Students across the United States are starting back school — and while parents, educators, and students are facing new challenges posed by the high transmissibility of the Delta variant, those who are headed back to the classroom are often eager to return to in-person learning. After what was an unquestionably difficult year of online or hybrid learning for students in most of the country, education experts are gaining evidence around what was implicitly experienced by students, educators, and caregivers — that many students faced insurmountable challenges to getting online and now face setbacks in their learning.
We recently sat down with Henry Hipps, Deputy Director of the K-12 Education team at the Gates Foundation to get his perspective on some of the impacts on learning — and some solutions going forward.
Gates Philanthropy Partners: A year ago as the pandemic shut down schools nationwide there were early reports about significant learning loss, particularly for students of color and those in low-resource communities. A year later, what are you and your team learning?
Henry: As we get started, I want to share with your readers that we are using the term “unfinished learning” instead of learning loss. Using the term learning loss implies students had something that was taken away. The real problem is that far too many students never had access to environments in which they could effectively learn during the pandemic, meaning their development was uninterrupted, or unfinished. For students who have consistently faced barriers — whether because of race, class, unaddressed learning needs, and the like — being able to understand and measure what has been gained — what has really stuck — is our baseline. Unfinished learning also gives the student more agency. There is a path forward rather than being labeled as someone who have fallen behind. But to get at your question, the answer is that we don’t quite know yet because many state assessment systems are still disrupted due to the pandemic — some states have scaled assessments back, some have delayed assessments until next fall, and others have suspended the assessments altogether. There are predictions that there will be significant differences in outcomes given the opportunity gaps between white students and students of color, but we don’t have the data yet.
For those who want to dive deeper, there is an analysis from Curriculum Associates that looked at 1.2 million students and found that students’ proficiency is lower this year compared to prior years, the unfinished learning is greater for students in earlier grades, and that it is greater for students in schools serving majority Black and Latino students and students from lower-income zip codes.
Gates Philanthropy Partners: One area the foundation’s US education program focuses its funding is on social and emotional learning. What has changed in this space because of the pandemic?
Henry: School systems are increasingly building wrap-around services to address student needs. Schools need a lot of caring adults to be available to students because teachers alone cannot address the trauma that many students experienced over the past year. There need to be counselors, advisors and other administrators available. As students come back to school in the fall, teachers are going to see such a wide range of social and emotional needs — everything from rebuilding trust with adults to reintegration with peers. There is going to be a lot of work to do.
Gates Philanthropy Partners: Have there been any silver linings or innovations coming out of virtual learning?
Henry: There are silver linings, but it’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic and a national reckoning with racial injustice to accelerate funding and attention toward known solutions. One area, for example, is the digital divide — getting students access to the Internet and computing technology. The Gates Foundation and other private philanthropies have been working to close this divide for years. This is a great example of where philanthropy is the catalyst, but we now need state and federal policy change, budgets at the district level to include infrastructure changes, etc. It’s happening. I’m hopeful that more students — and particularly students of color — are gaining access to technology, which can ultimately reduce learning barriers.
Another example is around accelerated learning. Schools are attempting to help students get back to grade level and are testing various methods to do so. By using an accelerated learning approach, a teacher starts with grade-level content and strategically builds in key concepts from earlier grades when students might need them to master the grade-level work. This method is proving to be particularly effective for students of color and those from low-income families. Again, for those looking to go deeper, there’s a great report by The New Teacher Project (TNTP) that looks at this issue.
Gates Philanthropy Partners: We saw just how hard teachers worked this past year — both in the virtual classroom and to connect with students beyond the classroom through drive-by parades and outdoor meet-and-greets. What resources do teachers need to successfully return to the classroom?
Henry: Teachers are going to need so much support. They have experienced their own social and emotional challenges this year. They will need to reconnect within a community of teachers and be supported by administrators and parents/caregivers. In the classroom, teachers are going to need a new set of assessment tools that let them understand where students are in their learning and what is going on emotionally. We need to be able to give teachers better assessment tools and ensure that they are used to holistically addressing a student’s needs without labeling that student or pigeon-holing them on a specific learning track.
Gates Philanthropy Partners: What is keeping you optimistic?
Henry: I’ll be honest that we are going through some difficult times between the pandemic and issues related to racial injustice. The work is hard and it’s going to continue to be hard. There is a lot of inequity in our education system. Civil rights leader and educator Bob Moses recently told me that “ours is a nation that lurches toward progress”. That is to say, we have moments of significant setbacks interspersed with great leaps forward, but we keep moving on. So, I’m hopeful and optimistic that we are going to work through it and create school environments that understand a student’s holistic needs. I’m also hopeful that students are learning through this process what it means to part of a community and a society and how to participate within those spaces.
Learn more about the Gates Foundation’s K-12 Education program.