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Learning Loss and the Coronavirus

How what we know about summer learning loss can guide educators, districts, and parents during current school closures.
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With many schools closed around the country due to the coronavirus, educators and parents may have growing concerns about how long students can go without formal instruction. Jennifer McCombs, a senior policy researcher for the RAND Corporation, has long studied the effects of summer break on learning — particularly for at-risk students from low-income families or students performing below grade level. In this episode of the EdCast, McCombs discusses how what we know from summer learning loss might guide educators, districts, and parents as they set forth on learning when school is closed.

Ways to borrow from what we know about summer learning (and learning loss):  

  • Home learning can be effective. Don’t stress about learning loss too much. “We don't have to replace every single hour, particularly when we're giving one-on-one attention to our kids,” McCombs says. “It's really engaged time in academic learning that's creating the learning, not necessarily the number of academic minutes in a school day.”
  • Families and caregivers need to reexamine what learning looks like at home depending on the child’s age. While younger children need guided direction, older children might benefit from opportunities to maximize their independence, self-regulation, and goals. Use this unique time at home to work on developing other skills, like having children create their own schedules and manage their day and time. Informal learning activities — like cooking from a simple recipe, practicing an instrument, playing charades, or writing and telling stories — can all make for an enriching day.
  • School districts should explore common online lessons for students as opposed to teachers creating their own assignments. One way to ease the transition, McCombs says, is for districts to create “standardized modules” that all teachers can use and administer to their students.
  • Think creatively about replacing the school-related things that are not academics, like social interaction, sports, and extracurricular or afterschool activities.
  • When conditions permit, districts can consider ways to expand summer learning opportunities and the number of students who can access these programs.

Read more in our ongoing series, Confronting the Coronavirus Outbreak, on how schools and communities can prepare and respond, support young people, build resilience, and keep the learning going.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

With so many children out of school indefinitely, it's hard to know how the coronavirus break may impact their learning. There's already debate about whether to give lessons at home or let your children watch movies and relax. I reached out to Jennifer McCombs, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation. She's long studied how to use time out of school, like the summer, to combat learning loss. I wondered what summer break might already be able to tell us about what happens when kids aren't in school.

Jennifer McCombs

The picture's a little bit complex about how summer affects students' learning trajectories over time. One thing that we know very clearly is that academic progress slows during the summer, which makes sense because kids are not receiving formal instruction. If we didn't see that, I think we'd be a lot more concerned about schools. But the reality is that it's very clear that academic progress is slowing because kids are not spending engaged time in academic content. However, the direction of average academic progress over the summer is a little bit unclear.

Some of the foundational research in that space from the late '80s and '90s pretty clearly showed summer learning loss across the board for all students in mathematics in particular, and then also in reading, with low income students facing the largest losses in reading. That work is like the seminal piece coming out of that era is Harris Cooper and his colleagues' meta analysis on summer learning loss. More recent literature, so kind of from 2000 on, which has primarily used data from the NWEA which tracks kids in grades one through nine in several states and districts across the country are using that, and also through the Eccles K which is tracking the much younger grades, so these early learning cohorts.

There the evidence emerging from that is a little bit more mixed. Some studies are finding that there is loss. Kids are losing ground over the summer, although the effect sizes that they're finding are slightly more reduced than what was found in earlier work. Other studies are finding that kids are maintaining, and others show that it's sort of across the board on average that they actually might be gaining a little. The picture overall is a little less clear about how summer and the gravity of summer on kids learning trajectories. However, across the board in all of these studies, from the very early studies through the more modern studies, low income students are falling behind their higher income peers during the summer months. That is very consistent over time. That is the group that I think that districts and society needs to be most concerned about during this period.

Jill Anderson: So is there really any easy way to understand why it happens? Is it just you're not constantly exposed to other kids and you're just watching TV or something?

Jennifer McCombs: You can go to the learning literature overall about how kids learn and also how adults learn, and then also how learning decays, which is a little bit helpful in understanding the mechanisms that happen. We know that learning happens over periods of time. So, learning that is like small repeats of information spread out over a number of weeks is more effective than say an eight hour block of just content at one given time that lasts longer. All of the academic skills will decay over time if it's not used on a daily basis, and particularly if it's procedural in nature. This is one reason why people hypothesize that for mathematics in particular, where kids are less likely to practice some of those concepts just in an ordinary day, that that may ... where we see sort of some greater losses across the board from the earlier literature.

