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The K-12 guide to learning acceleration


Learn what learning acceleration is, how schools are currently implementing it, and how K-12 school leaders can support it effectively.

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What is learning acceleration? How can school leaders support it effectively?

Educators are looking for effective, scalable and evidence-based strategies to provide academic help to an unprecedented number of struggling students, especially in the wake of COVID-19. Because of the limited efficacy of many traditional remediation strategies, they are increasingly embracing learning acceleration to target unfinished learning.

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What is learning acceleration?

Learning acceleration is a practice of providing scaffolding and other support to fill critical learning gaps, so that students can successfully remain on their intended grade-level trajectories. 

Despite its name, it is not about speeding students through lesson plans. Rather, it is about accelerating the responsiveness of schools to student needs—and keeping them as engaged as possible with their regular curriculum. 

While the idea of remediation has been around for a long time, accelerated learning is a relatively new concept. While it can take many forms, practitioners generally agree on the following set of core concepts of learning acceleration: 

  • Maintain grade-level trajectories. Students do best when they remain on grade level. While retention—students repeating a grade—provides some short-term gains, it can lead to long-term negative consequences, particularly for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, as studies have shown. 
  • Diagnose needs rapidly. To keep students as engaged as possible, it is important to address gaps in critical skills and concepts as early as you can—sometimes referred to as just-in-time scaffolding
  • Build on previous knowledge. Acceleration works best when scaffolding explicitly builds on what students already know. “When students tie background knowledge to new information, they are better at making inferences and retaining the new information more effectively,” claims a U.S. Department of Education report
  • Provide individualized attention. Interventions are more successful when students can ask questions and engage in “ongoing two-way communication,” according to the Education Department.

Learning acceleration versus remediation

As EducationWeek recently reported, remediation involves teaching “skills and concepts that students haven’t mastered from the previous grade.” In general, schools only provide remediation after students have failed to meet some critical objective.

By contrast, learning acceleration provides help in acquiring “prerequisite skills and concepts from the previous grade as necessary, when they’re needed to work with grade-level content.” Learning acceleration addresses gaps as they arise, rather than waiting months or even years after students were “supposed” to have mastered them. 

Obviously, some traditional remediation strategies have certain efficiencies. For example, rather than having to respond to individual student needs in the moment, summer school allows schools to provide a single solution—i.e., reteaching an entire subject—for multiple students. On the other hand, these efficiencies come with a number of serious drawbacks: 

  • Wasted time and effort. Remedial programs often end up spending critical time on concepts that students have, in fact, already mastered. 
  • Diminishing returns. The effectiveness of remediation tactics tend to be meager, especially after the early grades. 
  • Risk of disengagement. Tracking and other forms of remediation can “narrow educational opportunities for students and might lead them to become disengaged,” according to the US Department of Education

Learning acceleration recognizes these limitations and addresses them head on. Rather than reteaching entire blocks of content, learning acceleration concentrates only on those that are relevant to the student’s current context. This not only saves time, but also directly helps keep students engaged in the regular classroom. Not surprisingly, the TNTP recently sponsored a study that found that learning acceleration had significant advantages over remediation. 

“Students who experienced learning acceleration struggled less and learned more than students who started at the same level but experienced remediation instead,” the TNTP writes. “Learning acceleration was particularly effective for students of color and those from low-income families.”

Why is learning acceleration important?

Increasing equity is a top priority of educators, and evidence indicates that learning acceleration can advance outcomes for all students—traditional remediation can actually hinder that. 

“If districts focus too much on remediating ‘learning loss’—holding kids back a grade, categorizing students according to their deficits, and centering lesson plans on catch-up work—the students who have experienced the most trauma and disconnection during the pandemic may be assigned to the lowest level and most stigmatized groups,” argues leading educator Ron Berger in the Atlantic

Berger’s argument is backed up by TNTP research conducted before the pandemic, which found that remediation “can actually hurt students and exacerbate racial inequalities.” And yet, students of color and those from low-income families were more likely to experience remediation than wealthier white peers, even after demonstrating success on grade-level content, the TNTP found. 

By contrast, learning acceleration can actively advance equity. In a study encompassing more than two million students conducted in partnership with Zearn, TNTP found that learning acceleration was “particularly effective for students of color and those from low-income families.”

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Being at the forefront of education involves more than ensuring students get top marks, learn in state-of-the-art facilities, or achieve their college or career dreams.

Read examples from the education field along with additional data, research, and strategy advice for those working to create a brighter future in K-12.

Best practices for learning acceleration

Learning acceleration can take many forms, and each district must evaluate what combination will work best, given their unique staff, unique student body, and the additional resources they can draw on. However, research shows a set of best practices can help ensure success, whatever modality your district adopts:

1. Engage families, and make services free. 

As recent studies have shown, families play an important role in student learning. To make learning acceleration as effective as possible, consider creative ways to engage families, from identifying meaningful tasks for parents and caregivers to increased cultural relevance for individual families and communities.

[READ: Chicago’s Franklin Park District Extends 24/7 Tutoring to 3rd Through 8th Graders]

To foster inclusivity, the Education Department also encourages schools to provide learning acceleration programs free of charge, to provide free transportation and meals where relevant, and to encourage participation among students with disabilities, English learners, and other underserved students. 

2. Invest in flexible resources that increase access to learning.

Rather than limiting learning acceleration to rigid activities provided at a fixed place and time, the Education Department encourages schools to design programs with as much flexibility as possible. For example, summer programs can take a modular approach, allowing students to participate on either a half-day or full-day basis. 

For maximum flexibility, districts should consider the 24/7, on-demand model. By making tutors available online around the clock, students can get the help they need, even when time and transportation options are limited. For example, many kids can’t participate in after-school programs because it means missing the bus home—the only form of transportation available to them. And many students have adult responsibilities after school, from providing childcare for younger siblings to working outside the home.

