PTA in Schools: The Greatest Ally in the Battle Against Learning Loss

PTAs, or Parent Teacher Association,  in schools nationwide are leveraging the power of volunteers to combat COVID learning loss.  Almost every school in America was forced into a remote or hybrid learning model in the spring of 2020.  Those circumstances continued throughout the 2020-2021 school year for many districts in the US.  Whether that learning model was synchronous, asynchronous, or segregated into pandemic pods, – education didn’t look anything like what students or teachers were familiar with. 

PTA in schools use moneys raised during PTA fundraising to support students and teachers by making out of budget purchases.  This image shows a hand holding a pen and a piece of paper with a “fundraising thermometer” on it.  The thermometer is partially colored in with red marker, indicating progress towards a fundraising goal.
PTA fundraising

The result?  Learning loss.  And we’re not talking about your average summer vacation learning loss.  Important concepts and skills slipped through the cracks as students were required to ‘teach themselves’ in many situations.  Data-backed, assessment-proven learning loss is a sweeping problem, and the race to catch up is underway.  But like most things in education – winning the race requires resources.  

Our team here at Thimble.io spends a lot of time in conversation with school districts in every state, and even overseas. (Somebody get us a glass of water!) A growing trend we hear from many administrators:  PTA fundraising is quickly being recognized as a sometimes untapped resource for addressing learning loss.  Is your PTA program willing to step up to the plate?

Our team here at Thimble.io spends a lot of time in conversation with school districts in every state, and even overseas. (Somebody get us a glass of water!) A growing trend we hear from many administrators:  PTA fundraising is quickly being recognized as a sometimes untapped resource for addressing learning loss.  Is your PTA program willing to step up to the plate?

The Lingering Effects of Remote Education: Learning Loss is Real

What is learning loss?  Way back in 2013, before the pandemic was even conceivable, The Glossary of Education Reform defined learning loss as “a term referring to any specific loss of knowledge or skills or to reversals in academic progress.”

A significant percentage of schools in the US lean on NWEA assessments to monitor student and school-wide progress towards predetermined academic benchmarks in every subject area.  The NWEA is a non-profit, research based education organization and their precise assessments are used because they carefully measure both growth and proficiency.

Learning loss has been indicated through data collected by NWEA.  In this photo, a students hand grips a pencil over a piece of paper that has a bar graph on it.  

Credit: Photo by Jessica Lewis Creative on Pexels
NWEA Assessment Data and Learning Loss

These assessment results are used to tailor instruction, measure progress, and monitor growth to influence decision making about things like teacher placement, curriculum choice, and learning gaps.  In July of 2022, the NWEA released a report that detailed some concerning findings regarding learning loss that were backed by concrete assessment data. 

Researchers from NWEA’s Collaborative for Student Growth reported the following key findings:

  • On growth: In the 2021-2022 school year, achievement gains in many grades seemed to pull parallel to pre-pandemic years.  What this means is that students were making gains at the same rate as they were before the pandemic.
  • On proficiency:  Despite indications that growth is happening at around the same rate as pre-pandemic years, academic achievement remains lower, with math being hit harder than reading.

So why the sudden sense of urgency about regression and learning loss?  The major problem is about the GAP, not the growth.  Imagine learning as a footrace.  During the pandemic, students had to stop running.  Some stopped completely, and others walked slowly toward their academic finish line – which represents grade level proficiency.  

This picture shows an elementary age girl smiling and flashing a peace symbol as she runs a foot race.  There is a white race number attached to her shirt. Credit: Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU on Pexels
Running and Academic Footrace

Students are now back to running the race just as fast as they were before their learning was interrupted by school closures.  The problem is that the disrupted learning process and unfinished learning, a.k.a. the stopping and walking, created a gap in where students are in the race, and where they should be.  They are too far from the finish line. 

They aren’t performing at pre-pandemic levels, despite growing at the same rate.  So the question is, how can we make them run faster?  How can we give them a head start in the race toward grade-level proficiency?  What strategies can school districts use to best support their students and close this gap?

The Path Forward: Supporting Students Whose Learning Was Disrupted

Addressing learning loss – particularly in propelling kids towards proficiency in achievement – can get complicated.  According to a press release from the NWEA that accompanied the aforementioned research – if academic growth continues at the rate seen during the 2021-2022 school year, a full recovery is years away and will extend past the availability of ESSER funding and other financial provisions available to schools.

Helping to bridge the gap between actual student performance and proficient student performance will require a perfect blend of supplemental curriculum, high-quality instructional materials (HQIM), and a focus on high student engagement.  These strategies all have one thing in common: they require financial resources. 

With a growing need to move one-to-one with students and devices, district budgets are already being stretched thin.  Adopting curriculum or programming can be impossible when the cost is too much. 

This is where the PTA in schools that need out-of-budget programming can become a backstage hero.  PTA fundraising can generate the resources necessary to adopt out-of-budget curriculum and programs that engage learners and augment the learning that’s already happening inside the classroom. Powerful PTAs in districts with high community involvement are particularly positioned to make an impact on learning loss, and help students get to their “proficiency” finish line sooner.

