Getting Up to Speed
With the COVID-19 pandemic entering an uncertain new phase, school systems are shifting their focus from surviving the crisis to helping students cope with the social, emotional, and academic toll of the most significant disruption to K–12 education in history. That process will take years, but the choices system leaders make now for the 2021–2022 school year will be crucial.
On the academic front, one choice looms large: Research suggests that more students have accumulated more unfinished learning over the last year than ever before. How should schools help them get back to grade level—and back on track to pursue their goals beyond high school?
Remediation vs. Acceleration
The most common approach to catching kids up is what’s known as remediation, or assigning work better suited for earlier grades. It’s a strategy many teachers have been trained to use as far back as their preparation programs, and it’s one that intuitively seems appropriate for the present situation. But as TNTP (The New Teacher Project) found in its 2018 study, “The Opportunity Myth,” denying students access to grade-level work—even with the best intentions—often causes them to fall even further behind and exacerbates racial inequities.
Fortunately, an alternative has gained traction across the country in the last year: learning acceleration. In this approach, the teacher starts with the appropriate grade-level content and strategically builds in previous concepts when students need them to master grade-level work. This “just-in-time” teaching ensures that students get to spend more time on the work of their grade—the key to ultimately catching up.
What does learning acceleration look like? Let’s take a look at two third-grade math classrooms. The early part of third-grade math is focused on learning multiplication and division. Practicing remediation, Teacher A believes students need to master the basics to succeed in grade-level math, and so spends four to six weeks covering missed second-grade content such as two-digit addition and subtraction problems and word problems. While this is critical work, Teacher A isolates it from the multiplication and division skills students need to learn at the start of third grade, preventing them from making the necessary connections they need to solve multiplication and division problems.
Teacher B begins the year with a week of second-grade lessons in which visual representations lay the conceptual foundation for multiplication and division. This allows students to visualize in groups rather than individual items—an idea that will help them understand the concept of division. As students continue through the year, the teacher incorporates other lessons from second grade when necessary to provide the just-in-time support that students need to catch up and even exceed grade-level expectations. This is learning acceleration.
A recent study TNTP co-authored with Zearn, a widely used online math curriculum, provided one of the first direct comparisons of these two approaches. “Accelerate, Don’t Remediate” offers compelling new evidence that school systems should make learning acceleration the foundation of their academic strategies this year and beyond.
The study found that students in accelerated classrooms learned more and struggled less with grade-level material than students who experienced remediation instead—a striking result given that one of the primary goals of remediation is making sure students master all of “the basics” so they won’t struggle with material that’s “too hard for them.” TNTP also found learning acceleration to be particularly effective for students of color and those from low-income families, which suggests it could play a key role in unwinding longstanding academic inequities that the pandemic exacerbated.
It’s worth noting that research supports meeting students where they are when it comes to reading fundamentals. If you have a fifth grader who is struggling to decode, providing explicit foundational skills instruction in reading is the right choice, even if it involves working on reading foundation standards that are well below grade level. In reading comprehension, though, we know that almost all elementary students can understand more when they listen to texts read aloud than when they read, so educators can keep the spotlight on grade-level texts during instruction to focus on building knowledge and reading comprehension even when some students are behind.
Stepping on the Gas
In most school systems, adopting a learning acceleration strategy completely will be a yearslong process that requires changes not just to instructional materials and strategies, but also to educators’ mindsets about students’ ability to engage with grade-level work. In June, TNTP released “Learning Acceleration for All: Planning for the Next Three to Five Years,” a free resource to assist with such planning. When implemented thoughtfully, learning acceleration can create meaningful improvements in student experiences even in the first year, and there are steps that principals can take to get the ball rolling even if the school system hasn’t fully embraced learning acceleration yet:
Develop a clear vision for students’ experiences. You can’t effectively plan to improve students’ experiences without a clear vision for what you want those experiences to be—one that’s shared by your entire school community. Ideally, your district has already developed this vision, but if it hasn’t, you can and should develop one for your school. Consider how you could engage staff, students, and families in a series of conversations about what students need, ultimately leading to an academic vision for your classrooms and equitable, high-quality experiences for all students.
Prioritize high-quality curricular resources. Providing students with access to high-quality academic experiences without having a set of high-quality instructional materials and curricular resources is exceptionally difficult. In “The Opportunity Myth,” TNTP found that educators spend significant time finding or creating their own assignments, but they usually select materials that are less likely to meet grade-level standards than those provided by high-quality instructional materials. To find out whether your system’s materials are aligned to college- and career-ready standards, consult EdReports.org, where trained educators rate instructional materials.
Once you’ve reviewed your materials and identified any significant gaps, you can focus on finding supplemental materials to close those gaps—or perhaps purchase and adopt new materials altogether. If you’re going to do the challenging work of filling the gaps in your materials with your own staff, consider who in your school might help design strong curricula until your system is able to secure better-quality materials, and give them the time to do so.
Focus on accelerating learning for all students, not just the mythical “average” student. Schools sometimes build their vision and instructional strategy around an “average” or typical student—often a white, middle-class, neurotypical native English speaker. This can create blind spots that deepen the inequities you hope to address with learning acceleration. As you develop a vision and take stock of your instructional materials, think about who your students really are: Will your vision and strategy ensure that all of them have access to grade-level experiences?
Monitor whether your educators make equitable choices for all students—and especially for historically marginalized students. Even if your school has high-quality instructional materials and provides support to help teachers use them, it’s crucial to monitor implementation and prepare to intervene where you see inequities in students’ access to grade-level work. TNTP offers a number of free resources to help you ask students about their experiences and track their access to grade-appropriate assignments and strong instruction. But whether you use these resources or others, make sure you’re tracking and analyzing implementation data. Assume that inequities exist, and make sure you have systems in place to address them.
Use one-time federal resources to support changes you can sustain for the long run. Many school systems are receiving a once-in-a-generation infusion of federal stimulus funding to support plans for next school year and beyond. This funding can play a critical role in adopting learning acceleration, but it’s vital to invest it in sustainable strategies that improve student experiences over the long term—and avoid creating a fiscal “cliff” by creating positions or programs you can’t afford when the supplemental funding runs out. To the extent that you have discretion over these resources, look for opportunities to support your long-term learning acceleration strategy, such as adopting high-quality instructional materials or offering trainings for your educators on leveraging those materials.
After a year like no other, educational leaders at every level now have an opportunity and an obligation to think beyond returning to a normal that wasn’t working for far too many students. Disrupting approaches that limit access to high-quality academic opportunities such as remediation is a crucial first step. In the months ahead, let’s start providing educators with the resources and support they need to accelerate learning—and start building the belief that it’s necessary—to help every student engage in grade-level work immediately.
Jamila Newman is a TNTP partner.
Bailey Cato Czupryk is vice president of TNTP.