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Supporting Students, Families, and Schools Toward Academic Recovery

Northeast & Islands | January 01, 2023

A teacher and 4 students in class participation

In late October, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation's Report Card, released a report that has drawn much attention. NAEP, which assesses reading and math proficiency for students in grades 4 and 8, is typically administered every two years, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the 2021 test until 2022. Although trends in NAEP results compared to past years varied across student subgroups, contexts, grade levels, and subject areas, the overall picture is that declines in performance were big. The drops were much bigger in math than in reading and they especially affected our most vulnerable kids, including students in poverty, Black and Hispanic students, and students who were struggling academically before the pandemic.

The phrase learning loss has been widely used to describe the impact of the pandemic on U.S. students. On the one hand, this is reasonable. Not only students, but families, educators, and communities continue to grapple with the sense that the nation's children have lost so much over the past three years. And this sense of loss applies not only to students' learning but to many other areas of their lives, including their social and emotional growth and wellbeing.

On the other hand, the language of loss is inadequate, especially as we look to the future. Focusing too heavily on loss can direct our attention away from the assets our students, families, and educators bring to the process of healing and recovery in the wake of the pandemic. Their resilience. Their potential. And this is perhaps especially true for systemically underserved students and communities, where the impacts of COVID-19 have arguably cut deepest.

However, among the antonyms of loss—recovery, gain, success, and triumph—we can find the language to help us reframe the real and significant impact of COVID-19 in the lives of students as a critical opportunity to expand support for the recovery and success of students, and for their families, teachers, and schools.

Partnering Toward Academic Recovery

As U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona reminded us in his recent "Dear Colleague" letter, federal research and technical assistance centers such as the Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) can be key partners to state and local education agencies in efforts to support student and school recovery and success. The RELs collaborate with states and districts around using data and evidence to facilitate student growth, success, and more equitable outcomes across student groups over the long term. At REL Northeast & Islands, this focus on equity is integral to the work of our nine partnerships. For example, the Connecticut Multilingual Learners Mathematics Partnership is focused on improving mathematics outcomes in the middle grades, particularly among multilingual learners (MLLs), and the Puerto Rico Partnership to Engage Families in Data Use is centered around helping parents and families understand and use educational data about their child and their child's school.

But there are also several ways the RELs can provide shorter turnaround support to states and districts as they seek evidence-informed strategies to address the academic and social and emotional impacts of the pandemic on students. For example, the new REL "Ask An Expert" service can connect district and state leaders with subject matter experts who can answer questions about evidence-based practices and programs or using data for research and evaluation. In a recent Ask An Expert request, REL Northeast & Islands provided a summary of research evidence on the effectiveness of a particular approach to reading instruction with MLLs. This evidence was used to help our partner make decisions about how to implement a newly adopted approach to reading instruction with MLLs in their specific context.

The RELs are also launching several communities of practice this year, providing educators with a forum for sharing information on a variety of urgent topics. At REL Northeast & Islands, we are facilitating a community of practice on student mental health, bringing educators and leaders from around the country together with experts to identify and share best practices for implementing evidence-based multi-tiered systems of social-emotional learning and mental health supports. The community of practice will include an emphasis on using data for planning and implementing these supports. Participation has far exceeded initial projections, underscoring educators' desire for resources to support students' social and emotional well-being in the wake of the pandemic.

At REL Northeast & Islands and across the RELs, we are continuously engaging in discussions with partners to identify and respond to their emerging needs, even as we work together on established priorities. Partnership activities, the Ask An Expert service, and communities of practice are just some of the ways RELs can support partners across the country in addressing emerging educational challenges. We encourage readers to check out all of the work underway at the RELs, including their contributions to U.S. Department of Education-hosted practitioner and policymaker convenings focused on academic recovery, and other federal technical assistance centers. We look forward to working together through the learning recovery process as we shift our focus from loss to success.


Sarah Ryan

Sarah Ryan

Georgia Bock

Georgia Bock

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