As leaders make difficult decisions to create the best possible conditions for learning during constant change and disruption, we also face another emerging challenge. There is growing fear among the public that students may be experiencing irreparable learning loss.

This fear, however, is not a new concept. Districts have historically grappled with this issue wondering if learning loss – often referred to as the summer slide — occurs during long summer breaks. Recently, we’re hearing the term used to describe concerns related to virus-induced closures and interruptions to student learning environments.


Before we discuss the cause of any learning disparities, we need to understand what these terms mean. What is learning regression? Learning regression is learning loss. This loss often occurs due to:

  • insufficient access to high-quality instruction
  • the lack of differentiated instruction
  • less than optimal learning conditions that meet the needs of each learner

During interruptions of normal school operations, there may be internal and external factors influencing the degrees of learning loss for some students. However, attributing the loss to a single event may be a false equivalency. Factors that have plagued learning organizations historically such as equity, poverty and access to high-quality instruction remain a continued threat to each student’s opportunity to successfully meet learning milestones. Also, it is important to recognize many students are successful despite these disruptions.

Determining why some students are making progress despite these factors might help us better understand how to support progress for all learners. Recently, educational experts are saying the 2020 COVID-19 virus disruption merely brought to light learning disparities that have long existed in our schools and institutions. Even researchers that study learning loss specifically caution leaders to be careful in making COVID-19 the default reason for learning regression.

How institutions examine the causal relationships between disruption, access to quality learning and internal and external influences will be an important consideration for school leaders and improvement teams when creating solutions around learning gaps.


When we focus on learning growth, we continue to serve students who are making progress and better understand the forces preventing some students from fully engaging in learning. Improvement cycles provide a structured approach for identifying our student learning strengths and challenges and help us find viable solutions to learning gaps. During these cycles, we listen to voices across the organization to determine new ways to adjust and optimize learning conditions. Schools can then begin to execute plausible strategies for addressing learning disparities.

To define success, the improvement team at Erwin Middle School (EMS) in Birmingham, Alabama, first sought to address the problem of practice and identify measures for improvement. EMS grappled with how well they were defining terminology and if it was interpreted consistently across the school’s stakeholders.

For example, the improvement team created a working definition of the term “Attendance” with the following questions:

  • How are you defining attendance across your school system?
  • During COVID-19 how will your system clearly define attendance when operating in each school configuration (face-to-face, hybrid or remote learning)?


The improvement team prepared for their first cycle by defining success, possible root causes and measures aligned to their success indicators. These are the indicators that will drive strategic actions and the improvement measures that will allow EMS teams to monitor progress.

Using research from Harvard’s strategic data project on college and graduation readiness, the improvement team chose three improvement measures to follow. Together, these measures enable EMS to identify which students are on track, exceeding expectations and below expectations using a simple dashboard:



The number of students attending 80% or > weekly. You can’t learn if you are not there.

If you are there and not progressing, why?

STUDENT PROGRESSION & MILESTONES Students who are achieving 80% or better weekly. Who is meeting milestones?

Why are some successful while others are not?

STUDENT ASSIGNMENT COMPLETIONS The number of assignments or learning tasks completed weekly. Who is making progress and keeping pace with daily and weekly assignments?

What conditions for learning are influencing student success in achieving completion of daily and weekly assignments?

Next, EMS determined the following actions as next steps to help the improvement team identify and improve student outcomes:

  • Identify students who are enrolled and not showing up for learning across system configurations.
  • Deploy a home phone call and home visit campaign to gather additional information about these students.
  • Re-engage X students and have them show up for learning.
  • Discover the root cause of why students are not showing up:
    • technology access
    • parental/caregiver support
    • misunderstandings of student learning expectations by the student and family
    • lack of access to communication about options and changes for students


Improvement cadence execution

The school improvement team meets weekly to monitor progress on actions, changing conditions and emerging barriers to progress. During meetings, time is spent focused on detailed reporting of progress and actions every 30, 60 and 90 days. This monthly cadence provides time for the team to discuss strategic actions and make any needed adjustments before the barriers become a roadblock to addressing student needs.

To engage in progress monitoring, the improvement team uses a 30-day action plan with a stoplight report, shown here:

Principal Hire a new counselor to serve as a liaison between EMS and parents/students. Complete
Instructional Coaches Pull list of students with D and F averages. Provide new counselor with attendance report. Complete
Counselor Be in constant communication with teachers. Attend weekly PLCs to update teachers on the status of their students whose families have been contacted. Teachers will keep track of their remote absence using a specific Google Form. Ongoing
Counselor Be in constant communication with EMS parents and students to identify barriers that are hindering students from being present (traditional and remote) to school. Ongoing

Erwin Middle School’s 90-day data indicates their actions have led to a 30% decrease in the list of failing 6th-grade students. Additionally, 15% of chronically absent students have returned to traditional schooling. Through this cycle, EMS has also identified areas of concern, which can be added to the 30, 60 and 90-day action plans, progress monitoring and consistent meetings conducted by the improvement team.


Student learning gaps and disparities are caused by multiple internal and external factors. Whether we are facing immense disruption or not, combating learning loss first requires the development of a clear problem definition and understanding of the root cause. Secondly, it’s necessary to determine what success will look like and the associated actions that we will take to achieve success. Finally, we focus on the critical improvement measures to monitor at a disciplined cadence — allowing us to respond and adjust to frequent changes. Engaging in improvement cycles requires continuous inquiry, problem-solving and testing ideas.

pingbacks / trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Start typing and press Enter to search

teacher helping student at desk