This article was originally published on the Thomas B. Fordham Flypaper blog.
A few months ago, I wrote an article about Covid-19 learning loss and the many ways that our instructional materials can (and should) support us as we try to accelerate learning for all students.
As an educator and a parent, I know that mathematics teachers are still facing unprecedented difficulties, especially when it comes to unfinished learning. Today, I’m thinking about the obstacles in educators’ paths as we try to bring our students up to speed and how we can rise above those obstacles.
For the most part, districts have figured out the logistics of remote schooling—how and where to meet online, which learning management systems to use, etc.—but they haven’t fully addressed the instructional core (students, teachers, and content) within the classroom. Until all students have access to the aligned, quality materials that can help accelerate the learning of grade-level content, teachers will continue to be asked to do an impossible job without the resources they need and deserve.
Key obstacles in the remote mathematics classroom
I know personally that there are myriad challenges when it comes to keeping students focused in an online environment. Obstacles I’ve encountered include, but are not limited to:
All students are at risk for unfinished learning
First thing’s first: What is unfinished learning? Simply put, teachers expect incoming students to know certain standards based on the previously completed grade levels. When a student within that group does not know all the standards from previous grade levels, they have not finished their learning.
Unfinished learning is a problem at any age and at any grade level. Some grades might see a bit more of a struggle because they include introduction of major topics. In third grade, for example, students are formally introduced to fractions, which is a major foundational piece for much of the mathematics that follows. If a student does not grasp fractions, they will likely struggle with concepts moving forward.
But what we know is that unfinished learning can happen at any time, even if we’re most aware of it in the transitions from elementary to middle school or middle to high school. And, as we’ve seen, unfinished learning is an issue now more than ever due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
How materials help to accelerate learning
As teachers continue to figure out how to support students in hybrid and remote environments, many of them are creating their own materials or sourcing them piecemeal from unvetted sites such as TeachersPayTeachers and Pinterest. This practice often leads to a glaring lack of standards alignment and coherence for their own grade—let alone across grade levels. To find and address unfinished learning, mathematics teachers need high-quality, aligned instructional materials.
Coherence is critical for accelerating learning of grade-level content and addressing unfinished learning. Quality instructional materials offer a range of supports for teachers at the classroom level to do just this.
What’s more, we know that students are individuals, and a one-size fits all approach does not work. Materials should provide strategies for sequencing and scaffolding lessons in order to meet the needs of a range of learners. As materials are considered, it’s important to assess the explicit supports teachers are given to differentiate grade-level content so all students have access.
Closing the gap with coherent mathematics materials
Instructional materials are not a silver bullet. However, materials can be a way to help overcome the challenges of unfinished learning as well as additional obstacles the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated such as disruption in the classroom, lack of manipulatives, and lack of opportunities for differentiation. Ensuring teachers have access to, and training on, high-quality coherent materials is an essential step to ensuring students are set up for success now and long after the pandemic comes to an end.