It is time to reframe how we talk about this learning interruption
There is a lot of discussion right now about the “learning loss” experienced by our students after a year of disrupted education. Yes – it is true that many students have not attended school in-person five days a week with immediate access to their teacher and instruction. But a focus on what students have allegedly “lost” misses the mark and frames the conversation negatively before it has even started.
This school year has caused us to rethink and restructure education in a variety of ways depending on your state, your district, and your department of health measures. Drawing from existing research on the “summer slide” and students’ loss of learning each year over that timeframe, we might predict that many students have not made their traditional progress over this past year. But, frankly, we don’t yet know the true impacts that this interruption has had on students. We must also take into consideration that some students may have had disadvantages from limited or no access to technology, differing levels of parental support at home, or the designed systems of interventions simply did not meet their needs. Alternatively, other students are finding advantages to learning in different education models and are experiencing new success without the distractions and added pressure of peers. As one member of our committee described, “I have students that are typically straight A’s that are failing, and students who often fail getting straight A’s.”
We need to consider this from the perspective of our middle grades students. Middle school students are incredibly resilient. They are at a development stage where they are dramatically changing physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively. As long as students have positive relationships with adults they trust, and we give them the support they need to navigate these challenges, we will create greater outcomes for our students’ futures – regardless of whatever learning they have “lost.” We must meet our young adolescent students where they are, not where we think they should be. As you as an educator move forward, we challenge you to consider the opportunities this time has provided that helped you create greater impacts on your students.
An Opportunity to Refocus on the Whole Child
In a year with so many administrative and logistical challenges, it takes courage to unapologetically focus on the whole child. But, as outlined in AMLE’s foundational position paper, The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, we know that an effective middle grades school is responsive “to the nature of young adolescents in all their amazing diversity and are designed specifically to support the developmental needs and social identities of students.” To this end we must understand the unique needs that each of our middle school students present and ensure that our support reflects all of the essential attributes of an education for young adolescents: Responsive, Challenging, Empowering, Equitable and Engaging.
Find out the real impacts to students and how to meet young adolescents where they are in their education journey. Let’s not look at students through a deficit lens but with a focus on what the student, as the whole child, needs in order to move forward. What are some ways that we can do this? Here are a couple suggestions:
- Think about opportunities that we can take advantage of into the future. What went well this year, and for which students? How can we continue these practices when we return to the classroom?
- Take the focus off remediation. If we try to make up for learning lost, we will leave our students further behind. Instead, teach grade level content and provide just in time support on concepts students need from previous grades to move forward.
- Rather than a “deficit lens,” look at students from a “funds of knowledge” perspective that acknowledges the strategic and cultural resources that a student’s household contains.1 What cultural resources do our students already have that would be assets in our classrooms? What life skills did our students learn this past year that won’t be assessed by our traditional standardized tests?
Measuring the Impact of the Interruption
To measure the impacts of an interruption to learning we should look to the tools that we already have in place. If we must, or are mandated to, have assessments this spring, we should use these as tools to collect data on where individual students need support. This includes collecting data on academic growth as well as social emotional needs. A few questions you might ask when reviewing your assessment strategy:
- Does your school have a diagnostic assessment or a common assessment that students take throughout the year?
- Assess responsibly and minimize high-stakes testing anxiety.
- How can you leverage the findings to provide support in areas where your students may need interventions?
- Does your school have a plan for interventions and a dedicated place and time in the schedule?
- What tools are available to connect and support students and their families to the interventions and support outside of the classroom?
Weaving Equity into Every Aspect of Education
Because systems outside of our control have sustained inequities, we focus on what we can control and that includes what happens in our buildings and classrooms. This is a time to build partnerships with the businesses and community organizations near your school to ensure students have the support they need – both logistically, academically, and social-emotionally. Even as more schools move to a one-to-one mobile device for students, continued access to WIFI needs to be considered. According to one study,2 only 51% of U.S. households have access to affordable internet plans. Additionally, in households with the internet there may be multiple people attempting to access the internet simultaneously. This impacts students living in every community. Some steps you can take may include:
- Analyze the achievement data of your Zoomies, Roomies, and Homies and look for disproportionalities by various populations.
