Meeting Students Where They Are Academically and Helping Them Thrive

Although we do not yet know what the long-term academic impacts of the pandemic will be, two things are likely true: (1) Students learned some skills and content that they would not have acquired in a more typical year, and (2) students missed out on some of the skills and content that they would typically have learned in a given grade. The challenge before education leaders and teachers now lies in figuring out how to build on students’ strengths and mitigate unfinished learning while helping students progress to the next grade level.

Accelerating learning — providing just-in-time supports to students on the specific skills they need to access grade level content — is something that our schools struggled with long before the pandemic. Instead, when a student struggles with grade level content, schools often respond by reducing the rigor of assignments or drilling “missing” skills, inadvertently moving the student back further. In the process, the student is often treated as less capable, while their strengths and talents are overlooked. Shifting from these remediation-focused approaches to acceleration will require a mindset shift at both the individual and system levels — in how education leaders and educators view individual students, and in how leaders choose to allocate resources. This work cannot and should not fall entirely on individual teachers.

With millions of dollars on the table, at least 20% of which must be used to mitigate unfinished learning, education leaders not only have an opportunity to better address students’ current needs, but to create long-term systems and approaches that can help schools and districts better support students in the future. Here are some steps education leaders can take:

Ensure That Teachers, Families, and Students Have a Clear Picture of What Students Know and Can Do

“Strong professional development, supportive learning communities, and collaborative planning time focused on student learning will be critical in helping teachers maintain high, grade-level expectations, differentiate instruction, and provide the right just-in-time support for students”

Students will be returning to full-time, in-person school next year, following 18 months of vastly different learning and life experiences. Understanding what students know and are able to do, what their interests are, and where they need support must be the foundation of any instructional program. Education leaders should invest in a combination of quality diagnostic assessments and student/family surveys (ideally designed with teacher input) to provide teachers with as much information as possible about incoming students’ skills, knowledge, and interests. District and school leaders can use federal dollars to do the following:

  • Cover the costs of assessments and surveys. Diagnostic assessments should be aligned to state standards and curricula and should yield actionable data for teachers.
  • Invest in bilingual diagnostic assessments to obtain more accurate data on English learners.
  • Ensure that all assessments include appropriate accommodations for English learners and students with disabilities.
  • Hire temporary staff who can help turn these results — alongside other data, such as previous grades, MCAS results, and attendance — into easily usable, digestible information for teachers.
  • Provide job-embedded professional development for teachers to help them utilize this data in their lesson planning.
  • Take into account the effects of unfinished learning when evaluating whether students are eligible for special education services in order to reduce over-and mis-diagnosis of specific learning disabilities (SDL).
  • Ensure that the impacts of unfinished learning do not prevent students from accessing honors, Advanced Placement or college prep classes.

Both diagnostic data and survey results should be shared with students and families. In recent Massachusetts polls, more than 1 in 4 parents said they believed their child is now behind grade level. Nearly 1 in 3 high school students — including 42% of economically disadvantaged students — said the same. Conversations grounded in data, and emphasizing the support students will receive, can help alleviate student and parent anxiety and garner buy-in for the work ahead.

Teachers and school counselors should work closely with students — particularly those whose diagnostic assessment results, survey responses, or other data (e.g., low attendance in the previous school year) have raised concerns — and families to develop individualized learning plans detailing the academic and social-emotional supports the child will receive to help them get back on track.

Ensure That the Curriculum Reflects and Affirms the Identities of All Students

“Staying engaged … is really hard for me because I don’t see myself reflected in my classroom or in my textbooks.”
— Jada, Student

“Staying engaged … is really hard for me because I don’t see myself reflected in my classroom or in my textbooks.” So said Jada, a 15-year-old student, during MEEP’s December 2020 "Hear Our Truth" forum . Jada’s experience mirrors that of many students of color in our schools. Although research clearly highlights the importance of representation, many students in our schools read books written primarily by White authors and are taught the dominant historical narrative, which focuses mainly on the accomplishments of White men and treats the accomplishments and experiences of women and people of color as an afterthought. These curricular shortcomings harm students of color, by undermining their the sense of self and sense of belonging in school. But they also harm White students, who receive both a narrow and inaccurate glimpse of the society in which they dwell.

If we care about students’ social-emotional well-being, if we want to create learning environments that support all students, curriculum change must be part of the conversation. This work will require both state and district leadership.

  • State leaders can convene a statewide task force, led by educators of color, and including teachers, school and district administrators, parents and students, to select or develop culturally responsive model curricula aligned to state standards. This work should build on existing initiatives, such as CURATE and the Kaleidoscope Collective for Learning. Federal recovery dollars can be used to compensate task force members and offset the costs of curricular materials for districts that choose to adopt them.
  • District leaders, in the meantime, can convene analogous district-level task forces to review curricular materials currently in use through the lens of cultural relevancy and anti-racism and select or develop alternatives. If a district recently adopted a new curriculum and cannot conduct a wholesale shift at this time, the task force can design district-specific supplements focused on community history, resources and needs (see, for example, Baltimore’s BMore Me curriculum).
  • At both state and district levels, curricular materials should be made available for public comment and review (see family/community engagement section for more on this).
  • Any curricular shifts should be accompanied by ongoing professional development and training for teachers to support implementation. Federal funding could be used to create training modules and materials that will continue to benefit educators beyond the grant period.
  • In addition to re-examining curricular materials, district and school leaders should provide educators with training and support (such as professional development and coaching) on culturally responsive instructional practices.

