A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Learning Gaps

13 min read
A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Learning Gaps

The pandemic has brought a lot of challenges to education. One big concern is that children and older students may find themselves with some significant learning gaps due to unexpected pauses in learning.

To really understand the danger learning gaps present academically, one first has to understand what learning looks like without gaps. 

What Is a Learning Gap?

Understanding Standards

Learning standards have a bad reputation, largely due to their association with standardized testing and curriculum that seems completely foreign to many parents – and even some teachers.

The standards themselves are rarely the issue. All they provide are guidelines about what needs to be taught in each grade level in order to completely learn the information for that year and be ready for the information presented the following year.

In many cases, information a student learns in 8th grade, for example, is built upon the information learned in 7th grade. There are many concepts that require a solid foundation to be built in early grades before the new, more advanced material is presented.

How Gaps Are Formed

learning gaps

When, for whatever reason, this information is not presented to a student, or the student does not learn the information well enough to advance to the next level in one area of the subject but still continues forward to the next grade level, a “gap”, or hole, in their learning can occur.

In the public school setting, several of these gaps can cause the school to suggest or require a student to repeat the information in a grade level. When students are behind two years or more in learning the information appropriate for their grade level, they may be tested for a learning disability. Most schools and districts will want to find out more about why the gaps are continuing to grow.

The Ugly Side of Standards

The problem with this way of thinking, some would argue, is that children and brains are not aware of the somewhat arbitrary, man-made timeline that standards-creators present. Man people feel it’s unfair to hold children to a standard suggested and enforced by test-makers who make money off of creating and distributing tests.

After all, the education community argues, many test-creators are not even educators.

Rather than allowing students to grow and learn at their own pace, in ways that interest them most, and find their own success, the system in place forces expectations on students, the current system  “punishes” them if they aren’t ready for the information. 

Furthermore, the pressure placed upon students and educators in the high-stakes testing environment caused by standardized testing can create a hostile environment for learning.

The Benefits of Standards

learning gaps in the classroom

Regardless of the negative aspects we are all aware of, learning standards themselves do provide an important structure for educators and students. Standards assure that everyone in public school is working with the same information at the same time. This assures that all the necessary information is presented, which lowers the possibility of learning gaps significantly.

Standardized testing even serves a purpose when done correctly. It can provide teachers with information about what areas students are struggling with, giving them important insight on which information students are missing. It could be very beneficial to know where gaps are before they grow to be too sizable for simple remediation.

Assessment is a vital part of learning, and standards give a baseline upon which to start. Every student should be receiving an education that is equal and equitable. Standards and standardized assessments can provide a “quality assurance” system.

But it isn’t perfect. The system can, and often does, fail.

Outside of the Influence of Standards

Of course, not everyone is using the same standards. Forty states follow Common Core standards. One state uses Common Core only for language arts (Minnesota). The other nine states use standards created by their local departments of education.

Private schools and homeschooling are often not held to the same standards. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it does leave room for some variety in what students learn.

Some homeschoolers, for example, follow a type of homeschooling called “unschooling”. In unschooling, students are led by their own interests, and families set up a variety of learning opportunities for their children. They don’t follow any set of standards, don’t assess the knowledge children gain, and there are no penalties for missing any information other than the fact that they have missed the information, which may create a gap.

Unschooling families believe the risk is worth it in the end, though, and in many cases, they are being proven correct. Many unschooling children grow up to be very successful adults. They are creative, they pursue their interests, and are life-long learners.

That doesn’t mean standards aren’t helpful, though.

Misunderstandings About Standards

technology gap in education

Standards don’t create gaps. They measure gaps and provide guidelines on how to handle them. They give educators a road map to follow so there are no significant areas left unexplored.

Standards aren’t necessarily to blame for poor teaching or confusing curriculum, either. We get a lot of comments from people about common core products who tell us they will “never ever teach their kids Common Core.” Common core is basically a list of items to be taught, not a homeschooling or tutoring curriculum. 

Can students achieve without standards? Sure!

Can they achieve academic success with learning gaps? It is possible, depending on the environment they are learning in, how large the gaps are, and how much they will need to build on that weak foundation in the years to come.

