As teachers brace for student learning losses, many worry about the impact on Michigan’s most vulnerable students

Students at work at tables in a math class at Detroit’s Southeastern High School,
The most vulnerable students are expected to experience the most learning loss because of the pandemic. (Anthony Lanzilote / Chalkbeat)

As schools across Michigan begin an unpredictable new year, teachers are facing what may seem like an insurmountable task: Helping students, particularly the most vulnerable, who’ve experienced learning loss because of the pandemic.

There is little doubt that the disruption caused by COVID-19, marked by an unheard-of shift from physical to remote learning, will leave many students struggling academically. That concern runs especially deep in cities like Detroit, home to long-existing inequities and students whose communities have borne the brunt of the virus’s damage. 

Educators staring at a fall of more remote learning, a tentative return to classrooms, or a mix of both are grappling with how to best slow such slides. They’re weighing approaches such as investing more in supporting students socially and emotionally, tending to individual students’ needs, and steering clear of high-stakes tests — for now.

Although we don’t know yet how much loss students will have experienced or the long-term effects, some researchers have made dire predictions — including that students could lose as much as a year of learning in math because of COVID. 

Experts say students from low-income families will be hit the hardest, exacerbating existing racial and socioeconomic gaps in achievement. 

In Detroit, nearly 90% of the students in the city school district are considered economically disadvantaged, and rates in city charter schools are as high or higher.

These are the students for whom inequities in education are an everyday reality. Their schools are more likely to receive less state funding. They were less likely to have access to the technology needed to keep up with school work in the spring. Their parents were more likely to lose their jobs as the economy stalled, or to be employed in essential roles that left them and their families at risk of COVID. And they tend to live in communities that were hardest hit by the coronavirus, leaving social and emotional scars that will follow them when they return to the physical or virtual classroom.

Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, an assistant professor at Wayne State University, says schools offering choices between in-person and remote instruction should have considered the needs of students who may have suffered the greatest losses. Most district leaders left it up to parents to decide between the two. 

“Parents choose what’s best for them,” Lenhoff said. “But that really leaves it up to chance whether the students who would benefit the most from face to face are the ones who are going to sign up for it.”

Lenhoff said it’s “scary, frankly,” to think about the long-term consequences for students from low-income families and students of color who attend economically segregated schools who will “are likely bearing the brunt of the learning loss.” Higher income parents are more likely to put pressure on their schools to provide resources and support, or to invest in those themselves. 

Zakiya Traylor, a parent of a freshman who will attend Detroit’s Henry Ford High School online, said she’s concerned about how much learning her daughter lost during the spring. They had the technology to learn online, but she said it wasn’t enough.

“Even though they had some online learning, it wasn’t as structured as it was in school,” Traylor said. “I felt her learning was at a standstill. I felt she was stuck at a certain level.”

Students will need more resources

Elizabeth Moje, dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan, agrees that vulnerable students will be most affected by academic losses. But she hopes people take away an important message: It doesn’t mean those students didn’t learn anything in the spring or have experiences that supplemented their learning.

That’s why she says that while “we have to recognize the disparities and inequalities and inequities and work to address those,” it must be done without treating children as if they’re deficient.

It also must be done with “significant investments in educational resources and social services,” Lenhoff said. 

That need comes are schools are already investing heavily in personal protection equipment such as face masks, hand sanitizer, thermometers, and face shields, as well as technology students will need to learn online.

Last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she was earmarking $60 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to K-12 schools, targeting schools with large numbers of low-income, special education, and English language learners. Whitmer said some of that money can be used to mitigate the effects of learning loss.

“In the middle of all of this pandemic we know we’re going to need additional … support and this can go towards that,” Whitmer said during a press conference.

Meanwhile, in the classroom, teachers will face a monumental task as they try to investigate what students learned, what they didn’t learn, what experiences they had that may have helped with their learning, and finally, how to help catch them up. Many will have the added frustration of having to accomplish this while teaching remotely.

In Detroit, the learning losses could upend several years of small growth in student achievement on state exams. 

Tanisha Murray, whose daughter will be a freshman at Detroit School of the Arts, said her biggest concern as a parent is whether her daughter will get the help she needs while learning online. She’s ready to help, but it may not be enough.

She already knows what challenges could arise. In the spring, after a death in the family, her daughter lost focus and began struggling with math lessons.

“I would like to see tutors available to assist the parents … I may not be able to assist with every class.”

‘Meeting kids where they are’

So how do teachers get a handle on learning loss? In the same ways they do every year when students come back to school after a three-month summer break. Researchers may differ on the severity of the summer learning loss, but they tend to agree that some loss is experienced each year.

Owen Bondono, an Oak Park high school teacher who was recently named Michigan Teacher of the Year, said it will be important for teachers to not worry “about arbitrary benchmarks and where people say your kids should be.”

