It is no secret that learning growth among students throughout the spring was uneven. It is true that some students thrived and were able to stay on pace and may even have made progress beyond what the standard curriculum envisioned. Other students struggled, but with the support of caring, engaged staff and supportive families, were able to keep pace and will enter school this fall not far from where their learning might have been without the three-month interruption. Still other students were less fortunate. While they were able to make some progress, their circumstances made keeping up with the pace of learning beyond their reach. Unfortunately, there were also students who seemed to disappear when school closed and there is little reason to believe that they made much progress at all.
Now, as we develop plans for opening the new school year we are faced with a crucial decision. How should teachers address such variations in learning readiness among the students who will enter their classes? To be fair, students have always entered school in the fall at different places on the learning continuum. Some students may have been on track but lost much of what they learned over the summer. Other students were behind in the spring and will return at least as far behind. Still other students experienced a summer filled with learning activities and come even more ready to learn than when they left in the spring. Researchers estimate that the average American graded classroom, prior to the pandemic, included students whose readiness to learn or skill levels spanned 2.5 grade levels. The difference we face is in the amount of variation, not in the variation itself.
Teachers have approached this challenge in a variety of ways. Some have spent the first few weeks reviewing what was learned in the previous year to “catch everyone up.” Even though many students did not need catching up, but were asked to sit, listen, and cooperate anyway. Meanwhile, students who were far behind often were not given adequate time and support to make the progress necessary to be on track. Consequently, the 2.5 year grade level span remained in place.
This discussion leads us back to the question of how learning and teaching should be positioned as school opens. Some people have recommended that teachers simply start with the established grade level curriculum. Yet, this approach almost guarantees that the students most in need of catching up will not. In fact, the learning gap they face may become permanent. At the same time, spending weeks on remediation risks boredom for students who are ready to move on and remediation has a poor track record of effectiveness even under the best of conditions.
So, what are some options we might consider for opening the school year in a manner that meets the needs of students where they are and sets up everyone’s learning for success? Here are five ideas for you to examine:
- Position for transition: Consider keeping students with the same teachers and in the groups they were in last year. Relationships between these teachers and students already exist for the most part. Teachers will be able to diagnose and support student progress without unnecessary loss of time. Also, utilize one or more of the instructional support strategies presented below.
- Focus on learning: Encourage teachers to focus on learning for the first part of the year, not coverage of the curriculum. The more success teachers have in developing learning skills and habits with students, the better students will perform when the established curriculum becomes a more consistent part of their learning experience. In fact, this investment may lead to a faster pace of learning throughout the year that will reduce the pacing gap about which educators have so much concern.
- Informal assessment: Encourage teachers to develop simulations and learning adventures in which students will enjoy engaging, but that reveal what skills students have and need to develop. This type of adventure or activity-based assessment experience can be a great way to understand what learning support students need without defaulting to formal assessments and rigid diagnostic activities.
- Student-to-student support: Yet this summer consider offering small grants to highly effective, learner-focused teachers to recruit and work with groups of strong, confident, engaging students to develop short videos to teach other students key skills and concepts. Students often learn easily from other students without the stigma of remediation. YouTube and other media sites already feature young people effectively teaching a variety of skills and strategies. Use this approach as a model. Keep the videos short and be sure to obtain appropriate parent permissions. Make these videos available online or within an in-house repository for students to use anytime to support their learning.
- Micro-lessons: Encourage teachers to make short, ten- to fifteen-minute videos teaching micro-lessons on topics and skills they anticipate students will struggle to master. Similar to the student videos, these resources can be part of a library students can access with or without teacher support. As school opens and the needs of students become better defined, teachers might present live micro-lessons to a target group of students who are ready to learn a specific skill or concept. These lessons, too, can be videoed and shared with other students as they are ready to learn what is taught.