Differentiation acceleration - Identifying and adapting instruction to address learning loss

As school begin to address the challenge of reopening schools, a greater concern of how to address learning loss created during remote instruction has taken center stage. Now, more than ever, administrators, teachers and families continue to question how best to meet the learning needs of their students, especially after losing more than a quarter of the 2019-2020 academic year to the current pandemic. One recent study, conducted by NWEA, predicts that students will experience a learning loss of 30% in reading and as much as 50% in math as a result of the pandemic. Left untamed, these types of academic setbacks could have significant negative implications for students who were previously preforming on grade level and even more disastrous for students who were already behind. This article hopes to discuss the how differentiation practices can be leveraged to address lost learning during pandemic remote instruction, while also highlighting procedural steps to effectively accelerate learning.


Differentiating for Acceleration Instead of Remediation
Traditionally, the typical approach to providing support to address student needs has been in the form of remediation. This methodology involves providing work to students from prior grades levels with the expectation of preparing them for grade level work. In a 2018 study conducted by TNTP, researchers found that simply “meeting students where they are” is not only insufficient in advancing academic proficiency, but also may reinforce deficit theories that certain students are incapable of grade level work. In the aforementioned study, although all students (from multiple demographic groups) advanced similarly through rigorous material, vulnerable populations, such as students of color, those with learning disabilities and English Language Learners, were rarely given the opportunity to try. Additionally, another drawback of tradition remedial differentiation is prioritization of skills over content. As content knowledge is the primary driver for how well students can access and comprehend grade level text, remedial systems that emphasize a skills-only approach will have minimal success in accelerating learning. As a result, many schools and districts are adapting accelerated learning plans which leverage current data to create a track that strategically propels student towards grade level proficiency.
Accelerated learning is an approach to instruction that utilizes a varied approach to knowledge and skill progression through multiple differentiated learning opportunities. It requires that students receive grade level assignments on a consistent basis along with the necessary scaffolds needed to ensure total accessibility. In this approach, rather than regress a student to a lower instructional level to address learning loss, teachers strategically identify and prioritize which gaps must be addressed immediately to accelerate learning. Because the brain is not a single processor, but rather acquires information simultaneously and on multiple levels, this approach has incredible potential to support schools as they begin addressing learning loss because of the pandemic.

Addressing and Diagnosing Unfinished Learning
Many students, particularly those that have not strong instruction, engagement, or access to grade level work, will need to fit even more within an academic year to make up for what was lost. This includes not only grade appropriate skills, but the content knowledge needed to comprehend texts. To begin, school communities must first identify exactly what unfinished learning needs to be addressed as well as the skills/ content students might struggle with at their current anticipated grade level.

In order to understand the learning loss that students are facing, teachers and administrators should collect data to better inform the curricular adaptation necessary to accelerate instruction. Systems and alternative metrics should be developed around targeted skills and content, in place of the reading and math assessment that were not administered in the Spring. This type of no stakes diagnostic testing affords teachers access to the quick data they need to design appropriate supports and determine how students will meet academic standards.
Diagnosing unfinished learning can be challenging, particularly within school communities that lack access to high quality instructional materials. In such cases, teachers may need additional support in effectively assessing for unfinished learning. For English Language Arts, teachers will need to assess both foundational as well as fluency skills and determine which student’s comprehension or writing skills are below grade level. Similarly, in math, teachers will need a broad range diagnostic which would assess the prerequisite skill proficiency needed for student success on the current grade level.

Adapting Curricular Resources to Enhance Learning
Planning teams should begin by analyzing state standards alongside year long curricular pacing for the previous academic year. This will allow instructional facilitators to gain a deeper understanding of what critical topics are taught at what point in the year, making it easier to identify which skills and content may have been lost due to the response to COVID-19. Additionally, a thorough examination of prerequisite skills will need to be determined to better predict where students may encounter struggle and require targeted differentiated support.
For example, a ninth grade English Language Arts teacher returning to the school building in the Fall might note that students will read Of Mice and Men. Out of concern that student learning loss will be too great because of the pandemic, they might be tempted to switch out the novel for a simpler text. However, to differentiate for acceleration, the same teacher could recognize that accessing the complexity of the novel could be feasible using readymade scaffolds, designed to build students’ content knowledge of time and period. Additionally, because Steinbeck uses figurative language to enhance the thematic elements of the novel, the teacher might decide that identifying and understanding the use of figurative language is a prerequisite skill that needs to be prioritized.

Another factor the school community should consider is the effect of learning loss on vulnerable student populations. Collaborative teams should begin planning alongside grade teams in order to address what additional supports may be needed for students with disabilities and English Language Learners. By highlighting the unique needs of special populations, school communities reduce the risk of potential inequities within their systems.

Addressing Social Emotional Gaps
When schools eventually reopen, school communities will need to prioritize supports for students that may have found this time especially challenging. Some students may still be grieving the loss of a family or friend while others struggle with the loss of economic stability within their households. Additionally, younger elementary and preschool students may struggle returning to school after having been with a care giver for so long. Students like refugees, homeless and migrant students may need support in order to address the trauma of sudden school closure and disruption to formal education.

In response to the multitude of challenges are students face during this time, schools should begin, as early as possible, developing a social emotional program to restart school. Time should also be set aside to allow students time and space reacclimate to the school community and to each other. Consider including researched approaches such as restorative justice and community circles in order to begin to rebuild trust.

Teachers should also leverage information gathered during remote instruction to find ways to help students gain closure on the 2019-2020 academic year. Many students left school, their peers, and teachers under the assumption that school would be restored in a couple weeks. When students return, they will have new teachers and assigned to new classrooms, essentially a new world. To better support this transition, teachers can facilitate dialogues or provide journaling opportunities to help students navigate their emotions.

Many school districts throughout the country face the challenge of safely and effectively reopening schools. Additionally, to be sufficiently prepared to address learning loss exasperated by the pandemic, schools will need to have a strategic plan to diagnose learning loss and provide differentiated supports designed specifically to accelerate student progress. Furthermore, strategic planning is also needed to address social emotional challenges among students, faculty, and staff and to address the needs of vulnerable population. By leveraging differentiation practices as a means of providing targeted support, school communities can begin the complex work of accelerating learning and eliminating the learning loss.