student with sticky notes all over his face
isnʼt Lost
Evidence-based strategies for addressing educational disruptions
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When schools shut down last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty hung in the air and no one would have guessed that the majority of California students would still be learning online an entire year later. With vaccination rates gaining momentum and research from the past year on how to safely open schools piling up, local educational agencies that haven’t already done so are opening the doors and, with the proper mitigation strategies, welcoming students back to campuses. Desks have been spaced, hand sanitizer is in every classroom, HVAC systems upgraded, windows opened and masks are the norm — so, now what?
by Kimberly Sellery

myriad effects of the pandemic and learning online have created new hardships for nearly every student and has only exacerbated longstanding opportunity and achievement gaps — both in school and in the community — experienced by low-income students, students of color, English learners and students with disabilities. In December 2020, the education research organization NWEA released a report tracking students’ growth in grades 3–8 by comparing how they performed on MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) Growth assessments compared to students in fall 2019. The results found that, on average, students performed 5 to 10 percentile points lower in math, but about the same in reading. However, other studies have found that teachers and other education experts are concerned that very young learners have not mastered the foundational reading skills as they would have in the classroom.

It is important to note that children are still learning, just not at the pace they would have had they been in person full time. Also important is the finding that about a quarter of students did not take assessments this fall at all, and many of those missing this data are in communities that have been harder hit by the pandemic.

“Learning disruptions abound this year due to the pandemic and it will be extremely important that LEAs make informed and targeted investments in evidence-based strategies to support students academically and emotionally,” said CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy. “CSBA has a plethora of webinars, briefs and other resources that can help board members make timely and educated decisions.”

School district and county board members and other school leaders have much to consider in creating a welcoming and supportive environment for returning students, keeping in mind both their social-emotional and academic needs. The good news? For once, schools have an infusion of state and federal funds to begin addressing students’ needs from a disrupted year of learning.

The need for evidence-based strategies
With $4.6 billion from the state’s Expanded Learning Opportunities Grant funds and $15 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan, California schools are collecting the largest infusion of funding they have ever received. At least 20 percent of ARP funds must be used to “address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions,” while the ELO Grant money can only be spent on extending instructional learning time, accelerating progress to close learning gaps, integrated pupil supports, community learning hubs, additional academic services, training for school staff and supports for credit-deficient pupils.

The Expanded Learning Division of the California Department of Education is managing the ELO Grants and division Director Michael Funk is excited about the possibilities. “Right now, even with all this additional funding, the temptation is going to be to treat this technically and not pay attention to the aspirational,” Funk said. “What is really needed for kids and what can we create in our educational system that’s new? Create the conditions for young people and adults to be their best selves in the system.”

That starts with ensuring children feel safe, emotionally and physically, and are supported through authentic caring relationships while having opportunities to expand their horizons and to explore things that they care about, he said.

Research has shown time and again that students’ social and emotional well-being contribute to their ability to learn, and a focus on welcoming students back to campuses and rebuilding those foundational relationships is essential. Once students feel comfortable and ready to learn, LEAs can begin implementing evidence-based strategies to address the learning disruption of the last year. Two promising, and complementary, strategies are high-dosage tutoring and “accelerated learning.”

High-dosage tutoring
High-dosage, high-intensity, high-impact tutoring — no matter what you call it — is one of the most effective research-supported academic interventions.

Not all tutoring is equal, however, as large-scale studies show voluntary and infrequent tutoring had no effects on academic improvement. The No Child Left Behind Act included a federally funded program that allowed low-income parents to enroll their child in a state-approved tutoring program after school if their school was not making adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years. Because participation was voluntary, only about 23 percent of eligible students participated and very little benefit was found for student learning, on average.

There were a few programs that showed a positive impact on student learning, however, which shared some common characteristics: minimum time requirements, structured sessions, tutor coordination with schools and more experienced tutors.

These tenets are the basis of a successful tutoring program, according to Dr. Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education, Johns Hopkins University. Slavin and his team focus on evidence-based strategies for disadvantaged and low-achieving students. Knowing the adverse impacts long-term disrupted learning can cause, the team conducted a meta-analysis of research studies to find the most effective strategies to catch students up to grade level.

