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How to tackle unfinished learning in math instruction in your district

How to tackle unfinished learning in math instruction in your district

The last several years have upended education!  The disruptions in education go beyond just learning loss. Schools are dealing with many challenges including staffing issues, student absences, and behavioral challenges. Our students, especially in mathematics, are behind over .75 in each grade level. Our students are not just behind a year or two, which in itself is affecting students’ abilities to just graduate high school, but often they are 3, 4, or 5 plus years behind.  They cannot pass basic math.  How do we meet grade level expectations?  Ensure the rigor necessary in content? Remediate, sometimes years, of content? Has remediation filled in the gaps in the past efficiently and adequately? Can we do all of this at the same time?

So what is learning loss?

First, let’s talk about “learning loss”. The term is problematic because learning loss gives responsibility to students for the loss, however, how can they “lose” what they haven’t learned yet? Our students have unfinished learning, but where and when do they finish?

Teachers and students, especially during the pandemic but also through other losses of school time including natural disasters, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, did not meet expectations, rather they are further behind.  Regardless of the disruption, students did not master the specific grade level content and the gaps in knowledge have grown. 

According to the middle school NAEP data, there was a 4x greater drop in math compared to English Language Arts (ELA).  Schools have double their time in ELA, however, they have not in mathematics and it is more dire! This is not new, math is as important as reading but the focus has been on reading first.  

Math is cumulative. Students learn about .7 grade levels per year in math, they are already at a disadvantage.  Compounding loss can lead to a student in the 12th grade but on a 7th grade math level. Consider, our current 8th and 9th graders were in 5th and 6th grade when the pandemic began in 2020.  Math curriculum at the 6th and 7th grade levels include fractions and decimals, while 8th grade math consists of pre-algebra and algebraic concepts.  The deficit that students encountered prior to the pandemic has been compounded by everything from student and teacher absence, substitute teachers who probably do not have a mathematics background, and gaps that shake student foundations causing disengagement and lack of confidence. Our students have larger gaps in foundational math knowledge and are even more behind.

The solution to learning loss? 

What’s the solution then? Mastery learning offers the opportunity to meet current standards while filling in gaps. Schools have been exploring the impact of mastery learning in their schools, and it has led to skill mastery, higher standardized test scores, and filled in the learning gaps. Students in mastery learning programs work on their curriculum standards while remediating targeted skills.  Providing an opportunity for students to complete an assessment that focuses on their curriculum, identifies specific skills that fill in the gaps from prior grade levels and provides teachers with the specific skills that each learner needs to “fix” their foundation.

Each learner moves at their own pace. They have the opportunity to watch videos, read articles and practice, but not drill and kill.  If a student cannot do 4 problems, they cannot do 20.  If a student is not successful with  4 problems, students can get feedback, see another example, and try again until they master the skill.  This self paced learning helps students understand that they can “get it” they just don’t have it “yet”.  Teachers can easily track student progress and support students as they fill their gaps.

We know that time is not on our side, but what if a student could spend 30 – 40 minutes a week working on those skills?  What if that doubled the learning for each student? What if students closed their learning gaps with the right instructional tools?

In a 2018 study, students who used Khan Academy for 30 minutes a week gained an additional 22 points on their state math assessment.  That is a 0.2 effect size, a demonstrated proficiency 2x the district’s target for groups compared to those who did not use Khan Academy.  

What do support do students need?

Students need more time in math, just like they need more time in reading.  As administrators help teachers identify time, that 30 minutes can make a difference in mastering prior content knowledge while continuing to learn at current levels.  Khan Academy content balances the management of skills not yet met while embedding the problem solving skills that support math fluency.  Students are provided the necessary support addressing their current knowledge gaps creating that strong foundation while meeting current standards. 

We need to keep our expectations for learning high, and not undermine confidence in our students.  We must be sure that teachers do not lower expectations and have tools to be able to teach on level and simultaneously, be able to fill in those gaps in content.

For administrators this is not only a concern, but something you face every day!  Ensuring teachers have the tools in their classrooms as well as ways to remediate within class time, after school or finding time to support students, is a huge undertaking. 

Algebra – the gateway to higher math

Algebra is the foundation and the gateway to higher math.  As administrators we understand how important Algebra 1 is to SAT, college success, and the overall success of our students.  Teachers may know this, but our students probably do not.  This is important to communicate and have tools to support teachers and students as they master algebra content and algebraic thinking. This can be communicated to parents on back to school nights, newsletters, PTO meetings, or in the course syllabus.  It needs to be said often so parents can truly hear and understand how important Algebra is.

A district partner in Florida uses Khan Academy to support Algebra 1A students. This course which focuses on a combination of foundational skills and Algebra 1 content uses our Get Ready for Algebra 1 course.  This course supports students with building the foundational skills necessary to access Algebra 1 content while at the same time filling in learning gaps for individual students. The district continues to see tremendous growth in their Algebra 1A students so they added Khan Academy content to their pacing guide.  This insures that all students are able to meet their academic learning goals.

Another district partner in the northeast uses Khan Academy courses to differentiate instruction in the Algebra 1 classroom. Teachers are expected to teach all levels of students at the same time, even students who have been placed in Algebra 1 to repeat the course. These teachers simultaneously place students in their class into one of three courses: Get Ready for Algebra 1, Algebra Basics, or Algebra 1.  Many teachers use test scores from the end of the last school year to identify which course specific students need.  Their learning is individualized and all students have access to critical Algebra 1 content at their instructional level.

How does Khan Academy Districts help with math instruction?

Khan academy has a new program that works with districts. Parents, students and teachers have long used the Khan Academy courses and lessons.  Khan Academy Districts allows for automatic rostering for teachers and students. Administrators can view dashboards and reports to see teacher and student progress data. This can be used with parents showing progress and learning opportunities. 

Khan Academy is adored by millions of teachers and students and is helping close deep learning gaps. By partnering with Khan Academy Districts, district leaders can improve student performance, focus on grade-level skills progress, and address learning gaps, to improve overall student achievement. To learn more, connect with our sales team here. 

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Author: Bernadette Bennett


Mahnken, Kevin. 74 Interview: Educator & Khan Academy Founder Sal Khan on COVID’s Staggering Math Toll. February 8 2023

Wakelyn, David. Learning Loss Is Worse than NAEP Showed. Middle School Math Must Be the Priority.  December 14, 2022

Khan Academy Correlational Study with Long Beach Unified School District, 2018

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