The Second-Grader Problem: Creating a Safer and More Supportive Culture

The Second-Grader Problem: Creating a Safer and More Supportive Culture


The Day the Earth Stood Still

I will never forget the Ides of March 2020 as long as I live. I’m guessing you won’t, either. In my home state, that’s when schools were almost universally shuttered and educators and support staff pivoted to full online instruction in the blink of an eye. It was terrifying and inspiring all in the same breath. During the tumultuous year that followed, there were both success stories and failures as educators launched a real-time experiment never before seen in the field. Fortunately, many students and families were able to maintain a sense of “what school is” during this time and to make adjustments accordingly.

But for our youngest learners - and here I’m thinking of our second graders in particular - when was the last time they ever experienced a “normal” school life? If you think about it, the last few months of this school year were the first time many of our second graders have had a face-to-face experience in a classroom setting! Hence the so-called second-grader problem: An entire group of some of our youngest learners has returned to brick and mortar buildings with gaps in their learning and an underdeveloped sense of what school actually is.

The Second-Grader Academic Problem

Today’s second graders have never experienced an uninterrupted school year, so the academic underperformance of this group of students was to be expected, but few of us were truly prepared for how sudden, acute, and persistent the learning loss would prove to be.

Across the board, alarm bells are going off for the second-grade cohort. Grade-level placement results for early literacy skills demonstrate that students are not doing as well as their peers were before the pandemic began: 30 percent of second graders were on grade level pre-pandemic; only 24 percent were as school resumed in the fall of 2021, and there was a commensurate rise in the number of second graders who were reading below grade level, as well. Although the second-grade cohort fared better than older students in math, in general, all students saw even greater declines in math proficiency than in reading. In other words, the entire system is flashing red in terms of students’ academic performance.

This academic emergency is further exacerbated by the fact that although all student groups saw declines, not all declines were equal. Gaps between groups of students that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic only widened during the great online learning experiment, creating a sense of urgency not only for learning loss across all students, but for how inequitably that loss was borne between groups of students, and particularly for those who were already struggling.

The Second-Grader Social Problem

As urgent as the academic situation is, it’s obviously only one part of a whole-child perspective. Illinois teacher Jeanette Delgado summarized the challenge succinctly: “The kindergarteners who were in my class when COVID started are now in second grade...They haven’t had time to socialize with one another.” Think about it: an entire cohort of students coming together for the first time in nearly two years with little to no experience of simply being in a physical school environment, let alone completing academic work in that environment. These students yearn to bond with their teachers and each other. They have missed out on a significant social component of growing up during the last two years - and it’s up to us to reconstitute that experience for them.

Thus, the second-grader problem is also all about constructing a safe, supportive culture to which they will return. It’s also all about collaborating with students to re-establish, teach, and reinforce the norms of being part of a school and classroom community. These classroom culture pieces must accompany academics to be successful. The good news is that educators have shown time and time again that they are up to the challenge. This time will be no different.

Supporting All Second Graders with District-Managed Tutoring

With second graders back in the building experiencing these related academic and social challenges, now is the time to get serious about one of the best research-based ways to help them catch up while providing a professional, supportive environment: district-managed tutoring.

We’ve known that tutoring works for a long time. When instituted systemically, in school during the day, with teachers and trained paraprofessionals (versus after school programs with community volunteers, for example), and especially when targeted toward younger learners, effective tutoring programs have been shown to have a large effect size on student achievement.

Here’s another wrinkle (and a scary thought): What if 2021 standardized testing results are statistically useless due to low participation rates and/or skewed results? What if the true performance of students across all grade levels is even worse than we think it is? All the more reason to embed systemic tutoring in school during the day that supports, rather than supplants (as in a pull-out fashion) primary instruction, and to combine the tutoring with supportive environments that also tutor students in building relationships and executive functioning skills. That’s a one-two punch powerful enough to help your second graders, and all of your other students, for that matter.

The Second-Grader Opportunity

It’s glass half-full time. What if the second-grader problem is really a second-grader opportunity? Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, and the need for innovative, systemic intervention has never been greater. Now is the time to reconceptualize your programming in light of both academic and emotional support, and the perfect setting in which to embed both of those areas may indeed be a systemic, district-managed tutoring program that helps close gaps and helps all students move forward together.

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