5 Strategies for Addressing Unfinished Learning

Now is the time for educators to focus on delivering equitable and engaging grade-level learning experiences.

GUEST COLUMN | by Ken Tam

This past year presented unprecedented challenges to students, educators, and parents. From inequalities experienced with at-home learning to the digital divide to the social and emotional toll of the pandemic, these challenges have – and will continue to have – an impact on student learning. And, while research details the significance of unfinished learning with students across the country, there are actions educators can take to successfully address student needs for the remainder of this school year and beyond. 

‘…there are actions educators can take to successfully address student needs for the remainder of this school year and beyond.’ 

As detailed in the recently-released report, “What We’ve Learned about Unfinished Learning,” below are five practical strategies school and district leaders can take to help drive student achievement.

Ensure assessments deliver clear and actionable data. An assessment serves student learning only when it provides a clear view of student needs and related instructional supports. For educators, this is especially important in helping them to quickly and easily understand where students are and how they can personalize their instruction to close any gaps.

So what are the assessment must-haves? An effective assessment should be criterion-referenced against benchmarks; identify prerequisite skills students need for grade-level proficiency and college and career readiness; and include tools that make it easy for teachers to regularly monitor student performance to ensure all students – including the most vulnerable to falling further behind – get the timely support they need.

Choose high-quality, rigorous curriculum. To address unfinished learning, the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) emphasizes the importance of grade-level work and rigor. This recommendation is backed by guidance from the Chiefs for Change and the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy for school reentry, in which the organizations suggest “comprehensively adopting high-quality instructional materials with robust teacher supports.”

So, rather than focusing on remediation and re-teaching, now is the time for educators to focus on delivering equitable and engaging grade-level learning experiences.

Set ambitious yet attainable goals for all students. Research from TNTP shows students make greater learning gains when teachers hold high expectations about their ability to meet grade-level standards. Despite the challenges of the last year, these high expectations should remain in place.

To support appropriately-challenging growth goals, educators need assessments that guide grade-level instructional priorities, as well as clear grade-level benchmarks and scaffolds to address underlying unfinished learning. Once high expectations are in place, incremental goal setting and monitoring progress are a natural next step in attaining grade-level proficiency.

Prioritize coherence. Having a clear, composite view of student learning across settings is important as educators work to address unfinished learning.  In order to get this view all student data must be integrated. This helps save time and avoids redundant activities, while providing a comprehensive overview of student progress at any point during the year. 

As described in the report on unfinished learning, coherence reduces overlapping assessments, in keeping with the guiding principles for assessment set forth by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the CGCS, which states, “Assessments should be administered in only the numbers and duration that will give us the information that is needed and nothing more. Multiple assessments of the same students for similar purposes should be minimized or eliminated.” 

Engage students. Programs that are culturally and linguistically responsive (CLR) help students see their own cultural experiences reflected in the content and, as a result, engage more deeply in the learning process, which is critical to student success.

CLR teaching can also impact student gains and help students reach their grade-level goals. This is backed by research published in the Teachers College Record that found students with teachers who identified as “high implementers” of a CLR program scored significantly higher on their spring benchmark test in reading than students with teachers who were “low implementers” of the program. 

Undoubtedly, tackling – and ultimately overcoming – unfinished learning is going to take time, work, and dedication among all involved. However, these strategies, when paired with nonacademic supports focused on students’ social and emotional wellbeing, will certainly help educators tackle the challenge head on. 

To learn more about these strategies and research on unfinished learning, read Curriculum Associates’ “What We’ve Learned about Unfinished Learning” report here

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Ken Tam is a former teacher and district administrator with more than 20 years of experience in education technology. In his current role as Curriculum Associates’ Executive Director, Personalized Learning and Assessment, he helps educators develop assessment literacy to improve their ability to connect data to instruction. He serves as a thought leader on assessment and personalized learning and speaks widely at regional and national conferences on how districts can “Assess Less, Know More” and “Adapt Teaching and Learning.”

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