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Academic Spotlight: The Case for Grade-Level Content, Especially Now

The swell of standardized test cancellations is just beginning in our nation and abroad.

Without achievement data from this year and the last, it’ll be difficult to quantify the learning loss children globally will experience as a result of school building closures, delays in reopening for in-person education, and reliance on remote instruction.

Still, we know that most students aren’t well served by learning online. Even “best in class” distance instruction is unlikely to stave off the totality of learning loss students will suffer as a result of this pandemic. And worse yet, it’s our youngest students and those children who were already struggling to meet academic benchmarks that will fall the furthest.

McKinsey, for example, projects that low-income students will lose an average of twelve months of learning—and that’s in the event that widespread in-person learning begins again in January, 2021, a scenario that is looking increasingly less likely.

With even less dramatic learning gaps, or just with remote students beginning to lose stamina for difficult, grade-level course work, it is more tempting than ever before to teach towards “instructional level” texts and tasks—ones that students can complete with minimal assistance from a teacher—or to supplant core content altogether with remediation plans aimed at filling gaps left in previous grades. Yet these two measures contribute to a cycle that robs students of the daily opportunities they need to grow against, and learn from, age-appropriate content and curriculum.

Research tells us these methods compound lagging achievement—and in the context of this pandemic, the impact could be catastrophic for the current generation of struggling learners. As literacy expert Prof. Timothy Shanahan summarized recently in a blog post: “This pandemic is an educational disaster for many of our boys and girls. Lowering our standards and our efforts to accomplish them will not make it better for the kids; it will just reduce the likelihood that we’ll do what is necessary for their success. Please don’t lower those benchmarks.”

That is why we’ve remained deeply committed to teaching grade-level content to all of our students and tackling weaknesses only as students progress through their core curriculum in each subject. In other words, we review and reteach requisite skills and knowledge where they are necessary for students’ acquisition of new skills and knowledge. The Ed Research for Recovery project calls this “just in time” review.

No doubt, committing to grade-level content for all of our students effectively requires teachers to study their curriculum carefully and wrestle explicitly with what will present the most valuable learning experiences for students—and what students will need in order to shoulder difficult cognitive work productively. In literacy, for example, this might look like really careful text preparation—pre-planning the cues and knowledge feeding students may require to read a piece fluently and establish its meaning. In math, this could mean planning detailed solutions to problem sets, so that in advance of direct instruction, teachers enumerate the knowledge students are expected to access in their problem-solving and what kind of support they may need to recall it.

Teaching grade-level content also requires regular analysis and understanding of independent student work, yielding information at a grain size that can meaningfully shape daily instruction and inform feedback, as a teacher presses forward. So, in addition to carefully planned grade level work, students more than ever need individualized comments and elaborated feedback that steers them not just to recognizing their overall performance levels, but to an understanding of their errors.

Crafting cues and questions and providing effective, individual feedback are at the heart of the craft of teaching, and they take time. That’s one of many reasons why our network trusts in carefully sequenced, knowledge-based curricula: so that teachers can aim their efforts and expertise at how to teach with less of a burden of choosing what to teach.

COVID-19 compels school leaders to make tough choices. At Partnership Schools, keeping all students learning grade level material isn’t one of them.

Maggie Johnson is Vice President of Academics for Partnership Schools.