It’s Hard to Win a Race Running Backwards: Accelerated Learning and the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic have had devastating impacts on student learning. While the magnitude of negative impacts varied, some analyses demonstrated drops in math scores larger than those that occurred after Hurricane Katrina. These declines continued past initial school closures in spring 2020: student achievement dropped more between fall 2020 and 2021 than between fall 2019 and 2020.  These outcomes led local education agencies to allocate the largest percentage of their ESSER III recovery funds to academic recovery or accelerated learning.  

But what is accelerated learning, really?

In a recent Comprehensive Center-Network sponsored state education agency roundtable and peer discussion, participants were asked to identify which of the following they most associated with accelerated learning:

  • Increase the pace of learning
  • Prioritize essential learnings
  • Individualize support for students (e.g., tutoring)
  • Emphasize grade level content for all students
  • Differentiate instruction 
  • Provide access to advanced coursework

To no one’s surprise, the answers varied. Respondents said that accelerated learning could align to any of the provided choices. To address the impact of COVID-19, respondents said that local education agencies would need to focus on each component, guided by the specific context of individual students.

It was easier for respondents to define what accelerated learning was not: Everyone agreed that accelerated learning was not remediation. Given the unprecedented disruption from the pandemic and the expectations of K–12 systems, it was clear that accelerated learning must focus on moving students forward—not going backward to try to catch up. 

During the roundtable, representatives from Massachusetts shared their Acceleration Roadmap. An essential first step to developing the roadmap was defining accelerated learning. For Massachusetts, accelerated learning meant:

  • Providing access to grade-level content unit by unit or lesson by lesson
  • Scaffolding to support continued progress for students along a typical trajectory
  • Using student data to align support to student need
  • Ensuring tight alignment of Tier 2/3 supports to Tier 1 instruction 

Regardless of how you define accelerated learning, roundtable participants showed that state and local education agencies must consider that all students are in a race to their high school diplomas. While we know all students don’t run at the same speed, we cannot mitigate the impacts of the pandemic if we ask students to run backwards now and simply catch up later. 
If we want students to finish on time, we have to help them move forward from their current position at a pace they can manage.

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