Last June, a parent emailed us with concerns about how the COVID-19 pandemic would impact her children in grades 1 and 4. The parent wrote, “We keep hearing so much about learning loss. Do you really think our kids will be behind and not catch up?” This sentiment seemed to prevail across conversations with families, caregivers, educators, and even students throughout the summer and fall of 2020. Did the pandemic cause learning to be lost? Could students regain what was missed? And for students who may have already been behind, would an extra period of math or reading really help them improve? Should students who are behind be held back to get caught up?
There is no doubt the pandemic significantly disrupted Nebraska students’ learning experiences. Even so, our teachers, school leaders, and support staff provided students with opportunities to learn while also caring for their physical, social, and emotional needs. Not only were schools working to expand Internet access, deploy devices, and provide continuity of learning, they also served as the community hub for meal distribution and health services while balancing the diverse needs of families and communities. It may not have been perfect, but because of our schools’ herculean efforts, the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) does not believe student learning has been lost. The phrase “learning loss” implies the knowledge and skills students did not acquire can never be recovered, and the phrase devalues the incredible efforts of educators, families, caregivers, and students this past year.
The NDE has been intentional about reframing the narrative. Instead of saying “learning loss,” we say “unfinished teaching and learning.” Instead of recovery, we speak of renewal. Instead of remediation, acceleration. Oftentimes, the language we use is tied to the beliefs we hold, which lead to the actions we take. The more intentional we are about the way we describe our current context, the more accurate we can be in applying possible solutions. Accuracy in language also helps us understand that unfinished teaching and learning is a shared responsibility among everyone in the education system.
Recovery signals the return to a state of what once was in order to regain something that was lost. However, for different student groups, schools were not always a welcoming and supportive place. The term we use in Nebraska, renewal, offers a sense of hope and direction for life beyond a perpetual state of recovery. Renewal asks leaders, teachers, and community members to think differently about how to enhance educational experiences for all learners. It also requires stakeholders to recommit to serving students who have been historically marginalized, including students of color, students with disabilities, students from low-income households, and English learner students.
Coupled with school renewal, learning acceleration offers the opportunity for students to receive grade-level instruction rather than focusing on what was missed in the past school year. For example, a grade 2 teacher starts with grade 2 content and intentionally embeds any content missed from the previous grade into grade-level instruction. This challenges the traditional notion of “remediation” and ensures students spend more time on grade-level work—an important part of addressing unfinished teaching and learning.
Aligned with this thinking, the NDE’s conceptual framework guides school and district actions related to renewal and acceleration. Nebraska’s Framework for School Renewal & Acceleration includes six components and four core actions to guide planning for the upcoming school year and beyond. The framework serves as an anchor for the use of federal relief funds and provides direction in supporting historically marginalized student groups.
The most recent American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief allocations to state and local education agencies are an incredible opportunity to leverage resources to identify unfinished teaching and learning coupled with evidence-based approaches to accelerate student learning. State education agencies might want to consider the language used in their guidance documents and communications efforts and determine the ways in which it promotes asset-based thinking, high-leverage instructional and whole-child strategies, and equity-centered practices and investments to address the needs of historically marginalized student groups. By reframing the narrative, we can honor the amazing work that has happened and set the stage for the work ahead.