Why Unfinished Instruction Is More Accurate and Equitable Than Learning Loss

There has been a lot of certainty in the educational community over the past year about one thing: uncertainty. Being thrust into a global pandemic while experiencing racial and political division has confirmed what we, at UnboundEd, have known for a very long time to be true: students, especially our Brown and Black students, need access to quality grade-level instruction that affirms them, has real meaning for their lives and engages them in a way that piques their critical thinking and curiosity. Yet, in reality, this past year has shined a blinding light on our educational systems, policies, and practices unearthing that we, as a nation, couldn’t be further away from this truth.

We know this truth should be self-evident: All students deserve the opportunity to not only survive but to thrive in an academic setting that is rigorous, responsive to their needs, and culturally relevant.

Most practitioners of K-12 education acknowledge the dissonance between what should be true and what is actually true about the state of education in our country. Most recently, the dissonance between reality and desired educational existence is being classified on the national education stage as learning loss. Although the intention of the terminology learning loss may be to help identify gaps in skills and knowledge missing due to interrupted schooling, the impact of learning loss places the onus on students — as if they must bear the burden of knowing more all on their own. Moreover, the term learning loss is anchored in a deficit mindset, which leads to deficit approaches to addressing the challenges faced in continual learning. At UnboundEd, we strive for asset-based mindsets and approaches and have dubbed the results of interrupted schooling as unfinished instruction. And here is why that matters.

Why Unfinished Instruction?

What we experienced as an education field during the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be encapsulated by the term learning loss. Our students are the unfortunate recipients of unfinished instruction. At UnboundEd, we define unfinished instruction as the combination of teaching and learning within an academic year that fails to provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate proficiency with grade-level texts and tasks. This definition includes multitudes of moments of unfinished teaching that resulted from the past year and of haphazard schooling across our country, and frankly, our world. Recognizing unfinished teaching is just as crucial as naming unfinished learning. It is critical to plan not only for learning loss —  focusing on what we are asking and expecting of students — but also for teaching loss — what we are asking of and how we will support our teachers. School systems and districts often plan for interventions and programs instead of focusing on the quality of the initial teaching (Tier 1 instruction). We must recognize what is and isn’t happening in classrooms to address unfinished learning and unfinished teaching. The UnboundEd approach fosters an understanding of and attention to unfinished instruction through the intersection of content, standards, equity, and aligned curriculum. The challenges and solutions are multi-faceted and go beyond learning loss and the student-only responsibility implied by that term.

Name the Thing the Thing.

And let’s be clear: Unfinished instruction is not a new phenomenon initiated and bound by the COVID-19 pandemic. Students from underserved populations, we humbly submit to you, have been the victims of unfinished instruction since the inception of schooling for Black and Brown children in this country. Unconscious bias and beliefs about what students of color or economically marginalized students are capable of have watered down academic rigor and expectations for centuries. The pandemic brought to the surface beliefs and inequities that many underserved populations have lived with and fought against for decades — the need for equitable instructional opportunities. When provided, these opportunities for grade-level, engaging, affirming, and meaningful instructionTM allow all students to grapple with texts and tasks at their grade level, participate in substantial academic discourse, and reap the benefits of productive struggle. Only when these opportunities are provided will students and teachers collectively address unfinished instruction and demonstrate precisely how justice is found in the details of teaching and learning.®

Only when these opportunities are provided will students and teachers collectively address unfinished instruction and demonstrate precisely how justice is found in the details of teaching and learning.®

What does teaching and learning “justice” or “finished instruction” look like in practical application? Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, the author of The Dreamkeepers and creator of the theory of Culturally Relevant teaching, believes we need to expand our thinking. “I argue that the first problem that teachers confront is believing that successful teaching for poor students of color is primarily about ‘what to do,’” Dr. Ladson-Billings said in a keynote she delivered to our Virtual Summit attendees last year. “Instead, I suggest that the problem is rooted in how we think—about the social contexts, about the students, about the curriculum, and about instruction.” 

Here at UnboundEd, we believe there is a direct connection between educator mindsets and planning practices and students’ classroom experiences. Thus, when armed with professional learning, tools, and resources that support a change in mindset and planning, unfinished teaching can be addressed, and unfinished learning can be accomplished, thereby closing the gap caused by unfinished instruction. Here are a few of our resources to support teachers, coaches, and leaders in addressing unfinished instruction: UnboundEd Planning Process Read 3 Video and our Equitable ELA Instruction Concept Paper.