Transformative, Evidence-Based Ideas

We can’t afford to love learning acceleration to death

As children return to school after as much as a year away, schools and districts have a new strategy for helping them make up for lost time.  

Often called acceleration, the strategy’s essence is to: 

  • Teach kids the ideas and skills that are intellectually demanding and interesting for individuals of their age. 
  • Expect they will have missed some prerequisites and identify these as they appear in the course of age-appropriate instruction, and teach these quickly on an as-needed basis. 
  • Focus instruction on the absolute top-priority learning goals.
  • Avoid assigning any child to purely remedial instruction, where they are separated from grade-level learning and focus only on lower-level materials.

This strategy is the best hope for kids who have lost a year of school, especially for those whose schools focused on remediation and taught below grade level even before the pandemic. 

Though it has never been used at the scale being attempted now, there is evidence that community college students with incomplete high school preparation are more likely to persist and get degrees if their institutions assign them to college-level courses with help, rather than stick them in months or years of remedial courses. At the K–12 level, there is evidence that elementary schools teaching disadvantaged students can avoid being stuck in endless repetition of materials that were supposed to be learned earlier. Some have also attributed urban Catholic high schools’ superior graduation and college admission rates to a similar strategy. Lacking the staff and money to create separate learning tracks, these schools taught age-appropriate material, expected kids to need targeted help, and offered it immediately. For both community college and high school students, these approaches worked because students were always taking interesting courses and could see how important it was to fill in any holes in their learning.

Enthusiasm about this approach is warranted: in states and localities where few students were learning at grade level before the pandemic, it could create new horizons for huge numbers of kids. It could stimulate innovations in practice and technology to create instructional supplements for just-in-time learning that kids need to keep up with challenging courses. 

But, to people who have watched the waxing and waning of good ideas in K–12 education, this is a perilous time. Rapid and full implementation and good results for kids are far from certain. The acceleration strategy:

  • Has a lot of moving parts and requires a lot of people to do things they have not been trained or incentivized to do.
  • Makes huge new demands on teachers—and principals—to stay on grade level but know which kids are missing something, help them right away, and seek targeted supplements for issues needing more time.
  • Assumes that schools can have a lot of ready resources to provide just-in-time supplements.
  • Is a lot easier to pull off if many kids have missed learning the same ideas and skills, or if missed learning time amounts to only a few months, rather than years.
  • Flies in the face of the ways many schools and districts are organized: to separate out kids judged in need of remedial instruction.
  • Requires boards, superintendents, and central offices to get behind a single strategy and stick with it, and to expect that schools will differ as they work with their own combinations of student needs and supplementary resources.

Acceleration might work right away in districts and charter networks that had committed to it before the pandemic. They have at least partly retrained teachers, reoriented principals and central office staff, and gained philanthropic funding. Many had worked closely with TNTP, whose report The Opportunity Myth influenced many people’s thinking.

It will be harder to implement in large urban districts that have recognized the need for the strategy in the middle of the pandemic, and are trying to put it into practice while struggling with reopening politics, fears that families of color express about the pandemic, and the need to find students who have dropped out of sight. But acceleration is necessary there, too. Cleveland Superintendent Eric Gordon is right to say that simply restarting routine teaching and separate remediation will not be enough for kids who have lost so much learning time. Districts where students routinely fall a little further behind every year they are in school must, as Gordon intends, rebuild their operating systems around keeping all kids on grade level, with immediate help when needed.       

The acceleration strategy’s potential is clear, but that doesn’t mean it will deliver when tried at scale the first time, or that inevitable struggles can’t undermine or discredit it. Early implementation will not be pretty in challenged districts. It’s likely to generate lurid stories and premature verdicts of failure. Educators who try the strategy but don’t get promised help and get overwhelmed by its demands could turn against it. This is not just naysaying: recent studies of personalized instruction—a less-complicated intervention than acceleration—show that district schools struggled far more than charter networks to implement it because of obstacles in classroom structure, teacher contracts, and central office bureaucracy.

Understandably, a bandwagon is forming in support of acceleration. But in light of the implementation challenges, there is reason for concern about unrealistic expectations. Government and foundation leaders, whose financial and policy support—and patience—are necessary if the strategy is to succeed, might wreck it inadvertently by demanding “gold standard” evidence of effectiveness way too soon. 

Acceleration is an important enough idea to merit long-term monitoring and evaluation. Students and school systems need it to work. The first step is to resolve implementation snags caused by policy barriers, political resistance, and teacher skill gaps. Once the strategy is present on the ground, it’s possible to learn whether, and under what conditions, it stimulates instructional innovation and improves student outcomes like persistence, graduation rates, and readiness for college and the workforce. It might take five years to get definitive results, but that’s better than getting bad news quickly from premature evaluations.  

The acceleration strategy is as important as its supporters claim. It can stimulate innovation in teaching and student support, and might cause schools and districts to be redesigned in ways that make them much more productive and responsive. It needs clear-eyed support and a serious program of research on implementation and outcomes so educators can learn from others’ experience and policymakers can set realistic expectations. Otherwise, acceleration is at risk (like other good ideas before it) of being loved to death for a while and then abandoned. 


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