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Guiding Principals: 5 Steps to Assess and Address Academic Gaps after COVID-19

Even though many schools returned to in-person classes this past year, these classes were not “normal”. Hopefully, schools will be able to return to pre-pandemic teaching. The first step will be assessing subject area gaps in each student. Gaps can ruin a child’s self-confidence, and basic skills must be mastered before tackling higher-level work. Skipping foundations will result in wider gaps and frustrated students feeling they are just doing busywork. 
In most schools, there were many children who did not attend in person and continued to learn via Zoom. These students lost much learning time. For some, it was easy to Zoom in on the classes they liked and miss the ones that were challenging. Tech challenges, from “the sound wasn’t working,” to “the link didn’t work,” to “the schedule changed and I didn’t know,” were all valid. Unfortunately, this made learning more difficult. 
Even for students who did attend classes in person, learning was not the same. Group work and hands-on projects were limited. Students who learn best through those modalities lost out. 
There were other variables that influenced whether students were successful in mastering material. Some were tutored to keep up, while others were self-motivated enough to work harder and kept up as best they could; still others were affected by the change of social milieu and disengaged, missing much of what was taught. 
Because of this overall school environment, it was hard for teachers to maintain standards. Many subjects were graded pass/fail, and, most likely, no one failed.
It might sound appealing to administer baseline tests at the beginning of the year to assess what students know and don’t know. But this is not only impractical, this is impossible. To cover everything that should have been mastered in any subject would demand very long tests or multiple days of testing. Would teachers be testing for what students learned or whether students can sit still for a long test? 
Fortunately, we don’t have to formally test a student to know what they can do. Short quizzes, questionnaires, journal writing, or even class discussions will give a picture of what students can and cannot do. 
Effective instruction can happen only after we identify what students know and what students can do. We can then differentiate instruction to take students from where they are to where they need to be. This is an opportunity to assess how we teach. Before COVID-19, we could assume that most of the students were at a similar level. But, we know the gaps have grown tremendously. Next year, whenever possible, whole class instruction should be minimized. It will be critical to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of individual students.
1.   Meet students where they are
If there was ever a time to relax fixed timelines for achievement, it’s now. After assessing where children are at the start of the next school year, begin instruction from where they are functioning instead of from where they should be according to standard grade-level benchmarks.
Assess students’ learning gaps in each subject. Be flexible in expectations at the beginning of the year but raise the standards as quickly as possible as the year progresses.
This is also an opportunity to teach students to be more understanding of one another.  We demonstrate our own tolerance by dealing with each student as an individual and varying our expectations depending on the child.
2.   Check out your curriculum
What are the key objectives for your year and subject? What are the expectations from the previous year? If you have a curriculum map with year-by-year, age-related expectations, use it. Identify where each learner is coming from, where they should be now, and where they are heading.
3.   Decide what matters
Usually, skills are taught attached to knowledge, but the past two years have been fragmented for many students. Ultimately you, as the teacher, have to decide what is or isn’t important.
  • Skills
    • In Chumash, last year’s goals certainly included vocabulary development, studying grammar rules, and using language skills to arrive at the true translation of pesukim. Students were to be trained in creative and critical thinking as they analyzed Chumash parshiyot. Additionally, a significant amount of time was designated to practice and improve reading skills. This year, briefly review the storyline of last year’s narrative and move forward, building those same necessary skills utilizing this year’s content.
    • Perhaps last year’s historical unit was European history and this year focuses on American history. Once again, as part of the study, there is a list of skills to be learned, including geography skills, map reading, and understanding causation between key historical events. There is no point in going back over last year’s detailed content for those students who missed it. Concentrate on the missed skills in the current history unit.
    • Remember: Students will hold on to skills, not content.
  • Knowledge
    • Memorizing information for its own sake is often pointless. But in many cases, learning new concepts can require knowledge of facts. Basic phonetic knowledge is necessary to be a successful independent reader in either Hebrew or English. You need to know how to read Rashi in order to learn mefarshim inside.
    • The important thing is to move students forward without ignoring fundamental gaps. If a child missed kindergarten concepts because he or she was on Zoom much of the year, repeating kindergarten is not a solution. Look ahead in the curriculum and identify the key skills and knowledge your students are going to need and concentrate on those.
    • This more individualized approach to learning would strike a balance between students catching up academically and keeping their social networks intact. 
4.   Fill in the gaps
Once you find the gaps, teach the missing skills or pieces of essential knowledge. There are two basic options:
  • Small group instruction
    • Arrange classes so students will be working in groups. Some groups will be able to work on assignments independently.
    • Enlist the aid of another adult – a colleague, an aide, or support staff to help those groups that can work more independently.
    • Group students with similar needs, and plan the sessions to focus on specific gaps.
    • Check students continuously for understanding with targeted questioning.
  • Whole class teaching
    • After looking at the previous year’s curriculum, find gaps the whole class has.
    • Teach those concepts to the entire class.
    • Check for understanding.
5. Evaluate often
It is important for teachers and students to get continuous feedback about the progress being made. Usually, students are also aware that they have gaps, and when they see small improvements their self-confidence grows, giving them the motivation to work harder and building excitement for upcoming lessons.
Remember that formative evaluations can be done in many informal ways, so students do not feel stressed. These do not only have to be written quizzes or tests. Small group presentations, creative audiovisual projects, essay writing, and playing games are all ways to both teach and evaluate students.
This coming back to school year after COVID will be critical. Addressing learning gaps as quickly as possible will minimize delays in students’ long-term education and attitudes towards learning. The whole school needs to be involved in identifying gaps in students’ learning – and addressing them – as a team. Colleagues can work together on the same subjects or the same age groups but should support one another to be successful. With appropriate intervention, the COVID-19 era will not cause any permanent educational damage.

Miriam_Schiller_2About the Author: Mrs. Miriam Schiller

Miriam Schiller has been immersed in education for almost 50 years, teaching everything from 2-year-olds to 8th graders. For almost 30 years, she served as Principal of Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL where she tripled the enrollment of the Kindergarten-8th grades and doubled the number of children in the preschool. Under Schiller's tenure, the school became known for its innovative strategies, including multi-age classrooms, a buddy system, and Schiller's one-on-one method of teaching children to read. Schiller holds a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Illinois and a MA in Administration and Supervision from Loyola University. She is passionate about Jewish education and about using her expertise to fuel the next generation of day schools. Currently, Mrs. Schiller works in the Curriculum Department of Walder Education and is available for coaching by appointment.


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