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Classroom Technology

Accelerating Learning: Tech Advice to Make It Happen

By Alyson Klein — July 20, 2021 7 min read
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Schools around the country have a big task ahead of them: Making sure that students are ready to dive into the next grade, after a school year in which instruction for many kids was spotty, at best.

For a lot of schools, that means embracing “acceleration” or ensuring students can access content for the grade they are in, even if they haven’t mastered every concept in the previous grade. Figuring out what material to hit, for how long, is a tricky pedagogical tightrope, and one that technology companies are eager to help educators navigate.

But it can be a big challenge to find software that truly addresses acceleration—reviewing information from a previous grade only to the extent necessary to support learning new, grade-level subject matter—as opposed to remediation, which typically means relearning content from a previous grade in greater depth.

That’s because a lot of education technology isn’t designed for acceleration, said Bailey Cato Czupryk, a vice-president at TNTP, an organization focused on teacher quality.

“I think a lot of systems provide for remediation-based programs that stick kids on content that is well below their grade level and keeps them there for a really long-time. On purpose. By design,” she said. “That will not accelerate learning.”

To make matters worse, it is often Black and Latino students and kids from low-income families who get stuck with these remediation programs that do not allow them to advance academically, she said.

One problem for districts trying to purchase software that will truly help students accelerate: Amid fears of learning loss during the pandemic, “acceleration” is rapidly becoming a hot buzzword that companies are using to reposition their products and services even if they are not necessarily effective for accelerating learning.

“Remember when the common core came out, a lot of publishers were like, there’s a sticker on top of our same old textbook, [saying ‘it is aligned to the new standards], we promise, please buy it?’,” Czupryk said. “Acceleration has the potential to become the ‘sticker’ [word] of 2021 through 2025, even though in reality the program [advertised] is no different than it was in 2019 or 2020.”

One way to grasp the difference between acceleration and remediation: Think of the “previously on” segments that play before new episodes of your favorite television drama. Those quick catch-ups help you understand enough about the characters and plot of the show to be able to follow the upcoming episode. But a viewer wouldn’t get nearly as much of the backstory as they would if they, say, binge-watched the past few seasons.

Worry if [their answer is] like, ‘You don’t need a teacher! Just put them on a computer’... [That translates to] 'Alright you’re behind a grade level so we’re just putting you on this computer so you can get this credit.’ I don’t think that approach is what we’re necessarily after.

In a similar way, acceleration gives students the background information they’ll need to access a particular grade-level concept, as opposed to trying to catch them up on all of the information they may have missed the previous year. That way, students will stay on grade level, reviewing only the concepts that are most important to learning what comes next.

To help ensure students stay on track, states and districts received about $122 billion in federal relief funds, at least 90 percent of which will go directly to districts. About a fifth of that money is supposed to be directed toward “learning recovery” programs. That means there will be plenty of resources for acceleration, but districts need to be choosy about how they spend the money, Czupryk said.

So how can districts make sure that what they are getting are programs that embrace true acceleration? One tip from Czupryk: Don’t ask vendors directly if the program offers acceleration. (They will likely say it does, even if that’s not accurate, she said.) Instead, educators should find out what happens in a particular platform when a child demonstrates that they are working below grade level.

If the vendor says something like, “we fill in every single hole,” their program likely provides remediation, not acceleration, she said.

But if the answer is more like, “we prioritize the content that a kid would need to know to [understand] particular concepts or particular skills, and we spend time on that,” the program is more likely to include acceleration, Czupryk said.

Another tip: Ask education companies what percentage of time a particular program spends on grade-level content. If it’s not much, there probably isn’t a ton of acceleration going on, Czupryk said.

Asking vendors the right questions will help ensure programs have capability to accelerate learning.

Embracing intensive tutoring

The Tennessee Department of Education has a multi-pronged approach to accelerating learning in which technology will play a key role. The Volunteer State is going big on intensive tutoring, offering every high schooler a live tutor for both math and writing. Kids in kindergarten through 8th grade will work with tutoring software, geared toward acceleration.

The state hasn’t yet selected tutoring software for elementary and middle school kids. But Tennessee has a long wish list. The program or programs must be able to tailor an approach to individual student needs. “We are not looking for something that is generic or one-size-fits-all,” said Penny Schwinn, the state’s education commissioner.

The programs must also offer interim checkpoints or assessments, be engaging for students, and provide reports for teachers and parents. Students must be able to access them at home, on demand.

Plus, they must be directly connected to the materials students are using with their teacher. “We’ve found that acceleration doesn’t happen” if there’s a mismatch between a program and what students are actually dealing with in the classroom, Schwinn said.

Tennessee is also facilitating groups of districts—sometimes as many as 100—to collaborate on instructional problems, including how to accelerate learning in specific subjects, like early literacy. The districts are even filming lessons to share with others in the state, complete with explanations of why the lessons are structured the way they are. Those lessons will also be broadcast on local PBS affiliates so that students (and parents) can access them from home.

“We know the whole country is going to see some declines in performance this year because of the disruptions,” Schwinn said. “But I think our goal is to say that, by the end of this recovery period, we will be better off. And I do deeply believe that.”

Tennessee isn’t the only state looking to use tech to accelerate learning. Nebraska has offered all its 200-plus districts the chance to use Zearn, an online math program geared toward acceleration that gets high marks from TNTP. Nearly half opted in, said Cory Epler, the state’s chief academic officer.

Zeroing in on essential content

Some districts—including Omaha Public Schools, the state’s largest—are using Zearn as their main instructional tool in summer school. On the other end of the spectrum, though, some districts are just distributing information about the program, along with a login, to parents who may want their children to get some extra math practice before school starts again.

When selecting a program for acceleration—rather than remediation—it makes sense to ask the ed-tech provider how “essential content” (the most important concepts students need to know) is determined, Epler said.

Districts should also find out what the teacher’s role is in implementing a particular program, he said. “Worry if [their answer is] like, ‘You don’t need a teacher! Just put them on a computer,’” Epler said. He thinks that translates to, “‘Alright you’re behind a grade level so we’re just putting you on this computer so you can get this credit.’ I don’t think that approach is what we’re necessarily after.”

Other good features to look for: a uniform and comprehensive screening tool to gauge students’ skill levels. That provides, “a coherent, systemwide approach to assessing students’ immediate needs,” said Todd Davis, the chief academic officer for the Aldine school district, which serves portions of Houston and the surrounding Harris County.

Davis also recommends making sure the program’s strategy for moving students forward academically reflects the district’s curriculum.

Even if school districts pick a great program, no technology is going to give a student all of the acceleration help they’ll need.

“There’s something around creating a sense of belonging within a classroom culture,” Czupryk said. “I think the best tech platforms can contribute to that, but I think there is a need for some human interaction in ways that tech platforms do not offer.”

The upside: If districts select high-quality programs and train teachers to use them, they could have a system for quickly ramping up a student’s background knowledge that could remain in place when the pandemic is just a distant memory.

Acceleration “really does get at this idea of being most efficient with the time we have with our students,” Epler said, adding, “I think this notion of acceleration is important because I don’t know that remediation is working, to be honest with you.”

That’s especially true for “some students who are underserved. Most of them don’t get grade level content to begin with,” he said. “We’re having this conversation because of COVID, but it’s something that has always existed.”

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