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When kids fall behind in school, learning acceleration may work better than remediation | COMMENTARY

FILE - In this Oct. 19, 2020, file photo Michigan City, Ind., area school students return for in-person instruction after two months of remote learning to start the new school year. Fewer than one-third of elementary and middle school students in Indiana recorded passing scores on the latest round of state standardized tests, confirming education officials' concerns that the coronavirus pandemic has fueled substantial learning loss in that state and elsewhere. (Kelley Smith/The News-Dispatch via AP, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 19, 2020, file photo Michigan City, Ind., area school students return for in-person instruction after two months of remote learning to start the new school year. Fewer than one-third of elementary and middle school students in Indiana recorded passing scores on the latest round of state standardized tests, confirming education officials' concerns that the coronavirus pandemic has fueled substantial learning loss in that state and elsewhere. (Kelley Smith/The News-Dispatch via AP, File) (Kelley Smith/AP)

With the COVID-19 pandemic waning, school systems across Maryland are shifting their focus from surviving the crisis to helping students recover from the social, emotional and academic toll of the most significant disruption to K-12 education in history. That process will take years — but the choices educators make as they plan for the upcoming school year will be crucial.

One choice that looms especially large is how to help students who’ve fallen behind academically get back on track. New research from our organizations points to a promising approach: learning acceleration. School systems across Maryland should consider this as a key component of their academic strategy.

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When students fall behind, a common approach is to go back and reteach significant amounts of material from earlier grades before moving on. For example, at the beginning of third grade, a teacher would review all second-grade math content the students missed before moving on new third-grade math learning. This is known as remediation. While this approach makes sense and is driven by a desire to help students succeed in their learning, we’ve found in our work across that country that it often causes students to fall even further behind — and can exacerbate racial inequities.

Learning acceleration is a fundamentally different approach that has started to gain traction across the country. Instead of starting the school year going back and reviewing weeks — or even months — of second-grade math lessons, a third-grade teacher would start with third-grade math content, and strategically bring in key second-grade concepts when students demonstrate the need. This “just-in-time” targeted support helps students make connections in the context of new learning, the key to catching up and moving forward.

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New research, gathered from more than 2 million students in more than 100,000 elementary math classrooms who used Zearn’s online math software this past fall, provides strong evidence that learning acceleration is the right approach. The research showed that students who experienced learning acceleration in math completed 27% more grade-level lessons than those who experienced remediation. Just as importantly, when they experienced just-in-time learning acceleration support, they struggled less with that grade-level work — debunking the idea that remediation “protects” students from becoming frustrated with work that’s too hard. The research shows that when we give students the chance to tackle challenging, grade-appropriate problems, and give them strategic support when they demonstrate they need it, all students can succeed.

By analyzing math assignments given to students, the research found that students of color and those from low-income backgrounds were more likely than their white, wealthier peers to experience remediation — even when they had already shown they can succeed on grade-level math content. In other words, students of color were less likely to get chances to even try grade-level work. At the same time, learning acceleration was particularly effective for students of color: Classrooms that experienced learning acceleration in schools with majority students of color completed 49% more grade-level lessons than those that experienced remediation.

By embracing learning acceleration, Maryland educators can both kick-start COVID academic recovery and start to unwind generations-old academic inequities. With new funding available from the American Rescue Plan, school systems have an important opportunity in the months ahead to provide teachers with the resources and support to make learning acceleration a reality for all kids, so every student can engage in grade-level work right away. Yes, it is a different approach. But this moment demands something different. By embracing learning acceleration, school systems can set up more students for success.

Maryland’s children are resilient. And if we give them both the opportunity and support they need, they will soar.

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Arlene Sukran (arlene.sukran@tntp.org) is the vice president, Northeast of TNTP, an education nonprofit that helps school systems across the country end educational inequality and achieve their goals for students. Shalinee Sharma (shalinee@zearn.org) is the CEO of Zearn, a nonprofit organization whose online math platform is used by one in four elementary students nationwide.

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