“We always meet kids where they are and this will be no different,” Bondono said. “Focus right now on students’ social/emotional health and academic learning will follow.”

There tends to be widespread agreement that schools must first address the social and emotional needs of children. That will be particularly true in communities like Detroit that were hit hard by COVID-19, and where many students may know relatives or others who became sick or died from the disease.

“We have to think about those things. Because unless those things are met, then all the rest isn’t going to be able to get taken care of,” Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, said during an Aug. 12 town hall meeting co-hosted by Chalkbeat.

In other words, Herbart said, the kids should be treated “as humans,” and teachers shouldn’t be pushing “what did you learn, what did you lose.”

Another thing many educators agree on is that the last thing they should do to assess learning loss is to force students to take an exam that is used “to sum children up and put a label on them,” Moje said. Rather, tests now should be focused on understanding “where they are with their development.”

There are subtler ways to do that. It can be as simple as a conversation, or a writing assignment. Teachers will need to assess not only what students did and didn’t learn during the spring, but what they experienced during the summer, Moje said. Did they go to summer school? Did they travel? Did they spend a lot of time on the couch watching TV? And if so, what did they watch and possibly learn from it?

“They want to try to build on the amazing capacity of the human mind to always be learning,” Moje said.

Those assessments can also come in the form of a no-stakes exam that pinpoints where students are academically.

It is likely teachers will have a classroom of students at very different levels, depending on how much learning they did in the spring. It also depends on whether the students have books and other reading materials in their homes, said Lisa Lipscomb, a Detroit teacher.

Children whose families “engage young ones with continuous learning opportunities remember more,” Lipscomb said.

 ‘They had not logged in even once’

Lenhoff and her research team at Wayne State released a report recently that highlighted the spring experiences of nearly 30 Detroit high school students. Many of the students said they actively participated in remote instruction. But 28% of them didn’t take part at all.

“The students I’m most concerned about are those that did not participate at all in distance learning. They had not logged in even once, and we were talking to them in early June. Distance learning had been going on for two and a half months,” said Lenhoff, whose team has been doing a series of reports on Detroit education. “I’m worried about learning loss and increased dropout rates.”

Meanwhile, a RAND survey released in May found that just 12% of the teachers surveyed said they were able to cover their full curriculum while teaching remotely. And teachers in two other surveys estimated only about 60% of their students were regularly participating or engaging in distance learning, and up to three-quarters of teachers said their students were less engaged.

Such disparate experiences are why it will be difficult for teachers to develop a one-size-fits approach to dealing with learning loss. Compounding the issue is that children whose parents are better off financially likely were able to provide their children with tutors or other types of additional resources. 

The term “differentiated instruction” has been a big part of the educator lexicon for many years. It essentially means teachers must adapt their curriculum to meet the individual needs of students. It will become increasingly important in the wake of COVID. 

Teachers will also have to adjust how they teach some content, said Roland Sintos Coloma, assistant dean in the division of teacher education at Wayne State. An incoming fourth grader, for instance, may not have learned all of the third-grade math curriculum last school year. But the fourth grade teacher can find ways to integrate standards for both grades and “build upon them,” Coloma said.

“We’re still in crisis mode,” Coloma said of the start of the school year. “We need to use this as an opportunity to really think about what do we really value when it comes to teaching and learning. What are those metrics we are using to say students are on grade level or not. And how do we continuously engage young people so that they find what’s happening either in school or virtually meaningful for them.”

There are broader, more long-term steps schools can take. Earlier this year, Chalkbeat outlined five things research suggests could work: extending the school day or year, providing extra tutoring, particularly for students most behind, having elementary teachers retain the students they had last year, expanding the number of adults ready to help students with mental health and trauma issues, and integrating information about the coronavirus into the curriculum. 

Traylor, whose daughter took a summer school math class, is worried about the start of the school year because it’ll begin the same way the last semester ended: With her daughter learning online.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “It comes with a little anxiety. We have to learn how to survive and provide for our kids while also making sure they get the education that they need.”

The Latest

Director Patricia Hurrieta will be tasked with carrying out the recommendations in a new report about the barriers and opportunities that Latino students face.

State leaders hope a $25 million investment in scholarships and coaching for the Class of 2024 will pay off in getting more students the skills they need to access high paying jobs.

Una nueva iniciativa distribuirá bonus de $1,000 a adolescentes que trabajen 100 horas o más este verano y completen un taller sobre conocimientos financieros.

People sometimes assume trans and nonbinary educators are correcting pronouns resentfully or talking about gender in age-inappropriate ways. The truth is far more mundane.

My story is about persevering, but it’s also about getting the unique support I needed to turn my situation around.

This week’s episode of P.S. Weekly looks at teen mental health, following one family’s journey with therapy and looking at NYC’s new effort to expand free therapy to teens.