Before the pandemic turned our education system upside down, we knew that many students didn’t have access to grade-level material. Now that we are back in the classroom and trying to recover, it has become a bigger problem. 

A new joint study by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), a nonprofit that runs teaching fellowship programs across the country, and ReadWorks, a company offering resources and tools for K-12 English language arts instruction, found that remedial content is commonly chosen over acceleration—and that’s not helping students. In fact, students perform essentially the same on grade-level and below-grade-level material, showing why it is so important to set high expectations for all students. 

The Opportunity Myth, a 2018 report from TNTP that studied nearly 4,000 students in five diverse school systems, identified the same problem. Recovering from the pandemic means we must work to ensure our standards do not decline and that all students have access to high-quality opportunities so they may reach their fullest potential. 

Acceleration over Remediation 

Instead of remediation, a better route is acceleration, which means providing access to grade-level work with appropriate support for students who are currently performing below grade level. When people hear “accelerated learning” they often think this means providing content beyond their grade-level, but it’s really about challenging students with new academic opportunities.  

If our path forward is acceleration, we must make it a priority because there is no more time to waste. Many students have already effectively lost months of primary education. We can’t wait until we perceive that students are ready to perform at grade-level, we need to start expecting that they can. K-12 education is a promise to students that they will progress to college and career readiness. We promise that after 13 years of education, students have a better opportunity to be successful. That’s why it is mandatory. 

When students start passing courses with below grade-level work, they aren’t making efficient progress toward college and career readiness as quickly as they can or should. Students in this situation may leave school less prepared than their peers. Not only can this lead to them potentially taking remedial courses if they attend college, but it can lead to an underqualified workforce. 

Our Path Forward Involves All Levels of the System 

Moving toward learning acceleration starts with fundamental steps: 

  • We need to align our expectations. It’s difficult to set the correct expectations when those expectations vary throughout the system. Education leaders need to ensure that teachers have solid examples of grade-level work, so they can see it firsthand. Teachers need to ensure that they are seeking opportunities for students to challenge themselves. Finally, assessment companies need to commit to high-quality assessments that align to grade-level standards. 
  • We need data teachers can trust. It’s important to measure students using instructionally-aligned assessments that provide data teachers can use in the classroom. Research shows that there are times when students are mastering grade-level work, but teachers are still giving them below-level content. To avoid this, teachers need data that can lead to an adjustment to instruction in near real time. Using this type of rich data allows teachers to construct different plans for students who need additional help and can encourage students to feel more engaged in the classroom. 
  • We need to solidify our foundation. Teachers, administrators, and the entirety of our school system are already stretched thin, and revising our current strategy is a daunting task. When we take steps toward acceleration, let’s be sure we have a solid foundation to facilitate this change. Professional development that provides a strong introduction to materials and resources—including increased assessment literacy—could yield major benefits. For example, analyzing released assessment items to see which concepts might be beneficial to implement in a classroom may help. Having a strong foundation creates confidence in classroom instruction, and the ability to appropriately provide students with new learning challenges. This way, we can help students rise to that challenge. 

The TNTP data shows that remediation dominates as the common approach in many school systems. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we should examine our current practices and determine if they are helping students reach their full potential, both inside and outside of the classroom. 

New Meridian's Jamie Gonzales

Jamie Gonzales 
Policy and Government Affairs Manager