Revisiting Missing in the Margins: Recommendations for Policy

In October 2020, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis estimated that as many as 3 million K-12 students across the country were at high risk of experiencing minimal or no educational access from spring through fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Fast-forward one year later, and available data on 2020-21 enrollment, attendance, and engagement suggest massive missed learning opportunities, especially among the most marginalized students.

Changes to practices, policies, and resource allocation can help support all students — especially those with limited access to learning opportunities in 2020-21. This blog post is the second in a series for 2021 where we will expand upon our recommendations, linking practices with policies.

In addition to school and district practices, policies play an important role in facilitating learning acceleration, especially for marginalized and underserved students. Policymakers have already responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by either providing flexibility to schools so that they can remain student-centered in their decision-making or by removing barriers that limit the ability of schools to better serve the needs of students. However, we know that additional policies are needed to ensure that schools and districts can better identify students who need more support. These policies should also ensure that students receive effective interventions that are personalized to their unique needs. Similar to school and district practices, students and their family or support unit should be at the center of every policymaking decision. In particular, four policy areas can support learning recovery efforts: 

1. Data Transparency
Most state and district policies related to enrollment, attendance, and engagement data have not kept up with the new demands of the COVID-19 era. These policies are typically set at the federal and state levels but local school districts should do more to collect these data at the student-level. Without more accurate and disaggregated data that are shared publicly, especially related to attendance and engagement, schools are at risk of not identifying the students who need the most support. 

2. Accountability
In response to the pandemic and its impact on student learning, states put in place “hold harmless” provisions around attendance, grade retention, and high school graduation, and amended accountability systems with federal waivers. Based on the lessons learned from the past two years, the federal government and states should conduct a comprehensive review of those temporary policies, make thoughtful decisions for the current and upcoming school years, and communicate clearly about their goals for students in order to create predictability for schools and encourage a focus on learning acceleration.

3. Comprehensive and Targeted Interventions
Since the start of the pandemic, the consequences of uneven local capacity to address ongoing national crises without effective policies and guidance have been clear. State and federal policies should enable every school and district to create an effective system of comprehensive and targeted learning interventions to meet the needs of each student. Importantly, this system should incentivize collaboration and partnership with other child-serving systems, organizations, agencies, and community partners.

4. Additional Time for Learning
One of the most important ways to make up for missed learning opportunities is through additional learning time. This could include extended school days and years, summer and out-of-school tutoring and supplementary learning, or extending time in school for older students before a transition to postsecondary learning. Any of these initiatives will require policy changes. For example, staffing for extended school days or years are likely to implicate collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions, and transitional years or “year 13” high school opportunities will affect the reporting of graduation rates used for accountability purposes.

These policy recommendations, in combination with effective school and district practices, can help students accelerate their learning. However, these policy recommendations also rely on adequate resource allocations, up next in this series. You can catch up here