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The Looming Coronavirus Achievement Gap: What Schools Can Do

Over the last several weeks, teachers and school administrators have made heroic efforts to transform teaching and learning for a new virtual era. Teachers are posting video lessons, engaging with students in live web conferences, creating online learning activities, and mailing learning packets to students who can’t get online. Millions of students across the country are engaged in distance learning and continuing to make progress towards learning goals.

However, millions of other students are falling even further behind their peers. Extended closures due to the coronavirus outbreak are shining a new light on the issue of academic equity.

How COVID-19 is Erasing Learning Gains

Nationally, it is estimated that only 50% of students are successfully engaging with distance learning from home. Part of this is due to the digital divide: roughly 15% of U.S. families with school-age children lack high-speed internet access at home, and traditional public sources of Wi-Fi such as libraries and coffee shops are now closed. In some communities, as many as 50% of students (or more!) may have trouble continuing education at home because they do not have access to the internet or do not have a suitable device to complete assignments. Internet providers have stepped up to offer temporary free service to low-income families in some communities, but many families are still locked out of online learning. Other students face challenges because their parents are working extended hours as essential workers and do not have the time to oversee at-home learning or engage their children with enrichment activities.

As a result, extended closures are likely to exacerbate a problem school districts are already very familiar with: the dreaded “summer slide.” Each summer, extended time away from school results in losses of learning gains for many students—especially students in lower socio-economic groups. While students in wealthier families participate in summer camps and enrichment activities that extend learning, other students may be home by themselves with few options for engaging activities. These differences add up to a persistent achievement gap between lower-income and wealthier students, with students on the bottom of the income scale losing a month or more of learning gains each summer.

COVID-19 closures are expected to worsen the gap. Many students have been effectively cut off from learning for most of second semester and will soon be beginning summer break. These students may go back to school in the fall after more than 20 weeks away from their regular classroom—assuming schools will be able to reopen as scheduled in the fall. For our most vulnerable students, the pandemic could result in the erasure of an entire year’s worth of learning gains. Even among students who are successfully engaging with online learning, most are spending two hours a day or less on school—hardly a substitute for a full day of teacher-directed learning in the classroom.

Some schools are considering extending the school year (virtually) or offering online summer school to help students catch up, but this will not help students who are already disconnected from learning. Schools will need to go into the 2020-21 school year with an action plan to address losses in learning and achievement gaps among their students.

Meeting the Needs of Students in a Post-Pandemic World

What can schools do to help students catch up? Here are some strategies that schools can use to close the coronavirus achievement gap.

Focus on Thinking First

Most academic tasks/standards have two parts: the content and the thinking that is required. For example, a social studies standard may ask students to explain the factors that led to the American Revolution. The content will include specific facts about the events leading up to the war. The thinking required here is cause and effect.

When students are behind, it is more important to help them catch up on thinking skills than facts. Students will circle back to specific content (such as the American Revolution, states of matter, or geometric shapes) over and over again in increasingly sophisticated ways across grade levels. Emphasizing the thinking skills will ensure that students have the foundation they need to jump in with grade-level content instead of falling further behind. When we simply focus on making sure students have been exposed to the right facts, we are not helping them catch up and prepare for successful learning in the next school year.

Thinking Maps puts thinking first. The Maps are aligned with the foundational thinking skills that underlie all learning—defining, describing, comparing/contrasting, classifying, sequencing, cause and effect, part/whole relationships, and analogies. They can be applied to any content in increasingly sophisticated ways as students progress through the grade levels. By focusing on thinking skills, the Maps help students close achievement gaps and prepare them for success in higher grades, even if they have missed some specific content along the way.

Prepare for More Differentiation

Students will be coming into the next grade level with a wider range of skill levels than ever before. We can expect most students to enter the next grade level somewhat behind – and many will be entering substantially behind. Teachers will need to provide assignments that allow students to complete tasks together while differentiating for various skill levels. To be successful, differentiation must:

  • be easy for teachers to do,
  • engage all students with the same kinds of thinking; and
  • enable all students to participate at their own level without feeling stigmatized or left behind.

Thinking Maps can be easily differentiated for different levels of readiness. The Maps allow all students to participate in the same thinking. For example, if students are creating a Bubble Map to analyze a character, one student may use simple words and pictures, and another may use sophisticated academic vocabulary. Even though their Maps will have different language, they are both interacting with the same content and engaged in the same type of thinking.

Thinking Maps help struggling students pull meaning from content and engage in rigorous thinking, so all students can make progress towards mastering grade-level standards, no matter where they are starting from. The Maps also provide a clearer window into student comprehension and skill levels for teachers.

Be Ready for Continued Disruption

Most models predict that we will have continued cycles of virus outbreaks and renewed social distancing over the next 12 to 18 months. Schools must prepare now for the possibility that they will need to shift back and forth between in-person instruction and remote learning multiple times over the next school year as the virus resurges in different areas of the country. That will mean creating action plans to address the digital divide as well as learning plans that will enable students to be successful with rigorous learning at home.

Thinking Maps are adaptable to any learning environment. They can be created online in Map Builder or offline using paper, drawing materials, or even physical manipulatives. Students can complete a Map together in the classroom or at home on their own.

The Maps are also an essential tool to enable successful independent learning, whether students are working from home or at school. Students who are already familiar with Thinking Maps from their school environment are able to apply those same thinking strategies while working on their own at home.

Give Teachers the Tools They Need to Close the Gap

Preparing teachers for success in closing the coronavirus learning gap must be a priority for districts this summer. Teachers need tools, strategies and professional development opportunities to ensure that they are able to meet the needs of students who may be coming in with a wider range of learning gaps than we’ve ever faced before.

Of course, continued social distancing will make professional development a challenge for districts this summer. That’s why Thinking Maps has developed virtual versions of our most popular Thinking Maps trainings. We are preparing teachers for success in addressing the learning needs of all students and closing achievement gaps for students who have been left behind by the current crisis.

Even if we do not see continued closures in the fall, schools have tremendous challenges ahead. We need to ensure that teachers have the tools they need to differentiate instruction and help students who have fallen behind catch up. Students and teachers who know how to use Thinking Maps will be better prepared for success in the next school year, no matter what shape teaching and learning take.

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