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Three Key Steps Districts Should Take in Addressing Unfinished Learning

 |   |  School Leadership, School Culture, District Leadership, Equity, Unfinished Learning, Learning Loss


The global pandemic shook schools and districts to their core in the last year. Educational institutions had to adapt to a virtual environment in a matter of days with students and families being hit the hardest. While students, families, and educators displayed remarkable resilience through this experience, educational institutions have still seen the negative impacts affect student learning. Though students across the globe have been impacted by COVID-19, Black, Latinos, and Indigenous communities bear an even heavier burden. According to a McKinsey study, students of color are about three to five months behind in their learning compared to white students who are only about one to three months behind.

While learning loss is a common term used across educational spaces, it often has a negative connotation. We seek to identify an asset-based way to talk about learning loss, which is why you will see it explained as unfinished learning as well. We use these terms interchangeably. 

So how do we as a community recover from this learning loss?

As we continue to engage with districts and schools around equity work, we know that there is a deeper root cause to how unfinished learning impacts students of color. You can learn more about our work with districts around racial equity here and we'd also like to offer 3 key steps districts can take in finding solutions to address learning loss:


1. Understand the extent of learning loss in your district and provide solutions grounded in research.

A study done by McKinsey states that by the end of the academic school year in 2021, students of color could be six to 12 months behind in their learning, while white students could be four to eight months behind. In order for schools and districts to truly assess the needs of their students, they will have to lead with this information. 

Schools and districts should expect to assess students early and try to find other mechanisms to assess student learning. This will be an important benchmark in assessing the extent of unfinished learning. In addition to assessing students, assess your district’s capacity to take on this work. 

As you begin to identify ways to support students in your schools or district, these solutions must be grounded in data and evidence of success. While it will be critical for schools and districts to focus on teaching students content that they have missed, they must also ensure that they are keeping up with grade level standards so that students do not fall behind even further. McKinsey explains this by stating, "As a result, school systems need to create a step change in student learning if we are to catch up on what has been lost through this pandemic. Systems can start now to create acceleration plans using evidence-based strategies that support students with more time and more dedicated attention, all founded on exposing students to grade-level learning." The research and data collected will ensure that schools and district solutions do not exacerbate pre-existing inequities.

2. Tie solutions into other goals or metrics.

We know that the pandemic has had a long-term impact on students’ learning and thus will require longer term solutions. While summer school and high intensive tutoring will be critical, districts will need to find a more efficient way to address learning loss. For example, adding a week of summer school in July will support student learning, but it will not reverse the overall impact of learning loss. It will take much more than one week to get students up to speed. One solution schools and districts should consider is to tie unfinished learning solutions into existing goals in their strategic plan. This way, the learning loss initiative feels organic and not isolated from other goals or metrics. It will also ensure a long-term focus and commitment to addressing unfinished learning from educators across the board. Additionally, we have to remember that learning loss is not tied specifically to just one issue, but is very well part of a deeper root cause. For example, teachers who teach students of colors are likely asked to develop less rigorous online assignments compared to teachers who teach white students. An equity audit can help unpack some of those root causes and help schools and districts create goals that are equitable, long-term solutions. For more information on what an equity focused strategic plan looks like, check out our blog on these five considerations to develop an equity-focused strategic plan. 

3. Invest financially into solutions.

While schools and districts should plan on addressing the issue of unfinished learning head-on, this process will require consistent collaboration among schools and districts. Schools and districts will need to provide students with solutions such as high-dosage tutoring, extended days, a commitment to high-quality curriculum and instructional materials, bridging the digital divide, and additional assessments, which will require schools and districts to allocate a large portion of their budget to these solutions. The U.S. Department of Education’s American Rescue plan was designed to support schools and districts in allocating their budgets effectively and includes $123 billion for K-12 schools. The plan is especially critical in ensuring that districts spend at least 20% of this money on addressing learning loss and making a public plan for returning to in-person schooling safely. While this plan names that 20% of this money should be spent on addressing learning loss, it is up to the schools and districts to work together to develop task forces in addressing these issues. Furthermore, schools and districts should prepare to make remote learning a more permanent reality for many students. Many states and districts have started to prepare for this reality by equipping students with the tools needed to successfully navigate remote learning. In order for students to thrive in a remote environment, the CRPE has collected data that states that 77% of districts have distributed Chromebooks, while 51% of districts have also provided internet hot spots. While naturally students will still struggle to progress in a remote learning environment, these actions will help close the gap at least a little bit. 

Finally, as you begin to think about solutions to learning loss, we want to challenge schools and districts to identify asset-based ways of talking about unfinished learning to students and families. What can you use in place of remediation? Or deficiency? We owe it to our students to find ways to encourage a growth mindset. 


Are you looking for additional resources around learning loss and equity?

Be sure to check out: 

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About Jason Stricker

Jason Stricker is a co‐founder of Insight Education Group and Insight ADVANCE. With extensive experience in education as a teacher, instructional coach, chief academic officer, consultant, and business leader, he brings to his work a deep understanding of educator effectiveness and organizational change and its impact on stakeholders at all levels.

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