Students are returning to school this year amid widespread concerns over the impact of the pandemic on their learning. To address these concerns—and look for solutions—the NWEA Policy and Advocacy team recently held a Twitter chat that elicited strong ideas for helping students rebound.
Our #NWEArecoverychat followed the release of NWEA research showing that while students across the country are making academic gains at a faster pace than they were early in the pandemic, we are still a ways off from closing opportunity gaps, particularly in some grades and subgroups. The research also shows historically marginalized groups have been hardest hit by educational disruptions associated with COVID-19 and have the longest road to recovery.
Shortly after we held our chat, federal officials released National Assessment for Educational Progress data showing reading and math scores for nine-year-olds fell during the pandemic by the largest margin in three decades. Lower-performing students were hardest hit.
We asked our Twitter community to share ideas for helping students get back on track, and five themes emerged from the discussion:
- Middle school students need particular attention and support
- Even before the pandemic, the nation’s education system was beset with inequities that must be addressed in serious and strategic ways
- School and system leaders need to evaluate what’s working and take specific, evidence-based steps to spur learning
- Policymakers need to plan for the so-called fiscal cliff, in which pandemic relief funds must be spent over the next few years
- It’s vital to center decision-making around meaningful and transparent data
1. Helping middle schoolers
While elementary school students made strides toward closing opportunity gaps widened during the pandemic, NWEA research confirms that middle schoolers made much less progress during the 2021–2022 school year. It’s vital that schools and districts use local data to identify the specific gaps in their communities—including which grade bands and subject areas were hardest hit—and target them with resources and interventions, most importantly those that add instructional time.
Our friends at the nonprofit advocacy organization All4ED noted that middle schools often suffer from inadequate funding for counselors, social workers, and wraparound services, which can impact student achievement and overall well-being. They also said education leaders need to ensure instructional practices used in middle schools are aligned with the latest research around learning and development. “Adolescence is a critical window for brain development. Educators need support to adopt instructional practices aligned with scientific research about how middle school students learn and develop,” the All4Ed team tweeted.
The team at Learning Heroes, which works to help parents and guardians support and advocate for their children, says families must be part of the solution. Education leaders and policymakers can support families by ensuring they have access to important data about their children’s academic performance. One resource to check out and share is the Readiness Check on the Leaning Heroes site, a free tool to help adults identify how their children are doing with grade-level skills. Educators and leaders can also center parent-teacher conferences this fall around data and provide robust information to families about the data they use.
2. Addressing inequity
While there have been signs of academic rebounding across the country, low-poverty schools have less ground to regain and are expected to recover faster than high-poverty schools. The research from NWEA also shows Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) students remain disproportionately impacted. Furthermore, the NAEP data shows a widening gap between low-performing and high-performing students, a trend that predated the pandemic but worsened during it.
Our colleagues at the Hunt Institute noted that it is essential that education leaders come up with long-term solutions to systemic inequities. “We need to be thoughtful about how we leverage federal relief funding and other resources to ensure that a portion of it goes to long-term transformation and improvements in education that serve all students,” they tweeted.
Christine Pitts, the director of impact and communications at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, noted the importance of holding all students to high expectations and setting ambitious goals for student recovery. That’s particularly relevant in light of a recent report by TNTP on how students are spending more time on below grade-level work than before the pandemic. To catch up, students need more time—not less—doing grade-level work while getting targeted support and extra instructional time to address knowledge and gaps.
3. Evaluating what’s working and plotting next steps
When asked to highlight and share information about programs having a positive impact on school recovery efforts, our Twitter community responded with stories from the field.
Dale Chu, a senior visiting fellow with the Fordham Institute, praised a Texas policy requiring struggling students, as measured by the state assessment data, to receive 30 hours of targeted tutoring. “I like this spirit of intentionally using data to help drive resources and target interventions,” he tweeted.
Many other states also are investing in high-dosage tutoring. Research shows tutoring works best when offered in school, during the school day, by teachers or professional tutors who are well trained and supervised for at least 30 minutes per session, multiple times a week.
Other extended learning opportunities are also important, and we’ve been pleased to see the expansion of strong summer programs around the country. Programs are most effective when they encourage high attendance and run for at least five weeks. We also know some student subgroups are more likely to be impacted by summer learning loss and should have access to high-quality summer programs.
Our friends at FutureEd said it was important to get behind efforts to address chronic absenteeism and improve student engagement. “A key to improving student learning is improving student attendance. The pandemic doubled absenteeism rates in many districts. We need to devote energy to get these students back in the classroom and fully engaged,” they tweeted.
Chronic absenteeism generally requires a systemic approach toward improvement. The advocacy group Attendance Works offers strong suggestions for making positive change in this area.
4. Achieving sustainable funding
The federal government has provided nearly $200 billion to help schools across the country address challenges associated with the pandemic. While schools were supposed to spend their federal COVID-19 relief funding by 2024, they have been given some leeway. However they still need to think strategically about how the use of resources can sustain recovery efforts. “States and districts have been given flexibility to spend their COVID relief funds into the 2025–26 school year but #edleaders need to be planning now for sustaining their recovery efforts—particularly those that are making the biggest difference for students,” said the team at All4Ed.
Our Twitter community agreed there should be a sharing of resources and knowledge related to programs that provide a return on investment. It’s vital that education leaders look at their investments, and those of others, to identify which programs are working so they can bring those to scale. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. States and districts must collaborate and learn from one another to ensure that resources are being used effectively for evidence-based strategies, practices, and programs,” tweeted the Hunt Institute.
The team at the Data Quality Campaign said it was imperative to use funding available to invest in strengthening data systems. Others suggested system leaders step up their work to partner with community stakeholders to leverage outside resources and support, and to supplement federal aid.
5. Obtaining the data we need
There was broad consensus among our chat participants that schools and systems need to collect meaningful data to capture a complete and accurate picture of the student experience and student learning. That should include data related to participation in recovery efforts and access to qualified teachers, counselors, and nurses. Our Twitter community also wants to see a focus on data related to enrollment in rigorous courses and pathways, attendance, and achievement.
Chat participants noted that data should be shared and used to foster collaboration and collective problem-solving. The team at the Data Quality Campaign said data systems should be connected across grade levels from pre-K through grade 12, post-secondary education, and the workforce to drive bold and lasting improvements. California has created such a system.
Like most things, data systems need to be regularly evaluated to make sure they are meeting the needs of students, teachers, and families and creating positive change and a collaborative culture around data use. It’s also vital to try to measure how students are doing beyond academics, which can involve collecting student and teacher survey data, seeking community reflection and feedback in other ways, and keeping track of attendance and engagement.
Let’s keep talking
We were inspired by and learned a lot from this Twitter chat and look forward to more. If you have ideas for future discussions, let us know. You can find us @NWEAPolicy.