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Problems of Practice

Unfinished Learning: What system conditions are needed to address unfinished learning?

Key Takeaways

To begin addressing larger systemic challenges, schools and districts can:

  • Embrace formative assessments as well as summative assessments to place the onus of development on learning systems (rather than students).

  • Invest in high-quality professional learning specifically related to personalized learning.

  • Provide student support programming to meet both the personal and educational needs of students.

Several adults in a room, speaking among each other in small groups

What is the problem?

When districts solely use summative assessments to evaluate student learning, students may be viewed through a deficit-focused lens. Likewise, when teachers are not provided with professional learning that develops their skills in using formative assessment data, ineffective instruction may be perpetuated. Further, when students do not feel they are in a supportive and safe learning environment, their growth and ability to learn can be inhibited. To address unfinished learning and make sure that student growth occurs at scale, districts must ensure that assessment data is used properly to monitor student learning from an asset-based approach, teachers have the necessary knowledge to use scores to develop student learning capacity, and students receive the support they need.

Why is it important?

Responding to the challenge of unfinished learning demands that school systems see and respond to the unique needs, strengths, contexts, and experiences of every learner. As they do so, they must adopt a “dual-track” approach, focusing both on enacting evidence-based strategies that accelerate individual learner growth while also working toward system-level improvements.

At the same time, powerful strategies – such as strengthening the manner in which student learning is assessed, providing relevant and experiential teacher professional learning, and implementing student supports – can move learners forward while concurrently addressing broader system-level change.

The research says...

How: Solution

Schools and districts are responsible for creating a culture of belongingness and support for all students. The same perspective applies to student learning. With unfinished learning, the goal is to consider student growth from an asset-based approach. By focusing on progress over time, school systems set a more positive tone, a precedent for how teachers should develop and implement instructional strategies that celebrate growth, and an environment that is conducive to learning and support.


Reimagine Student Assessments by Committing to Formative Methods

Formative assessments allow schools and districts to collect real-time data and determine learning pathways, and they can provide a more realistic view of student learning. Subsequently, teachers will have a better understanding of what students have accomplished as well as relevant data to inform their instruction. Likewise, using formative assessments allows teachers to set learning goals with students and, in turn, encourages student agency.

The goal of using formative assessments is to measure student progress so that educators can prepare instructional strategies and supports that will “stimulate the acquisition of future knowledge and learning outcomes.” To effectively use formative assessments, school systems should:

  • Engage students in taking assessments connected to a learning objective;

  • Review assessment results to determine areas of mastery and areas where additional learning is needed – for both students and teachers;

  • Develop accountability steps for ensuring that educators help students meet their learning goals and partner with students to attain their goals;

  • Identify learning trends and create instructional plans or supports around them; and

  • Provide instructional interventions for students as needed.


Using formative assessments is important to understanding student learning and developing systems that meet students’ needs. The following strategies can be used to develop formative assessments within your school or system.


Invest in High-Quality, Rigorous, Personalized, and Authentic Professional Learning

The purpose of professional learning is to build critical knowledge and skills that translate into daily practice. Currently, there are numerous research-based theoretical frameworks for designing effective professional learning. While the terms and organization of these frameworks may vary, common elements appear throughout that can be used as the basis for designing effective professional learning.

Systems leaders should work with teachers to identify areas of strength as well as growth opportunities by asking them to reflect and self-assess based on defined metrics. Using a collaborative process will increase the likelihood of teacher buy-in and adult learning ownership. Once leaders understand what teachers need, they can seek out or design high-quality professional learning that fosters equitable learning spaces.

With respect to equity, professional learning should:

  • Assist teachers to address learners’ different backgrounds as they may have varying experiences and comfort levels with learning. For example, students exhibit cultural differences in participation approaches in discussions – both online and in person, suggesting a need for active modeling and collaborative expectation-setting.

  • Develop teachers' practices in motivating students to engage with and persevere during learning experiences. Motivation and perseverance in learning has been found to differ across students based on culture, gender, and age.

  • Incorporate approaches in cross-cultural and identity settings so teachers are empowered to implement strategies and resources that will reach students from multiple cultural backgrounds and contexts.


High-quality professional learning requires system leaders to practice intentionality around understanding needed teacher competencies, creating a collaborative culture to allow teachers to review and discuss student progress, and foster equitable learning spaces. The following strategies can be used to help design high-quality professional learning in your district:


Provide Student Support Programming

A recent study conducted by TLA in partnership with Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) revealed enabling structures the district implemented and their impacts on student learning. LUSD extended food services, academic resources (such as small-group tutoring), and counselor check-ins to create a supportive community that contributed to student growth during the pandemic.

Schools and systems should provide programming that enables students to feel safe and supported in their learning. This could include:

  • Weekly meetings between teachers and students to ensure objectives are completed and to establish needed supports;

  • The establishment of small-group learning for peer-to-peer support;

  • Content-specific instruction and tutoring; and

  • The use of instructional videos (secondary to teaching) as a resource to assist students in the completion of learning objectives.


By implementing various supports, systems create a learning environment that is encouraging and inclusive of students’ needs. The following strategies can be used to further your thinking on implementing student support programming:

Take it further

As you work to implement changes at the system level that meet the unique needs of all students, it is important to implement continuous improvement processes. Having a continuous improvement plan in place allows you to work incrementally – with space to iterate as needed. Explore the resources below to see how other districts are using continuous improvement to improve student learning.

Additional Resources and Content: