Making Sense of Supplemental Learning

Stephanie J. Hull, Ph.D
3 min readJan 5, 2021

By now it is clear that learning loss as a result of the 2020 pandemic is widespread among the nation’s K–12 students. Not surprisingly, this shortfall — a failure to achieve anticipated yearly progress on measures in key areas such as literacy, quantitative thinking, and socioemotional learning — particularly disadvantages young people from vulnerable demographics. Children who live in poverty (who are disproportionately children of color), those with learning differences, and those from urban and rural districts that had the greatest difficulty in shifting instruction online will bear the brunt of this learning loss.

The first step in combating the problem is to acknowledge that the need for supplemental learning is an issue for all students, not just a few. Any educator will tell you that when the entire class is unprepared for a test, it’s not the fault of the students; it’s a question of needing better preparation. Similarly, hardly any American student had a full and effective year of instruction this year, through no fault of either schools, teachers, or students.

This year’s learning loss is systemic, and expecting students to catch up on their own, with or without support, is nonsensical.

So what would make sense? While advocates and leaders have proposed a number of possibilities, none of them is a universal antidote. Individualized instruction, for example, has always been available to (and often effective for) families with the means to pay for it. Indeed, in the fall, a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed the value of tutoring or small-group supplemental learning for students — an approach education experts have been promoting for years.

However, we need approaches that transcend the wealth gap, especially given the socioeconomic status of those who are suffering the most.

For example, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley has proposed federal funding for a national network of community-based supplemental learning and tech hubs. This proposal relies significantly on the existing infrastructure of out-of-school time programs. Others have called for the creation of a national corps of tutors, a notion that could both serve younger students well and create opportunities for college students in need of jobs and employment skills.

The best answer may be some combination of all three approaches: a recognition of the role of individualized learning, a national pool of trained tutors to deliver it, and a network of community-based sites in which tutoring and other kinds of supplemental learning can safely take place.

While federal funding to accomplish this combination of efforts will be crucial, it’s important not to overlook the existing network. Our country already has an array of youth-serving organizations that support supplemental learning and can bring new approaches quickly and successfully to scale.

Girls Inc. is among those organizations. Recent research demonstrates the effectiveness of our approach and existing infrastructure. With trained adult mentors, safe spaces, proven programming, and deep connections to communities, Girls Inc. has had a measurable impact on girls’ academic and socioemotional growth. In fact, many Girls Inc. affiliates have already created remote learning hubs for girls whose parents can’t supervise them, or whose technological resources don’t support online classwork.

With at least several more months of disruption in sight, now is the time to start implementing solutions that have the potential to bring America’s young people up to speed. Like so many things born of necessity during the pandemic, responses to the current educational deficit could also, ultimately, provide new kinds of infrastructure to address longstanding inequities. The nation will be better equipped both to meet the short-term need and to achieve longer-term successes if, rather than create new systems, it strengthens resources that are already in place.

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Stephanie J. Hull, Ph.D

President & CEO of @girls_inc, dedicated to inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold. Leader in education & girls’ advocate.