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Learning ‘Acceleration’ Is Hard to Do. These Districts Are Tackling the Challenge

By Sarah Schwartz — September 25, 2023 9 min read
EL teacher Katina Tibbetts looks at her computer during a 5th grade level Wit and Wisdom lesson at East Veterans Memorial Elementary in Gloucester, Mass., on Sept. 20, 2023.
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Katina Tibbetts is determined to hold all her students to high standards. But she also knows that different kids need different kinds of help to get there.

Tibbetts, who teaches 1st, 3rd, and 5th grade English learners in the Gloucester public schools in Massachusetts, wants her students to be able to participate in class conversations when they go back to their general education classrooms. So she gives them a sneak peek of the work that they’ll do there. She does that by previewing important vocabulary words from the curriculum, giving students pictures, examples and nonexamples, and definitions.

“They really get the knowledge of that word that they’re going to see in class before they go back,” Tibbetts said. Then, her students have group discussions on some of the topics that they will learn about—another opportunity to use some of this vocabulary.

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“What we’re seeing is that [English-learner] students, once they are in the class, are more able and more enthusiastic about engaging in discussions,” said Amy Pasquarello, Gloucester’s assistant superintendent. “They’re raising their hand, they’re participating, because they have that background knowledge that they may not have had before.”

What Tibbetts has been doing since she started in the district two years ago is considered a best practice for English-learner instruction. Some might just call it good teaching. But the Gloucester district sees her work as a key part of a new instructional strategy for all students, Pasquarello said: learning acceleration.

What is learning acceleration?

Starting in the spring and summer of 2020, education organizations started to promote the idea of acceleration as a pandemic-recovery strategy, a way to close learning gaps that arose from school disruptions and the challenges of remote learning.

The idea was that teachers would give all students grade-level work, even if they missed key understandings or knowledge from previous grades when in-person classes shut down in the pandemic. Teachers would build in support in their grade-level instruction that could help students access the material—like Tibbetts did for her English-learner students.

Despite the buzz around acceleration, federal data show that it hasn’t proved to be as popular as other learning-recovery strategies. A 2022 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics’ School Pulse Panel found that 72 percent of schools were using remedial instruction, 56 percent were using high-dosage tutoring, and 39 percent were using acceleration.

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Experts have long said that doing acceleration well is challenging: It requires unified academic goals at the district level, resources that can help teachers add scaffolds to their lessons, time for teachers to plan, and ongoing professional learning. And it also can seem at odds with a commonly held education maxim—that teachers should meet each student where they are and differentiate instruction to their level.

“The folks that are engaged in this change process, it’s a multiyear effort,” said Elizabeth Chu, the executive director of the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University, who has studied teaching and learning during the pandemic.

Leaders in districts that started this work over the past few years agree. Building this kind of systemwide shift in instructional approach is at least a five-year journey, said Gary Willow, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Washington County public schools, in Maryland. He sees his district’s acceleration effort as an initiative with a broader goal than just pandemic recovery.

“Our goal is not to get back to where we were,” Willow said. “Our goal is to go beyond where we were before.”

How common is acceleration?

Before COVID, the word “acceleration” often referred to gifted education—giving advanced students above-grade-level content, or teaching them at a faster pace.

But the “acceleration” of the pandemic era has a different definition. It’s designed to be used with all students, not just those who are advanced. And the goal isn’t to move at a faster pace but to remove barriers that would prevent students from understanding grade-level content.

Take the example of a 4th grade class learning to add fractions. The teacher would first determine if students had unfinished learning around fractions from 3rd grade—did they understand that a fraction is a part of a whole number? If not, the teacher would weave that instruction into her 4th grade lesson, so that students would be better prepared to take on the grade-level work, rather than spending the whole lesson time reteaching the 3rd grade skill.

It’s hard to know how common this approach is, either in individual teachers’ classrooms or as a districtwide strategy, because surveys asking about “acceleration” might not capture everyone who is teaching this way, said Sarah Johnson, the CEO of Teaching Lab, a teacher professional learning organization.

“This jargon of acceleration is a pandemic-era jargon,” she said. “I think that most of the time, teachers don’t use the jargon of acceleration, but they might be engaged in the process of acceleration.”

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In a 2023 EdWeek Research Center survey, only 14 percent of educators said that their districts or schools provided additional resources for accelerated learning to help students master material they missed during the pandemic.

