Even as we are basking in the warmth of the summer sun, many of us are wondering and perhaps worried about the fall. What will school look like? How will things be the same? How will things be different? What have we learned from our months of virtual learning? What do we want to keep? What do we want to do differently? How will our new learning make education more effective for all students? How will my child fare? How will I adapt as an educator? How can I support my child’s learning in any scenario?
At this writing, many states and districts are beginning to share their plans for the fall, as Wisconsin has recently done. Some are proposing in-person classes with additional safety precautions, some are continuing virtual education, and some are offering hybrid models, combining in-person and virtual learning. Many states and districts are adopting a wait-and-see stance until more information is available, and of course, things are still changing as new information becomes available, and as the scenario changes.
However schools resume -- one thing is certain. Students returning to schooling will arrive with an increasing variance in their readiness for new content. Some children will be arriving fresh and eager to learn. They will not have lost educational ground, and may, in fact, have made terrific progress. They may have had the good fortune of a stable learning environment, support, and the resources and materials necessary to learn well during the pandemic. They may have discovered passions, followed their imaginations, and enjoyed the guidance of supportive adults. They may have actually been freed from the constraints of the regular classroom. Other students, unfortunately, may not have had these advantages for a wide variety of reasons. All of this will definitely exacerbate the already difficult task of teaching a wide variety of learners in traditional regular classrooms, whether face-to-face or online.
In this recent article, New Research Predicts Steep COVID Learning Losses will Widen Already Dramatic Achievement Gaps Within Classrooms, the research by Rambo-Hernandez, Makel, Peters & Plucker (2020)examines assessment data on incoming fifth-graders in 10 states, and shows that, on average, student achievement spans seven grade levels (in a given classroom during a typical school year). Additionally, every year many students experience a certain amount of “summer slide,” or a deterioration of learning while away from school during the summer. Citing research from NWEA’s Collaborative for Student Growth Research Center, Rambo-Hernandez noted that this year’s “COVID-slide” may be even more severe than the typical “summer slide”. She stated that “on average, students next fall are likely to retain about 70 percent of this year’s gains in reading and less than 50 percent in math. Losses are likely to be more pronounced in the early grades, when students normally acquire many basic skills, and among those already facing steep inequities.” Yet, the authors of the article hypothesized this as well, “However, we estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures would not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading.” Thus, they concluded, in preparing for fall 2020, educators will likely need to consider ways to support students who are academically behind, and further differentiate instruction for students who have maintained or accelerated their learning.
Digging more deeply into the effects on COVID-19 on learning, researchers at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University made further predictions in this EdWorking paper, Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. They asserted that the effects of “COVID-19 Slide” will impact future learning outcomes. A first assertion was that, “We show that students will likely (a) not have grown as much during the truncated 2019-2020 academic year and (b) will likely lose more of those gains due to extended time out of school. However, they added that, “We found that losing ground over the summer was not universal, with the top third of students in reading making gains during a typical summer. As a result of this variability, we project that the range of students’ academic achievement will be more spread out in the fall of 2020 relative to a normal fall term, particularly in reading.” But they also offered this hopeful prediction, “Finally, we show that, although our projections are dire, our models also suggest that students who lose the most while out of school tend to gain the most the following year (at least under typical summer loss conditions). Thus, there is hope that students most impacted by the additional average achievement losses under COVID-19 may also be the ones who rebound the most by the end of the 2020-21 academic school year.”
While this news is encouraging, many of us are also concerned about future learning for our advanced learners. If they have not experienced a “COVID Slide,” then how can schools prepare for their return so that they do not waste valuable learning time? How do we further their trajectories?
First of all, teachers across grade levels must communicate. Now more than ever, teachers must be knowledgeable about the curriculum that comes both before and after their grade levels. Vertical teaming will be essential in preparing for the vast differences in learning. And then, equipped with vertical teaming knowledge, and with learner profiles, teachers must differentiate. This will require renewed professional development on how to meet the needs of gifted learners, as well as all learners. Whether teaching in-person or online, teachers must pre-test, compact or telescope already-mastered curriculum, flexibly group or cluster-group learners by readiness for content, and deliver tiered content. This could be done in a variety of ways. Students could be grouped by readiness, rather than by age or grade levels. Different teachers could teach different groups, and the groups would be flexible, targeting students’ readiness. These things could be done face-to-face, or in a virtual environment using breakout rooms, such as those in Zoom. Using “repeated rhythms” of whole group presentations, and then small group work in rooms, teaching could be more targeted to learners’ needs.
School district personnel should also agree to accelerate students who demonstrate the need. This would require assessment, but research confirms that both ability grouping and acceleration, among other strategies, can benefit advanced learners. See these articles from the Fordham Institute, Do Programs for Advanced Learners Work? and Ability Grouping and Acceleration Can Help Teachers and School Leaders for more information. If students have mastered curriculum, they must be allowed to move on.
A percentage of high ability students may also need dual enrollment options to further their learning. In this article, College Classes for HS Students Have Been Growing in Popularity. But With K-12 Schools Shuttered, COVID Is Fueling a Dual-Enrollment Boom, the 74million.org shared their findings. They asserted that, “Traditionally, high school students have turned to dual enrollment to access advanced academic classes, embark on a career path or save money on college by accumulating credits at lower cost. Research shows that earning credits in high school increases the chances that students will graduate, go on to college and attain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. But this year, with many districts still struggling to figure out how to deliver either online or in-person education, and with camp and many summer jobs largely off the table, dual enrollment also offers a welcome degree of certainty about students’ educational experience.”
Another way to meet the needs of high end learners as school resumes is with personalized or individualized learning. Though many districts and schools have been experimenting with this, now is the time to scale it up. Students can and should have more voice and choice in their learning. Students and teachers can craft learning contracts, rubrics, and performance goals. Students can follow passions and interests. Mini-lessons can be taught as students need instruction on content or skills as their research progresses. Authentic audiences can be captured, either online or in-person. Mentors can be engaged. Many gifted learners have already used the last quarter of the 19-20 school year to experiment with this kind of personalized learning. We have a lot to learn from them, so let’s include them in crafting new ways of learning.
Finally, I believe it is imperative that teachers, students, and parents collaborate to help students continually set learning goals that will stretch them. Armed with data and plentiful communication, the most meaningful learning occurs when all stakeholders share their hopes and dreams, and then roll up their sleeves to do the difficult, yet enjoyable work. We have a unique chance to redefine, refine, and recreate learning for our advanced learners. Let’s use this incredible opportunity this fall!
As always, I welcome your ideas. Together we grow.
Past President, WI Association for Talented and Gifted
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think.