Special Report

Schools Want to ‘Accelerate’ Student Learning. Here’s What That Means

By Sarah Schwartz — March 22, 2022 12 min read
Maria Lopez teaches a 4th-grade bilingual reading class at Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School in Dallas.
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The extent to which COVID-19 has disrupted students’ learning—and the questions of how schools will provide the support students need as a result—can feel too big to grasp. To understand how schools are approaching this challenge, it might be more manageable to start small—to look in on a classroom.

Take Massachusetts. There, in the Saugus public schools, math coach Andrea Wheeler works with 8th grade teachers.

Their students, who had been in remote learning all last school year, were struggling to solve equations. So together, Wheeler and the teachers combed through kids’ work to figure out exactly what part of the process was tripping them up.

Once they pinpointed the issue—a lot of 8th graders were having trouble distributing negative terms—they came up with a plan. Teachers started the next class with two examples on the board: one with negative terms distributed correctly, one with them distributed incorrectly. They asked questions that would prompt students to discuss which one was right, and why.

The 10-minute warm-up discussion allowed teachers to cover a skill from earlier grades that students might have missed because of pandemic-related disruptions. But they covered it in the context of an 8th grade lesson, while still focusing most of their time on the grade-level objective: solving equations.

Education experts call this approach “acceleration.” It’s a strategy that’s been endorsed by several national education groups. And some states and districts are banking on it for academic recovery from the pandemic.

The idea is to give students access to grade-level instruction, even if they’ve missed key understandings or key knowledge from previous grades. An 8th grade math teacher, for example, would teach 8th grade content—even if students had gaps from 7th grade.

To do this, though, she would first have to identify which 7th grade skills and concepts were most important for understanding the 8th grade standards she was planning to teach. Then, she’d assess students’ grasp of those specific 7th grade skills and concepts. Where students had gaps in their understanding, she would weave in support as she taught the 8th grade curriculum—just like Wheeler and the Saugus teachers did with their warm-up discussion on combining negative terms.

Teaching like this can help students move forward after the disruptions of the past two years, experts say, and lessen the chance that students with the highest needs are pushed into remedial classes. But it also takes time. Teachers need to plan, assess, and add more to their lessons.

Lacey Lassetter instructs the third grade ESL reading class at Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School on March 4, 2022, in Dallas, Texas.

“If people try to run out of the pandemic and say, ‘We’re going to get them proficient again [now],’ we’re not,” said Erin McMahon, the superintendent in Saugus. “You’re not going to see a bump in proficiency standards for three years. You shouldn’t. If you do, it means that we’ve taught to the test. And then shame on us.”

How districts plan for learning acceleration

While the work of learning acceleration happens in the classroom, it also requires changes to district plans and priorities, said Jamila Newman, a partner at TNTP. The organization, which consults with districts on teacher training, instructional strategy, and other education issues, has put out acceleration guidance and works with states—including Massachusetts—to implement the strategy.

School and district leaders need to make time for teachers and interventionists to collaborate, to make sure that the focus of instruction is aligned for students no matter where they are in the building, she said. And someone—a mentor teacher, a coach, a peer—should be observing and working with teachers, too. Not as a punitive measure, but as a tool to give feedback and refine practice, a way of “widening the teacher’s peripheral vision,” Newman said.

Finally, principals and district leaders should be monitoring the process. Teacher feedback and student data can help leaders understand what strategies are working for learning acceleration and how to scale them districtwide, Newman said.

In Saugus, academic coaching is new this year. So, too, is this more formalized system of data-driven instruction. During professional development this past summer, teams of school and teacher leaders worked with district staff to create interim assessments aligned to grade-level standards that teachers would give every six weeks. (At this point in the year, coaches have shifted to analyze weekly data.)

The results would show where students’ strengths were and where they needed targeted reinforcement of previous grades’ skills in order to access grade-level content. The district trained teachers to analyze the data that those tests provided. Coaches then work with educators to help them develop a plan for teaching these key skills, so that students can access the lesson.

“These are not high-stakes interim assessments,” said McMahon. “Instead, we just look at the data to see how our students are moving.”

