The following is a column submitted by Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools Michelle Hutchins, published here as a letter-to-the-editor:
As we soar past Labor Day weekend, all districts have welcomed students back to school. Although COVID-19 variants continue to spread, students and teachers are finding that campus life feels much like it did before the pandemic. The State of California lifted its mask mandate last spring and face coverings remain optional. Gone are the lines marking where students should stand to ensure social distancing. Sanitizing stations in classrooms and some plexiglass barriers remain among the few physical reminders that COVID-19 remains a threat. Across Mendocino County, schools are offering students and staff take-home COVID-19 testing kits upon request.
Schools are now faced with how to help students catch up with their learning. Research suggests more students have experienced more unfinished learning during the last two years than ever before. With the pandemic waning, schools face a critical choice about how to respond. Should they use the traditional approach of reviewing all the content students missed, known as remediation? Or should they start with the current grade’s content and provide just-in-time support when necessary, known as learning acceleration?
New data from Zearn, a nonprofit organization whose online math platform is used by one in four elementary students nationwide, provides one of the first direct comparisons of these two approaches—and compelling new evidence that schools should make learning acceleration the foundation of their approach.
- Students who experienced learning acceleration struggled less and learned more than students who started at the same level but experienced remediation instead.
- Students of color and those from low-income backgrounds were more likely than their white, wealthier peers to experience remediation—even when they had already demonstrated success on grade-level content.
- Learning acceleration was particularly effective for students of color and those from low-income families and students learning English.
This is strong evidence that learning acceleration works, and that it could be key to unwinding generations-old academic inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. School leaders have an important opportunity in the months ahead to start providing teachers with the resources and support they need—and to start building the skill and beliefs that are necessary—to help every student engage in grade-level work right away.
As a parent, what can you do to find out how your school is addressing learning loss? There are resources at Accelerate, Don’t Remediate at www.tntp.org/accelerate.
What else can be done to support students as they return to school? When summer ends, children often complain about the return to school; they mourn the loss of leisure time and worry about the onset of new challenges and responsibilities. A new teacher, classroom, and schedule, in addition to a harder curriculum and a higher expectation for academic performance, cause anxiety. The question becomes: what is normal anxiety when entering a new school year and when is it excessive?
According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, one child in every eight suffers from an anxiety disorder; meaning, a teacher with a classroom of 25 can expect two to three children with high anxiety levels. Anxiety is considered excessive when it interferes with a child’s well-being and ability to learn. High levels of anxiety are often apparent in a child’s behavior, such as temper tantrums. Excessive anxiety can lead to school avoidance. It can also manifest as physical symptoms, such as trouble breathing, nausea, headaches, and stomach aches. A UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools publication noted, “A child who expresses such symptoms should see a physician, as well as having special attention from his or her teacher and probably a support staff member such as a school psychologist or counselor.”
To support students as they return to school, it can help to understand what anxiety looks like and how to reduce it. Sometimes anxiety manifests as uncertainty and a fear that the worst will happen. Students may be worried that the next grade level is beyond their capabilities. By asking children what, exactly, they are concerned about, parents can provide information and reassurance. For example, parents can describe what is expected at their child’s level of schooling and demonstrate that their child is, in fact, prepared to take on this new challenge.
One of the best ways to support children is for families and teachers to work together. Open communication keeps everyone aware of current challenges and provides an opportunity for collaboration.