4 Ways Districts Make ‘Acceleration’ Work

By Sarah Schwartz — November 20, 2023 4 min read
EL teacher Katina Tibbetts teaches her 5th grade level Wit and Wisdom course at East Veterans Memorial Elementary in Gloucester, Mass., on Sept. 20, 2023.
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Since the school closures of the pandemic, experts have warned that the academic recovery process for students would take time. Schools wouldn’t be able to make up for all the learning that kids missed within a year, or even two.

In response, some districts have taken an approach to academic recovery that doesn’t just aim to fill gaps, but fundamentally shifts how they think about teaching and learning going forward.

The approach is called learning acceleration, a method for ensuring that all students are doing grade-level work—even if they missed key skills or knowledge from previous grades. Teachers then build supports into their grade-level instruction.

While learning acceleration may be easy to describe, it’s hard to put into practice. Tailoring and providing support to individual students in this way requires time and planning.

In a recent Education Week virtual forum, two district leaders shared their strategies for making the approach work.

Amy Pasquarello, the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the Gloucester district in Massachusetts, and Carly Pumphrey, the supervisor of English/language arts and social studies in Washington County, Md., discussed how their school systems changed schedules, provided new resources, and offered training for teachers.

Read on for four takeaways about how they implemented acceleration in their districts.

Agree on a district-wide definition

Acceleration has become a pandemic-era “buzzword,” said Pumphrey. And not all educators may have the same definition—before COVID, for example, the term acceleration was often used in gifted education, to describe giving students access to more advanced coursework.

“If we don’t know what it means, and if I ask a lot of people what this is and I get different answers, how are we going to know if we’ve ever actually achieved it?” Pumphrey asked.

A district team in Washington County did a lot of reading and brainstorming, Pumphrey said, and came up with the following definition: “Acceleration is intentionally providing access to grade- or course-level learning so students who have unfinished learning succeed in today’s learning experience.”

To put this definition into action, the team identified four practices that would drive teachers’ work toward this goal: building student-teacher relationships, sharpening clarity of expectations, giving feedback, and providing scaffolds.

Hold whole-class instruction ‘sacred’

For all students to have access to grade-level instruction, they all need to be in class—not pulled out of the lesson for intervention time or other support services, said Pasquarello.

“If they are not in the classroom when we are doing our core instruction, they won’t ever catch up,” she said.

To make sure that every child could access that core instruction, Gloucester rearranged its schools’ master schedules. They added a dedicated intervention block—called “what I need,” or WIN time—for students to receive interventions or special education services.

Holding this core instruction “sacred” has proved effective so far, Pasquarello said.

Create district infrastructure to support teachers’ work

To support students’ individual needs, teachers need a system for figuring out what those needs are. In Washington County, the district made student-by-student data available at teachers’ fingertips through its learning management system.

That way, Pumphrey said, teachers could pinpoint and address those needs within the context of grade-level lessons. For example, Pumphrey recently observed a kindergarten lesson in which the teacher was working on a phonics activity. Students were adding or changing the letters in a word to make new words.

But the teacher had dubbed a small group of students the “special blenders.” These students’ assessment results had shown they needed additional help with blending—or fluently joining together the letters in a word to read it.

“It didn’t look like a scaffold, it didn’t look like something different. … But they had additional repetition with that skill that they needed,” Pumphrey said.

Provide time for teachers to plan and collaborate

Teachers need time to identify individual students’ needs and plan to address those needs within their whole class lessons. But finding time for professional development is always a challenge, said Pasquarello.

In Gloucester, the district has paid teachers to stay for after-school planning time, using funds from a state grant for the implementation of high-quality materials. Teachers also have four half-days throughout the year to plan for upcoming units.

Washington County rearranged middle and high school schedules to give teachers 90 minutes of daily planning time, Pumphrey said. Adjusting school schedules is a big lift, but the district didn’t have many other options to give teachers time, she said. Taking teachers out of class periodically won’t work in Washington, she said, as post-pandemic, “getting subs here in our county isn’t really something we can do.”

To hear Paquarello and Pumphrey’s full conversation, watch the Education Week forum here.


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