Best Practices: Unfinished Learning

Aug 16, 2021

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Opinion: How can school leaders address unfinished learning?


We know that after more than a year of disruption to our education system, schools now face the challenge of supporting students to recover any unfinished learning. The results of the latest STAAR tests show massive impacts on our region’s kids. Through research and observation of national trends, we have identified a set of best practices that can set up teachers – and their students – for a year of successful learning.

Recommendations for addressing unfinished learning

Despite so many hurdles, leaders in education have an opportunity to leverage this moment to abandon the status quo where it was not working and innovate toward a brighter, bolder future that addresses long-term solutions rather than stop-gaps. These best practices have the potential to point school leaders in the direction of more equitable outcomes for their students.

Boost learning through rigorous curriculum, especially where there are equity gaps

Proven strategies to accelerate learning include using high-quality curriculum materials and training. Research-based and culturally responsive curriculum is key here, along with utilizing strategic opportunities to monitor student progress, such as pre- and post-assessments, which help gather data around student mastery and can drive differentiation.

Accelerate learning through rigorous grade-level content

Research suggests that well-intentioned approaches that pull students out of grade-level instruction to “reteach” earlier-grade content can reinforce low expectations and create vicious cycles of underachievement. The better approach is for instructors to provide exposure to grade-level content, while scaffolding students with “just-in-time support” so they can access such content.

Close equity gaps through targeted tutoring and small group instruction

Research suggests high-dosage tutoring – one-on-one tutoring or tutoring in very small groups at least three times a week, or for about 50 hours over a semester, according to a special report from EdWeek – can be effective. To ensure student attendance and success, this strategy should be embedded into the school day when students would not be missing extracurricular activities. Tutors should be well-trained on instructional practices and use data to progress monitor and differentiate.

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Boost enrollment and support transitions to school, from the littlest learners to rising seniors

Reports from districts around the country show historically low enrollment in pre-K programs—particularly among economically-disadvantaged families—and a 16 percent drop in Kindergarten enrollment on average for the 2020-21 school year. (New America Foundation) Enrollment disparities, and the long-term impacts of these disparities, call for a more targeted outreach to families. Successful strategies can include home visits, advertising, and enrollment helplines in different languages.

In high school, some students needed to prioritize paid employment over coursework and college matriculation during the pandemic year. To ensure more successful transitions to college, schools must increase access to college prep/dual credit coursework and double down on student counseling to help students recover credits needed to graduate.

Get smarter on evidence-based and data-driven teaching and learning

Districts and campuses need to level up data systems and capacity so that decisions at all levels, from the classroom to the board room, are anchored on data. Teachers need access to real-time data about where students are in order to tailor instruction to meet students’ individual needs. District-wide decisions around staffing, programming, and allocation of other resources need to be informed by data that helps uncover equity gaps.

Focus on developing the whole child through relationship-building, SEL-centered classroom instruction and school culture

Developing the whole child means building district-wide action plans at all grade levels, including: integrating “non-cognitive” learning opportunities into lessons; training teachers and staff on trauma-informed care; using SEL inventories/assessments to assess students’ needs and connection to social and emotional supports and services (e.g. mentoring programs, youth development programs, mental healthcare providers); and auditing district policies through a lens of equity to ensure school disciplinary policies and procedures are aligned to a trauma-informed, collaborative learning approach.

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Engage the community

Emphasizing teacher-parent relationships ensures that students have aligned supports both in school and at home. Parents are an invaluable resource in helping students transition back to school, reinforcing learning outside of the classroom and advocating for students’ academic and socio-emotional needs. This, along with providing information, curriculum guides, and virtual and in-person forums to parents, will enable them to be partners in accelerating learning for their kids.


Build out a pipeline of game-changing educators

Schools should prioritize piloting innovative staffing models that create pipelines to teaching and leadership positions that are financially sustainable beyond supplemental funding. Using a mix-model approach (technology and in-person) to scale job-embedded, personalized professional development systems to support and develop teachers is another successful approach. And once teachers are hired, it’s important for school districts to build systems to identify, incentivize, and leverage high-performing teachers in order to see long-term positive changes.

Students are counting on us

The time for action is now, and more than 500,000 students in the Houston area will be counting on their teachers and school leaders to seize the moment and do all they can to help.

We have identified these strategies to address unfinished learning in response to our observations and learnings to-date. As more data and research become available, we will update and adjust our recommendations to reflect those changes.

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