Due to school closures and lost instructional time, the vast majority of students are entering the 2020–2021 school year behind grade level. Many schools will aim to design a learning progression that remediates instruction, meets students where they are, and picks up the curriculum where students left off. This approach will, at best, keep students from falling behind further but will not accelerate instruction. Research shows that these approaches to remediate instruction are largely ineffective to help students “catch up.”
Remediation as the primary way to support students performing below grade level is especially concerning for students with disabilities. It can result in lowered expectations for these students and relegate them to lower “tracks” than their nondisabled peers. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released guidance to clarify that, as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA) requirement to provide each child with a free appropriate public education, IEPs should be written in ways that create a pathway and roadmap for students to strive for and meet grade-level standards.
Promising approaches to accelerating learning share common characteristics. These models do the following:
Streamline curriculum while focusing on grade-level standards. Research shows that, in lieu of remediation, effective acceleration programs streamline content, reducing redundancies in curriculum in order to focus on rigorous, grade-level content while familiarizing students with prerequisite skills at critical junctures. This careful focus allows students to make up for lost instruction while keeping up with grade-level instruction.
Allow for additional time to integrate necessary prerequisite skills. While streamlining curriculum is important, students may still require more time to acquire prerequisite skills or engage with and master new content. Allowing for additional time at the school or district level necessitates collaborative conversations about schedules that include representation from special educators, service providers, language or reading specialists, electives teachers, and families. Allowing for additional time at the classroom level should be determined in a collaboration between general and special educators.
Customize instruction based on strengths and areas of growth for each student. Effective approaches to accelerating learning demand that curricula be tailored to deliberately and intentionally meet individual learners’ specific needs over a prescribed period. Rather than approaching instruction from a deficit model, efforts should focus on student strengths, simultaneously providing compensatory strategies and additional instruction to address gaps in learning and needed areas of growth. Special educators should be an integral part of this process as they have nuanced understanding of student strengths and progress with specific skills. Effective models also ensure that needed accommodations are provided.
Leverage student interests that lead to deep, engaging learning. When content is aligned to student interests, the result is an increase in engagement and learning outcomes. Culturally responsive education that recognizes and affirms students’ cultural and racial identity also leads to better academic outcomes.
Use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), multiple modalities, and small group instruction. UDL and multiple modalities for instruction can support accelerated approaches. Teachers should use UDL to design flexible learning environments that anticipate learner variability and provide alternative pathways into the curriculum. Teachers should also adapt approaches to accelerated learning to reflect the strengths and areas of growth for each student. Small teacher-to-student ratios and small group instruction can also build ownership of learning for students and reinforce social ties that improve learning and behavioral outcomes., Furthermore, small group tutoring has been shown to be one of the most effective strategies to improve student outcomes.
Some districts and programs already have approaches that embody these key components for successful acceleration. The following examples incorporate many of the evidence-based practices that can lead to acceleration of learning. It is important to note that while these approaches show promise, not all students with disabilities would be served well in them. Decision makers should recognize the need for balancing student-responsive instruction with accelerated models.
Power Standards: Educators focus on delivering a subset of standards or prioritized grade-specific indicators that any state or district determines are critical for student success.
Power Standards: Milwaukee Public Schools
As part of Milwaukee Public School System’s reopening plan, the district articulated instructional expectations for teachers, students, and families. The district designated “power standards” — the most important grade-level goals — as priorities for the first six weeks of school, and provided sample lessons for educators to use when teaching those standards. In other words, the district expected teachers to condense and focus on critical grade-level content with time carved out to address prerequisite skills. This type of district- or state-level guidance is helpful as it paves the way for the redesign of curriculum and instruction to accelerate learning. Organizations such as Achieve the Core have created guidelines on the best ways for districts and schools to maintain high expectations for mastery of grade-level content during and after COVID-19, despite instructional loss.
This approach has been shown effective in increasing course completion. For example, course completion rates increased by 2.3 times for required English classes and by 4.5 times for classes in statistics.
Competency-Based Education: Competency-based learning is “an educational system in which each student gets what they need to reach their fullest potential and master high standards through flexible pathways, differentiated support, individual and collective tasks, and multiple means and opportunities to demonstrate skill development. Students have individual agency as well as collaborate in co-constructing pathways and measures of learning. Standards, competencies, and measures of mastery incorporate community input and voice to ensure pathways reflect Universal Design for Learning and are culturally responsive, nonbiased, and anti-racist.”
Competency-Based Education: Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis
Established in 2017, Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS) is a collaboration among Purdue University, the City of Indianapolis, and industry partners who seek to prepare students for rigorous postsecondary coursework in STEM fields.
PPHS has three high school campuses serving a total of over 700 students in grades 9–12. Fifty-five percent of PPHS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 15 percent receive special education services. The student population is racially and ethnically diverse — 34 percent Black, 22 percent Hispanic/Latinx, 36 percent White/Caucasian, and 6.1 percent Multiracial. PPHS takes a competency-based education approach, providing students credit for demonstrated learning mastery as opposed to time spent in school. Every student has a personalized learning coach and is assigned to an advisory group of 15 to 17 students. Students work with their coaches and with peers, setting goals, reviewing progress, discussing current events, and creating plans and schedules for the coming week. Students work on “challenges,” which are projects with industry partners that could include, for example, creating product prototypes or drafting business plans. Each challenge lasts for six weeks, after which a new “project cycle” begins. A key feature of this approach is “personalized learning time,” during which students progress through required course content (e.g., U.S. history) at their own pace. Coaches are available to assist students either individually or in small groups if they have questions or are struggling with academics or their industry-supported STEM projects.
Evidence suggests that this approach holds promise. During the school’s second year (SY 2018–2019), PPHS students passed the PSAT 8/9 (an assessment given to students in grades 8 and 9 to gauge college and career readiness) at a rate similar to the national average and five percentage points above the state average. In addition, PPHS students outperformed all but one local township/school district on the 2018–2019 state assessments.
Tailored Acceleration: In this model, educators regularly conduct short, formative assessments and develop individualized learning progressions for each student. Students engage in flexible groupings and in different modalities — independent practice, small group teacher instruction, computer instruction, small group practice — based on their mastery of various skills.
Tailored Acceleration: Teach to One 360
Teach to One 360 is a holistic math instructional model that leverages analytics from historical learner patterns and individual learner attributes to create a custom math curriculum. Learning is tailored to meet the strengths and needs of each student. Teach to One’s adaptive technology develops individualized learning progressions that are updated regularly as teachers conduct short, formative assessments. Students engage in flexible groupings and in different teacher-led, student collaboration, and independent modalities based on their mastery of various math skills. Students get more time to develop prerequisite skills while still being exposed to grade-level content.
Various schools have adapted the Teach to One approach to address restrictions related to COVID, and have demonstrated how to implement the model in blended or distance learning environments.
Small Group, High-Impact Tutoring: Schoolwide, one-on-one tutoring or tutoring in very small groups takes place at least three times a week, or for about 50 hours over a semester with the same group of students.
The daily tutoring sessions count as a credit-bearing elective course toward high school graduation for the students who are being tutored. Importantly, tutoring sessions do not replace participation in full-class grade-level instruction with teachers who have content expertise. Instead, the tutoring sessions provide a double dose of instruction to support and accelerate learning.
The impact of this approach has been shown to be positive. Students who received SAGA tutoring achieved 2.5 years of growth in math in one year. Among participating students, there was a 50 percent decrease in math course failures. The impact also spilled over into content areas outside of those targeted by tutoring, with a 28 percent decrease in non-math course failures.