School subjects

The pandemic left many months behind in school subjects: NPR

NPR’s Michel Martin chats with Hechinger Report reporter Jill Barshay to discuss what we know about pandemic ‘learning loss’ and how educators can address it.


Let’s move on to a topic that we know concerns many parents and teachers. After more than a year of distance learning, teachers are starting to notice the results of students who have been outside the regular school environment for so long. Many students haven’t made much academic progress at all. Some studies are starting to quantify this missed learning, which you could also call learning loss, that occurred during this time.

Jill Barshay is a writer for The Hechinger Report, a freelance newsroom based at Teachers College at Columbia University. She writes the Proof Points column on education, research and data, and she’s with us now to tell us more about it. Jill Barshay, thank you very much for joining us.

JILL BARSHAY: Oh, it’s a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: It’s still the start of the new school year, but so far what has the study said about the situation of students after about 18 months of distance learning?

BARSHAY: We’ve published over a dozen studies, and most of them track student progress through spring 2021. We don’t have recent data for this fall yet. But what we do know from last year – all the studies point in the same direction – that children and older students haven’t learned as much as they usually do in a school year. Estimates vary. Some say they are five months late. Others say they are two months late. Some will not take months. And they say, oh, an average student that would’ve been at the 50th percentile, now maybe he’s at the 40th percentile. And what we are seeing is that students are lagging far behind in math than in reading.

MARTIN: Are some students more concerned than others?

BARSHAY: Absolutely. Students who attend schools where the majority of students are low-income experience much larger drops in achievement than students, for example, suburban schools or high-income schools. We also find that English language learners are lagging behind. We see that the black students, the Latino students, are much later than the white students.

MARTIN: And why do you think it’s more math than English? It’s interesting too.

BARSHAY: I think it’s because we mainly learn math in school. We do not naturally do algebra at home or calculate ratios and percentages at home at the table. But many of us are still reading, whether it’s on our cell phones or our comics. There is always some kind of reading at home.

MARTIN: So let’s talk about what might be the best way to help students catch up. So, is the research giving us any clues there?

BARSHAY: The most beneficial way to help kids catch up is something very old fashioned – tutoring. It happens every day, the kind of effective tutoring that researchers have found. It is not a weekly homework help. And it works closely with the classroom teachers to understand where the student’s gaps lie and to fill those particular gaps so they can follow through every day in the classroom.

MARTIN: We hear anecdotes from teachers and parents all the time about this, but it seems like people are in all kinds of different places about it. Maybe a student – you know, it’s – it’s not, like, a generalized situation where everyone’s been messing up the same things, is it?


MARTIN: So do you feel some kind of national strategy to fill those gaps?

BARSHAY: I think a national strategy is not the right way to think about it. You want to think about targeted strategies for particular students. There were students who did not have a computer, who did not log on and who did not receive any education for over a year. These students are in dire need of tutoring to help them catch up. There are other students who for the most part received much of the lessons they were supposed to take. Maybe they’re a little rusty on some topics, but they’ll be fine in their classrooms. And in these cases, what teachers should do when they open a lesson on a new topic is just give them a little mini-lesson on some basic concepts. I can give you an example.

Let’s say a teacher is about to introduce division. The teacher can say, listen, you already know the multiplication – and can draw a picture on the whiteboard. Here are five rows of desks, each with four desks – and show them how five times four equals 20. And then as soon as you do this mini-lesson, you can say, OK, now let’s learn the division. What if a teacher has 21 assignments and has to divide them among three students? – and can sort of draw it the same way.

MARTIN: See, I can say you’re going back to your old roots as a high school math teacher …

BARSHAY: (Laughs).

MARTIN: … What you once were. There’s another issue I want to bring up, though, is that a lot of families have been through a lot in the past 18 months. I mean, we know COVID has devastated some families. Some families found themselves without a single caregiver. Some families found themselves without both caregivers. Some families have lost grandparents who were very active in their care – not to mention that isolation was really hard on people, whether or not they lost someone. And I wonder if there is a way to capture the effect that students’ emotional state can have on their learning, even if they are back in school.

BARSHAY: I haven’t seen any really good studies yet that attempt to measure emotional differences. I’ve seen polls, but they don’t compare people’s emotional states long before the pandemic, so I don’t know how much worse they are. What I’m hearing are principals across the country talking about many emotional issues they see. Richard Bowman, administrator in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says he is witnessing an epidemic of conflict, bad behavior and violence, and it must have at its roots a lot of emotional trauma among students who have lost parents and members of their families. And it’s clear that school administrators need to address the emotional needs of students first before they even think about catching up.

MARTIN: So before you let go, it might be obvious to you, but I’m going to ask you anyway. Why is this important? What are the stakes here?

BARSHAY: The stakes are high because for – a child who is quite late in math or reading can get discouraged and stop trying. And then before you knew it, they dropped out of school. Or maybe they haven’t given up, but just aren’t interested in school. And they don’t learn as much, and so when they graduate from high school, maybe they won’t go to college. And the McKinsey Group even tried to estimate this – that if you get through the yield cuts and extend them into the future, it could be $ 150 billion less per year for the US economy and a lot more. money we have to pay for social services to adults who do not have the training to be productive workers.

MARTIN: It’s Jill Barshay. She writes the Proof Points column on education, research and data in the Hechinger report. It is an independent newsroom based at Teachers College at Columbia University. Jill Barshay, thank you very much for speaking with us and sharing these ideas.

BARSHAY: Thanks.

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