Providing standard practices, levels of instruction, and assessments can also work very well, though. It creates a system of checks and balances that assure that everyone is on the same page, and if a student is missing some foundational information they need before they can succeed at the next level, they get the help they need before they move on.

At least, that is the theory.

The Particular Predicament of the Pandemic

learning gaps examples

As mentioned previously, it is possible for students to “fall through the cracks” and miss important information, creating gaps in learning during a typical school year.

During the pandemic, that possibility increases exponentially and has become more of a probability for many students This time has created a sort of perfect storm for gaps to form. They are widespread.

This situation is unique because every school, city, district, region, and state stopped the school year at a different point in 2020, and restarted in its own way and time. There is nothing “standard” about the past two school years.

Some parents have depended on tutors or online programs to keep students from falling behind, but in many cases that opportunity has only been available for small portion student population.

The result has created a very large window of content teachers must teach. Some students are ahead of where they should be academically, while others are a little behind, and still others are struggling to finish learning information from last year’s second half of the year. 

Students naturally lose some learning over holidays and time off from school – educators have always known that. But in a crisis, they retain less and lose more. The gaps being are being created faster than educators can fill them. 

How to Combat Learning Gaps

Get to Know Your State’s Standards

learning gap meaning

Whether you are homeschooling, unschooling, or utilizing the services of your local or online public school, it’s not a terrible idea to familiarize yourself with your local state standards.

If you’re homeschooling or unschooling, it may not be mandatory, but taking a look at the standards just to get an idea of what skills are being taught is a good “backup” to be sure there isn’t a large gap in something our child will need for their future. Some things truly do take years to learn, and it would be frustrating to get to adulthood and be years away from accomplishing an important academic skill.

If there is the slightest chance your child may go to public school in the future, you do need to check out the state standards and try to get fairly close to fulfilling them.

Most curricula adhere fairly closely to one standard or another, so as long as you are using something to guide you in homeschooling, you’ll be fine.

Don’t be fooled by the seeming simplicity of each standard, either. Each phrase is important, and often one standard represents content that may anywhere from a few days to months or even years of learning.

Our products at ArgoPrep are in-depth, standards-based, and created b educators who understand standards. Although your state or homeschooling program may not be following common core, the truth is that most state standards are similar enough that you will have few gaps using one or another.

We kept that in mind as we created our resources and have tried to adapt to make our products versatile enough to fit any need.

Assess Your Child’s Current Learning Levels

learning gaps in math

As mentioned above, assessment is one of the most important aspects of the learning cycle. You have to know where you are before you can plan to go somewhere else.

We have assessments available in our subscription service, but in the beginning, you may want a thorough, detailed assessment to help you navigate getting the appropriate levels of work.

Many curricula have free assessments that will tell you where your child’s levels are in their particular materials, but
has diagnostic assessments for math and reading across most grade-levels. It provides a detailed outline of strengths, weaknesses, and exactly what gaps your child needs to work on to improve. It’s a great place to start when you are trying to fill gaps.

Gather Resources That Match the Need

Another reason it’s good to be familiar with state and national standards is so that you can easily find the exact resources your child needs. Once you’ve found the exact places in a good assessment where your child needs a boost, you can use the language and even the identifying number of the standard itself to find resources that precisely match your child’s need. 

Teach, Move to Independent Learning, Assess, Review

learning gap in education

It’s very unlikely that you will teach your child a skill and they will learn it in one day and never need to review it again. Most concepts need weeks, months, or even years of practice.

Think of anything you teach as part of a lesson cycle. First, you’ll assess to see exactly what your child knows. Then you’ll present the information they are unfamiliar with, guide the student in practice until they seem to be able to work with the information independently, and show that they understand it.

Assess your child’s completely independent ability to use the information, and if they are still struggling, reteach any concept that is still unclear.

Finally, once the concept seems to be fully understood, remember to return to the subject or content frequently to be sure your child fully understands the material and continues using it correctly.

Learning gaps can be a huge struggle, and they are especially common right now in education. With this knowledge in hand, you are ready to face that unknown, though. You’ve got this!

Let ArgoPrep know how we can help you and your child succeed!