Which of the following best describes your district’s or school’s current approach to supporting students who have not yet mastered grade-level content?
Which of the following best describes your district’s or school’s current approach to supporting students who have not yet mastered grade-level content?

Data from one of those assessments flagged the issue in 8th grade math with distributing negative terms. And that 10-minute discussion that Wheeler and the teachers planned as a solution? That’s a “guided discourse,” one of the two main strategies used districtwide to clarify misunderstandings and shore up student knowledge. In the other, a “think aloud,” teachers walk through the process of solving a problem out loud, step by step, to model for students.

Saugus didn’t develop this process alone. District leadership relied on Massachusetts’ Acceleration Roadmap, state guidance for implementing teacher training, assessment structures, and instructional practices to support accelerated learning. The roadmap guided planning of Saugus’ interim assessment calendar. Coaches also get biweekly professional development from the state on how to co-develop these teaching plans with teachers, through a partnership with TNTP.

Lacey Lassetter instructs a student during the third grade ESL reading class at Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School on March 4, 2022, in Dallas, Texas.

The Tulsa, Okla., district has also taken this kind of systemwide approach. Kelly Kane, the executive director of early-childhood education at Tulsa public schools, said that weaving in support for students at just the right time in a lesson is already a challenging task for teachers. During the pandemic, it can feel overwhelming.

Tulsa has offered professional development on how to add in those scaffolds. The district is trying to drive one message home, Kane said: “Scaffolds aren’t about giving students less than grade-level instruction. It’s about accessing the grade-level instruction.”

Take, for example, a reading passage about how myths and stories about volcanoes can offer clues about volcanic activity. Before asking students to write about the passage or discuss it as a group, the teacher could hold a short discussion about what a myth is. That way, she can gauge students’ background knowledge and fill in any gaps, so that all students could participate fully in the assignment.

To map out these kinds of changes to instruction, teachers in Tulsa have been given additional collective planning time. During a 90-minute weekly block, teachers and school leaders dig into pedagogical research, model and refine new practices, and evaluate student progress. Teacher leaders facilitate the meetings. In grades K-3, these “content cycles” are focused specifically on foundational reading skills.

Schedule, staffing changes help students

Other districts have adjusted school schedules and staffing models to support academic acceleration.

In the Dallas school system, the district teaching and learning team has created sample lessons that focus on “high-leverage” skills and weave in student support. But the district has also offered schools the option to use alternative calendars—a strategy designed to give back to students and teachers some of the time they missed over the past two years, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova.

Forty-one schools in the district have adopted what Dallas calls the intersession approach. Under this model, schools are in regular session for five to six weeks and then have one week of intersession. Students who need extra support, identified through a district formula, are invited to attend for reteaching and support in smaller groups during that week.

Teachers can decide whether they want to work. If they do, they’re paid extra. If they don’t, they get the week off. The intersession schedule still allows for breaks throughout the year—for winter, spring, and Thanksgiving—but it does shorten the summer, from about two months to one.

Giving teachers extra time to help struggling students makes it easier to catch students up throughout the year, rather than waiting to remediate, said Sandra Barrios, the principal at Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School in the district, which is on the intersession model.

“We see lightbulbs just turn on, because they’re given that attention that they might not be able to receive in class,” Barrios said.

This kind of structure can work as an option for accelerating learning, Newman said. But because it’s happening outside of regular instruction—it’s not an in-the-moment response to students’ misunderstandings or unfinished learning—it may take more instructional planning.

“You have to be even more hypersensitive to: What are we trying to focus on? How does it apply to grade-level content, and are we engaging in that instruction?” Newman said.

Within the intersession week in Dallas, Monday is a full teacher planning day. Tuesday through Friday, students have two to three hours of academics in the morning and then do enrichment activities like music and sports in the afternoon.

Intersession’s primary objective is to help students catch up, Cordova said. But the schedule is about more than academics. “The kids came back to school, and we’ve seen just a very high level of dysregulation. … I do think another sign of success is going to be kids who have a greater degree of self-control and executive functioning, who are able to be in school and feel confident with the work that we’re doing,” Cordova said.

Teachers at Jack Lowe said that some students feel more comfortable taking academic risks in an intersession class, which usually has 10-12 members, than they do in regular class time.

