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Speed Up to Catch Up

Rather than holding kids back a grade, accelerate learning to help students fill in gaps
Now What?

Now What? — A six-part series focused on education fixes as we head back to school in person.

One of the biggest question marks swirling around schools reopening this fall has been how much learning students have actually lost since the start of the pandemic. 

While early reports claimed students had fallen months behind during remote learning, more recent data paints a less worrisome picture. However severe it is, schools need to address gaps in student learning, but how they do so could have long-term repercussions.    

With some schools set to rely on old approaches like holding students back a grade or employing remediation to reteach everything a student missed, research has shown that these methods are ineffective and can actually exacerbate learning loss. 

Instead, experts are recommending an approach known as accelerated learning. The term itself is a bit of a misnomer since it’s not about simply speeding through curriculum. Rather, it’s about keeping students motivated through grade-appropriate work; or another way of thinking about it is “just-in-time” interventions — the right type or amount of support at the right time — to fill in gaps in learning. 

For example, instead of spending weeks covering an entire missed unit in math, teachers can look ahead at the grade-level standards to determine what are the most important skills students need to have and cover that material in a class or two. Or a language arts teacher might see an upcoming text that she thinks might be too challenging for students. Rather than removing it for easier work, the teacher can design scaffolds — specific supports — to help students with understanding key literary concepts and filling in missed background knowledge.

“What we’re talking about are just best practices to teach children that haven’t been employed systemically,” says Bailey Cato Czupryk, vice president of practices, diagnostics, and impact at TNTP, a New York-based education nonprofit and vocal advocate for accelerated learning. 

Data from a recent TNTP study in partnership with Zearn, a nonprofit organization whose online math platform is used by one in four elementary students nationwide, found that students who experienced learning acceleration struggled less and learned more than those students who started at the same level but experienced remediation. 

"We’ve consistently found across our work, both pre- and post-pandemic, grownups are surprised with what kids can do."

Bailey Cato Czupryk

As schools plan for this coming year, here are some reasons why learning acceleration, and not remediation, should be the foundation for student learning recovery, experts say.

There’s less struggle, more learning 

Analyzing data from more than two million students in more than 100,000 classrooms using Zearn’s online K–5 math platform found that students in remediated classes struggled 10 times more than students in classes that chose acceleration. 

Students in accelerated classrooms thrived, completing 27% more grade-level lessons than their remediated peers, and mostly regained their pre-pandemic success on grade-level math. Meanwhile, remediated students not only continue to struggle, but fall even further behind in their learning, getting caught in a cycle of missing more and more grade-appropriate content.   

It’s more equitable

The TNTP study found that students of color and those from low-income backgrounds were more likely to experience remediation than their white, wealthier peers, with 1 in 6 students remediated regardless of their success on grade-level content earlier in the year. 

“There’s repeated evidence that kids who are white are going to get grade-level access to content, whereas students of color are not,” Czupryk says. “Systems who take a remediation approach are damning kids who are historically marginalized. We’ve done this forever, and it’s just going to be exacerbated.” 

On the other hand, learning acceleration can have the biggest benefit for these same students, with the study finding that classrooms in schools with a majority of students of color completed nearly 50% more grade-level lessons than remediated classrooms. 

Teachers will get onboard, once they see that it works

While it is important to invest in infrastructure like high-quality instructional materials for students, training and supporting teachers is required to ensure that accelerated learning actually happens in the classroom. 

That means providing models for teachers to see what accelerated learning looks like in practice and to understand how and when to provide “just-in-time” support. Czupryk says when teachers are able to see what students can produce through accelerated learning, even the most skeptical are convinced. 

“We’ve consistently found across our work, both pre- and post-pandemic, grownups are surprised with what kids can do,” she says. “We make assumptions about what will be difficult for a student, and we’ve found one really useful step is to let kids try it out and put up guardrails for teachers. We’ve found that can build a lot of investment.” 

Real tutoring for all students (and not just helping with homework) works

Schools and districts where students missed significant academic instruction can still implement accelerated learning along with additional supports. At the Guilford County School District in North Carolina, remediation was never an option. Instead, they launched a district-wide tutoring program to support students and teachers.  

“We don’t believe in repeating grades,” says Guilford superintendent Sharon Contreras. “There’s enough evidence and research to point to the negative outcomes that has on students and acceleration is much more effective.” 

Using Title I funding and resources through federal ESSER legislation, Guilford invested in graduate, undergraduate, and high-achieving high school students to serve as one-on-one math tutors. The program was so popular that it is expanding this year to include other subject areas and the district plans to continue it for the foreseeable future. 

“We didn’t want tutoring to be homework help. Students needed just-in-time support to see where they were getting stuck,” says Guilford’s chief academic officer Whitney Oakley. “For example, we had a middle school student who improved her math grade by 30 points after just five weeks of tutoring. She was trying to figure it out on her own and couldn’t do it,” but the personalized help from her tutor helped fill in the gap. “We’re meeting the needs of students we couldn’t before.”  

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