How Districts are Curbing Learning Loss During the Pandemic

Learning loss
(Image credit: Future)

Learning loss has occurred during the pandemic, but there have also been educational gains and educators have implemented innovations that are here to stay. 

During this recent Tech & Learning virtual roundtable hosted by Dr. Kecia Ray, a panel of experts shared strategies for decreasing learning loss and what changes brought on by the pandemic are likely permanent. 

Watch the on demand version here

Key Takeaways

We’ve Learned Even with Learning Loss 

Morgan Joseph, director of impact and partner marketing at BetterLesson, said learning loss is occurring due to the pandemic and may have been exacerbated due to disparities that already existed. But the news is not all bleak. “Even though we are in a moment in which there is learning loss, a lot has still been gained through this experience,” Joseph said. “We have learned about what was and wasn't working about education before. In this new context, we're really seeing how students are able to learn outside of schools and what that could look like for the future. We're also seeing what it would look like to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. And we're seeing teachers engaging in new learning experiences, practices, and things that we were not asking for or expecting before.” 

BetterLesson is working with educators to design flexible synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences that not only limit pandemic learning loss but seek to improve education going forward. “This is really an opportunity to rethink how school is happening and make it better for students,” Joseph said. 

Focus Your Learning Objectives and Remember the Positives 

Dr. Peter Griffiths, associate superintendent at Wichita Falls ISD in Texas, said that his district is making an effort to limit student learning loss in specific areas.     
“We're really starting to focus on reading and reading gaps, especially at the lower grade levels,” Griffiths said. Despite the difficulties, there have been remarkable gains in the education community. 

“We probably didn't know what synchronous and asynchronous was a year ago, and now we just know that so well,” he said. The first time educators used Google Meet was awkward but they’ve become pros at that and other technologies they’ve come to rely on since the pandemic began. “Just look at how far we've come within a year, and how comfortable we are the way we're doing things now,” Griffiths said. “I think that's a part of the resilience of education.” 

Measuring More Than Test Scores 

Kristen Watkins, director of personalized learning for Dallas ISD, said her district is performing multiple assessments of student learning but also looking beyond these common assessments. “We are trying to tackle and think about uncommon measures that we can look at over the course of the year to measure growth in things outside of traditional academic data,” Watkins said. “Our big goal for our schools this year is to really design experiences that allow students to demonstrate mastery. So for us, that really means having every kid experience an exhibition or some type of  showcase where they're sharing their learning with their peers.”

This effort was inspired by the work that EL Education has done and the book Leaders of Their Own Learning. While these efforts began before the pandemic they have grown during it, Watkins said. 

Loren Campbell, data specialist at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, used his son as an example of how education is evolving in real time. “There are skills that he's learning, that he would have never learned if we weren't in a pandemic,” Campbell said. “He's problem-solving in ways that he never would have had to if we were not in a remote setting. He's working with his other seven-year-old classmates to learn how to split screen on an iPad so that he can watch the video and fill out his Google Form at the same time to submit it in Canvas. How many of us were doing that at seven years old?” 

In addition to measuring the academic side of student development, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are also using Panorama as a social-emotional learning screener.  

Looking Critically at the Data and Serving All Students  

Panelists talked about how data from a district might not be telling the whole story. “If you look at surface level data, it might seem that everything's okay,” Campbell said. “And there's not as much loss as we think. But as you continue to dig in, what we found is that, specifically in communities of color and low-income areas, we were losing students.” The pandemic has heightened the existing disparities and made educators think about how to continue ensuring that students in the most vulnerable populations are being served in the way in which they deserve. 

A concern of educators throughout the pandemic has been staying connected with special education students. The key is often flexibility and an individualized response. Watkins said her district is focused on working directly with the families and guardians to ensure that every individual child is getting exactly what he or she needs. “A lot of that's just being responsive in real time,” she said. “I think it's just really thinking, ‘If A, B, and C doesn't work, then what's what's going to be our next path?’ And then, how can we all--the whole village that's supporting that child--work together to pull that off?” 

Summer Training

Further honing online and hybrid learning will be a priority of educator training this summer.

“We found some teachers who are really, really good at this. And so they're sharing their ideas as we move forward,” Griffiths said. He anticipates remote learning being present in some capacity next fall, and wants to work with staff to build on what they've been doing and pilot ways to make it more engaging. 

Watkins said her district’s training is centered on experiential learning. They have been able to accomplish it with Zoom skiing sessions, and have virtual tours of national parks planned. The goal of the training is to let teachers learn in a similar manner to their students so they focused on self-directed learning. “For us, it was most important for our teachers experience what it feels like to be a learner in a self-directed manner,” she said. “They struggled, and it was hard. And we unpacked that with them and talked about how it’s what your kids are going to feel.” 

Change That is Here to Stay 

Two new high schools are being planned for Wichita Falls ISD and both will be built with online learning in mind. “We expect kids to go to first period, second period, and third period, then they might be in the commons doing a lesson from the community college on dual credit that's online,” Griffiths said. 

Griffiths believes most in-person meetings are a thing of the past. “My principals never want to see me face-to-face ever again,” he said, adding that his staff loves video meetings because it saves them a 15-minute drive and they can jump on and off each meeting and resume other work. 

In addition, educators are much more open to new modes of teaching than they were in the past. 

“Traditional education was that the teacher was the bearer of the information,” Campbell said. “Well, kids can learn anywhere, anytime. We've proven that, and we've proven that we can do it really well. We can continue to refine what we're doing, but access and opportunity is now uniquely available to everybody if we prepare it the right way. So I hope that we continue to provide students with a choice to engage with how they want to learn and how they best learn, and then give our families those options.” 

Lunch 'n Learn with Tech & Learning

We hope you can join us for these regular District Leadership Lunch ‘n Learn Roundtable series, hosted by Dr. Kecia Ray. In these events, districts from across the U.S. share their strategic plans, the challenges they are facing, and the creative solutions they are using to support students and teachers. Register for our upcoming events here

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Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.