But when asked to pick the description that best encapsulated their instructional approach, the majority of teachers selected the choice that described acceleration:

This disconnect makes sense to Pasquarello, in Gloucester. “I don’t think what we’re doing we’re calling acceleration, but we are,” she said. Making sure kids have equal access to strong instruction is always important, she said, “but now more than ever.”

Last year, the district altered school schedules to create a separate block for intervention and special services, outside of time for whole-class, or what the district calls “tier 1", instruction. “That makes sure that students are not pulled for extra services during the tier 1 block,” Pasquarello said. “It holds that tier 1 instruction is sacred.”

EL teacher Katina Tibbetts uses dry erase boards to help 3rd grade level Wit and Wisdom students understand a lesson on topic sentences at East Veterans Memorial Elementary in Gloucester, Mass., on Sept. 20, 2023.

This year, the district plans to create structures that will bring the kind of scaffolding Tibbetts is doing in her classroom systemwide, says Pasquarello.

The elementary teacher is excited to see more formalized systems for this work across the district, but she also worries about workload—especially for EL and special education teachers.

Tibbetts spends two to three hours of her own time every other day preparing the materials she needs to preteach vocabulary and content knowledge, she said.

“I do it because I love my kids and I think that’s what they need, but I know that’s not the fairest of routes,” Tibbetts said, referencing asking other teachers to take on that kind of extra workload. “There’s just some logistical stuff that’s going to be tough to figure out.”

Putting the ‘grunt work’ on district leadership

Shifting some of these logistics off teachers and onto other district personnel was essential to making acceleration work in Charles Smith’s district.

“You have to think about your capacity to do something like this,” said Smith, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Wilton school system in Connecticut.

In Wilton, district instructional coordinators “took on some of the grunt work,” Smith said, analyzing student data and developing a learning “blueprint” that spelled out what kids might need to practice and review in order to meet each grade-level standard.

“That was really helpful for the teachers, because they didn’t have that time to do an in-depth analysis of what really was an enormous amount of unfinished learning,” Smith said.

In Washington County, Willow’s district, the curriculum team created a systemwide definition of, and action plan for, acceleration. The district added a feature to its learning management system that allowed teachers to have easy access to student data—so they could see which students needed help with which skills.

And over the 2021 and 2022 summers, the curriculum team developed materials and activities, tailored to the district curriculum, that teachers could use for students who needed extra support.

This bank of scaffolds included tools like sentence frames that could help kickstart an oral response for students or graphic organizers that could help them formulate their thoughts for a written assignment, said Carly Pumphrey, the district’s supervisor of English/language arts and social studies.

These solutions were designed to give all students a way into grade-level text, Pumphrey said—rather than giving students different texts based on their perceived reading ability.

Schools still face roadblocks to acceleration

Leaders in the Wilton, Gloucester, and Washington County districts all see acceleration as a long-term strategy, not just a pandemic-recovery solution.

“We’re a fairly high-performing school district, but we have some distinct achievement gaps,” said Smith, Wilton’s assistant superintendent.

“I think our teachers do recognize the importance of making grade-level curriculum accessible to everybody, but they were struggling with how to do that. And I think this framework made it possible,” he said.

These districts are still working through the challenges that come with trying to radically restructure how teaching and learning operates.

In Washington County, those roadblocks have to do with the nitty-gritty of classroom instruction. The district has set acceleration as a priority and provided resources. But figuring out exactly how to plan and manage a 4th grade class in which some students are at a 4th grade level, some are at a 3rd grade level, and some are at a 1st grade level is still a big hurdle for teachers—and understandably so, said Pumphrey.

This year, she said, the district is restructuring middle school schedules to give teachers 90 minutes of daily planning time—a change that they already made last year for high school and one that Pumphrey hopes will give teachers the space to work on these questions.

The district is also focusing on coaching and collaborative professional learning this year, in which teachers will be able to discuss model lessons, Willow said.

In Wilton, Smith still isn’t seeing all the changes he would hope for in student data.

“Everybody grew, but some groups didn’t grow as much as others,” he said of test scores since the pandemic.

The score gaps that existed before the pandemic—between general education and special education students, native English speakers and English learners, students from low-income families and high-income families—persist.

“I think [those are the groups] that we’re still trying to figure how we can further accelerate their growth,” Smith said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2023 edition of Education Week as Learning ‘Acceleration’ Is Hard to Do. These Districts Are Tackling the Challenge

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