Reframing “Learning Loss”:
What Does it Mean for Teacher PD?

For School Leaders

Defining learning loss

Learning loss is often described as the gap between what educators expect students should have learned by a certain time and the reality of what they have actually learned. But, how do we define what a student “should have learned”? Are we comparing this year’s end-of-year assessments with those of last year’s cohort — knowing that last year’s cohort may have experienced a mix of virtual and in-person instruction or may have been assessed virtually over Zoom and thus, those results might not be an accurate representation of their abilities? Or, are we comparing this year’s students to the cohort of students from two years ago, when there may have been a different curriculum, teacher, or a myriad of other different variables at play?

Let’s say that you decide to compare this year’s EOY assessments to students from two years ago, and the analysis shows that two years ago, 75% of students ended third grade reading “at benchmark” (or “on grade level”) and this year, the number is 50%. So, we have a learning disparity. (Not a learning loss, because this year’s students haven’t actually lost anything they’ve learned!).

What exactly does this tell you? How can you use this data to inform instruction?

Making sense of your data on “learning loss”

If you’ve determined that some of your students are demonstrating a learning disparity, one option would be to drill down to the student level to see what interventions they need. If you’ve used an assessment such as DIBELS that measures specific literacy skills, using this data to develop an intervention or tutoring plan will be easy. You can analyze specific assessments to form small groups based on miscues and develop targeted intervention plans to address those areas.

However, if you’ve used a more general assessment such as a standardized test, passage + multiple choice questions, or a running record, you won’t have the data you need for this level of analysis. In this case, all you know is that the percentage of students reading “on grade level” is 50% this year, compared to 75% last year. With this information in hand, we would recommend you begin (or continue) to use grade-level texts with students and provide teachers with support in:

  • Selecting complex texts that are connected to a specific topic (if you have adopted high-quality instructional materials, these have already been pre-selected for you!).
  • Analyzing texts to determine where student misconceptions may arise.
  • Determining the big idea(s) they want students to learn from a text.
  • Developing a series of text-dependent questions and sequencing them in a way that leads to understanding that big idea(s).
  • Designing scaffolds to support students before and during their reading.
  • Collecting diagnostic data on word recognition and (if needed) phonemic awareness from students.

The connection to professional development

As you think about professional development this year, think about the points above — do teachers understand how to select and teach with grade-level texts? Do they know how to use grade-level texts in both whole group and small group instruction? Do they understand what specific phonics gaps students have?

In thinking about targeted small group instruction, is your instructional staff comfortable analyzing student data at the probe level to understand how students are doing with specific skills? Then, do they know how to plan intervention lessons to address that need? Are they given the time needed to plan these lessons?

An additional aspect to consider is to think about what teachers and students learned over the course of the pandemic that they may not have learned otherwise (i.e., what did they gain?). For example, learning how to video conference, uploading audio and video files to a Padlet, commenting on a Google document, or recording a quick screenshare to explain a concept — how can we make the most of these skills moving forward?

  • Can teachers record a quick video to provide students with instructions for each literacy center?
  • Can students across different periods work together on a common Google document?
  • Can a teacher use one Padlet for all five of their ELA periods, and have students comment and rate each other’s responses for homework?

As we think about the transition back to fully in-person instruction, let’s think about what we can keep from this year to enhance teaching and learning.

Overall, although many people are talking about “learning loss” (or learning disparities!), let’s stop to think about what this term really means and how we can use what we know about our students to inform plans for next year.

How are you navigating learning disparities this school year? Is your staff adjusting instruction to meet the needs of students with learning disparities?


Additional Reading