• Tony Wold, Ed.D.

Public Schools Post-Pandemic Moving Toward A Restorative Restart (Strategies to Reengage Students)

Part 2: Digging Deeper Into Lost Learning

Previously, in Part 1 we discussed the pandemic's impacts on how our professional educators have been required to deliver instruction in ways they never prepared for. Veteran educators are critical to the success of a school program. They have had multiple classes to build up content and strategies that work to reach the students they serve. These educators often can be counted on to coach our newer teachers and provide them with direction and support to get into a rhythm. Because of the changing structure of “how” we have had to run the school the last three years 100% of our teachers are now back to being first-year teachers where every lesson and every section or day is the first time they have done it.


It is no wonder we kept hearing educators stating, “I don’t have any bandwidth to do anything new right now.” Now we have an opportunity to look at this differently. Knowing that our students are in many cases missing out on the foundational skills necessary for learning, we much reinvent our pathway to content. In 2007 I wrote about the need to change how we taught to address the “Googlization” of education. In that piece, I discussed the need to look at what we are asking our students to do as seen in these slides from the opening of the year presentation. Interesting that this presentation was done in 2007 right as we were about to enter the worst time in education funding in recent memory.


Back in 2006, the Gates Foundation published The Silent Epidemic Perspectives of High School Graduates. Since that time, we have had an entire generation of students move through our school system and our current high school seniors were only 1 year old when the study was printed. The study identified the root causes of why students choose to drop out and not surprisingly the dropouts expressed a disconnection with the material they were being taught and a pattern of absenteeism that made it impossible for them to catch up when they did return to school. What was written in that study is still very relevant today and has been part of my foundational lens for the past two decades and is what propelled me to work on this series as we look for ways to reconnect students to school and simultaneously address lost learning.


Focusing on Attendance is the gateway to improved student achievement and the first line of defense for addressing lost learning


Leaning on findings from the Silent Epidemic and best practices, educational leaders need to align with the work that we are asking our teachers to do. This means that we need to step back and re-invent what we are doing. That reinvention may only be to limit the scope in an area or deviate from past practice to try something new. In an NWEA Study the researchers determined that it is likely going to take approximately 3 years for elementary students to return to their pre-covid trajectory of achievement, and for secondary students, it may be even longer.

Even as many schools now see the need to deal with significantly higher chronic absenteeism, as students and staff become infected or have to quarantine after being exposed to the virus and its new variants. Rolling absences require more reteaching and reduce teachers’ ability to help classes recoup lost content. This creates stress on both the educators and students, and we say the results of this during the past school year. Rates of stress, trauma, and other mental health and behavioral problems were more widespread and ongoing during the pandemic than in natural disasters, creating a heavier load for both classroom management and student support.

Looking to the beginning of the 2022 – 2023 school year it is clear from the upsurge in covid cases this July that we will be opening school again with an eye toward safety. Just as clear, however, is that with a combination of masking, proper PPE, vaccinations, and utilization of effective treatments the time missed, even if an individual tests positive is significantly reduced. Schools can remain open, and we can return our focus to instruction. Aligning to best practices from the research we know that to effectively open schools this fall we will need to do three things:

  1. Proactively communicate and reteach proper attendance habits to all students and parents on an ongoing basis.

  • In brand marketing, it is known that it takes between 6 to 20 impressions to create brand awareness and that this awareness fades quickly if not reinforced, at a minimum, monthly.

  • School Districts need to develop a comprehensive and continual communication program that helps to reinstate the understanding of the value of good attendance and the direct correlation of attendance being the gateway to academic achievement

2. Target our communication to differentiate the messaging by grade span

  • The approach we take to create initial habits is a different approach than would be needed to intervene and rehabilitate those who have slipped.

  • Secondary parents and students have different areas of focus and concern than those who are transitioning into the middle grades.

