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Recovering COVID-19 learning losses starts with scaling differentiation

The Newsela Team
Aug 26, 2020

As projections of learning losses and the “COVID slide” dominate education headlines, schools are slowly gaining a clearer picture of the achievement gaps teachers will see this fall. The average classroom likely already included students at learning levels above or below their grade, but recent research shows this gap will widen dramatically—with lower-achieving students falling furthest behind. 

So how can schools effectively stall the slide and get all students back on track? As a classroom strategy that’s been embraced by teachers for years, Differentiated Instruction will be more important than ever this fall—and schools should be thinking about ways to scale and support it with the right materials and technology. Below, we explore why differentiation is key to addressing inequity, recovering learning losses, and creating the conditions for every student to succeed.

Learning losses haven’t been equal

The more we learn about the impact of COVID-19 on learning this year, the clearer it is that learning losses are steep—and they aren’t affecting all students equally. Research done by NWEA, Brown University, and the University of Virginia projected that when students return to their studies this fall, they’ll have made approximately 63-68% of the learning gains students typically would in reading, and as low as 37% of typical gains in math. A NWEA white paper provided the additional context that while students from affluent communities are more likely to have the resources and learning supports to “weather this storm more easily,” students from underserved communities are at greater risk of falling behind. 

In the face of this disparity, differentiated instruction (including strategies like teaching content at multiple reading levels and using customizable instructions and prompts) is essential to promote equity and help all students gain back losses in reading and math. And educators know this: a recent survey done by the EdTech Evidence Exchange and University of Virginia found that 82% of teachers and administrators say they will need to differentiate instruction more—or significantly more—this fall than in a typical school year.

Flexibility and waivers are not guaranteed

Another reason differentiation is critical going into this school year? Federal requirements for school accountability aren’t likely to be lifted. A piece published in Education Week this month explains that while the U.S. Secretary of Education granted waivers to schools this spring to cancel exams and carry over previous accountability data, that type of flexibility is unlikely to be extended into the fall. 

With the Department of Education communicating that expectations are high—and with teachers facing a wide span of different student abilities after a turbulent spring—the need for materials that support differentiated instruction is paramount. It’s also important that at every level, these materials are standards-aligned, helping teachers remedy learning losses and prepare students for required performance assessments.

Beyond COVID-19: Differentiating at scale

While the need is urgent this year, scaling differentiation efforts—and investing in materials and technology that can help—will lead to important benefits down the road as well. In addition to helping teachers meet students where they are and recovering learning losses, scaling differentiation also opens the door to increased flexibility and supporting different types of learning. 

A recent brief published in Education Dive reported that remote learning has in fact benefitted some students, removing distractions and allowing them to work on projects at their own pace. Some educators are now considering how differentiated instruction could help support different learning styles going forward, making room for students who flourish when given more freedom through project-based learning.

Effective differentiation can take many forms, from providing engaging content at a range of reading levels to empowering teachers to customize annotations, prompts, and assignments to support the learning styles of individual students. And as a tried-and-true approach with support from teachers around the country, scaling differentiation presents an opportunity to help all students—especially those with fewer resources and less support from their communities—gain back the learning they may have lost this spring.

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