6 things we still don’t know about the size of interrupted learning

Some of the most vulnerable students actually made gains during the pandemic, research shows.

Bright spots emerging in the wake of interrupted learning over the past two years offer K-12 leaders guidance in steering academic recovery. According to the latest research, some of the most vulnerable students made gains during the pandemic.

There is evidence that some low-income and minority students didn’t fall as far behind as their white classmates in certain subjects and grade levels in states such as North Carolina, Illinois and Ohio. “Results are unusually positive for special education students in North Carolina, where some districts maintained academic growth rates during remote learning that were comparable to rates of student progress before the pandemic,” according to the latest research from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at Arizona State University. 

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It won’t surprise most educators that multiple studies analyzed by the Center have reaffirmed that students in all grades fell behind academically or that children who spent the most time in remote instruction—particularly low-income students and students of color—lost the most ground. Prior to the pandemic, students in majority-Black schools were nine months behind students in majority-white schools. By spring 2021, that distance lengthened to 12 months in reading and math, one study shows.

What we still don’t know about interrupted learning

Administrators and their teams may not know that, according to the analysis, “consistent exposure to instruction” was a bigger factor in limiting learning delays than race and income. But several questions about student progress remain answered, including:

  1. What skills and knowledge did children acquire during closures and remote learning that they might not have gained in traditional classrooms?
  2. What were the differences in achievement between remote students whose instruction was fully synchronous and children who participated in other forms of virtual learning?
  3. How much have children learned in history, civics and other content areas that are not tested as frequently or as widely?
  4. How far did children with disabilities—many of whom were out of school longer than other students—fall behind in life skills?
  5. How much did learning delays vary across states and by students’ prior achievement?
  6. How did the pandemic affect the progress of smaller minority groups—about whom less data is available—such as English learners and Indigenous, American Indian, Alaskan Native or Pacific Islander students?

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All these questions mean that the full impact of interrupted learning is still not completely clear and may remain hidden for the short term. While some researchers are predicting declines in high school completion, college persistence and student employability, much depends on the actions educators, parents and students take in the coming years, the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s analysis says. For instance, the study warns that districts mounting intensive academic interventions may be sidetracked by future COVID outbreaks, teacher shortages, transportation disruptions and the expiration of federal relief funding.

The biggest challenges lie ahead for low-income students and students of color who (disproportionately) attend schools in big cities that were hit harder by COVID and experienced lengthier school closures “on top of decades of economic distress.” “Even if national income and prosperity don’t diminish in the years to come, general inequality in America could get much, much worse,” the Center’s report concludes. “Avoiding that fate will require much more complete—and regularly updated—data on student progress and well-being, as well as more coordinated efforts from schools, teachers, families, students, government leaders, philanthropic organizations, and community organizations to build a tighter net of educational and social support for American students.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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