Addressing Significant Learning Loss in Mathematics During Covid-19 and Beyond

The pandemic has amplified existing skill gaps, but new strategies and new tech could help
A student working on math homework.
Even before Covid-19, many students were performing below grade level in math due to unfinished learning from prior grades.

With vaccine distribution in progress and an end to the pandemic in sight, schools are beginning to turn their attention to the next enormous challenge: How best to address learning loss once students fully return.

Nowhere is the challenge more daunting than in middle-school math, where pre-pandemic research showed the average 5th-grade classroom included students performing at seven different grade levels.

Continuing to focus on grade-level instruction carries the real risk that students will only fall further behind, as key learning gaps from prior years prevent mastery of more advanced concepts (“The Grade-Level Expectations Trap,” features, Summer 2020). Without addressing these gaps, they’ll only accumulate over time and lead to more inequitable outcomes. But pulling the prior year’s textbooks from the supply closet carries another set of risks, and students who are at grade level will only be bored and disengaged.

Recognizing there are no good answers, many administrators will give teachers general guidelines to have high expectations aligned to students’ grade levels while filling the gaps along the way. This cake-and-eat-it-too rhetoric may assuage the near-term fears of parents and politicians who are less attuned to the nuances of grade-level scope and sequences, but many teachers know it is little more than magical thinking.

Now is the right time to shift how we think about teaching math. The confluence of several other forces—a widespread recognition of learning loss and its inequitable impact, the infusion of educational technology brought upon by school closures, the necessity of tending to students’ social and emotional development, and parents’ fears that their children won’t get back on track—all suggest we have the opportunity to try new ways to meet each and every student where they are and help them achieve proficiency.

Key to this “third way” is the use of tailored acceleration, or personalized approaches to learning that strategically integrate pre-, on-, and post-grade skills to get students to proficiency and beyond over the course of one or more academic years. During the last decade, our organization has worked with schools across the country to support the adoption of tailored acceleration through our Teach to One program.

Below are six key lessons we’ve learned along the way.

1. Key learning gaps must be addressed properly and comprehensively.

Even before Covid-19, many students were performing below grade level because of the accumulation of unfinished learning of key skills from prior grades. Ensuring all students can become college- and career-ready depends on understanding both the depth and variations in math learning loss. While, in other subjects, students may benefit from grappling with grade-level content even when they haven’t mastered earlier concepts, the cumulative nature of math makes predecessor knowledge essential for many key skills.

2. It’s not necessary to address every pre-grade gap.

The mathematical standards at each grade level build upon only a subset of skills from prior years. Not every 5th-grade skill, for example, is required to achieve proficiency in the 6th grade. Moreover, for some grade-level skills, cursory knowledge of relevant pre-grade gaps may be all that’s needed, while others require a more a comprehensive understanding.

Several tools exist to support teachers in making these choices, including our free diagnostic called Roadmaps that helps teachers understand the precise pre-grade and on-grade skills each student needs to achieve grade-level proficiency.

3. Strategically integrating essential pre-grade skills with on- and post-grade skills is a more effective way to enable students to achieve proficiency.

Over the last decade, some partner schools have configured Teach to One to prioritize meeting students where they are, no matter how far below grade level. Other schools configured the program to prioritize exposure to grade-level material due to the focus on state summative assessments. A third-party study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that schools which configured the program to meet individual student needs had stronger growth over three years than schools which prioritized grade-level exposure.

4. Schools can now tailor math instruction in ways they couldn’t before.

For the first time, technology makes it possible to diagnose each student’s unique strengths and pre-grade skill gaps; assign the most impactful lessons and activities at the appropriate time; group and regroup students for collaborative learning; and continually assess for mastery. These are essential components of tailored acceleration.

But while technology plays a supporting role, teachers are at the center of learning. High-quality tailored acceleration integrates teacher-led instruction with other instructional approaches, including peer-to-peer and individualized learning, so different students can learn different skills at the same time.

5. Teachers can cover the grade-level curriculum and address pre-grade gaps only with a massive infusion of instructional time or a multi-year approach.

Even with tailored acceleration, many students won’t be able to catch up to grade-level math in one year. A multi-year approach affords students with significant learning loss a far better chance of reaching proficiency as long as (1) they focus only on essential skills they haven’t yet mastered and have the requisite foundational knowledge to learn; and (2) there are measurable checkpoints for mastery along the way to preserve high expectations and accountability.

6. A multi-year approach to proficiency requires supportive policies.

Instruction exclusively focused on achieving grade-level proficiency in one year often does a disservice to students with math learning loss. And yet, because policies reinforce standardized accountability systems around grade-level standards, schools have little appetite for interventions that depart from this focus.

To truly address math learning loss so students can succeed, schools will need the backing and creativity of senior administrators and policymakers—especially when it comes to testing and accountability policy, as well as the procurement of instructional materials.

The tragedy of the pandemic provides a once-in-a-century opportunity for schools to rethink the fundamental tenets of age-graded instruction. It is one we should not squander.

Joel Rose is co-founder and chief executive officer at New Classrooms.

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