“We looked at our own research and at other people’s reviews and found that, overwhelmingly, the most effective strategy was tutoring, either one-to-one or in a small group,” said Slavin.

The National Student Support Accelerator, a nonprofit launched by education experts across the country, aims to scale up high-impact tutoring initiatives throughout the U.S. There are three foundational elements that affect the impact of any tutoring program, said Susanna Loeb, director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which oversees the project, in an April 20 webinar hosted by the Learning Policy Institute.

“First the program must be grounded in equity — this means ensuring students who need it the most have access to it and that tutors center equity in their instruction,” Loeb said. “In addition, high-impact tutoring programs ensure the safety of students and all the elements of leadership work together to create a cohesive, well-run program.”

Another point of emphasis among experts is the need for high-quality materials and tutors with college degrees. “We have been emphasizing the importance of having tutors who have college degrees, but in general will not have teaching certificates,” said Slavin. “And it’s less expensive to use paraprofessionals. But there needs to be training.”

Accelerated learning
Remediation, the practice of reteaching content and skills better suited for earlier grades, has been a common way to address struggling learners that are not at grade level. But research shows that typical remediation results in students losing more ground because they are not keeping up with grade-level material.

In a study of about 4,000 students across five diverse school systems conducted by TNTP, an organization working to end educational inequality through teacher practice and policy, researchers found most students — especially students of color, those from low-income families, those with mild to moderate disabilities, and English learners — spent the majority of their school days missing out on four crucial resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement and teachers with high expectations.

High-dosage tutoring generally includes these characteristics:
  • Tutoring sessions occur a minimum of three sessions per week; time per session will depend on content and student age and skill level.
  • Tutoring is embedded in the school day, or immediately before or after school. Embedded programs are more equitable and accessible to all students.
  • The most effective tutoring programs use paid tutors with college degrees, such as paraprofessionals, and provide consistent tutor–student relationships.
  • High-quality materials aligned with state standards.
  • Data should be used to understand where students need more focus and continually used to improve student learning.
young girl in front of sticky notes
High-dosage tutoring generally includes these characteristics:
  • Tutoring sessions occur a minimum of three sessions per week; time per session will depend on content and student age and skill level.
  • Tutoring is embedded in the school day, or immediately before or after school. Embedded programs are more equitable and accessible to all students.
  • The most effective tutoring programs use paid tutors with college degrees, such as paraprofessionals, and provide consistent tutor–student relationships.
  • High-quality materials aligned with state standards.
  • Data should be used to understand where students need more focus and continually used to improve student learning.
“That really informed our thinking about the acceleration of learning,” said Tim Hughes, TNTP vice president, west. “What the research says is that when you remediate and meet students ‘where they’re at,’ it almost guarantees that they’re going to lose even more academic ground and they’ll get even less access to grade level work in the future. So, you’re really creating vicious cycles, particularly for our most vulnerable students, and you are disproportionately impacting those students by doing this remediation approach.”

The alternative? Accelerated learning, which prioritizes access to grade-level content for all students regardless of their background or previous achievement. If a student hasn’t mastered earlier skills that are required to complete a grade-appropriate assignment, they receive scaffolding and support to provide the additional tools they need to access that grade-level content. “We see when that happens, when students are given high expectations, they’re much more likely to catch up,” said Hughes. “That is much easier to say than to do, if you think about the teacher in the classroom doing that work. They need a lot of support and development to be able to do that.”

This approach takes a clear understanding across the system of what acceleration is and what it looks like. Once that is established, professional development is key. Providing scaffolding and supports for individual students requires that teachers and education leaders have an in-depth understanding of the California standards and the prerequisite skills needed for a given assignment.

“Along with that, we’re going to have to equip teachers and leaders to be able to diagnose students’ unfinished learning,” said Hughes. “And that diagnostic piece is another huge skill that may feel different that we’re going to have to support folks around.”

Districts are just beginning to plan for fall
At the time of this writing, districts are reopening their campuses, and planning for summer learning and academic and social-emotional supports in the 2021–22 year and beyond — often all at the same time.

