COVID-19 Learning Loss: How to Address a Widening Achievement Gap

by | Feb 8, 2021


EdWeek reports that at least 55.1 million students were impacted by COVID-19 school closures in the spring of 2020, and almost every state recommended that schools remain closed for the remainder of the school year. Between the Spring 2020 semester (when schools initially closed) and the Fall 2020 semester, many students were left without instruction for about six straight months. We can look to research about summer learning loss to predict how COVID-19 will impact the achievement gap, identify the students most at-risk for learning loss, and find practical action steps to promote educational excellence for all students.

What is summer learning loss?

In the US, most students have about a three-month break from school during the summer. For decades, researchers believed this break caused summer learning loss (sometimes called the summer slide), in which students gradually forget the content and skills they mastered in the preceding school year. However, the 1996 study by Cooper et. al.from which these claims originated has recently come under scrutiny, with publications like Education Next casting doubt on whether summer learning loss is real.

What does the evidence say about summer learning loss?

Although Cooper et. al.’s research methods were flawed, more recent studies, have shown evidence to support the idea of summer learning loss. In her 2019 article,Rethinking summer slide: The more you gain, the more you lose,” Megan Kuhfeld analyzes literature reviews of newer studies that measure summer learning loss among K-6 students. Key findings include:

  • Students typically lose between one to two months of reading instruction and between one to three months of math instruction during the summer.
  • Fortunately, summer learning loss appears to be preventable. Of the students represented in Kuhfeld’s analysis, about 22%-38% actually experienced learning gains during the summer.
  • Kuhfeld finds that “[t]he strongest predictor of whether a student would experience summer gains or losses was the size of gain the student had made during the previous academic year” (emphasis from original article).

Kuhfeld explains that learning gains from the preceding school year are directly related to summer learning loss. In other words, the students who show the most learning gains between the beginning of the fall semester and the end of the spring semester are the most likely to experience significant summer learning loss.

Has COVID-19 caused learning loss for students?

For a variety of reasons, researchers haven’t yet had the chance to measure the real impact of COVID-19 on students’ learning. Many schools are still trying to find the safest, healthiest balance between remote education and in-person classes for their students. Additionally, most school districts had to cancel their end-of-year benchmark exams in the spring, creating data gaps for researchers.

However, evidence about summer learning loss can help principals and district leaders target students who are most likely to experience learning loss due to COVID-19 school closures.

How can school leaders address COVID-19 learning loss?

Principals and district leaders can use evidence about summer learning programs to plan effective supports for students impacted by COVID-19 learning loss. A 2017 Brookings research report helps us understand some of the factors that impact the effectiveness of programs that address learning loss:

  • Students’ household income — Some researchers find that students living in low-income homes benefit more from summer reading programs than students from higher-income families. Unfortunately, students from under-resourced homes are less likely to have access to summer reading programs due to financial limitations, lack of transportation, and lack of access to resources at home (such as a reliable internet connection).
  • Consistency and time — Evidence indicates that students who attend summer programs more consistently and for a more significant amount of time experience greater learning gains.
  • Quality of teachers — School leaders report that one of the most significant challenges in offering summer programs is the difficulty in attracting and retaining high-quality, experienced teachers.
  • Shared leadership — School leaders must partner with one another, experienced teachers and staff, and caregivers to develop effective learning programs for students. School leaders need to support high-quality teachers with targeted professional development to address learning loss. Caregivers (such as parents and other adults responsible for students at home) also need consistent support to understand their role in student learning.

School leaders must develop an environment of student-centered learning among teachers, administrators, and support staff. In their 2014 research brief, “Student-Centered Schools: Closing the Opportunity Gap,” the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) explains that student-centered learning environments are better than other schools at developing “students who…graduate, attend, and persist in college at rates that exceed their district and state averages.” These schools also help students develop “transferrable academic skills” and “a sense of purpose and connection to the school.”

To nurture a student-centered learning environment, SCOPE states that school leaders must make a “substantial investment in developing and supporting staff capacity” through professional development that includes:

  • A shared vision — Everyone on your team should understand your school’s vision, and the specific steps needed to achieve that vision.
  • Teacher collaboration — Teachers should meet regularly with mentors, coaches, and their Professional Learning Communities (made up of those teaching the same grade-level and/or subjects) to develop a shared sense of responsibility for all students. Collaboration also helps teachers ensure instruction is aligned with district standards and supports a system of shared leadership.
  • Reflection — Teachers need opportunities to reflect on their own performance. Coaches and PLCs can support the reflection process and help individual teachers identify specific steps they can take to improve their instruction. Teachers also need professional development about how they can reflect on student performance to make data-driven instructional decisions.
  • Enrichment of “teacher expertise in pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, and academic support.”
  • Outside support from district leaders, specialists that can provide targeted support for students, and other community stakeholders.


How can school leaders plan professional development to address COVID-19 learning loss?

COVID-19 has created unprecedented new challenges for school leaders and teachers, requiring professional development targeting:

  • Blended learning technologyProject Tomorrow finds that about 78% of teachers are “not very comfortable” leading students in virtual learning environments. School leaders must provide professional development to guide teachers through blended learning best practices.
  • Blended learning instructional strategies — Teachers need to learn which instructional strategies work well within both a virtual and in-person learning environment to prevent further lapses in instruction.
  • New communication skills — In our recent article,How to Support Teachers Working From Home,” we outline new communication skills that teachers must learn to effectively engage students during the pandemic.
  • Educational equity Students with IEPs, students from low-income households, and students of color (especially Black, brown, and indigenous students) have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Teachers must learn new strategies to make learning accessible for all students during unpredictable times.

The Center for Student Achievement Solutions is available to support your team with evidence-based school leadership coaching and professional development.

Our consultants start by listening. We know that you are the expert on your school, teachers, and students, so we want to learn where your team shines and where you need support. After gathering this information, we \work alongside your leaders to create and implement a comprehensive professional development strategy.

Start by scheduling a free call with one of our expert consultants today, or read more about our approach.