  • Early grade parents and students have yet to have a “normal” school year and need to have a comprehensive program aimed at helping them to build the appropriate habits for their students to be able to move forward through the system

3. Provide a relevant and engaging educational environment that recognizes the long-term goal of returning to the academic trajectory, but not trying to accomplish three years in one.

  • Understanding that lost learning does not mean that the student must quickly learn missing facts; rather

  • We need to address the foundational thinking and create relevance in the subject matter to reengage students to take ownership of their own learning (something we should have learned from the 2006 study.


NOTE: School Innovations & Achievement (SI&A) has designed the Achievement Initiative as a research-based systematic approach to implementing both #1 and #2 above in addition to providing an Attendance Management System. Contact SI&A to find out how they can help any school district in America to be able to devote more resources to #3 knowing that #1 and #2 can be fully addressed and be able to implement ongoing connection with your entire school community on a regular basis beginning this fall. No other Attendance Management System provides the ability to utilize this level of proactive and targeted student focus grounded in the foundation of the MTTS approach.


Often, we confuse proficiency with knowledge of facts “the what” versus the ability of the student to provide the “why,” or the “how.” Moreover, the goal really should be for the student to understand the foundational concept and answer the question “what if?” A simple example can come from our World History course with a heavy grounding in Ethnic studies to assess the way history is represented. Removing the impact that European explorers had on the native Americans we have always ensured that students understand this race for new lands. In America, there is the study of Columbus. The question is what a student must know about this age. Is it “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, or maybe something entirely different? I ask you to consider a final exam on Columbus that asks one single prompt: What if Columbus had been right? Explain how this would have impacted the world that we live in today and the development of other nations. Would there be different world powers?


The creation of a foundation of knowledge is critical to expanding thinking. In the Sciences, we have developed scaffolding lessons that introduce the academic language vocabulary in a way that can not only be decoded but also interpreted from the source material to bring forward greater meaning. This is one of the simpler strategies that we have incorporated to help English Language learners progress with the rigor of the academic courses. If we continue to look at the concept of “catching” up we need to look at what has been missed. Is it dates, facts, and background knowledge on a subject? Those areas can quickly be captured with a Google search and should not be where our time is used right now. The key for students who have fallen behind in subjects is to build up their tool chest of comprehension strategies. We want our students to be able to address content cold, meaning without prior knowledge, and to have the “recipe” to glean the main idea.

When we talk about equity we need to take a deeper look at our strategies of support for our English language learners. With respect to English language learners, the number one biggest accelerator in propelling students forward toward academic language proficiency is the ability to practice speaking in English with peers. By definition, most English language learners live in a home environment where English is not the primary language. During the pandemic, when these students were not coming to school, many did not have anyone to practice English with. One of the critical components of negotiation with our teachers was the inclusion of dedicated daily synchronous ELD instructional time during distance learning as part of our academic schedule. As the District negotiator, I held this ELD time to be critical and emphasized it as a significant component of the work we did during the year that schools were closed for in-person instruction.

Continuing the focus on equity, we must recognize that attendance is a critical indicator in the move toward English fluency. School districts must be able to communicate with the family in their primary language the essential need for students and families to build the habit of ongoing attendance. It needs to be explained how being present can accelerate the progress of our English learners just through the enhancement of their time practicing in English. Of course, conversational fluency is not the goal, for our English learners to be successful they must also obtain academic language proficiency. The construct of academic language proficiency has its genesis in the work of Cummins (1980). He said that language use falls into one of two categories: basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), or cognitive/academic language proficiency (CALP). He later added that language use also falls within a set of intersecting continua of cognitive challenge and contextualization.


Some tasks are easy, and others are quite demanding on the horizontal continuum. Some tasks are also context enhanced, while others are content reduced on the vertical continuum. The most demanding tasks for English learners would be demanding context-reduced classroom activities like taking a test. Cummins (2003) describes language proficiency in terms of three dimensions: conversational fluency, discrete language skills, and academic language proficiency. We know that the acquisition of communicative proficiency takes at least a couple of years, while academic language proficiencies take a minimum of five to seven years for English learners to develop. As we focus on lost learning, it must be recognized that our approach to English learners cannot be rushed and that we must build this initial foundation as a first step toward that catching up.


