A new study, co-sponsored by a curriculum company, suggests a promising strategy for addressing unfinished learning in math after a pandemic year—but finds that Black and Latino students and those in high-poverty schools may have less access to the approach.
As schools gear up for the summer and fall, one of the top priorities is meeting children’s academic needs after months of disrupted instruction. Several studies of interim assessments have shown that students’ progress in math, especially, has been interrupted during the pandemic.
A common approach to teaching content that students may have missed is remediation: Going back to cover skills and concepts that students haven’t mastered from the previous grade.
But another option is what’s called acceleration—moving forward with grade-level content and only addressing prerequisite skills and concepts from the previous grade as necessary, when they’re needed to work with grade-level content. It’s been recommended by a host of instructional organizations and implemented with success in several school districts in during the pandemic.
The idea is to get students back on track, but also avoid the current situation in which Black and Latino students are disproportionately put on remedial tracks, which can block their access to higher-level coursework.
One of the organizations that has touted this strategy this past year is TNTP, a group focused on teacher quality. In this new study, TNTP partnered with digital math program Zearn to compare the two approaches—acceleration and remediation.
They found that students whose teachers chose to accelerate got through more grade-level content this school year, and that students struggled less, as measured by repeated attempts on the same problem.
The study examined the performance of more than 50,000 3rd-5th graders who used Zearn, a digital math program. All of these students had missed at least one section of math content during the school shutdowns in spring of 2020.
Before the start of this school year, Zearn released guidance for how to tailor acceleration with its resources—what lessons to pull in from the past grade level that would specifically support the work students were doing at their current grade level.
The study compares two groups of students: Those whose teachers decided to follow Zearn’s acceleration guidance, and those who chose to go back to cover the full units that students missed in the spring of 2020.
This wasn’t a randomized control trial: Teachers chose what approach to use, rather than being randomly assigned to one. So even though both groups of students were similar before the shutdowns, it’s possible that there were unknown factors that make the teachers or the schools that chose acceleration different than those that chose remediation.
And the TNTP-Zearn study only looks at two measures: time spent on grade-level content, and repeated wrong answers on individual questions. It’s possible that broader data on other measures of student mastery could show different results.
Still, the results are some of the first “empirical evidence at a massive scale” that acceleration produces different, and more promising, results than remediation, said Shalinee Sharma, Zearn’s CEO.
What does acceleration actually mean in this context?
How do these two approaches actually look different in practice? The study offers an example.
Imagine two 3rd grade classrooms. The students in both have missed chunks of 2nd grade math during the 2020-21 school year. Now, they’re confronted with a 3rd grade division problem: “Ms. Alves puts 21 papers in 7 piles. How many papers are in each pile?”
In one classroom, the teacher doesn’t tackle the division problem, and instead goes back to reteach the 2nd grade units that students missed. In this case, that might be adding and subtracting two-digit numbers within 100—a crucial foundational skill, the TNTP report argues, but not one that is directly relevant to the 3rd grade division problem. That’s the remediation approach.
In another classroom, the teacher doesn’t cover everything that students missed in 2nd grade—instead, she picks out a few concepts that will prepare them specifically for the division problem before introducing the problem to them. She teaches about equal groups and arrays, which can act as a conceptual “bridge” between 2nd grade work and division, the report claims. That’s the acceleration approach.
When students have big gaps in understanding, moving them ahead can feel “counterintuitive,” said Bailey Cato Czupryk, vice president for practices, diagnostics, and impact at TNTP. It’s also counter to how many teachers are trained.
But acceleration doesn’t mean ignoring these gaps, said Sharma. The difference is more nuanced. “In acceleration, you do teach previous grade level content. You’re just teaching it in the context of what they’re learning now,” she said.
Cato Czupryk said there is one big exception to this rule: foundational reading skills. “We have pretty good evidence that if a 2nd grader decodes like a kindergartner, they need some intensive support,” she said.
Acceleration as an equity issue
In classes where teachers chose to accelerate, TNTP and Zearn found, students covered more grade-level content. They made it through 27 percent more on-grade-level lessons than their counterparts in classrooms where teachers remediated. This, in and of itself, isn’t surprising—there are only so many hours in the school day. If a 4th grade teacher is spending a lot of time on 3rd grade concepts, she’ll necessarily have less time for 4th grade concepts.
But not only did accelerated students spend more time with grade level content, they also struggled less with that content than their peers in remediation.
Zearn collects data on which problems students continue to get incorrect after multiple tries, and classrooms in the acceleration group had half as many of these struggle problems as students in the remediation group. The difference was even larger in schools that served majority students of color or students in high-poverty schools.
Even so, these subgroups of students were more likely to be placed in remediation—even when they were at the same academic level as their white peers.
Heading into the fall, it’s important for school and district leaders to know which approach teachers are using, and how that maps to classroom demographics, said Cato Czupryk. Ensuring that all students have access to grade-level content is an equity issue, she said.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2021 edition of Education Week as What’s the Best Way to Address Unfinished Learning? It’s Not Remediation, Study Says