The Manteca Unified School District in San Joaquin County credits its ability to reopen campuses in fall 2020 to its commitment to its mission and vision, which the governance team created together three years ago: “Through smart actions and decisions, MUSD will work together using meaningful, measurable and aligned data for all students to achieve mastery of grade level standards in all subjects based on their unique educational pathway in a safe environment inclusive of design, security and climate.”

The district and board began strategic planning for any number of return-to-school scenarios when schools shut down and worked diligently with staff and labor unions to make sure agreements were in place so it could open classrooms as soon as possible. This cohesive planning enabled Manteca USD to take advantage of a narrow two-week window last fall when the county fell into the state’s red tier, allowing in-person instruction with mitigation strategies. Manteca began with a hybrid schedule, and now students are back in class full time.

The district is planning a robust 20- to 24-day summer learning program that will enroll students based on MAP Growth assessment data to identify those that have experienced extensive learning loss and include credit recovery for high schoolers. Other program offerings available to all students include an online learning pathway, various STEM institutes, special education day classes and bridge opportunities for those entering kindergarten, middle and high school.

Manteca USD staff will continue to analyze data from MAP Growth assessments to determine instructional supports for students, especially during the first three weeks of the fall semester. Board President Eric Duncan emphasized the role that data plays in the district, beginning with its mission and vision. “The board had been presented with the data — MAP testing and behavior reports — and staff walked us through, piece by piece,” Duncan said. “So, when it came time to start deciding on these different programs, we had already seen the data and understood that decisions were informed, and we weren’t just rubberstamping whatever they’re doing. The data gave us a clear vision before we made decisions.”

South of Manteca in Stanislaus County, Ceres Unified School District has recently opened schools in a hybrid schedule, and things were going well as of the second week of in-person attendance. The district is in the midst of planning its Super Summer Academy and investing some federal funds to increase salaries in order to recruit the district’s own teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff.

  • Proven Tutoring: Johns Hopkins University researchers have identified national tutoring programs LEAs can partner with.
  • TNTP: Works to end educational inequality by providing excellent teachers to the students who need them most and by advancing policies and practices that ensure effective teaching in every classroom. Resources include a Learning Acceleration Guide.
  • U.S. Department of Education’s COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 2: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs: This comprehensive guide provides additional strategies for safely reopening all of America’s schools, including the strategies in this article.
Ceres is using much of the available funding to hire additional paraprofessionals to provide extra support to students in subjects that are vulnerable to learning disruptions. The district is adding one elementary intervention teacher to focus on supplemental math instruction at each site (which already have literacy intervention teachers), an additional paraprofessional to each first-grade classroom, three additional learning directors (what the district calls its guidance counselors) per junior high and additional after-school support.

Both districts are moving forward with the social-emotional and mental health of students and staff in mind. Manteca USD partners with Valley Community Counseling to provide support to its student body. Ceres USD has contracted with community-provider Hazel Health to provide virtual health services for families and students. “To be a good trustee, we have to make sure we can get those services to students and all of the families,” said Ceres USD Board President Betty Davis. Another key area of investment is professional development for teachers and paraprofessionals — particularly in trauma-informed instruction, which both districts are prioritizing.

Manteca USD Superintendent Clark Burke summed up the district’s planning approach by referencing the Local Control and Accountability Plan, a familiar planning and strategic document for boards. He said each school has its own mini LCAP that gets incorporated into the larger district plan. “All of the principals take localized, strategic plans, identify student needs and allocate resources, and put together an action plan with metrics,” said Burke.

Additional plans at Ceres USD include improving students home internet connections by installing internet towers on campuses so children aren’t left on the wrong side of the digital divide. While hotspots provided a temporary solution, the district is moving forward to extend permanent access to all students and families. It is just one way that Ceres is keeping equity in mind as it crafts strategies to address the learning disruption caused by the pandemic. “You don’t lose your learning,” said Davis. “It’s not lost. We know where we … would like them to be — and we are making the steps that they need to continue to learn.”

Editor’s Note: Dr. Robert Slavin passed away on April 24, following the writing of this story. CSBA is grateful for his time in granting this interview and for his body of work to help students — especially disadvantaged children — by developing research-backed educational programs and teaching techniques.
Due to the constantly changing landscape of school reopenings, see the CSBA blog and the weekly update emails for the latest information.

Kimberly Sellery is managing editor for California Schools.