVID-19 disruption, fill out our form, and we will reach out to you.
Bojorquez, H. (2021). Ready – Reopen – Reconnect! Proven Strategies for Re-engaging Students Who Need You the Most. IDRA.
Darling-Hammond, L., Schachner, A., & Edgerton, A. (August 2020). Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond. Palo Alto, Calif.: Learning Policy Institute.
IDRA. (2020). Ensuring Education Equity During and After COVID-19 . San Antonio: IDRA.
Hector Bojorquez is IDRA’s Director of Operations and Educational Practice. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at email@example.com.
[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2021 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]