5 Tips for Addressing Achievement Gaps After Distance Learning

Posted in Pro Tips | July 22, 2020

The Achievement Gap 

Beyond standardized test scores, the achievement gap, or “the disparity in academic performance between groups of students,” manifests itself in many other ways: overall grades, participation in upper level coursework, and other college and career readiness metrics. There are very real concerns that the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated the achievement gap; because it may have amplified existing challenges for the most at-risk learners, leading to the potential loss of a full year’s worth of growth. As many schools and districts turn to blended learning models as a replacement for full distance learning, how will we rise to meet this challenge? Here are five ways to address student achievement gaps after distance learning.

Meet students where they are. 

As we transition from full-time distance learning to blended learning environments, getting the lay of the land in terms of the curriculum is a good place to start. Are all of your curriculum maps stored and readily accessible via your district’s learning management system (LMS)? A good first step might be to analyze (a) what standards were met prior to distance learning, (b) what standards were covered during distance learning, and (c) what standards were not covered.

This process of identifying instructional gaps leads to a good K-12 conversation about which of the learning standards should be addressed and which can be jettisoned as blended learning takes place in the fall. One of the best ways to address achievement gaps in general is to provide access to challenging curriculum across the board. The curriculum won’t be aligned or challenging if curriculum gaps caused by school closures aren’t addressed. For example, if your students didn’t cover certain foundational concepts in Algebra 1, moving on to Geometry (an already notoriously difficult subject area for students) without addressing any relevant gaps will almost certainly come back to haunt schools in the form of poor achievement results, particularly for vulnerable subgroups.

Build relationships and incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) into the curriculum. 

Edutopia featured a story about one high school in Nashville, Tennessee that sought to meet its significant challenges by first focusing on relationships, whether between adults and students or between students and adults themselves. The school focused on five core values in its SEL program: Answer the Call, More Grit, Others First, Own It, and No Limits. These values were posted everywhere in the building and referred to by both students and staff members daily. At first, it may seem harder to create systems like this in a blended learning environment, but it just takes some creativity. Blended learning provides a great opportunity to build in “soft starts” and other relationship-building checkpoints to complement the curriculum.

Another strategy to remember to incorporate when building relationships with a view toward closing achievement gaps is that of making the blended learning environment culturally responsive. The NEA suggests valuing diversity, properly training teachers, and being sensitive to, understanding, and using student cultural backgrounds in the classroom. In blended learning, that means that both the online and in-person components of a district’s program should view diversity as a strength and be built to speak to different student populations.

Support online instruction with targeted face-to-face engagement. 

As one California principal put it, “…it’s teachers who build relationships with students, not software.” Blended learning can leverage technology to meet students at their level and on their time, but the tech tools themselves can’t build the relationships necessary to close the achievement gap. Online instruction in the blended learning environment needs to continue to be married with the expertise of empowered, passionate educators to have the desired impact.

One of the best ways to close achievement gaps in general is to increase instructional time for those students who need it the most. Some have advocated doubling or tripling the amount of targeted, high-quality instructional time. Some districts have found success by rigorously supporting online instruction with small group, face-to-face intervention based on the information generated via the online system. No matter how you structure it, you can devise a system that maximizes the benefits of educational technology while ensuring that in-person teacher expertise continues to help students thrive.

Collect and collectively use the data. 

With the end of distance learning comes an opportunity to re-engage in face-to-face teacher teams, which in turn creates a better environment to actively collect and break down student data in meaningful ways. Whether you have a fully-developed teacher-based team (TBT) structure already in place or use some other framework for the discussion, blended learning allows teachers to gather data in the online environment, break down that data in small groups of dedicated professionals, and then to have substantive conversations with students on a weekly basis during the in-person instructional setting.

Training and professional development is key in pulling this off. Districts that have found success in using internal and external assessment data to address their achievement gaps and move all students toward mastery of the learning standards have worked hard to train their staff in assessment practices, a framework for collaborative conversation around the data, and continuous accountability and support from building and district leadership.

Optimize the use of your learning management system. 

To make your blended learning environment work well, your online platform must be able to do the things you need it to do and be able to be customized to your district’s vision, mission, values, and overall strategic goals. To address the achievement gap your learning management system must also be flexible enough to allow you to teach the majority of a class, provide supplemental instruction, create credit recovery systems, and more depending on where your school and/or district is on the blended learning spectrum.

For example, many schools have recently found success in closing the achievement gap and raising graduation rates via everything from blended credit recovery programs to blended in-class rotations. There is no single “holy grail” blended learning model, so your LMS needs to be powerful and responsive enough to cater to your needs and the needs of your students.

When your students are working online, with teacher guidance but minimal interpersonal interaction, do they have access to materials that have been curated and personalized specifically for them and their learning goals? Are students able to effectively self-pace through content? Does your LMS provide substantive, targeted, meaningful data for use by the student, their family, and your teacher teams? Good learning management systems will help you build just that – a blended learning system, not just provide a software platform.

Blended Learning and the Achievement Gap 

Ultimately, closing the achievement gap is not just an economic and social issue, it is a moral imperative. We have an obligation to not only lift up all learners, but to do as much as we can to ensure equity. In the blended learning environment, a unique opportunity exists to personalize and support each student’s learning. Identifying gaps after distance learning and building a blended learning system to address those gaps is one of the great challenges of our time, and you will no doubt rise to meet that challenge.

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