Pandemic learning gains: Resilience. Responsibility. Lunch.

Lakisha Young, a mother and community activist in Oakland, California, is determined to prove that children in her city don’t have to be permanently harmed by pandemic disruptions to their learning. 

She and colleagues at Oakland REACH, a parent group advocating for better education for Black and Latino children, formed a Virtual Family Hub last June that provides one-on-one tutoring, small-group instruction, and classes like martial arts, creative writing, and cooking. Children who participated saw measurable learning gains: Sixty percent of students in the hub’s literacy program rose two or more reading levels (different from grade levels) by the end of the summer. 

Now Oakland REACH is partnering with the Oakland Unified School District to offer hub programming after school, and more than 400 students are signed up. The district recently announced plans to expand its partnership to up to 1,000 students by this summer. 

Why We Wrote This

Amid concerns about learning loss during the pandemic, there are also learning gains. We looked at how students are making academic progress and developing crucial life skills, including resilience and hope.

“We see this as an opportunity not just to mitigate learning loss, but to take our kids further and beyond,” says Ms. Young.

Whether in reading or cooking, many students are making progress despite the pandemic. Recognizing this, some parents and teachers are trying to broaden the discussion around learning loss to include recognition of what students are learning – such as problem-solving and resilience, as well as literacy and math through programs like the hub. By focusing on students’ strengths and what they’ve learned inside and outside the classroom, some believe it will be easier to address gaps in their education. 

“A different kind of resilience”

“I think a lot of the narrative about learning loss tends to be narrowly focused on academic or cognitive skills. What are the math units we didn’t get to? What depth of knowledge around social studies topics have we missed?” says Danielle Neves, deputy chief of academics at Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma, where 81% of students are economically disadvantaged. “I think our students have gained a lot of other things. Children are incredibly resilient human beings, and I think they’ve learned a different kind of resilience in this year.”

Measuring exactly what children have or haven’t learned over the past year isn’t easy. Initial research suggests many students are behind on core academic skills, particularly in math at all grade levels and reading in the earliest grades. Students who attend schools serving primarily Black or Latino students or those located in lower-income ZIP codes are falling furthest behind on grade-level academic standards. 

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At the same time, some educators and parents, from across the spectrum of income levels and races, believe the pandemic has strengthened students’ soft skills, which they say are also crucial for future success. 

“We believe our task is to prepare students for the college or career that they choose, and that’s made up of cognitive skills and the critical thinking skills of communication, collaboration, problem-solving,” says Ms. Neves. “They are woven together. A student doesn’t become college- and career-ready simply because they read the most books or solved the most problems.” 

Ms. Neves points to examples of student growth in independence and technology skills. She’s proud when she overhears her child’s classmates problem-solve by giving each other tips on fixing tech issues with Zoom. She’s also seen more social engagement from students over the country’s reckoning with racism.

In Tulsa and districts around the country, educators plan to build upon the positive skills that students have developed this year, while adding extra mental health and social and emotional support for students struggling with trauma or anxiety. In addition, academic aid will come in a variety of forms, like free summer school or small-group instruction.

Soft skills and future planning

Some parents note that their children’s response to remote learning has varied widely by age, with most reporting that older students have fared better than younger ones.

Victoria Bradley, a high school senior in Detroit, traded public school for home schooling this year and keeps herself on schedule with her curriculum. “Being organized and staying on track, that’s the part I learned and took value in,” she says. She completed a variety of courses through the online platform Outschool that helped her decide she wants to pursue forensic psychology for a career. 

Crystal Bryce, associate director of research at the Center for the Advanced Study and Practice of Hope at Arizona State University, found a similar forward-looking focus in her study of 800 middle and high school students at a rural school district in Arizona. The preliminary results show that many students thought the pandemic gave them time to prepare and plan for their future. 

“It might be contrary to what we might think, but it’s so great to see those responses because it shows that, even when things are hard, we can still have hope, and that’s something that can be sustained,” Dr. Bryce says.

Others have seen more immediate, concrete gains among students. Alisha Thomas Morgan, a parent and educational consultant outside Atlanta, says her eighth grade daughter’s confidence and organizational skills have grown. And she’s not alone in that. As Ms. Morgan talks with others in her network, she’s “blown away by the soft skills that have developed” among their children, like proactively emailing teachers or remembering to make their own lunches. 

“Education in the pandemic has helped our children develop as good humans and become more responsible young people,” she says. “I think it’s equally important, as we make sure students are developing academically, that we also measure and value the personal development that they’ve experienced.”

Amanda Miller from Wallingford, Pennsylvania, says her high school junior flourished, enrolling in more honors classes than ever before and thriving with the independence of remote learning. But her younger son struggled without the structure of his regular school routine and entered therapy for anxiety. He’s happier now that his fourth grade class has resumed in-person learning.  

Aaron Chuquimarca, a sixth grade student from Lowell, Massachusetts, falls somewhere in the middle. Still learning remotely, he’s excited about science class, where he’s studying chromosomes, and he’s had more time to do his chores. But he says he also gets “really distracted” at home. 

“Unfinished learning”

Given a wide range of responses to learning during the pandemic, some school leaders encourage staff and students to approach upcoming teaching and learning with a growth mindset, made popular by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University, whose research finds that students achieve more when they believe intelligence isn’t fixed, but can grow.

“We made a conscious effort to focus on ‘unfinished learning’ rather than ‘learning loss,’ says Ms. Neves in Tulsa. “In a lot of ways, they can be similar in meaning … but we wanted to make a choice to remove the onus of that from the students.”

Dr. Bryce, from Arizona State, underscores the importance of a positive outlook. “Research has shown that high hope is good for everything, but especially it helps with academics. Students with high hope are more engaged in school.” 

Ms. Young, the community organizer in Oakland, is hopeful about the strong academic results of the parent-founded learning hub and its expanding partnership with the school district. 

“If kids are actually doing better in subjects that they’ve struggled in, that goes a lot toward self-esteem and self-confidence,” she says. “The kids are feeling like, ‘I can learn and I can learn well.’”

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Mark Sappenfield Editor

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