Maria Lopez, a 4th grade, English-language-learner teacher, said one of her students won’t talk at all in a whole class setting. But one day during the February intersession, she saw him deep in discussion with a partner about an assignment. “He’s able to do it in this environment. … They don’t feel embarrassed about failing or making mistakes,” she said.

Lopez and most of her colleagues also looped with students this year, meaning that they moved up with their previous year’s students to the next grade. She moved from grades 3 to 4. Looping was a schoolwide strategy, said Barrios, designed to help teachers hit the ground running from day one.

Being with students who already know her, and knowing their strengths and weaknesses, leads to a completely different environment, Lopez said: “You don’t spend the first weeks just reinforcing management in the classroom. You just go on target with what you want to teach.”

How can schools foster teacher buy-in?

These learning acceleration initiatives are supposed to help students keep moving forward after the disruptions to instruction during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. But COVID has affected the 2021-22 school year, too. And even as districts have started to implement their plans, they’re feeling the effects of that continued disruption.

In January, at the height of the omicron pandemic surge, cases and staff absences closed one school after another in Dallas. “It was sort of like whack-a-mole,” Cordova said.

“It’s been really challenging to get into a normal routine. We’re hopeful now that the routine will kind of settle down,” she added.

Other districts also struggle with staffing. “We have quite a few more emergency certification teachers [this year], which requires a doubling down on professional development,” said Ebony Johnson, the chief learning officer in the Tulsa district. (In Oklahoma, individuals aren’t required to have a teaching degree to become emergency certified.)

And Kane, Tulsa’s early-childhood director, added that having fewer experienced teachers means it’s harder to find leaders who can run the 90-minute collaborative planning times that Tulsa started this year as part of its acceleration work.

Then, there’s teacher buy-in.

In the Saugus district, the five instructional coaches are all-in with the new process of assessing, analyzing data, and planning for targeted instruction, said Jessica Manuel, the English-language arts coach for grades 6-12.

It’s required them to learn new skills and work in new ways, but they’re already seeing “pockets of progress,” Manuel said.

Some teachers have been more wary.

“I’m not going to lie, when this first rolled out ... there were hysterics. There were tears,” said Kristin Barclay, the elementary ELA coach. Teachers hadn’t worked with coaches before, and they hadn’t analyzed as many interim assessments on a regular basis. Now, they had to learn how to do those things during an already stressful year.

“This year is very scripted, very new, very challenging. And not everyone is on board yet,” Barclay said. “But I think the hope is that what we’re doing starts to be ingrained, second nature.”

The goal, Barclay and Manuel said, is to build a culture of more reflective practice. Instead of adjusting instruction based on data every six weeks, teachers might make day-by-day tweaks, informed by student work. That’s already started, said Wheeler, the grades 6-12 math coach. “Now more than ever, teachers are actually taking time out of their day and looking and reflecting and communicating with coaches and having those discussions,” she said.

Newman, from TNTP, said that this kind of informal assessment can drive learning acceleration. That might look like a teacher gauging students’ skills with a few problems before moving on to a new concept in math, or asking students what they know and want to know about a new topic in English/language arts, social studies, or science. “Learning acceleration does not necessarily require a whole interim assessment system with scantrons,” Newman said.

McMahon, the Saugus superintendent, knows that this kind of cultural change is a long process. It means that this district might not “catch up” every student this year. McMahon doesn’t expect it to happen.

“We’re not running to a finish line right now,” she said. “We want to use this as an opportunity to build a sense of collegiality and practice and make this low stakes.”

That message from the top—that the acceleration initiative is a work in progress—is comforting, said Manuel. It’s given coaches and teachers the time and space to understand why acceleration is important, and to build the foundations that will allow them to keep prioritizing it in the years to come.

“The hope that I have is that systems are not getting so focused in on, ‘This is our process; this is our structure,’ and they’re really helping teachers get above the surface and figure out the principles—the ‘why’ behind learning acceleration, and the science,” said Newman. “So [teachers] can feel that it’s less about having their files turned in, but more about getting the best outcomes for students.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Schools Want to ‘Accelerate’ Student Learning. Here’s What That Means


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