Learning Heroes leader shares advice on how to support post-pandemic student growth

Students continue to rebound from the pandemic, with further narrowing of gaps between current-year and pre-pandemic achievement levels, according to new NWEA research. The analysis looks at fall 2022 data on MAP® Growth™ assessments in reading and math for 7 million students in grades 3–8.

While the continued progress is encouraging, the research builds on previous studies showing it will take years for most students to fully catch up if education leaders don’t push the pace of recovery. We continue to see the largest gaps for students in high-poverty schools and Black and Hispanic students, though all groups are making progress.

The research shows students are rebounding faster in math than reading, though gaps continue to be larger in math and there is more ground to make up in that subject. In addition, the research shows summer slide, a typical pattern in which students lose ground during out-of-school time in the summer months, wasn’t as large in 2022 as compared to pre-pandemic trends.

You can learn more about these research findings in this fact sheet.

I dug into the research and other important education data during a recent conversation with Bibb Hubbard, founder and president of Learning Heroes, a nonprofit working to ensure parents and guardians are empowered to support the success of their children in school. In particular, I wanted to better understand how we can use all the data we’re seeing to support families in helping students rebound from the pandemic. I learned so much from the conversation and hope by sharing excerpts here, others will be informed and inspired to act. My conversation with Bibb has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you make of this new fall data on students’ academic recovery, and how can it inform the work Learning Heroes is doing to support children and families, particularly those from underrepresented or marginalized communities?

In addition to this important assessment data, we recently saw the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress data, which was quite sobering: 26 percent of our eighth-graders are proficient in math. Things were pretty unacceptable pre-pandemic, and now we’re seeing just devastating numbers.

I’m glad to see silver linings in the NWEA data, in terms of what happened over the summer and the growth, but it’s still really distressing to see how long it will take to recover. Our research shows 92 percent of parents—regardless of race, income, or education level—believe that their child is at or above grade level in reading and math. We clearly don’t have 92 percent of our students performing at that level.

What can we do about this knowledge gap parents have when it comes to data, how they think their children are doing academically, and how their children are likely actually doing?

We’re trying to use this national data to reach parents and let them know that if all this macro data is showing most students need support, maybe their child is among those. We want parents to explore what’s happening in their child’s classroom and very simply ask their child’s teacher what grade level their child is on in math and reading and how they can work together to make a plan for the time left in the school year.

How we communicate and share data is so important. What are practical steps we can take, or what policies do you think we can enact, to improve how schools communicate with parents about student progress? And how can we do this in ways that improve educational equity?

The MAP Growth data is a hugely influential piece of information. When it gets translated to families in culturally affirming ways, in a way that builds trust between teachers and families, it’s really powerful.

We conducted focus groups in Nebraska, which prioritizes engaging families in conversations around student progress on assessment data. What we found there was parents had their eyes wide open about their child. They knew exactly where their kids were academically. Everybody was on the same page—parents, students, and teachers—and they had a plan to address gaps.

Parents really need to know what diagnostic assessment their child is taking and what other pieces of information they can have access to in order to see how their own child is doing. This should include examples of their work. Parents also need to feel comfortable and have the structures in place to share their own observations, such as whether they think their children are struggling to read or would benefit from enrichment opportunities.

It’s important for educators and school and system leaders to see family engagement as part of their instructional strategy in this way. You have to have the infrastructure in place, and teachers have to have the training to do this work. It’s also vital that families feel valued and welcomed in their school community.

If we take these important steps—open the lines of communication, create policies that build trust, create the right environment for educators to better share data, and equip parents with meaningful information—what positive outcomes do you think we’ll see?

This work is happening in pockets around the country, and we’re about to do a study to really quantify the impact. We believe we’ll see student achievement improve, as well as student well-being. We think taking these important steps can also improve teacher retention, principal retention, superintendent retention, and school enrollment numbers.

There is so much power in having relationships that are grounded in trust and respect and seeing everybody as an asset in the community—all in service of student learning and well-being.

Those are the kind of outcomes we all want. Are there any other steps you’d like to see education advocates or families take in the near term to help advance these important goals?

One other policy recommendation I’d suggest is to make it easier for outside organizations and experts to partner with schools. We need new solutions and new partnerships, but procurement challenges are among the biggest barriers to change. It’s so hard to be innovative and fully take advantage of federal relief dollars if schools can’t partner with new groups because of outdated and bureaucratic procurement rules.

For families, one of the tools we created that parents and caregivers might want to check out is a readiness check.Families can use it with children to see if they’re working at their grade level in reading and math and identify areas where they might be struggling.

For more on Learning heroes, check out their website. You can also find them on Twitter @BeALearningHero. We’re at @NWEAPolicy and would love to hear your ideas for empowering families and helping students make a full academic recovery.

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