October 16, 2020
Updated April 9, 2021
As vaccine distribution continues to progress in the United States, school districts have begun to consider and implement reopening plans. However, districts must also consider how to address the next challenge for educators, which is how to best address significant learning loss stemming from school closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Significant learning loss was forecasted as schools began to transition to online learning and the pandemic amplified equity gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines. Now, districts should continue to address the learning loss experienced by many students.
For decades, achievement gaps in math have been persistent and slow to close. This gap, coupled with research on seasonal learning losses, provides insight into the projected impact of extended school closures on student achievement. Work in seasonal learning suggests that “summer slides” have led to a decline of at least one month of learning as students disengage with their academics. Additionally, this research suggests that the impact of learning loss is greater for students of color and those in low-income households.
Various analyses’ have confirmed what has long been suspected – the coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread learning loss, particularly along racial and socioeconomic lines. Assessment data from fall 2020 term finds that, on average, students lost the equivalent of three months of learning in mathematics. Further data finds that significant learning loss – both in reading and mathematics – disproportionately impacts earlier grades. It is also important to highlight that this data showcases a severe inequity within certain student groups, as low-income students and English language learners are falling behind at a greater rate. Educators in schools in areas with higher poverty found virtual classes to be ineffective and reported greater learning loss amongst students. A study comparing achievement levels found that learning losses in math were generally about a month greater than those in reading, with substantial math achievement losses in younger students.
Experts believe mathematics achievement may be more sensitive to pandemic-related schooling disruptions for a variety of reasons. Some believe it can be more challenging for teachers to engage in effective math instruction via remote platforms coupled with the fact that many parents might be less well-equipped or anxious about providing aid to their children with math, in a time when parent support can be deemed more crucial as students learn from home. Further, a national survey from the Understanding Coronavirus in America study found that parents of K-12 students are significantly more concerned about their child’s math achievement suffering due to virtual or hybrid classes than reading.
As students transition back to in-person learning after a year full of unexpected circumstances, districts should aim to prioritize addressing the millions of students experiencing heavy learning loss and academic progress.
In addition to the funding of important structural educational supports that benefit all students, including improving access to broadband and devices, addressing food insecurity, and prioritizing social-emotional learning for students, there are a number of mathematics-specific policy options that policymakers should be considering to address this large learning loss.
Prioritize Mathematics in Efforts to Make up for Lost Instructional Time | Additional opportunities to engage in rigorous, aligned math instruction will be an important tool in overcoming pandemic-related learning losses. Schools and districts should consider increasing available instructional time dedicated to math by extending schedules, investing in summer enrichment programs, and reducing class sizes to provide individualized supports for students who are most affected.
Promote Best Practices in Math Instruction | School and district leaders can implement practices that provide math teachers with the tools to ensure high-quality, rigorous instruction. This can include creating cross-grade professional learning communities to design and implement tasks that incorporate relevant previous grade-level material with on-grade level elements and providing additional professional development opportunities around effectively translating existing mathematics practices from the classroom into an online environment.
Retain Highly Qualified and Effective Math Teachers | COVID-19 has created a number of human capital challenges for schools, especially as teachers are considering their own health and well-being, as well as that of their loved ones when determining whether or not to remain in the profession. Given that the teacher is the most important factor in a student’s academic achievement, it is vital that schools and districts consider the impact of reopening policies on teacher attrition and implement policies that retain highly credentialed teachers, especially in the core subjects. This can include being mindful of how schools are increasing demands on teachers while reducing their capacity and including teachers in planning for hybrid or in-person reopening.
Consider Personalized Learning Models | With learning interruptions unevenly distributed across student populations, many schools have turned to more flexible, personalized learning models to better utilize instructional time and student strengths. Doing so provides teachers with additional opportunities for intensive interventions for students that are struggling with concepts or those that were most heavily impacted by learning disruptions. This will require that teachers have the latitude to be nimble in their curricular decisions and may necessitate investments in professional development so that they are equipped to adopt personalized learning models.
Leverage Technology but Maintain Teacher Support | While technology provides an important tool to measure the diagnoses of each student’s learning and pinpoint pre-grade skill gaps, teachers are at the center of math learning. Districts and educators should use technology in the form of tailored acceleration while integrating teacher-led instruction and individualized learning strategies to support diverse student skills and needs.
Engage Parents and Families | To address significant learning loss in mathematics, educators should consider building and maintaining relationships with family members of students struggling from significant learning loss. Educators may suggest math-related games to encourage families to integrate math conversations at home. Studies find that children who regularly used a mathematics application at home showed more progress than students who did not.