Implementing any of these approaches to accelerated learning can be complicated, and fidelity of implementation is critical to success. Regardless of the approach, states, districts, and educators should build an inclusive learning environment, provide meaningful support to educators, and create systems to facilitate family engagement.
Inclusive Learning Environment
No matter the instructional model or curriculum, an inclusive learning environment helps all students thrive. This is increasingly challenging, given that health and safety concerns mean that schools are likely to shift between virtual, blended, and in-person instruction throughout the 2020–2021 school year.
Inclusion is especially important for students with disabilities. The majority of students with disabilities spend most of their school day in general education classrooms, alongside students without disabilities. This trend reflects the mandate in IDEA requiring that students be educated in the least restrictive environment (which more often than not means a general education setting) to the greatest extent possible. The following elements are key to building an environment that is inclusive of, and accessible to, students with disabilities and other learners:
Embracing Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a framework to improve teaching and learning for all based on how individuals learn best. It requires creating multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement to set up all students for success. As changes to learning environments are made in response to the pandemic, most school districts will rely heavily on technology. Schools will need to acquire and use assistive technologies that offer features such as text-to-speech and speech-to-text. They will need to use instructional platforms that offer scaffolding for assignments. These features can be lifelines to learning for students with disabilities, ELLs, and other struggling students.
Designing instruction for students on the margins is beneficial for all students, but it is particularly important for students with disabilities. Embedding flexibility and multiple means for educators to share content and for students to demonstrate their knowledge will help students with disabilities access the general education curriculum alongside their peers.
Implementing Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS). MTSS is a data-based problem-solving approach to delivering core instruction, in which teachers monitor student behavior and performance and change the course or intensity of interventions to accelerate learning or provide targeted instruction to address gaps in learning. Ongoing progress monitoring helps educators identify students who need individualized services and supports, guiding decisions about the allocation of time and resources. Progress monitoring can also ensure that students who fail to keep pace with an accelerated curriculum are quickly identified so they can receive additional interventions based on their real-time needs. Student data gathered during the course of MTSS can also be helpful to guide decision making during a special education evaluation process.
Prioritize student development and growth of executive function skills. Executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control. Many students, but especially those with attention-related disabilities, struggle with obtaining and mastering these skills. This can result in challenges with starting, completing, or prioritizing tasks. While strength-based approaches that allow students to advance at their own pace can accelerate learning, these models must embed supports to build executive skills. Until students are able to manage a self-paced structure, educators should provide additional scaffolds and guidance to ensure that all students progress meaningfully.
Intensive Educator Supports
Accelerating instruction is challenging and — for most educators — new. Teachers and specialized instructional support personnel will need targeted support to help them identify student needs and implement strategies to accelerate learning. And, when necessary, educators will need support in adapting to new and changing learning environments.
It is important to recognize that educators and schools are already bearing a heavy burden. Policymakers must first address many other factors that impact teachers’ capacity, including teacher shortages, class size, instructional leadership, educator health and well-being, and school funding. Once these basic needs of schools and educators are met, equipping educators with the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to implement instructional approaches to accelerate learning includes the following:
Invest in extensive professional development and ongoing coaching and support. This might include adding capacity in the form of expert educators and leaders who can serve as mentors or coaches. Coaches should help implement systems of supports for educators, equipping them to address students’ unfinished learning; to develop and instruct students based on personalized, rigorous learning progressions that blend grade-level instruction with prerequisite skills; and to shape learning environments that feature multiple modalities in virtual, blended, and in-person contexts.
A recent pre-COVID-19 report by NCLD found that many general educators do not feel well-prepared to teach students with disabilities. It is more than likely that educators are experiencing even greater challenges now that they are required to teach in virtual and hybrid instructional environments. Given that the majority of students have missed extended periods of valuable instructional time and have experienced instructional loss, most educators are faced with unprecedented challenges. In addition, professional development is needed to ensure that educators are prepared to provide accommodations and support to students with disabilities and other historically marginalized student groups, including ELLs.
Leverage the expertise of educators to maximize the impact of instructional models. States should provide guidance to districts about the development of innovative staffing plans that match educators to student groups and delegate responsibilities based on their expertise. Educators who have previous experience with accelerated programming and those who have demonstrated expertise with high-need student populations should be assigned to work closely with the students who are furthest behind. Special educators can help their colleagues identify and implement accommodations and interventions that will improve learning for all students. However, school systems should embrace an inclusive environment that recognizes the collective responsibility of educating students. This environment should provide the structures, time, and skills for effective collaboration between special and general educators. Educators who need ongoing support should be provided regular coaching and feedback so they are able to implement an accelerated program of instruction that maps onto the general curriculum.
Families are essential partners in supporting students and improving outcomes. They are also advocates and key decision makers for their children. Just as acceleration is new for teachers, revised curricula and restructured instructional models will be unfamiliar to families. To help students and support learning at home, families should be engaged to inform the development and design of acceleration programs.
Given the likelihood that instruction will be virtual or blended for the majority of the 2020–2021 school year, it is critical to equip families and caregivers with information and knowledge to maximize the effectiveness of their participation. Families should be informed about how schools are adapting curriculum and instructional strategies to accelerate learning while ensuring the health and safety of all children and school personnel. Meaningful family engagement includes:
Establishing flexible and regular communication with families. Regardless of the curriculum or instructional approach, students perform better when families are engaged with the school and their learning. While clear lines of communication — in their native language and in an accessible way — are always important, regular communication during COVID-19 school disruptions are especially critical to help families manage uncertainty and support children navigate changing instructional environments. The onus should not be solely on teachers; there should be a coordinated schoolwide effort led by school leaders to set the precedent for frequent and effective communication.
A recent report found that families use a wide range of communication systems to connect with schools and teachers. Generally, families prefer personalized outreach, like emails or calls, but some value social media (that bypasses the need to learn a new system or remember passwords) or web-based platforms made available by the school. It’s critical that school leaders provide communications in a variety of formats to best meet the needs of all families.
Describing how and why schools are adapting curriculum and designing learning plans. More than ever, parents and caregivers are supporting students’ daily instruction. They need clear and concise information about the school’s expectations so they can allocate the time and attention required to help children reach their learning goals. Parents of students with disabilities need specific information about how redesigned curricula and individualized learning plans will ensure that instruction is accessible to their child.
- Promising Practices to Accelerate Learning for Students with Disabilities During COVID-19 and Beyond - Introduction
- Part 1: Research-Based Approaches to Accelerate Learning
- Part 2: Implementing Acceleration Approaches With Success
- Part 3: State-Level Policy Recommendations and Actions
- Part 4: Federal-Level Policy Recommendations and Actions
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