How Learning Loss Hit Differently for STEM Education

Consider your own STEM experiences in school.  Regardless of your age- science, technology engineering and math classes all carry a fundamental ‘hands-on’ theme.  Project-based learning is a central tenet of science, technology, and engineering.  Because of the exploratory nature of STEM subjects, remote learning created a monumental obstacle.  Observations, collaborations, experiments and prototype testing became “virtually” impossible. (No pun intended.)

NWEA data shows that math scores suffered disproportionately when compared to language arts.  Science, engineering, and technology go hand in hand with math.  The rush to make up lost ground in STEM has schools scrambling to get their hands on High Quality Instructional Material to support STEM learning.  Finding a way to reignite engagement requires more than books and assessments.  Students need to “get their hands dirty” and experience learning for retention.  

4 Ways That PTA in Schools Everywhere Can Accelerate STEM Learning for Students

A cupcake is pictured with a small sign protruding from the top that reads: Bake Sale.
Credit: Photo created on Canva
PTA Fundraising Method

Flashback to the “foot race” students are running.  At the growth rate reported in the 2021-2022 school year, it’s going to take years before they reach adequate student achievement levels.  So how can we “speed them up”?  How can we accelerate STEM Learning for Students? 

The PTA spends most of its energies supporting teachers, administrators and students through events and programming- but all of those require money. This is where PTA fundraising becomes essential.  PTA’s host fundraisers big and small, from bake sales to galas to garner the resources needed to give back to their districts. There are many ways those funds can be directed with an emphasis on STEM, supercharging STEM learning initiatives in their districts.

Funding a Makerspace

Not all schools have a Makerspace, and PTA in schools that do have a Makerspace are constantly in need of supplies and/or upgrades.  For schools that do not have a makerspace, PTA resources can make those dreams a reality.  Even it’s a multi-year goal, putting a fully-funded makerspace in the district can open doors for teachers to implement programming that otherwise had no home-base.  It can become a safe space for tinkerers in the district to meet and start afterschool clubs.  It can be a place for science classes to take on larger collaborative projects that couldn’t be accomplished in a general classroom.

Funding a Field Trip 

Visiting a nature reserve, a science center, a local engineering firm or an aquarium can spark STEM interest in children of all ages.  And while these supplemental field trips may go hand in hand with curriculum, they aren’t always in the budget. The PTA in schools who conduct annual field trips are often the catalyst behind those field trips.

Two students, a boy and a girl, stand smiling with science fair award certificates.  In the background you can see presentation posters for their science projects.  These students look as though they might be in middle school.
Credit: Photo created on Canva
PTA Fundraising for Science Fair

Funding a Science Fair

Science fairs are wonderful creative outlets for young tinkerers, but they can get expensive.  Fairs often have incentivization or prizes.  It’s common to schedule guest speakers, presentations, bring in food and more.  All of these components cost money.  PTA fundraisers are more often than not the financial support behind a school district’s annual science fair.

Funding Supplemental Programming or Curriculum

One of the most effective ways to boost STEM learning in the classroom is by implementing a highly engaging curriculum.  This curriculum can be supplemental to what’s already happening in the classroom, or offered as an entire class in itself. Even after-school STEM Clubs utilize curriculum kits or STEM learning paths to keep kids moving in the right direction.  

A young girl stares into an LED light cube that she created using Thimble’s kits and curriculum to build and ptrogram the light.
Thimble Curriculum and Coding Kits

Thimble’s coding and engineering curriculum is curated to be highly engaging for 5th-12th grade.  It’s carefully designed to be inclusive, and administrators or PTA stakeholders can easily schedule a free, live, Thimble demo to check out the curriculum before making an investment.

3 Tips For Approaching the PTA to Fund Your Learning Loss Related Requests

So we understand all the ways PTA can support students in accelerating STEM learning beyond the classroom, but how do we get the PTA in schools on board with programming and funding ideas?  After all, they work hard for their PTA fundraising.  Keep these tips in mind if you feel as though your PTA could become a learning loss hero in your district.

  • Create Relationships

Build a reciprocal relationship between PTA presidents, PTA board members, district administration and teachers.  Foster open communication and help the PTA in every way possible.  Provide an easily accessible place for meetings.  Provide them with any resources they might need to stay organized- think white boards, file cabinets, or a spare device.  The easier it is for them to fundraise, the more opportunities they will carry through the front doors of your school.  And most importantly- listen. Listen to their ideas, concerns, and make them feel as if they are an integral part of the schools ecosystem.

  • Present Evidence

Don’t mention your desire for PTA funded STEM curriculum in passing.  Create a predetermined meeting time and place, and come prepared.  Show the PTA data from internal assessments and explain why that data might dictate the need for certain supplemental programming.  

Thimble’s curriculum demo can be scheduled alongside your meeting with the PTA.  Demonstrate how and why you think this specific curriculum or program investment is going to help their children.  The PTA is made up of parents with a vested interest in the success of the student body.  So tap into that desire by illustrating the possibilities.

  • Show Appreciation

PTA fundraising takes work, but not every PTA has the same results. Lower income districts that struggle with community involvement, housing, food scarcity or poverty may less purchasing power than a district whose demographic carries an average to high household income.  Some districts may be operating in smaller community bases.  Whether it’s a basic teacher appreciation luncheon, an elaborate science curriculum, or an elementary school book fair – never forget to show appreciation for what the PTA in schools big and small are doing for students.  Their efforts should be applauded, recognized, and greeted with open arms.

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