It’s one thing to read about the learning gap in news and media outlets, but it’s another thing to experience it firsthand. I’ve taught middle school English Language Arts (ELA) in a New York City public school for four years now, including pre-, during, and post-pandemic. Here’s what learning loss really looks like in the classroom—and how edTech tools can help educators close the learning gap.
What Is “The Learning Gap”?
Learning gaps are characterized as a disparity between where students are currently performing versus where they should be performing. Many factors contribute to the increased learning gaps we’re seeing in students across the country. The most obvious and widespread cause is, of course, the pandemic.
According to the NWEA July 2022 Research Brief, “…student achievement at the end of the 2021-2022 school year remains lower than a typical year.” Math scores declined around 5 to 10 percentile points, and reading scores declined an average of 2 to 4 percentile points.
Older students are more likely to face long-lasting effects from learning loss, while elementary-aged students are improving at higher and faster rates than middle school students. This makes elementary-aged students more likely to narrow learning gaps and remain on track than any other age group.
However, spikes in mental health problems, peer conflict, and disruptive behavior indicate that the “learning gap” goes beyond academic loss. It extends to a gap in social-emotional skills, too.
Although no student is immune to the ongoing impacts of COVID, some students are more susceptible to wider and more prolonged learning gaps than others. Preexisting learning gaps fueled by racial and socioeconomic inequity and inequality have grown even wider as a result of the pandemic and still need to be addressed.
What Did The Learning Gap Look Like In My Classroom?
The learning gap manifested in a variety of ways in my classroom. From academic challenges to social-emotional stumbling blocks, the hurdles my students faced seemed endless.
It was shocking to witness. Students struggled with what I (wrongly) viewed as “the basics,” like walking quietly in the hallways, sitting at a desk, or waiting for an appropriate moment to add to a conversation. In many ways, we were back at square one.
In order for edTech product owners to design products that successfully address these learning gaps, it’s important to understand where my students were at and which academic and social-emotional impacts were of greatest concern.
It took several weeks before I understood the full extent of the academic loss my middle schoolers faced. Some students had spent more than a year learning online. The lack of face-to-face interactions with teachers led to both confusion about, and their disengagement with, the ELA curriculum.
Upon returning to in-person school, I noticed that countless students in my classes were grades behind in their reading levels. They also lacked age-appropriate writing skills. Most students could not name the last book or short story they read, and many had no interest in picking one up. The idea of “working” for new information, rather than passively consuming it through a screen, seemed outrageous and far too strenuous.
This is because the way students absorbed information shifted over the course of the pandemic. Apps like TikTok, where entertainment unfolds over 30-second videos, made asking students to sit for traditional lessons an unrealistic expectation. My 15-20 minute lessons were too simply long for their shortened attention spans.
Ultimately, students didn’t have the foundational skills my 8th-grade curriculum required for them to make progress with new concepts.I quickly recognized that I not only needed to revise my curriculum, but also adapt my approach.
Perhaps one of the most evident forms of learning loss was students’ lack of social emotional skills. Their self-awareness, self management, relationship, and decision-making skills had all regressed. Although I had 8th graders sitting in front of me, it felt like I was working with 6th graders, the grade my students were in when the pandemic started.
Without these basic skills, academic learning is very difficult. In my classroom, this is where my “closing the gap” work started. My co-teacher and I began implementing concrete, and sometimes painfully explicit, strategies to support the growth of these foundational SEL skills.
When teachable moments popped up, we’d pause our ELA work and jump on the opportunity. We explained why now was not the best time to ask to use the restroom and highlighted where the date should be written in a notebook. We modeled the most efficient way to walk to your desk to avoid disrupting others and unpacked why whistling during a lesson is inappropriate. These important teachable moments supported the growth of SEL skills, but they also took away from instructional time. Time quickly became one of our largest obstacles.
Social-emotional deficits also created more interpersonal issues between peers and between students and teachers. Students struggled to make sense of normal interactions. They mistook healthy disagreements as antagonistic, which led to both verbal and physical fights. Accidentally bumping into someone else in the hallway became “picking a fight.”
Concrete rules and expectations in the classroom were also perceived as punitive and “unfair,” and were often met with pushback, unkind words, and even outright refusal to stay in the classroom. Students’ threshold for difficult, uncomfortable, but normal interactions had decreased. The default reaction I saw time and time again was disproportionate anger, frustration, and aggression.
What’s Being Done to Address the Learning Gap?
In July, the White House acknowledged the seriousness of learning loss through a “series of actions,” including, “…the creation of the National Partnership for Student Success, a coalition of leading national education and youth development organizations that will work to expand tutoring and mentoring programs across the country.”
