The COVID-19 pandemic not only disrupted classrooms all over the world in 2020, but it also revealed a host of inequities. Educators have used creative approaches to learning, but students have been greatly impacted by both existing and new challenges. Dropout rates have increased exponentially, and it's estimated that over 10 million students (primarily girls) may not return to school after the crisis has ended.
If educational institutions are going to meet the needs of their students and build a capable future workforce, they will have to do some things differently as they reopen. Educators and school leaders will have a crucial role in this return to "normalcy."
How to Close Achievement Gaps
By the end of the pandemic, over 30% of students will return to the classroom reading below expected proficiency levels, and at least 50% of students are expected to return with below-average proficiency levels in mathematics, according to the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA).
Unsurprisingly, students who are historically underserved are struggling the most to meet performance levels. Many students living in poverty do not have access to technology, quiet spaces, adequate parental support, or familiarity with remote learning engagement. Inequalities that existed before the pandemic are exacerbated, and the students who lack resources and support are falling behind.
Achievement gaps are ever widening, and educators must change their approaches to teaching in order to address these disparities. Providing students in need with digital resources, such as computers and other devices, can be helpful in mediating achievement gaps, but this strategy has limits. Achievement gaps have widened so much that as schools reopen, leaders will need to employ new strategies to successfully close those inequalities. Educators and administrators can utilize adaptive and interactive technologies that engage students in active learning, provide individualized attention to students, allow for remediation, and meet students where they are.
A growing body of evidence suggests blended learning approaches have potential to close achievement gaps. Methods that blend adaptive technology with in-person support can help teachers identify student needs and address them accordingly. Adaptive technology can also help educators perform "instructional triage" to assess each student's progress, proficiency, and mastery, as well as supplement and deliver course content.
For instance, adaptive educational videogames have been shown to benefit students with low levels of prior knowledge on a subject, as well as their peers with higher levels of prior knowledge. When assessment, curriculum, and activities adapt to individual learners' needs, students succeed across the board. Furthermore, these adaptive educational resources can close achievement gaps.
How to Strengthen Students' Support Networks
Four in 10 American children live in households struggling to make ends meet. Rising unemployment, illness, and the demands of juggling parenting duties with at-home work have taken their toll. Students without regular access to food, water, shelter, or support are not able to fully engage with educational activities, and the percentage of students with unmet needs is higher than ever before.
Administrators, educators, and school leaders all need to ensure that students' basic needs are being met in order to set them up for success. Schools can restructure their schedules, collaborate with community organizations to provide basic services, and arrange to help students access healthy food. Teachers will need to provide students with the tools to cope with trauma and succeed personally and academically.
Studies suggest students have trouble learning when they don't feel safe and cared for. Coping with disruptions from a pandemic and living in a household with significant hardship are certainly not situations in which children are likely to feel safe or cared for. Educators might consider incorporating social-emotional learning approaches into their existing curricula. Social emotional learning helps students develop self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills to succeed personally and academically.
The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have opened opportunities to transform how we approach education. Supporting students to cope and become successful adults will require resiliency, creativity, and a strong network of collaborators. Teachers and administrators will have to cooperate significantly to find solutions that work best for their communities. Collaboration for transformation will be key to students' success in the coming years.
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