Pandemic Learning: As Students Struggled to Learn, Teachers Reported Few Strategies as Particularly Helpful to Mitigate Learning Loss

What GAO Found

During the 2020-21 school year, students of all grade levels, whether learning in person or virtually, struggled with many obstacles. These ranged from lack of appropriate workspaces and adequate support to competing demands on their time, disengagement, and absences. According to GAO’s nationwide survey of K-12 public school teachers and discussion groups, teachers, principals, and parents (see figure).

In particular, a higher percentage of teachers who reported having a virtual or hybrid (mix of virtual and in-person) environments consistently reported that their students experienced learning difficulties than teachers in an in-person environment. For example, an estimated 60 percent of teachers in a virtual environment had more trouble understanding lessons than a typical year, compared to 37 percent of teachers in an in-person environment. Differences in responses to virtual and in-person environments could reflect the instructional setting and other factors that GAO did not measure, such as school resources or certain student characteristics. In addition, obstacles affecting students vary by grade level. For example, 92 percent of grades 9-12 teachers have less than one year of academic progress compared to 83 percent of grades 3-8 teachers and 69 percent of K-2 teachers. .

Teachers used many strategies to mitigate learning loss. They reported that two of the strategies were particularly helpful for at least half of their students making academic progress: live instruction and technology apps or platforms. Specifically, 85 percent of teachers who are directly or partially involved in the study have found that many of their students have received direct instruction. In contrast, 56 percent of teachers who have studied virtual virtual instruction (ie, synchronous learning) have virtually all or part of their time. Regarding technology, nearly two-thirds of teachers use apps or platforms to help students submit their assignments and feedback. Teachers used many other strategies as well, but they were few and far between to help students. One notable exception was asynchronous learning, in which students work independently without instruction. This strategy was used frequently by 69 percent of teachers, yet fewer than 40 percent thought it helped at least half of their students.

Why GAO Did This Study

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning for many students, educators, and families who have navigated modified in-person and virtual schooling, often in difficult circumstances. The Pandemic’s effects continue to reverberate across the nation and produce challenges for schools that will be felt for years to come. In many respects, the 2020-21 school year offers useful insights that may help schools, educators, and parents in the future.

The CARES Act includes a provision for the GAO to report on its ongoing COVID-19 monitoring and oversight efforts. The GAO also conducted a response to the work in conjunction with the Conference Report of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021. This report, which is the first in a series of reports, examines (1) obstacles to learning during the school year. 21, and (2) strategies to mitigate learning loss. GAO examines these topics by an overall, by grade level, and by instructional model (in-person, virtual, or hybrid).

To address these objectives, GAO contracted with Gallup to (1) conduct a nationally representative survey of K-12 public school teachers and (2) arrange virtual discussion groups with teachers, principals, and parents of K-12 students. The GAO also held two additional discussion groups, one with teachers and one with parents from the Department of Defense Education Activity Schools. GAO analyzed the resulting survey data and discussion group responses. For more technical details on GAO’s methods, see

For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or [email protected].

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