- Provide low-tech academic learning opportunities for all students. Even if the school has a one-to-one technology initiative and students have access to WIFI, take into consideration the amount of screen time students are experiencing across classes and that some students have siblings who also need to use WIFI.
- Consider urging your district to develop a partnership with a local telecommunication businesses to offer plans that work for your families
How does Summer Fit in your Learning Strategy?
What is your plan for summer learning? Is it one-size-fits-all, or does it provide a variety of options to meet each student where they are in their learning journey? A few questions you may reflect on include:
- Does your school offer a variety of options available for students and families to access on their terms? For example, will there be a rigorous seat-based course offered over the summer for students to meet their needs in areas identified for learning support along with being engaging and exciting (think project based learning, a community project or STEM)? Will you have other, lower time investment options like virtual tutoring, or simple offerings such as links to resources that highlight standards and concepts that students can work on at grade level to help their transition to the next grade?
- Do you already have online programs that are being successfully used by students throughout the school year? Consider checking with publishers to see if your license goes through the summer or could be extended for free or a minimal cost to keep students engaged.
By providing options we provide more opportunities for students and families to engage in a way that best fits their needs.
An Emphasis on Students Social and Emotional Needs is Key
It will be challenging to quantify what this learning interruption has cost adolescents. It is important to remember that some students have lost important time for socialization, connections to a peer group, and social learning experiences. Yet others have taken to social media in a positive way and have increased their social interactions with more people outside of their friend group. Others have experienced acute isolation and are battling loneliness, anxiety, stress, and depression. We turn to a focus on efforts towards well-being:
- How do you focus on creating space and time for this important work of developing relationships and positive behavior systems?
- How will we build in time to acknowledge students’ fears and anxieties and support them by providing diverse learning modes, access to counseling, opportunities for expression, and by creating positive outlets.
By creating space to support the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical wellbeing of students we prioritize the health of our communities and families.
Shifting our Thinking to Emphasize the Positives
While the impacts give us much to consider, take a moment to look at all of the positive outcomes that this pandemic has brought to education. Teachers have shifted on a dime to provide instruction to students through online platforms and integrate new technology resources. Teachers have supported students and families and provided engaging instruction and real time face to face help through video conferencing. The resiliency and life skills that students have learned over this last year will likely be used for the rest of their lives, giving further acknowledgement to some of the benefits that have come out of pandemic teaching.
Another positive outcome has been family involvement and student support structures. We have families that are more engaged with education than they have ever been. We can continue to leverage this support to create strong working relationships between home and school supporting the student together in their growth over time. This time has also allowed us to be creative in how we support students and families. Reimagining how we utilize staffing to provide support beyond the classroom, home visits, family liaisons, grade level success coaches, etc. has got us thinking about how we can be looking at our funding structure to continue these supports into the future.
It is so easy to think back on this year and look through a negative lens. We can get bogged down on the impacts that this year has had on the education system as a whole and especially our students. We can start from the assumption that students have slid backwards in their learning and development, or we can just look at it as an interruption. How can we find out where the real needs are and acknowledge the gains we have made? Let’s celebrate the middle level, praise the growth we have had in our learning over the course of this last year, and utilize our new knowledge to create a brighter future.
The AMLE Advocacy Committee is comprised of Todd Bloch, Chair, Angela Allen, Chandra Diaz DeBose, Juan Rodriguez, Kathleen McCaffery, Kristina Falbe, Lisa Koenecke, Steve Norline-Weaver, Jim Barnes (ex-officio), and Stephanie Simpson (ex-officio)
- Vélez-Ibánez, C.G., & Greenberg, J.B. (1992). Formation and Transformation of Funds of Knowledge among U.S.-Mexican Households. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 23(4), pp. 313-335.
- BROADBANDNOW (2021). Independent Research and Data on High-Speed Internet in the US. Retrieved March 3, 2021 from https://broadbandnow.com/