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One key to managing COVID learning loss: keeping grade-level content

Like many school, district, and network leaders, the Partnership Schools’ network team are beginning to plan for the start of the next school year.

While there remain serious questions about how we will serve students while ensuring the health and safety of our schools communities, one thing is clear: no matter how effectively schools adapted to the challenges of distance learning, more students than ever will begin the new school year with learning gaps. And, as is too often the case, those students who faced the most significant challenges before the pandemic began will be the ones most impacted by the loss of in-class instruction.

Across Partnership Schools, as our school communities work together to plan for an uncertain future, this much is already clear: our approach to filling student learning gaps will continue to center all classrooms on a coherent, knowledge-building curriculum, and all students will engage with rigorous, grade-level content.

The reality is that, across our seven Partnership Schools, we must reckon every year with the challenge of students with tremendous potential who come to us behind grade-level. So while the scale of the problem may be new this year, making up for lost learning is something our schools already face. And seven years of New York State Test gains have taught us a key lesson in that effort: a knowledge-rich, carefully sequenced curriculum taught with fidelity best serves students, even those who have more ground to gain at the start of a school year.

We are not alone. Particularly in reading, compelling research by Tim Shanahan, Lisa Trottier Brown and others suggests that providing students challenging texts taught with the right supports drives gains better than trying to match or lower grade level.

The positive impact of maintaining ambitious curriculum in the wake of learning gaps is likewise reinforced by the experiences of New Orleans schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; as Paul Hill notes for the the Center for Reinventing Public Education, “Elementary schools that emphasized skill recovery found that students scored poorly on state accountability tests—poorly enough to threaten charter schools’ existence. A consequent re-emphasis on grade-level instruction improved score performance.”

As Hill cautions, New Orleans educators remained concerned about learning gaps even as they saw score performances improve. And no educator in our network is committing to grade-level instruction for next year without a sense of the challenges involved. Starting the year with grade-level curriculum is absolutely not the only measure we are envisioning to help our students achieve on the level that we know their abilities and aspirations demand.

Yet just as a knowledge-rich curriculum has been our “north star” during distance learning, we know that it is the fixed point around which our other efforts will move once next year’s classes begin.