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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Student Achievement Opinion

Here’s Why You Should Stop Using the Term ‘Learning Acceleration’

It’s time to stop deficit framing
By Paul Emerich France — August 02, 2023 8 min read
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Let’s start here: The intentions behind learning acceleration were good. All of us in the education world are doing our best to reach as many kids as possible because we know quality teaching and fruitful learning matter. Still, in equity work, we talk a great deal about impact over intention, meaning that the impact of something is more important than the intention behind it.

The original intention behind learning acceleration, as I understand it, was to propose an alternative to deficit-based terms like “learning loss” as we emerged from the pandemic. To many, accelerating learning represented a positive spin, allowing teachers to accelerate learning in relation to learner assets, as opposed to chasing after something we’d supposedly lost through distance learning. However, when examining learning acceleration with a keener eye, we not only see that it is equally as deficit-framing but we also see that it has had unintended consequences, creating both a moral and logistical imperative for centering sustainability in schools.

Why Learning Acceleration Is Deficit-Framing

Learning acceleration is not a new term. It originates from gifted education as a means for appropriately challenging learners who meet the criteria for giftedness. Since then, acceleration models have been adopted in schools, primarily for learners whose standardized-test scores are well above average. Oftentimes, in these programs, learners are exposed to content above grade level. There are marked benefits for those who have access to accelerated content, specifically that their scores accelerate, and as they grow older, they are afforded access to more opportunities for advanced coursework.

Learning acceleration was then reframed in 2021, in response to calls to address learning loss as we collectively navigated a global pandemic. It became clear almost immediately that the term “learning loss” was both deficit-framing and a misnomer. Learning was never lost; students simply were not performing at levels we would have typically expected had the pandemic not happened.

But the reality was this: The pandemic did happen, and as a result, learners were not typically where we would have liked them to be in 2021. And therefore, writers and researchers began adopting new terms that acknowledged learning was not lost, per se, meanwhile responding to this gap between the current reality and what we hoped student achievement would look like. Learning recovery, unfinished learning, and then learning acceleration all came into the fold, softening the blow of learning loss.

But we must remember that deficit-framing exists on a continuum. Softening the edges of deficit-framing doesn’t make it less harmful; it just makes it subtly harmful. Recovery is a retrieval of something lost; unfinished creates the feeling of a pending to-do list; and acceleration connotes that we must speed up to make up for lost time. All of these are deficit-framing, symptomatic of a scarcity mindset and formed in response to a perception that we must recover what’s been lost to get back to normal.

The Unintended Consequences of Learning Acceleration

Our words matter, and they have unintended consequences. When most teachers hear the term “learning acceleration,” they can’t help but think they have to speed learning up. And why would they have to speed learning up? To make up for losses in learning caused by the pandemic. Sure, it makes sense that we want learners to learn as efficiently as possible: Wasting time in our classrooms is not a good thing, but at the same time, defining our success in terms of how fast students learn will have some unintended consequences.

First, it generates anxiety in teachers. As a consultant, I have ample time to work in schools with lots of different teachers. In schools that have low test scores, the pressure to make up for lost time is palpable because the stakes feel so high. Pushing teachers to speed learning up, when current achievement levels are entirely out of their control, creates anxiety and diminishes teacher agency. It’s reminiscent of the Obama-era Race to the Top, which was really just a repackaging and reframing of No Child Left Behind. The result is that teachers feel they are being asked to solve problems outside of their control, requiring a Herculean effort. Meanwhile, they’re not afforded the salaries, the resources, or the support to do so. With this pressure and these constraints, it’s no wonder teachers are disengaging, burning out, and leaving the profession.

Second, it decreases the likelihood that teachers will teach conceptually. When we teach conceptually, we focus on so much more than correct answers, and this requires slowing down, not speeding up. When we slow down, we can encourage learners to ask questions, articulate their thinking, and prove their answers to themselves. Whenever kids ask me, “Is this right?” I respond with, “Prove to yourself that it’s right.” While this might slow learning down, it creates a depth and richness of learning that is not only best for kids in the long run, it’s also sustained, meaning that it will stick. It’s hard to do these types of things when there is pressure to accelerate learning.

