Like most schools across the country, my son’s middle school closed in March with uncertainty about when it will reopen. He spent the next eight weeks at home participating in a variety of remote learning tasks. Having spent a decade as a math teacher, I paid especially close attention to what kind of mathematics learning he was engaging in. Unfortunately, what I saw was not great. His school isn’t using a standards-aligned curriculum which resulted in teachers having few resources to support the transition to remote learning. My son’s math class essentially consisted of completing a handful of review problems a day followed by a few weeks of online math videos. None of the learning he did in the past two months of school consisted of new content.
I know my son’s experience was not exceptional. I know that across the country, millions of students faced a long pause in their learning—and thousands of students were doubly impacted because their districts lacked instructional materials that could have made a difference.
So where does that leave students? In a critical juncture between falling further behind or making up lost ground. The gap between when new instruction ended and when it will begin again is leading a large majority of teachers and students to grapple with unfinished learning come fall. Educators have the unprecedented task of addressing the challenges created by COVID-19 while at the same time focusing efforts on ensuring that all students actually have access to the mathematics education they deserve.
When I think about unfinished mathematics learning due to the pandemic, I think of the instructional impact on one of the most important principles of the standards: mathematical coherence.
Think of coherence as rungs on a ladder. In mathematics, skills and concepts students learn build on one another, and it is often impossible for students to master more advanced learning without being able to build on all content learned in previous years. In essence, if you remove too many rungs on the ladder, you’ll no longer be able to make it to the top. This means that even if instruction focuses on the major work of the grade, adheres to the mathematical practices, and meets the aspects of rigor, if it’s not coherent or doesn’t fit into the learning progressions, frankly, the instruction is sort of pointless.
What’s more, because of how mathematics standards are structured, there is very little repetition of individual concepts and skills. This means that unfinished learning is particularly dangerous in math where students might not have the opportunity to encounter specific concepts or skills once they pass from one grade level to the next—especially if teachers don’t know they have missed it. It does not take many days of missed learning to disrupt coherence and set students down a difficult path of perpetually playing catch up.
This loss already takes place each year, even without the additional burden of COVID-19. Teachers know every fall there will be students in their classrooms with unfinished learning and that these students are likely to struggle the most. Worse, low income and students of color are more likely than their white peers to have to overcome unfinished learning without the resources desperately needed to address the problem: access to grade-level, aligned materials, and high expectations from teachers. Too long have we accepted these realities as hard facts instead of making plans for how we can change the status quo.
The path forward to address unfinished learning is accelerated learning of grade-level content, not remediation. Accelerated learning refers to providing all students with rigorous, differentiated content that motivates students to engage with challenging, grade-level mathematics while also addressing diverse learning needs in order to efficiently close gaps in students’ knowledge. Doubling down on current strategies for catching students up will only widen opportunity and achievement gaps.
Districts and schools can begin the work by utilizing standards-aligned materials to identify the most critical prerequisite content knowledge students will need to access grade level content when they encounter it throughout the year. Aligned materials offer focused, coherent, rigorous content that adheres to the mathematical practices. While the challenge of unfinished learning will not be solved overnight, or even by Christmas, if you don’t set the goal and build a strategy around it, it won’t happen at all.
COVID-19 illuminated and exacerbated existing realities of unfinished learning and large gaps between students, but these are not new issues. Investing in quality materials will not only help solve immediate problems, it’s about advancing student learning and success for the long-term.
Let’s face it. The status quo will not solve our current challenges—frankly, it wasn’t getting the job done even before the COVID-19 crisis. Now is the time to seize this moment to take a different approach and give teachers the resources and supports to truly implement the standards. This is our opportunity to do better, to commit to not only tackling unfinished learning but to put in place a foundation that can ensure students thrive now and in the future. My son deserves that, and so does every single kid.