We also know that once you've learned something, it's easier to relearn it, right? You learn it faster. If I've taught you something and then you kind of forget how to do it, if I reintroduce it, you're able to pick it up a little bit more easily. We're not starting from square one on these things. I think as adults, if we think about what we used to know when we were kids that we don't use in our daily basis anymore ... I think that we find this when we're actually reteaching kids some concepts that they might have in school, where I will tend to find ... I was like, "I actually need to look that up really quickly to figure out, do I really know this, and then how well do I know it?" And then can pretty much remember it, understand it, and then be able to teach it.

This is happening to kids too, when they are not in school and not using things and using their muscles. When we think about why summer may more negatively impact low income students, there are a number of hypotheses that are put forward. One is that they have less access to engaging, enriching activities relative to their higher income peers. While middle-income parents and high-income parents are sending kids to fancy camps, engaging STEM things, those are less accessible to students from low income families. We also know that for low income students that food insecurity increases during the summer months and that physical activity actually ends up declining. Students face a number of risks during the summer months. As we're thinking about, what if summer lasts for six months, which is what we're all kind of looking at, this is a group to really think about. How can districts, communities help create more equitable outcomes? Because I think that we potentially are at risk of exacerbating inequity during this period.

Jill Anderson: As a parent, I wonder is there a certain length of time where we need to worry about learning loss? If you look at the country right now, some schools have closed through the end of the school year, some are closed for three weeks, potentially longer. We don't really know.

Jennifer McCombs: Right. Yeah. I would say that in terms of, what's the magic threshold, we actually don't really know. All of these studies that have been conducted have been conducted around sort of the summer months, which are typically like three months of time over the summer that kids aren't in school, so anywhere from eight to twelve weeks. We also know though that kids regularly have one or two week breaks from school during the school year and we don't worry about it. There's winter breaks, there's spring breaks where kids are not engaged in academic learning, and as a society we don't really worry one way or another. I think that where it's more concerning now and more unknown, is that the length of time is potentially greater. In my school districts, for instance, there's no academic instruction for the next two weeks. Then what I think people are preparing for and expect, is that they'll be switching to online learning for the rest of the school year. I think that's sort of across the board. Even when academic instruction might kick back in, it's going to potentially look different and feel different for families and students.

Jill Anderson: So obviously, that online learning bit does raise the red flag regarding low income students because we have to imagine so many of them just don't have the access to-

Jennifer McCombs: Yeah, access is a huge, tremendous issue that I know that districts are grappling with, and it's been interesting to see districts move into motion on this. You see a lot of them where they're serving a population of students who are from low income families. But the first thing that they did was they moved to still feed kids. The schools provide a needed source of food and nutrition for many students.

And so districts first worked to figure out how is it that we are going to be able to feed kids and ensure that they have some basic needs met during these school months where they really were not prepared to be putting up meal sites. I think that a lot of them have done that really successfully. And then, simultaneously what you see them working on is, how is it that we are going to get and be able to ensure that each family has the computer and internet access that they will need so that kids can access online learning. So it's not just a matter of getting laptops to kids. It's also a matter of ensuring that they're able to connect to the internet.

I've also been thinking about, there are a number of students who have very specific IEPs who are receiving a lot of services. Some of them may not be easy to replace online, things like around occupational therapy and things like that. I think that that's another challenge that districts are going to be facing during this time.

Jill Anderson: Is there anything that we could borrow from? Let's imagine this goes beyond a couple weeks. We already know in some districts that's definitely going to be the case. Is there anything we can learn or take from what we know about summer learning loss and apply it now?

Jennifer McCombs: I think that in terms of our responses, we do know that some home learning can be effective. For instance, Jimmy Kim from Harvard, his project READS Program has been proven to be effective. We could think about different ways of expanding that out. We also know that there's a lot of online content that's available to children and youth and a lot of that has proven effectiveness. Now, one thing that I think the districts could also learn from just summer programming in general is that as they're thinking about how to structure this, is that it may be better to create common online lessons for students and teachers to utilize as opposed to having each teacher create their own assignments.

One of the things that we've learned from our evaluations of summer learning programs was that particularly during the summer where teachers have very limited time to plan ... and certainly teachers now have not been planning for online instruction. The content that was provided was much more robust if there was a standardized curriculum that was utilized and also the teachers appreciated it. This was something that was actually surprising. This was a time when they actually wanted something to be able to fall back on. I think that one thing that districts could do is to be able to think about creating these standardized modules that teachers are able to utilize and administer to their students, and that might be helpful.