Third, the effectiveness of learning acceleration will inevitably be measured by standardized-test scores. Remember, the term was reclaimed in response to perceived losses in learning, as measured by standardized-test scores. And therefore, the primary metric for determining the efficacy of learning acceleration will be, well, standardized-test scores. Campbell’s Law reminds us that the metrics we use to measure learning will inevitably distort the ways in which we foster learning experiences in the classroom. Therefore, by emphasizing learning acceleration within a context where standardized-test scores still reign supreme, we will (and are already seeing) a continued emphasis on the quickest gains to the highest test scores, sacrificing deep, meaningful learning and simply repackaging an old way of thinking.

And it is here that we see what learning acceleration really is: a euphemism for a renewed emphasis on standardized-test scores. Until we change the way we define success in schools and until we make standardized-test scores low-stakes, it doesn’t matter what we call it—whether it’s learning acceleration, efficient learning, or learning loss—we will continue on a path of unsustainable conditions for teaching and learning in our schools. This is why I’m calling for a shift away from deficit-framing terms like “learning loss,” “learning recovery,” or learning acceleration and toward a vision for sustainability in schools that will lead to sustained, fruitful learning and also preserve teachers’ energy levels and ensure them the dignity they deserve.

A Sustainable Path Forward

In the summer of 2021, I spent time talking with teachers, coaches, and administrators about what might #MakeTeachingSustainable. The #SustainableTeaching Project resulted in over 300 survey responses and over 40 hours of interviews. I learned two major things: (1) In order for something to be “best” practice, it must also be sustainable practice; and (2) #SustainableTeaching is personal, dependent on situation, context, and lived experience as a teacher.

The project resulted in six mindset shifts, representing ways in which our thinking must change in order to pursue #SustainableTeaching. These shifts in mindset will inevitably lead to shifts in practice. The shifts are:

  1. Humanity over Industry
  2. Collectivism over Individualism
  3. Empowerment over Control
  4. Minimalism over Maximalism
  5. Process over Product
  6. Flexibility over Fixedness

For instance, a focus on humanity causes us to humanize learning, emphasizing knowledge of learner identity and asset-driven thinking in instruction. A focus on collectivism reminds us that our schools are not places where kids compete for the highest test scores but instead places where kids can connect with their peers through fruitful learning experiences. A shift toward empowerment emphasizes partnership with learners, encouraging them to share in the energy demands of learning.

Minimalism encourages mindfulness in planning and preparation, emphasizing the importance of universal design principles that ensure access for all learners, without teachers having to create individualized curricula for every student in the class. A focus on process provides teachers tools and strategies for qualitative assessment practices that help learners tell the story of their learning journey without institutionalizing or dehumanizing learners with standardized-test scores. Finally, a shift toward flexibility allows teachers to be responsive in their instruction, meeting kids where they are as opposed to adhering to arbitrary expectations and deadlines.

What’s Best for Teachers is Best for Kids

We have a habit of embracing saviorism and martyrdom in schools. We want teachers to do “whatever it takes” to reach all kids. We emphasize that we’ll always do “what’s best for kids.”

But the reality is this: We can’t do what’s best for kids if we’re not doing what’s best for teachers. When teachers burn out and leave the profession, we lose years (and sometimes decades) of institutional wisdom and experience that have the capacity to shape students’ lives. So no, the solution here as we continue to emerge from the pandemic is not to accelerate learning to serve antiquated success metrics; the solution is to change the way we measure success and to focus on sustainability in schools.

Because if our students matter to us as much as we say they do, we will need to recognize that teachers, their wellness, and their sustainability matter, too. So, let’s find the practices that are not only best for kids—but also best for their teachers.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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