3. Focus on relationships and the whole child. 

“Strong relationships with teachers and school staff can dramatically enhance students’ level of motivation and therefore promote learning,” writes the Education Trust and MRDC in their guide to relationship-building strategies. Such relationships help create stronger social skills and greater academic engagement.  

Michael McCormick, Superintendent of California’s Val Verde School District, says his district is working to create culturally affirming spaces that are psychologically safe and that embody "outrageous love and radical humility."

In addition to stronger relationships, learning acceleration should not focus purely on tutoring and homework. The Education Department recommends addressing the whole child through a broad array of enrichment activities, from STEM activities to physical fitness, health education, and arts programs. 

“When we’re able to combine social, emotional, affective, and cognitive development together, we are creating many, many more interconnections in the developing brain that enable children to accelerate learning and development,” child psychiatrist Pamela Cantor explained to Edutopia in 2019.

4. Support educators, many of whom are equally overwhelmed and overextended. 

Districts should design learning acceleration strategies that avoid putting yet more stressors on classroom teachers. Even before COVID, teachers regularly went above and beyond their contractual obligations. Longterm, a new study finds that teachers are experiencing higher levels of both stress and depression than the general adult population—and one in four classroom teachers is considering leaving their job.

To combat burnout and reduce role-related stress (overwhelm from having to switch between so many different kinds of roles), school districts can: 

  • Build more diverse recruitment pipelines
  • Provide effective mentorship, professional development, and PLC programs
  • Engage tutors, teaching assistants and other paraprofessionals. 
  • Engage families (as noted above) to support learning acceleration.
5. Rethink traditional assessment systems.  

Learning acceleration requires you to monitor progress in acquiring grade-appropriate skills, so that you can respond quickly to gaps and provide students with support accordingly. However, you don’t want to overwhelm students with yet more testing. And you certainly don’t want to structure diagnostics as high-pressure activities with potentially punitive results. 

Instead of fixating on learning loss, argues Ben Markley, Chief Technology Officer at Hemet Unified School District, education should prioritize an empathy-first approach.

Here are a few tips for diagnosing unfinished learning from TNTP’s learning acceleration guide

  • Instead of reinventing the wheel, use diagnostic assessments provided with the instructional materials you have already adopted. 
  • Give teachers access to interim assessment data and WIDA ACCESS assessment results, as applicable.
  • Identify a few key at-home, grade-appropriate assignments, and use them to capture information about the grade-level content individual students still need to master.

Relative to other strategies, learning acceleration has shown great promise in advancing equity and helping students of all kinds thrive. Fortunately, ESSER funds are available from the federal government, at least 20% of which must be used specifically to address "learning loss.” Learn how you can use them to accelerate learning now.

See how six districts are embracing learning acceleration in distinct ways: 

Four modes of learning acceleration

As the Education Department explains, there are four essential modalities for learning acceleration programs

  • In-school instructions. The Education Department recommends that schools come to a consensus about the baseline critical skills that students need to remain on grade level. They should also learn, share and put in practice alternate instructional strategies to teach these skills, and they should consider an expanded school day, week, or year to provide more time for learning acceleration. 

  • Tutoring programs. According to Education Department findings, tutoring programs work best when, among other things, they employ trained staff, take place during the school day, and occur in small groups or one-on-one sessions. 

  • Out-of-school time programs. Whether before or after school hours or on the weekends, the Education Department recommends that such programs should be evidence-based and focused on students needing additional support. Ideally, these programs should also be taught by certified teachers using experiential strategies that include hands-on activities, project-based learning, enrichment, and field trips.

  • Summer learning and enrichment. According to the Education Department, successful summer programs are voluntary and involve a full-day schedule. They should also last five to six weeks, include three hours of language arts and mathematics taught by certified teachers, and incorporate enrichment activities and experiences.

Learning acceleration and tutoring

Tutoring, especially high-dosage tutoring (HDT), is widely considered the most efficacious learning acceleration tool outside the classroom itself. Study after study has shown that, done right, tutoring accelerates learning and combats educational inequities

For their part, after-school and summer programs can sometimes fall short. “After-school programs might seem like a good idea because they give teachers extra time to cover material that students missed last year. But getting students to attend faithfully is a chronic problem,” according to the Hechinger Report. Such programs tend not to demonstrate meaningful gains in reading or math

And while tutoring that takes place during the school day can be particularly beneficial, providing 24-hour access to tutoring can be helpful for promoting educational equity. As Dr. Lisa Cadero-Smith, the assistant superintendent of Yelm Community Schools in California, points out, many students, especially those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and have adult responsibilities at home, lack access to traditional “place-based and time-bound” tutoring services.

Underscoring the value of tutoring, a recent Annenberg Institute study also concluded that “of all the interventions examined, including feedback and progress monitoring, cooperative learning, computer-assisted instruction, and mentoring of students, tutoring was most effective.” 

[MORE: How 24/7 tutoring helped San Jacinto Unified School District increase graduation rates]

Annenberg Institute scholars also found that tutoring is “highly cost-effective,” given the outsized results it achieves. Meanwhile, the pandemic has helped make online, on-demand tutoring a truly scalable model that overcomes common challenges to high-dosage tutoring programs because: 

  • Students have become much more comfortable with distance learning and the technologies that make it possible. 

  • The presence of computing devices and internet connectivity in homes rose significantly between 2020 and 2021, with access available in 94% of American households. 

  • Stigma around tutoring is falling, as students at all levels have found themselves struggling to keep up. 

[ALSO: 24/7 tutoring engages disadvantaged students, boosts graduation rates at California district]

Given these kinds of results, it is not surprising that school districts have already adopted tutoring programs at unprecedented rates

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