The Fight Against Learning Loss Belongs to All of Us

Dec 21, 2020

Tiffany Needham

By Tiffany Needham
Executive Director
Teach For America Houston

Houston, we are struggling right now. Students and families need food, access to technology and the internet, and connections to friends and teachers.  Additionally, in the last week I’ve read no less than a half dozen articles about lost learning, citing nearly four times as many children failing classes than this time last year, gaps in learning based on nationally recognized assessments, and much lower than average applications submitted for college and associated federal aid. For the most part, all of these authors and researchers agree that students in communities with high-poverty and students of color are falling further behind their peers, widening gaps in educational outcomes.

What teachers are most worried about

Teach For America educators serve thousands of students all across the Houston region – from Aldine High School in North Houston to Lake Olympia Middle School in South Houston and from Bush High School in West Houston to Yes Prep Southeast in East Houston. When I ask Teach For America Houston principals and teachers what they are most worried about, they speak of keeping children safe in classrooms, properly tracing cases of COVID-19, and ensuring students have access to basic needs outside of school.  And they share that even with extraordinary effort, many times at the cost of their own health and well-being, they are struggling to reach every child in their schools and classrooms. The long-term impact of lost learning keeps each of them up at night.

Challenges often lead to innovation

While this is an incredibly difficult year for students, families, and teachers, we cannot let it be a year of lost learning. TFA’s work this school year will continue to focus on meeting the needs of our students.  We are inspired by the many leaders, including our corps members and alumni, who are stepping up to innovate and re-imagine what school and learning can look like, in pursuit of educational equity and excellence for all children:

  • Jackie Palacios (Houston ’19) is using her theater background to produce engaging videos for her second graders with sound effects and costume changes. She also produces a series that discusses hard topics, like COVID-19, at a second grade level.
  • Marisa Knox (Houston ’19) partnered with William Price Distillery to get a 2oz hand sanitizer for all of her in-person students and 1L hand sanitizer for all of the teachers and coaches on her campus at KIPP Voyage.
  • Dorna Abdi (Houston ’19) was inspired to build critical-thinking and problem-solving skills in her pre-calculus class by inviting virtual guest speakers to talk to her students about their careers. Not only does this introduce students to career paths they are unfamiliar with, but it also keeps them more engaged in the virtual learning environment.
  • We also recently partnered with the Association of Latino Professionals For America Houston to distribute laptops to students at a TFA alumni-led school, Wharton Dual Language Academy in HISD.

At the same time, we must look to the future. The summer, which in and of itself fuels learning loss, is only a blink away. And, August 2021 will be here before we know it. We must act now to prepare for the needs of principals, teachers, and, most importantly, the students they serve.

There is no silver bullet here, but two things are true

First, we need courageous leaders from all corners of our community to raise their hands to support our education system. District leaders, principals, and teachers need our help. Whether you advocate at the federal or state level for school funding or support a local school in need in your community, know that each and every one of us has a role to play. This recovery will be long and will take continuous commitment. This fight against lost learning belongs to all of us.

Second, we need exceptional instruction happening in every school and classroom, especially for students living inmarginalized communities and students of color.  We must set high expectations for our students and provide the resources necessary to help them achieve their goals. We must identify the children who need the most support and then create a plan that delivers. There will be many questions to answer.

What summer programs will most benefit students who have fallen the furthest behind? Looking to next year, how can we adjust the school calendar and/or how days are structured?  What financial resources will school principals be allocated to ensure they are able to quickly adjust course based on student and teacher needs? What support will be in place for teachers with a wide range of learning needs in their classrooms? We must start planning now.

We have an opportunity—and obligation—to act now to support our students and to begin to co-create a different future for them, one that is more equitable, more just, and more fair.

Tiffany Cuellar Needham is the executive director of Teach For America’s Houston region. She is a 2003 Houston alumna who began her career in education as a fifth grade teacher at Coop Elementary School in Houston ISD.


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