Approaches to Recovering from Learning Loss

September 14, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic may finally be coming to an end, but the long-term effects remain to be seen. How can we best support our students academically through this unprecedented era of disruption to their education?

Some learning loss was simply inevitable in the face of this dramatic and unplanned change. The ultimate effects have yet to be determined, but the statistics we do have are eye-opening.

Renowned research firm McKinsey found that students began the 2020-21 school year about 3 months behind in mathematics. That was after a comparatively brief disruption to the 2019-20 school year (most schools made the shift to remote instruction in March of 2020). Whether conducted remotely, in-person or through a hybrid arrangement, it’s safe to say that the 2021-22 school year was also an atypical one for all. No matter where students’ achievement levels were in March of 2020, it is simply not possible that anyone embarking on this third COVID-era school year is prepared to perform at the level they should be or could have been attaining.

A study by the non-profit Brookings Institution found that the math scores of American students in grades 3 through 8 were impacted more substantially by the COVID-19 pandemic than New Orleans evacuees’ scores were by Hurricane Katrina. Brookings also found that achievement dropped more from fall of 2020 to fall of 2021 than it had from fall of 2019 to fall of 2020, suggesting that we cannot hope for a simple adjustment to the “new normal” to rectify everything.

If we want to help our students get back on track and meet their potential, we need to find effective ways to do so. Perspectives differ widely, but there’s one solution it seems everyone can agree is superior: one-on-one tutoring. Study after study points to frequent, individualized tutoring as the most effective method for supporting students in reaching their potential. As Jill Barshay put it in her May 2020 article for The Hechinger Report, “prominent members of the education research community are enthusiastically pushing for a dramatic increase in tutoring.”

When it comes to personalized support, one-on-one tutoring has many advantages over classroom options like summer school. Johns Hopkins University education researcher Robert Slavin notes that “one of the things that makes it easier to be a tutor than to be a classroom teacher is that you’re doing a specific task with kids with materials that are designed to support that,” whereas “classroom teaching is a much more complicated job.”

Tutors can tailor instruction to individual students. Tutoring allows for flexibility in learning style and in pacing. It lets instructors utilize discovery-based learning methods. Importantly, it includes a social aspect of personal attention from a teacher, something students have certainly missed out on during the pandemic. And, critically, one-on-one instruction lets a qualified tutor assess your student’s current learning level and meet them where they are.

paper published by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) in November of 2020 found that pandemic-related declines in learning “were not the blanket declines many expected, but were instead uneven across subjects and across grade levels.” More recent data from the NWEA shows that middle school students are recovering more slowly than their younger counterparts are, and that eighth-graders on average fell even further behind in 2021-22 than they had in the previous school year. These students are a critical point in their academic careers, about to head into high school unprepared at an unprecedented level, and with less time remaining to catch up before college than the students in grades below them.

In this context of widespread learning loss, the signs can be harder to identify. Your student may not be lagging behind their peers, who are all in the same boat, but that does not necessarily mean they are caught up to the benchmarks that those who occupied the same classroom three years ago were meeting. Here are a few indicators that can help you as a parent know when it’s time to act:

Each new topic introduced feels like a big leap. Math curricula, for example, are generally designed so that each lesson builds on previous ones. If your student is frequently feeling that topics have been rushed, or that they are barely keeping up, that’s a good indicator that they don’t have the solid foundation they’ll need to underpin future learning. 

They’re not performing at the level they used to. If your A student is suddenly earning Bs, it’s a good bet that they are suffering from some of the learning loss afflicting children nationwide. It’s true that schoolwork grows more difficult with each passing year, but students also grow more mentally sophisticated and more capable of tackling that course load. A historically high-achieving middle-schooler should not feel that high school is just too hard for them.

They seem anxious about school. If your student begins coming up with regular excuses and unsubstantiated ailments and seems to be trying to avoid school, that’s a warning sign. It’s possible that they are finding their schoolwork to be an insurmountable challenge.

They don’t want to talk about it. Formerly open or chatty students who are suddenly tight-lipped about their school day may be struggling with guilt or anxiety around their difficulties with their course work. 

They’re getting in trouble at school. Students who are acting out may be seeking an outlet for their anxiety—or looking for a way to exert some control over a classroom situation that seems to be running away without them.

Don’t make the mistake of attributing any of the above to a temporary, start-of-the-year rough patch. Today’s middle- and high-schoolers have far more than the notorious “summer slide” to contend with, and the problems of learning loss will only snowball if left unattended. In this new test-optional era, academic transcripts are more important than ever to set college applicants apart from the crowd. Admissions officers tell us they are looking not only for strong grades but also for a rigorous course load demonstrating an applicant is up for a challenge—but a student who falls behind in middle school will be hard-pressed to push themselves in high school.

Now, at the start of the school year, is the best time to intervene. Helping our students to get a strong start sets them up for success. And teaching them to seek resources and ask for help when they need it establishes a habit that will be of use to them throughout their academic careers and beyond. 

To support individual students, it’s crucial to get a clear picture of each student’s current achievement. Summit’s one-on-one tutors and academic managers have the expertise and the opportunity to do that.

No matter where your student’s achievement level was before the pandemic, one-on-one tutoring, with its frequent, individualized instruction, can help students meet and even exceed their potential. With the support of a qualified tutor, students can emerge from this time with a new level of confidence in their abilities, setting the stage for their continued academic success. At Summit, we have a long-standing reputation for delivering highly effective, customized one-on-one tutoring programs delivered by smart and caring tutors. To learn how Summit might help your student, please contact us.

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