When the pandemic forced schools across the country to close their doors in March 2020, many district and school leaders worked quickly to plan for and address students’ “unfinished learning.” A recent study1 indicated that students, on average, could experience up to five to nine months of unfinished learning by the end of June 2021. But it will be sometime before we know the true amount of unfinished learning caused by schools closing their doors.

What is certain, however, is that as the nation continues to battle this pandemic and at-home learning continues, there will be a need to help students, especially the nation’s most vulnerable students, complete unfinished learning for weeks, months, and even years to come. The lack of adequate time for districts to prepare for sudden shutdowns as well as the lack of resources for many districts, especially those that are chronically underfunded, to adjust to virtual learning has exacerbated inequities for Black, Latino, and Native students and students from low-income backgrounds.

For example, a national survey of school leaders revealed that students in high-poverty districts were expected to spend far less time on instructional activities during virtual learning than were their peers in low-poverty districts. More specifically, 24% of leaders in high-poverty districts compared to just 12% in low-poverty districts said that distance learning for elementary school students primarily involved content review rather than teaching new material.

Families, especially in communities with more students from low-income backgrounds, more English learners, and more students of color, also face many obstacles to participating in distance learning opportunities, for reasons ranging from inadequate access to technology to competing responsibilities such as jobs or childcare that limit the time available to focus on learning. It is most important to note that these inequities are not limited to the current crisis; they are longstanding.

Moving forward, educators will need to administer high-quality assessments to determine where learning must be accelerated and provide high-quality instruction to ensure students have the opportunity to reach high standards. Students will need access to opportunities, supports, and strong and supportive relationships. And targeted actions from school and district leaders and policymakers are required to ensure stretched budgets do not result in policies and practices that harm the students who face the most injustices.

The degree of unfinished learning caused by the pandemic will differ by student, subject, and grade — affecting math more than reading, younger grades more than older, and students already lacking adequate supports more than others. Research supports two ways schools can give students the opportunities and supports they need to complete unfinished learning: targeted intensive tutoring and expanded learning time. The Education Trust and MDRC designed the following briefs to help leaders make decisions on how to implement these strategies and where to invest resources, especially in ways that best support the country’s most underserved students. We also highlight research-based interventions to build and maintain strong relationships: without strong relationships and connections between students and school staff, educators cannot catch students up. Finally, when evidence exists, we highlight the tradeoffs between effectiveness, affordability, and feasibility when implementing a strategy in different ways.

As we navigate these unprecedented times, it will be even more important that investments are made to grow the evidence base and evaluate the effectiveness of programs used to accelerate learning.

Targeted Intensive Tutoring

Which students benefit most?

  • Targeted intensive tutoring is effective for all students, but research shows that younger students benefit the most.

Expanded Learning Time

Which students benefit most?

  • Research shows that increasing the number of hours of instruction students receive during the school day (either during nonacademic class periods or by extending the official school day) can be effective for all age groups, types of students, and subject matter.

The Importance of Strong Relationships

Who benefits most from strong relationships?

  • Students from all backgrounds and ages benefit from strong relationships.