Tom Kane has an outstanding piece in the Atlantic this week about the extent of the academic losses students have suffered as a result of pandemic. I recommend it, in particular, because Kane does such an outstanding job of putting the extent of the losses in their practical context.
“In fall 2021,” Kane begins, “Students at low-poverty schools that stayed remote had lost the equivalent of 13 weeks of in-person instruction. At high-poverty schools that stayed remote, students lost the equivalent of 22 weeks.”
Over the course of the article, Kane compares a 22 week loss of learning to the likely benefit of proposed responses.
As a leading educational researcher, Kane is better positioned than the rest of us to understand exactly what a 22-week loss in learning means and he observes that he found “the size of the losses startling” in particular because “Very few remedial interventions have ever been shown to produce benefits equivalent to 22 weeks of additional in-person instruction.”
So, for example: “A double dose of math over the course of an entire school year has been shown to produce gains equivalent to about 10 weeks of in-person instruction,” Kane notes. That is, doing double math classes all year gets you just shy of half way. The data on double reading classes is less compelling. (Probably because reading is so complex and so poorly taught.)
High-dosage tutoring, which a lot of people have suggested and which is very expensive and complex to implement (note: I am NOT arguing against it, just making a point) is, Kane notes, “one of the few interventions with a demonstrated benefit that comes close, producing an average gain equivalent to 19 weeks of instruction.”
A trained tutor working with one to four students at a time, three times a week for a whole year only partially gets you the equivalent of 22 months in other words.
But, Kane goes on, “The obvious challenge with tutoring is how to offer it to students on an enormous scale. To eliminate a 22-week instruction loss would require providing a tutor to every single student in a school.” Even the most ambitious plan so far, Tennessee’s, would serve just one out of 12 students in the targeted grades. Again this is not an argument against tutoring. It just puts the size of the problem in context.
Kane concludes: “Given the magnitude and breadth of the losses, educators should not see tutoring as the sole answer to the problem. School systems need a patch big enough to cover the hole.”
There isn’t an intervention we know of that’s robust enough. We’re going to need several. And, I’d point out, the single most productive intervention is much better teaching and much better curriculum is every single classroom- that, to me at least, is the thing that will make the difference. But of course that requires massive structural changes like better professional development, more flexibility in hiring decisions and a commitment as a sector to the science of learning.
And probably an elimination of other distractions.
Perhaps the first step is seeing clearly just how big the problem is. Now that we do (or should) it’s time to get rolling. My colleagues Denarius Frazier, Hilary Lewis and Darryl Williams and I have just finished a book on some of the things we think schools can do. It’ll be out in the early autumn but i’ll be sharing some excerpts from it here.