State and district leaders can use federal recovery funds to compensate task force members, purchase materials, and cover the costs of professional development.

Leverage the Summer and Out-of-School Time

The summer months are a good time to help students explore their interests, connect with peers, and catch up on any skills and knowledge that they might have missed out on amid the COVID-19 education disruption. The influx of federal and state funding creates an opportunity for districts to establish engaging, high-quality, research-based summer and after-school programs, not just this summer, but for the next couple of years as well. District leaders should consider leveraging federal funding to do the following:

  • Offer summer learning opportunities in partnership with community-based organizations with expertise in youth development to ensure that programs offer the right balance of academics and social-emotional support, and to maximize student choice of offerings. In many cities, community-based organizations operated remote learning centers while school buildings were closed and have been deeply involved in students’ learning and lives during the pandemic. These organizations are particularly well-positioned to continue to support students academically, socially, and emotionally during the summer and throughout the next school year.
  • Compensate teachers to help select or develop curricula (aligned to the district's curriculum) for these programs and train and provide ongoing supervision and support to program staff who are not themselves teachers.
  • Conduct individual, personalized outreach to families whose students would particularly benefit from summer or after-school programs.
  • Compensate older students for attending summer programs so that they do not feel like they must choose between their current livelihood and their education.

Ensure That Teachers Have the Support and Planning Time They Need

As mentioned earlier, our schools have long struggled with the kind of instruction will be required in the coming year. Strong professional development, supportive learning communities, and collaborative planning time focused on student learning will be critical in helping teachers maintain high, grade-level expectations, differentiate instruction, and provide the right just-in-time support for students.

Just as creating a supportive learning environment for students starts with input from students and families, support for teachers must be rooted in teacher input. Education leaders should clearly communicate their expectations for the type of affirming, culturally responsive, grade-level instruction they wish to see in every classroom and ask teachers what support they will need in order to deliver on that vision. They should then develop a year-long, research-based professional learning strategy that incorporates input and knowledge from teachers on the strengths and needs of their educator teams.

Education leaders can use federal recovery dollars to improve the quality of professional development and collaborative planning and build in more time for them. For example, they can:

  • Compensate teachers for additional time spent on professional learning and collaborative planning throughout the school year.
  • Hire staff or reconfigure schedules to free up teachers for professional learning opportunities and enable them to observe each other’s instruction. Education leaders can, for example, hire staff to cover lunch or recess duty, freeing teachers from these responsibilities. They can also hire more “specials” (i.e., arts, music, physical education, etc.) educators and/or reconfigure schedules to create blocks of collaborative planning time while students are in these classes.
  • Identify teacher leaders with demonstrated success in accelerating learning to facilitate collaborative planning for their teams (and compensate them for these additional responsibilities).
  • Hire additional coaches and external partners to provide ongoing, job-embedded, and data-driven support for educators.
  • Provide mental health services and other counseling support for educators navigating challenging personal, family, or job-related circumstances.
  • Provide additional supports — in the form of coaching, mentorship, and reduced student loads — for novice teachers, who will face unusually challenging circumstances as they enter the profession.

Supplement High-Quality Instruction with Targeted Intensive Tutoring

American Rescue Plan Act and other federal recovery dollars make it possible for education leaders to offer students one-on-one or small group support outside the classroom to help mitigate unfinished learning and bolster students’ sense of belonging. At its most effective, targeted intensive tutoring (also known as high-dosage tutoring) can double the amount of learning students experience in a given year.

Education leaders should consider leveraging federal dollars to establish research-based, targeted intensive tutoring programs for students with the highest levels of unfinished learning. Tutoring is particularly helpful for younger students and should occur one on one or in very small groups (of no more than four — and, ideally, just two — students to a tutor), for one hour daily. Tutoring should follow a concrete skill-building curriculum aligned with classroom learning, be aimed at acceleration, not remediation, and occur during the school day (to maximize impact) or after school. Tutors — especially those who are not already teachers — must receive ongoing training and support.

Questions to Ask as an Advocate:

  1. What diagnostic assessments is the district/school using to understand what students know and are able to do, and where they need support? What other information is the district/school looking at?
  2. How will the district ensure that curricular materials are both rigorous and culturally responsive?
  3. How will the district/school support teachers in meeting student needs this year? What will be different about the supports provided to teachers this year?
  4. What supplemental supports (e.g., tutoring, summer programs, etc.) will be provided to students over the summer and during the school year? How will the district/school ensure that students who most need that support get it?

Additional Resources
  1. Learning Policy Institute (April 2021), Summer Learning and Beyond: Opportunities for Creating Equity.
  2. New America (December 14, 2020), Culturally Responsive Education: Resources for Federal, State, and Local Stakeholders.
  3. Rennie Center (June 9, 2021), Accessing Grade-Level Content.
  4. Teach Plus (July 18, 2021), Invest Today, Thrive Tomorrow .
  5. The Education Trust (March 17, 2021), Strategies to Solve Unfinished Learning.
  6. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (May 2021), Acceleration Roadmap: Pathway to an Equitable Recovery.
  7. Multistate Association for Bilingual Education, Why Bilingual MCAS in Massachusetts?.