Minding the Gap: Gaining Insight on Learning Loss

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“The term learning loss refers to any specific or general loss of knowledge and skills or to reversals in academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education.” — The Glossary of Education Reform

Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on educational systems across the United States and around the globe. The pandemic has lasted far longer than many predicted and left practically no student unaffected. While we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, the impacts of the disruption to students’ educational and personal lives are only starting to become apparent. One thing is certain; students have lost learning opportunities, and the educational phrase “learning loss” is gaining new importance.
Early evidence indicates that the pandemic has damaged learning for all students, but especially in Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities. Assessment data from Curriculum Associates iReady adaptive learning program led McKinsey & Company to make the following conclusions:
  1. On average, students learned 67% of the math and 87% of the reading that they learn in a typical school year (this is the equivalent to three months of math and 1.5 months of reading). 
  2. Students of color were more impacted, achieving only 59% of the expected math and 77% of the reading. 
Data from other sources including Illuminate Education has corroborated McKinsey & Company’s findings. 
But what does this mean for schools and for students? 
In the short term, schools need to focus on reopening as quickly and safely as possible. At the same time, they need to improve the quality of their remote learning environments. The good news is that student data shows that the worst case scenario predictions have already been averted due to schools making substantial improvements. The vast majority of schools are finishing out the school year with hybrid or full in person learning environments. Also, educators have shown tremendous growth in their facilitation of productive remote environments
In the long term, schools need to implement evidence-based programming to accelerate learning for all students.  
Already, school systems around the country are experimenting with additional programming to not only accelerate learning but to also ensure the social-emotional well-being of students. This programming includes both extended day and extended year programming to increase instructional time for students with school staff. In other cases, schools are testing out high-intensity tutoring programs with low student-to-teacher ratios. In addition, many districts are connecting with organizations in the community to offer STEM and other enrichment opportunities.
The U.S. government has also responded to the situation in a big way as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) act. The Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief (ESSER) portion of the legislation injected K-12 institutions with over 122 billion dollars. Key facts about the funds include:
  • Over 90% of the funds must flow through State Education Agencies (SEAs) to Local Education Agencies (LEAs)
  • LEAs must spend at least 20% of the funds “to address learning loss”
  • LEAs have a great deal of flexibility in how they spend their funds
  • Unused funds must be returned on September 30, 2023
Right now, as the details of the legislation start to become more clear, schools are beginning to make the difficult decisions about the most impactful ways to use this money. One thing is for certain though; schools have a tremendous opportunity to use the money to not only help students complete their unfinished learning, but also to reimagine and reinvent what learning looks like for their students. 
Visit the Education Stabilization Fund to learn more about how funds are being allocated to schools in your region. 
Note: It is important to keep in mind that learning loss is a nuanced topic. Not all students experience the same struggles and many actually thrive in well-designed remote learning environments. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic posed a variety of serious challenges for the youth of today, many of which—social isolation, the loss of family members, homelessness, and shortage of food—are far more important than falling behind in reading or math. Students and teachers offered their perspective on learning loss in an EdWeek series