The Hill reported that the National Partnership for Student Success aims to provide American students with “an additional 250,000 tutors and mentors over the next three years.” This roll out aligns with the concept of high-dosage tutoring, one of the “few interventions with a demonstrated benefit that comes close [to producing] an average gain equivalent to 19 weeks of instruction.” High-dosage tutoring is “…defined by educators as involving a trained tutor working with one to four students at a time, three times a week for a whole year.”
Both Biden’s efforts and the current research on learning loss remedies reinforces the fact that school alone cannot bridge the gap created by the pandemic. In fact, extra instructional time outside of the classroom is a necessary component for narrowing the learning gap. This will make strategies like high-dosage tutoring, voluntary summer school, and integrating edTech products into the curriculum even more important.
How Can EdTech Narrow the Learning Gap?
The time needed to close learning gaps from the pandemic far exceeds the time students have in the classroom. According to the NWEA’s July 2022 Research Brief, if the rate of change continues as is, it will take the average elementary student at least three years to fully recover—and even longer for older students to catch up.
Unfortunately, in many cases, recovery timelines extend past federal recovery fund spending deadlines, “…and for some students, full recovery will not be attainable before the end of high school.” Additionally, many teachers are struggling to carve out time for social-emotional instruction in their jam-packed school day.
In order to close the learning gap, teachers and students both need solutions that extend beyond the traditional school day, scaffold and differentiate content, make small group work possible, and level a historically uneven playing field. edTech can help with each of these challenges.
Offer Consistent Instructional Support Beyond the School Day
Additional instruction time is needed to close the learning gaps created by the pandemic, but time is a major barrier. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school day to fix these gaps.
edTech is one of the few solutions that can extend additional instructional support outside of the classroom and the school day. In addition to allowing students to “catch up” on important building blocks after school and on weekends, edTech can also help address a persistent understaffing problem. Between COVID quarantines and teachers leaving the profession at unprecedented rates, many students are experiencing interruptions in their instruction.
edTech products that specifically target learning gaps can offer consistency to students at a time where educational inconsistencies are commonplace—and when teachers are busier than ever.
Scaffold and Differentiate Student Learning Content
High teacher-to-student ratios makes narrowing these new learning gaps difficult, especially when many students have individualized education plans, or IEPs. In my integrated co-teaching classes, for example, one third of each class had an IEP.
Even under normal circumstances, creating daily lessons that meet the needs of all students at once is challenging. Now, faced with large learning gaps, differentiating and scaffolding content is a major challenge. For example, some students may need conceptual support from lessons that occurred one to two grade levels ago—not just a few units ago.
Adaptive edTech products can provide targeted support for students, as well as professional support for teachers. By offering teachers adaptive content that reaches across grade levels, edTech product owners can support and streamline the work that is already going on in our classrooms.
Increase Small Group Work Time
Understaffing, underfunding, and antiquated school models also result in many classes, like my own, being filled to max capacity. Throughout my four years of teaching, most of my classes were capped at 33 students. This makes working in small groups or supporting students with 1:1 instruction especially challenging—even though students need small group instruction at higher rates right now.
The pandemic has also exacerbated students’ ability to work independently. In some classes, the majority of my students found it difficult to work independently without prompting and redirection. This made conducting small groups and 1:1 conferencing difficult at a time when more students needed individualized support.
While small group work still happens in most classrooms, edTech products can increase the value of that time by supporting students until teachers have a chance to work with them directly.
Adaptive edTech products that meet students where they are can also make independent work more meaningful to students who are not receiving 1:1 or small group instruction. Even as students struggle to work independently, edTech products will allow teachers to lead more frequent, targeted small groups and address the learning gap.
Level an Already-Uneven Playing Field
The use of edTech products for bridging learning gaps also has the potential to level a historically uneven playing field. edTech can provide supplementary instruction to students who do not have access to tutors or adult support outside of the classroom.
Digital products can also help narrow gaps for students in low-income districts who otherwise might not have access to robust educational resources in school. If used thoughtfully, and with an awareness of digital inequity, systemic inequality, and implicit biases, edTech can help to bridge gaps that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the time and individualized attention students need to close learning gaps exceeds what the traditional school day and school staff are physically able to offer.
Given the magnitude of loss students are facing, educators and students need to utilize other avenues of supplemental support. Because of their ability to scale personalized support on demand, edTech products are a great solution to this problem.
Educators and students both need differentiated and adaptive learning tools. They need products that focus explicitly on SEL and products that seamlessly integrate SEL into content area curriculum.
They need products that can be used independently by students both in and out of the classroom. They need products that support the growth of attention span and academic stamina.
Ultimately, they need products that consider the unique hurdles created by the pandemic.
Although education is in a fragile state, it is also in a moment of great opportunity. The pandemic forced the world to reevaluate old models of working, learning, and interacting.
It is imperative that the education field swiftly reacts not only to the adverse impacts of the pandemic, but also to the opportunity to reevaluate and reinvent antiquated systems that no longer work, and for many, never worked at all.
EdTech can—and should—have a special role in this process.