Some Students Are Routinely Denied Challenging Work. The Pandemic Made That Worse

By Sarah Schwartz — August 16, 2022 4 min read
Rear view of elementary age students seated at their desks facing mid 40s Black teacher standing at chalkboard with focus on foreground boys.
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Ever since data about the pandemic’s effect on student learning began to emerge, prominent education groups have pushed for schools to “accelerate” learning as a recovery strategy. The idea is to give students the extra support while completing grade-level work, rather than turning to remediation, which focuses on teaching missed content.

But new research adds to the growing body of evidence that schools are struggling to use this approach—a state of affairs that the study’s authors warn could widen academic gaps between groups of students.

This study—a joint project from TNTP and ReadWorks, a free digital repository of texts and question sets for English/language arts classes—examined what kind of assignments teachers gave through the ReadWorks platform. They examined patterns in 75,000 public and private schools serving more than 12 million students across the country.

Even before the pandemic, the data show, teachers assigned students a good deal of work that addressed below-grade-level standards—about a quarter of all assignments through the ReadWorks platform. But that percentage jumped during the 2020-21 school year, when many students were learning remotely or in hybrid settings. And in schools where a majority of students were from low-income families, that percentage was even higher.

One explanation for these changes could be that students needed the review. Because of spring 2020 school shutdowns, or spotty access to instruction during the 2020-21 year, students might not have been ready for the challenge of grade-level work.

But data from the ReadWorks question sets suggests that wasn’t the case. Students only struggled slightly more on grade-level work than on below grade-level work, answering slightly fewer questions correctly on linked assignments.

And in high-poverty schools, even if students excelled, they didn’t always get the opportunity to take on more challenging work and demonstrate their skills. A high-achieving student in a school where the majority of kids were from low-income families was less likely to receive grade-level work than a low-achieving student at a more affluent school.

“To me, that is a really damning finding of what we expect of kids and what they’re capable of,” said Bailey Cato Czupryk, TNTP’s vice president for practices, diagnostics, and impact.

Shifting schools’ approach will take time, structural support

The ReadWorks data only provides one snapshot of what teachers are doing in their classrooms, making it harder to interpret these patterns.

The platform is designed to be used as a supplemental resource, so teachers are probably assigning other texts and work as well, which may be at a higher level.

But the frequency with which teachers are giving students below grade-level work through the platform suggests that it’s a core component of instruction, said Susanne Nobles, the chief academic officer at ReadWorks.

“If it’s a constant practice to only provide below-grade-level text to access grade-level content, that’s not a scaffold,” she said.

The fact that teachers tend to give students from low-income backgrounds and students of color less challenging, below-grade level work has been documented again and again in studies that long predate the pandemic.

“We’ve seen a version of that finding every time we’ve looked at this,” said Cato Czupryk. The result, TNTP argued in its 2018 “Opportunity Myth” report, is that schools are actually compounding the academic gaps between students from high- and low-income backgrounds. Kids aren’t given the chance to show that they can do well on rigorous assignments.

Given that other educational inequities deepened during the pandemic, it’s not especially surprising that this one—access to grade-level work—did too, Cato Czupryk said. But it’s counter to the recommendations that many education groups, including TNTP, have given for the past few years.

Instead, these groups, along with some state departments of education, have pushed the idea of “acceleration” as a way to mitigate the effects of pandemic-related learning disruptions. In this model, teachers give students grade-level work—even if they have gaps in knowledge or skills from previous grades. Then, teachers weave in targeted support that can address those gaps as they’re continuing to move students forward. (Read more about the acceleration approach here.)

But the method was unfamiliar before the pandemic. And telling schools to make this shift while they were also dealing with the firehose of logistics, political debates, and ethical questions that COVID brought was a big ask.

A few school systems prioritized acceleration during the 2021-22 school year. But other data show that it’s still much less popular than remediation. Federal data released earlier this month showed that 72 percent of schools said they were employing remedial instruction to support pandemic recovery, compared to just 39 percent that said they were using accelerated instruction.

Making the shift requires structural support, from states setting acceleration as a priority to districts creating systems that can support teachers in this work, said Cato Czupyrk. But it also requires a philosophical shift.

“We’ve legitimately taught [teachers] in their educator preparation programs, in their professional learning, ‘You’ve got to meet kids where they are,’” she said.

In practice, acceleration requires more regular analysis of and reflection on student work, Kristin Barclay, an elementary ELA coach in Massachusetts’ Saugus public schools, told Education Week earlier this year. Saugus started developing and implementing a districtwide acceleration plan last school year.

Last spring, Barclay said that the approach was challenging for teachers to learn during an already stressful year. “But I think the hope is that what we’re doing starts to be ingrained, second nature,” she said.


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