Skip Navigation

Introducing Operation Reverse the Loss

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | October 26, 2020

We are now nearly eight months into arguably the greatest education crisis the nation has faced in our lifetime. As I discussed last month, if the estimates of learning loss resulting from COVID-19 as presented by the Annenberg Center in June and, more recently, by Macke Raymond, are anywhere near correct, our nation is facing a catastrophe.

Even as we focus on today's precipitous decline in learning, Covid-19 has shined a bright light on the fact that too many of our students—especially students of color, students from low-income families, and students with special needs—had fallen behind long before the pandemic and are losing even more ground now. Covid-19 is an impetus for a long overdue effort to accelerate learning, achievement, and attainment for students who have fallen behind or are at risk of falling behind. IES, as the Department of Education's science agency, should be front and center in that effort.

Since I assumed office 2½ years ago, we at IES have been trying to modernize our approach to the education sciences. The SEER principles, which aim to dramatically improve the real-world usability of education research, reflect much of this work. Efforts such as the replication competitions, the forthcoming prize competition for digital platforms that can deliver high quality rapid-cycle experiments and replications, and the soon-to-be-released DARPA-inspired transformational RFA are all part of the effort to bring our science (and IES) into the modern era. But the challenges of the pandemic are forcing us to consider how to speed up even more the process by which we identify what works for whom under what conditions. If we can't do our work better and faster in the face of this crisis, we are failing to serve the learners we aim to support.

In this blog, I am presenting preliminary ideas for a new initiative with the working title of "Operation Reverse the Loss." This effort aims to speed up the existing machinery IES uses to identify, scale, and verify the effectiveness of interventions that show promise in reversing learning loss for students at greatest risk—especially early learners, English language learners, students at community colleges, and students with disabilities. Our education research infrastructure must become nimbler and more entrepreneurial than ever before, all while maintaining our commitment to rigorous education science.

Operation Reverse the Loss is a work in progress, rather than a fully developed plan of action. I want to describe some of the ideas IES is discussing so that you can help as we turn these broad concepts into concrete actions.

Core Components of Operation Reverse the Loss

Understand conditions on the ground.

As schools have opened and closed, adopted assorted virtual learning tools, and implemented new policies governing essential operating procedures, we, along with everyone else in the country, have largely relied on friends, family, and journalists to understand what is happening in schools. To provide schools with resources to reverse learning loss, we need a comprehensive and authoritative source of information about how instruction has changed over the last year.

To this end, NCES Commissioner Lynn Woodworth and I have begun pursuing the idea of a School Pulse survey, modeled after the Census Household Pulse and Small Business Pulse surveys. The School Pulse will collect near real-time data on school opening/closing plans, curriculum responses, online programs, and so on. We will measure the extent to which schools are finding any of these responses effective in reversing learning loss, especially among students with special needs and with the lowest achievement levels. To the extent that the pulse idea proves worthwhile and schools participate at high enough levels, we will continue this effort post-pandemic to measure the ever-changing conditions in America's schools. Moreover, we will use the School Pulse to ask about curricula, technology platforms, and tools schools normally use so we can direct research towards commonly used items that have not yet been studied.

Encourage small businesses to provide schools with innovative learning solutions.

Teachers and principals have demonstrated remarkable adaptability over the last year, changing how they teach, interact with students and families, and recognize when students are struggling. But there is a limit to what they can accomplish with our current slate of educational tools and resources, which largely were not designed for the circumstances we face today.

Housed within NCER, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program is one of the most effective mechanisms through which we support tech innovations designed to come to market for wide use. The upcoming round of SBIR applications (for release in early December) will tightly focus on bringing small business energy and tech skills to develop tools that can help students, families, and educators reverse learning losses of special education students, English language learners, and the nation's lowest-performing students.

Grow the body of research with the greatest potential to reverse learning loss.

IES has always supported a broad range of research to fulfill the needs of a varied field. While this will continue to be the case, we will focus a substantial portion of our funding to focus on a few instructional practices with the strongest claims to effectiveness. The urgency of the moment demands this intentional, high-impact approach.

An "off-cycle" RFA will systematically support rapid testing of interventions in different grades, subjects, locales, and demographics. This will likely require researchers to increase their use of platforms and other tech-based delivery systems for rapid-cycle, targeted tests, and replications of interventions.

But what types of interventions should we focus on? We are sifting through the most reliable sources (especially the WWC and EIR) to identify interventions with evidence of effectiveness that could be subject to rapid cycle, rigorous testing to help us identify what works for whom under what circumstances. Leading candidates include tutoring and social and emotional learning (SEL).

But here's the problem: these interventions come in many shapes and sizes and we cannot say that any specific intervention will likely work for any populations or in contexts other than the narrow one in which the intervention was tested (a context which may no longer exist given COVID). Tutoring for young learners must be radically different from tutoring for high school or college students. And tutoring for language arts will be different from tutoring for math. Additionally, the unprecedented amount of learning loss in such a short period of time may also be a challenge to how well a specific tutoring intervention performs.

As a result, even if we say that "tutoring works," we can't say what form of tutoring works for which students and for which subject areas. The field is beginning to synthesize information about what makes some types of tutoring more effective than others—but we need more work identifying what works for whom. And the same deficiencies in our understanding apply to many of the educational interventions IES has supported in the past, including—maybe especially—SEL.

Part of the problem is the far-too-prevalent practice of using idiosyncratic measures of success, which makes comparisons across interventions impossible. In response, Operation Reverse the Loss will focus heavily on several key SEER principles: replication, core components, and common measures.

In conclusion:

We are thinking of Operation Reverse the Loss as an intense three-year experiment. If we are successful, we will have informed educators, policymakers, and families about a set of well-specified interventions that can reverse learning losses for clearly identified populations of students. And we will have modernized our education research infrastructure to be nimbler and more attuned to the substantial differences in the needs of the many different populations of students that constitute our nation.

This is clearly a BHAG, but do we have any choice but to try? How can we continue to practice business as usual while tens of millions of our students lag further and further behind?

We will reposition as much money and resources from our existing budget as we can to support Operation Reverse the Loss. Given the gravity of the situation and the size of the problem, we intend to seek additional resources to support this work.

Let me end as I began: I need your help in fleshing out Operation Reverse the Loss. Please email me your reactions and suggestions: