Tthe trio of third-graders at Tennessee’s Truesdale County Elementary School begin working on their multiplication tables as soon as they sit down for class, quietly penciling answers. Kelsey Harris, their math teacher, reminds them that this year they will need to know how to multiply all numbers from zero to 10.
Students review the math vocabulary and identify different multiplication equations, targeting some of the concepts they will cover in math class the next day. “If I ask you to find the product, what are we going to do?” Harris asks. Multiply. “If I ask you what the amount is, what are we going to do?” Add.
It’s one of three tutoring sessions these students will have each week with Harris, a certified teacher who is now the school’s lead math interventionist in Hartsville, Tennessee, a city of about 12,000 an hour northeast of Nashville. The tutoring program, which takes place during the school day, is one way the school hopes to help students catch up after the pandemic disrupted training and caused some students to fall behind.
“It will bridge the gap of learning loss,” says Toby Woodmore, who leads training across the district. The math curriculum, in particular, requires students to build on their skills every year, from addition and subtraction in second grade, to multiplication and division in third grade, to fractions in fourth grade—and it’s hard for students to keep up. if they aren’t I haven’t mastered those earlier concepts. “It’s a building process,” he says. “We try to prepare them every day for the next school day.”
As students across the country return to the schools they have masking and testing requirements for COVID-19 have now been lifted, the pandemic is still affecting their academic performance, and experts say it is urgent for schools to prioritize recovery. Researchers estimate that it will take the average elementary school student three years and middle school students five or more years to fully recover. “Education is affected forever,” said Demetrice Badru, principal of Truesdale County Elementary School.
The district — which returned to a full-time boarding school in fall 2021 after a year of hybrid learning — is using state and federal funding to pay for the tutoring program, hiring certified teachers as tutors and focusing on math instruction . District leaders found that students especially struggled to grasp math concepts during virtual learning when they couldn’t show teachers their work on paper or watch their peers write problems on a whiteboard. Some did not have a parent to help them with distance learning; others lived with grandparents who lacked the technology skills to help them with online tasks.
Focus on learning
there is strong evidence that instruction, when conducted frequently and in groups of no more than three or four students, can produce significant learning gains. A A 2020 meta-analysis of 96 studies of learning concluded that tutoring can help students make up three to 15 months of learning and that tutoring is most effective when delivered by a teacher or paraprofessional during the school day. A 2017 study found tutoring to be the most effective intervention for improving academic achievement among elementary and middle school students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
Truesdale County is one of more than 80 school districts in Tennessee participating in the $200 million TN ALL CORPS training initiative, which started last year and aims to serve 150,000 students over the next three years. Teachers give intensive attention to groups of three elementary school students or four middle school students at a time, meeting for 90 minutes each week to offer personalized help.
More than 40 percent of school districts and charter schools nationwide plan to use some of their federal funding for COVID-19 relief for tuition and academic learning, according to FutureEd analysis from Georgetown University. But Tennessee and Arkansas went further. Tennessee leaders have said they want to create a statewide tutoring corps that aims to “dramatically increase learning time” for students.
State leaders touted early evidence that efforts to combat learning loss, including the Learning Corps, are working. According to data from the past academic year36% of students statewide met grade-level expectations for English in 2022, an improvement over 2021 and a return to pre-pandemic proficiency levels.
Other states and school districts have also placed an emphasis on academic recovery. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the leader of the nation’s second-largest school district heralded the coming release of low test scores. “It’s going to reflect all the fears we’ve had — which means significant drops in achievement, especially in reading and math, across the board, all grade levels,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Los Angeles said timessaying this school year will be an “acceleration year.”
The Biden administration last month launched a national drive to hire 250,000 new teachers and mentors who can help students make up for lost learning time and offer mental health support.
The continuing pandemic of learning loss
Student achievement was lower in spring 2022 compared to spring 2019, with average student scores in math falling 5 to 10 percentile points and reading 2 to 4 percentile points, despite signs of improvement during the last year, according to the nonprofit NWEA, which analyzed the test scores of 8.3 million students in grades three through eight. Researchers estimate that it will take the average elementary school student three years and middle school students five or more years to fully recover.
Districts that spend more time on distance learning also see lower achievement growth, especially in high-poverty schools. according to the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research. While there are some positive signs that students are starting to recover, data from the end of last school year shows that students still have a lot of backlog to catch up on.
“If 2020-21 was a failure, at least we got out of it,” said Karin Lewis, director of the Center for School and Student Development at NWEA. “But we still have a lot to reclaim, if you will, to get us back to that place where kids are at the level of achievement we want them to be.”
The pandemic has widened existing achievement gaps between students in high- and low-poverty schools, and between white students and students of color. And the data shows it remains a problem.
“We already had an education system that was only serving some students well before the pandemic,” says Lewis. “The last two years have really shined a light on these cracks in our system. And my biggest fear is that we’re just going to continue to have these great inequalities that will continue and stick with us for years and years to come.”
Early signs of improvement
School districts have taken a range of approaches to help students recover academically, and Lewis notes that there is no “one size fits all” for the problem. Some districts have expanded summer programs to keep kids learning and prevent what’s often called the “summer slide.” Others prioritize small group learning during class. And like Tennessee, others have turned to tutorials.
“Going back to how we did business in 2020 is not enough. We have to catch up,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told reporters Thursday, highlighting some of the ways districts are using federal funds to help students catch up, from hiring more teachers to expanding counseling services to improving access to tutoring and after-school programs.
In Tennessee, students are still below pre-pandemic math proficiency levels, but this year showed growth from 2021, with 30% of students now meeting grade-level expectations in math, up from 25% in 2021. 2019 37% of students met grade level expectations.
There were similar results in Truesdale County, where Superintendent Clint Satterfield credited high-dose, low-ratio instruction with “moving the needle for our students.” In math, 44% of all Truesdale County students met expectations in 2022 – up from 27% in 2021, but still down from 53% in 2019. And students show slight improvement over pre-pandemic English scores language, with 46% of students meeting expectations.
“We just really tried to identify the kids who weren’t proficient and tried to build a program where we could reach every kid during the school day,” Satterfield says. “That’s been the secret sauce to what we’ve done so far.”
For teachers like Harris, it’s a sign they’re making progress. But she measures success not just in improved test scores, but in students no longer dreading math class or asking a question in front of their peers.
“It just gives these kids confidence back. These kids have lost so much, and now I can restore them,” she says.
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