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How learning acceleration can jumpstart academic recovery

At a Glance


School systems across Tennessee are shifting their focus from surviving the COVID-19 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 have fallen behind academically get back on track for their post-high school goals. New research from our organizations points to a promising approach: math learning acceleration. School systems across Tennessee should consider this as a key component of their academic strategy.

When students fall behind, a common approach is to go back and re-teach 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 that the students missed before moving onto third-grade math. This is known as remediation.

Taking a new approach to help students get back on track

While this approach makes sense and is driven by a desire to help students succeed in their learning, we’ve found 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. Rather than 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. New research, gathered from more than two 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. When they experienced "just-in-time" math intervention, they struggled less with that grade-level work—debunking the idea that remediation “protects” students from becoming frustrated with work that’s too hard.

Students who experienced learning acceleration in math completed 27% more grade-level lessons than those who experienced remediation.
<cms-quote-source>Shalinee Sharma<cms-quote-source>

The research shows that when we give students the chance to tackle challenging grade-appropriate problems by giving them strategic support when they demonstrate a need for it, all students can succeed.

Tennessee children are resilient

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, Tennessee 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 districts 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.

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

This article was originally published in The Tennessean on August 12th, 2021.

Read it on The Tennessean
Written by Shalinee Sharma

Shalinee Sharma is the CEO and co-founder of Zearn Math.