Districts may also be thinking about different ways to utilize summer. For instance, if we find that school is shut down but that we are actually able to reopen during summer, they might think about expanding summer learning opportunities and expanding the breadth of students that those are offered to, to help provide additional time and instruction during those months, to be able to focus on things where in-person live instruction is most effective and for populations of kids. I mean, it's interesting because I've also been thinking about, are there opportunities that this provides kids and are there things that we as parents can do to maximize some benefits.

It's interesting, because I think about how parents are dealing with these situations. What they're going to have to do and what's required of them to be able to continue learning looks really different depending on the age of their kids. For little ones like you have, you need a lot more adult-directed instruction. Whereas, for my high school student, she's a junior in high school, she really can self regulate and there actually isn't a lot that I could necessarily do to facilitate her learning. But I think that there are also some opportunities in just thinking about how to use this time to further goals. For my daughter, one of her English teachers had them as an optional activity to be researching colleges and to start developing their college essays. How can we all think creatively about utilizing this time to maximize what our goals are for kids?

We have a lot of parents who are also in a time of crisis. We have a lot of people who are losing jobs during this period of time, so there's a lot more stress on families and children just in terms of thinking about what the economic ramifications are as well as juggling new work schedules, new routines and all of those things. It's good to be mindful of that as we're going forward. I know districts are thinking about this, but I think we as parents also have to acknowledge that whatever our situation is, how that may be affecting kids and that kids are losing a lot more than just academic instruction. In some ways, that might be the easiest thing for us to replace, through online learning, to be thinking about different things that they could be doing to utilize their time effectively. But they're also losing social interaction. They're losing sports and extracurricular activities, and those might be harder to replace if we're not really attentive to it. It's worth thinking about how we can think creatively of replacing all of those things for kids during this time, which can be pretty stressful.

Jill Anderson: That also does raise the issue of inequity, because low income families may have what we already know. They may have harder work schedules and have to still go in to work for their jobs and all that type of thing. But I do see this debate kind of bubbling right now about whether you should be attempting to do anything at home with your kid, or just letting them lay around. Where do you stand on that?

Jennifer McCombs: Every parent is going to address this a little bit differently. I think that in general, parents often know the needs of their kids best. If people have given their kids a week or two off from doing things, there is no evidence that would suggest that they're endangering their children in any kind of way. But we also know that kids, they thrive from some sort of structure and they also thrive with various types of play which often engages other kids. During the summer months, even when kids are not necessarily engaged in formal activities like some kids are ... They're going to camps. They have structured activities during the day. But even when they're not necessarily, they are often outdoors. They're playing with friends. They are able to explore. They're developing different types of skills and having different types of opportunities that may not be available to them due to the social distancing.

As schools translate to online learning, we will be creating some structures around this. Definitely routines are good for kids, but it also could be a time for parents with older kids to enable them to practice different types of skills, giving them an opportunity to create their own schedule and try to figure out how they're going to manage their day so that they can learn and grow those different types of skills. Also, we don't have to replace every single hour, particularly when we're giving one-on-one attention to our kids. It's really engaged time in academic learning that's creating the learning, not necessarily the number of academic minutes in a school day.

There could be benefits. Teenagers ... We also know from research that school schedules are not ideal for teenagers. Their recommendations are that kids really should not be starting school until after 8:30. We can let our teens sleep in a little bit. Maybe not let them sleep to one, but give them a little bit more sleep and let them have a little bit more of a schedule that fits their physiological needs. I also think that we need to think about ways ... How are we going to ensure that our kids maintain physical activity? Sort of see that they're staying healthy, and then how also are we helping them connect to friends and ensuring that there is space for that as well as space for academics.

Jill Anderson: It's definitely going to be a interesting time going forward.

Jennifer McCombs: It's an interesting time for everyone. I think all families are facing challenges during this time and just figuring out what a new normal is, and how to best negotiate that.

Jill Anderson: Jennifer McCombs is a senior policy researcher and director of the Behavioral and Policy Science Department at the RAND Corporation. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard graduate school of education. Thanks for listening and please subscribe.

About the Harvard EdCast


In the complex world of education, we keep the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and our communities.

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast about the ideas that shape education, from early learning through college and career. We talk to teachers, researchers, policymakers, and leaders of schools and systems in the US and around the world — looking for positive approaches to the challenges and inequties in education. One of the driving questions we explore: How can the transformative power of education reach every learner? Through authentic conversation, we work to lower the barriers of education’s complexities so that everyone can understand.


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

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