As we focus on our restorative restarts what happens when a local education agency chooses to emphasize content in lieu of developing competencies to attain academic language proficiency? The development of the required competencies is the only viable pathway to achieving academic language proficiency. If the agency chooses short-term content and accountability goals for their English learners over the long-term developmental process of advancing enabling competencies for academic success, the results will continue to mirror the achievement levels we are experiencing in our underperforming schools. In these schools, only a handful of English learners achieve academic language proficiency in the upper elementary grades and beyond.

According to a 2005 Harvard study by Orfield and Lee, high school drop-out rates, especially in our urban centers where large numbers of English learners reside, indicate that far too many of our English learners have not reached academic language proficiency, and they never will, because they have dropped out of school! These findings indicate instructional practice where too many of our local education agencies have chosen the short-term content path for English learners that utilizes mainstream pedagogy as the pathway to their academic success, rather than a developmental one, that is fundamental to academic fluency. This practice of focusing on content without addressing language needs may be a major contributor to the current high school dropout rates, especially among Latinos who may still be English learners.


The paucity of redesignations of English learners who have also attained academic fluency should prompt us to seek answers to some perplexing questions. The criteria for the redesignation of English learners should be carefully scrutinized to determine optimal conditions for redesignation. We are redesignating far too few English learners, but are those that we do redesignate ready to be mainstreamed? The current achievement results of English learners on state tests, and the dearth of English learners reaching proficiency on state standards should motivate us to seek other hidden truths in the data. English proficiency is not enough. Academic language proficiency must remain our ultimate goal. We must constantly seek the most effective means of achieving this goal if English learners are ever to achieve academic fluency.


The hidden truth of academic language proficiency is that there are three different types of English learners. The first is English learners who have begun their pathway towards academic language proficiency and are being provided appropriate instruction to reach academic fluency. In an English learner-centered environment, these students may reach academic language proficiency in five to seven years. Until then, they will not likely meet accountability goals.


The second group consists of English learners that are not in English learner-centered instructional environments, and these students fend for themselves in what approximates mainstream classrooms. This group faces the greatest academic challenge.

Our final group consists of English learners who have been redesignated rFEP and now receive instruction in the regular classroom. The separate, but consequence-laden accountability requirements for English learners, strongly encourage redesignation within four years. The achievement results, our hidden truth, is that many of these rFEP students in the regular classroom setting have not yet attained academic language proficiency, even though we have certified that they are fluent and English proficient.


If rFEP students have not reached academic language proficiency before their redesignation, and do not receive instruction from English learner-centered teachers, the performance gap will likely continue to increase. This second group of English learners remains hidden within data reports from the state, and yet, they hold the key to closing the performance gap—assuming they have attained academic language proficiency. In the Age of Accountability, the performance of all students must be measured, but a better understanding of the hidden groups is essential. As the next school year begins, the English learner-centered agency will be looking for these hidden truths while analyzing student performance before, after, and during their attainment of academic language proficiency.


In Part 3 we will look at how we can unlock where students are today and begin to investigate strategies that can help teachers quickly determine pathways toward addressing lost learning. The key to learning is to have the student engaged. We tend to learn best when we are forced to teach or explain the subject to others. This helps us as learners to better synthesize the material and build constructs that connect it to our own experiences. Unlocking students’ thinking is going to be a key in addressing the need to accelerate learning recovery and move students back to their previous academic trajectory and we will look at what that can look like within the classroom. The final part of this series, part 4 will revisit the power of the summary and the implementation and focus on rigor toward maintaining student interest and challenge as a strategy for accelerating learning.


Please do not hesitate to comment or send me messages on areas of focus as we continue to work toward the best strategies to get our schools and students back on track to the goals of college and career that we strive for.