When I was a teacher, I would sometimes compare teaching to hosting a dinner party. And as the host, I always want to cook the easiest meal so that when my guests are at my home, I can engage with them.
About six years into my career as a special educator, I attended a child’s study meeting. In this meeting, my 9th-grade student's mother encouraged the team to focus on the student's executive functioning.
Executive functioning? I remember thinking. What is that? I didn’t even know if we taught executive functioning, let alone how to begin supporting it.
The three-tiered support structure of a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) provides efficient and effective support for all students. This support begins at the core level, also known as Tier 1. At Tier 1, all students receive differentiated instruction that is scaffolded with research-based learning supports, tailored to meet the needs of all students.
I have spent the better part of the last decade providing targeted support to schools, educators, and students requesting advice on improving engagement at their Tier 1 level. Through this experience, I have re-engaged students who are re-entering school after hiatus, coached teachers who faced chronic absenteeism, and helped schools develop infrastructures to support better staff, community, and student engagement.
As lifelong educators, my co-author and I have experienced a combined 50, yes 50 years in education! Spring semesters, planning, reviewing middle-of-year data, and targeting support before the final bell rings for summer. No matter what role we have held, including teacher, administrator, instructional coach, our instinctual goal was to ensure at least one year’s growth for every student.
With COVID-19 and all of its impacts still looming, we again find ourselves faced with an end-of-year deadline and, as always, evaluating student growth. Longstanding academic inequities continue to creep into our schools and classrooms as many students fall further and further behind meeting grade-level standards.
And who’s most at-risk for falling behind? Recent data suggests that our underperforming students are racially and ethnically diverse, are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and have individualized education programs (IEPs) (Methodology Studies - Achievement Gaps | NAEP). With the best intentions, after a thorough middle-of-year data review, our initial instinct is to group students to focus on remediating foundational skills only to risk excluding them from grade-level content instruction.
➡️ Related Resource: Best Practices on Interpreting Student Assessment Data in MTSS
What if, instead of focusing on growth for every student (which potentially may be grade levels below), we focus on grade-level proficiency or bust for every student? Instead of focusing on identifying the gaps and moving backward to fill them, we accelerate our core instruction by strategically curating the grade-level standards-based instruction. That way, the student can spend time and attention on identified targeted skills to prepare for upcoming learning. Student outcomes change when accelerated instruction replaces traditional remediation strategies alone.
With traditional remediation, students identified as needing additional support typically receive intervention for skill gaps that may have little or nothing to do with the current, on-grade level material and/or instruction.
While it is certainly important to "backfill" for learning gaps, when that remediation is not closely aligned to what the student needs right now to be successful with current grade-level material, the student will only slip further behind. In contrast, acceleration provides immediate access to end-of-year expectations by strategically identifying prior years’ learning and learning gaps, AND providing just-in-time support along the way.
➡️ Related Resource: Selecting the Right Interventions to Boost Accelerated Learning
Considering our classrooms’ significant and diverse needs in 2022 and beyond, we can layer the strategies and principles of accelerated instruction as an equitable multi-tiered systems solution that ensures our Tier 1 core instruction is fluid, dynamic, responsive, and matches our diverse students’ needs. But, before we can jump into how to accelerate, let’s answer the first question that comes to mind…what exactly is differentiated core Tier 1 instruction, and what is acceleration?
Accelerated learning is currently one of the hottest keywords in education. It is hailed as the hero to address the “COVID-19 slide,” which is the concern that students may not be prepared for grade-level instruction due to a loss of instructional time over the past year due to the pandemic.
We often hear “learning loss” in relation to the COVID-19 slide—a term I have come across countless times during professional development webinars. I disagree strongly with this term. “Learning loss” implies that students have missed out on learning. As educators, we know that learning did occur last year (and as teachers, we are all tired of defending that point).
However, traditional instruction did not occur last year. So the phenomenon we are currently facing is an “instructional loss,” not a “learning loss.” While our students did learn, they did not receive traditional instruction, which would have ensured they had all the skills necessary to master grade-level content.
The solution? Accelerated learning.
For those new to the term, accelerated learning is the adaptation of instruction in which curriculum standards are prioritized based on the learning needs of students. It is an intentional, practical approach to intensive instruction to address a significant gap in skills resulting from a disruption to instruction—such as a global pandemic.
What is important to note is that acceleration is not remediation. It is not going back and attempting to fill in every student's gap in knowledge in a content area. Instead, acceleration focuses on what skills are most important for a student to master the content and scaffold those skills using interventions and learning supports in coordination with the grade-level curriculum.
Learning supports and interventions play a crucial role in successfully implementing an accelerated approach. Based upon universal screening data, learning supports provide scaffolding at the core level to address the most common skill gaps in a classroom.
Research-based interventions provide more targeted and intensive support for students who need extra help mastering grade-level content. Without the combination of data and intervention resources, it’s impossible to deliver differentiated instruction for all student's readiness levels, interests, strengths, and learning preferences required to build up necessary skill sets.
➡️ Related Resource: A Quick Review of MTSS Supports, Interventions, and Accommodations
That’s all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t address the actual “how-to” when selecting these supports and interventions. Let’s take a moment to analyze three considerations when choosing appropriate supports for accelerated learning:
School leaders and teachers have a tendency to rush to implement behavior or academic interventions plans for struggling students, without first taking the time to problem solve why students are struggling in the first place. I witnessed this firsthand in my nearly ten years as a high school assistant principal.
As a first-year high school teacher, it was almost instinctual to pull a struggling learner (often an English Language Learner or a student well below grade level) out of the classroom and work with them individually. Wasn’t this one-on-one attention precisely what this student needed? Wasn’t I helping them by teaching them at their level? They didn’t have to sit through a lesson feeling lost and frustrated, and I didn’t have to worry about them feeling lost in this environment. Instead, I could work with them individually and get them caught up.
While I intended to help, I did not realize I was causing more harm than good, which was evident by my student’s lack of progress by the end of the year. At the time, I didn’t understand the importance of a strong, frequently revised Tier 1 curriculum, differentiated for all learners, and the importance of using interventions as supplemental instruction for struggling learners.
All students (and adults) have strengths and weaknesses. In K-12 education, student weaknesses and areas of concern are sometimes more apparent, while strengths can fade into the background. Over the past decade, there has been a movement in education to be more explicit in addressing student strengths and encouraging the use of instructional practices to promote growth in areas that might need improvement.
The MTSS framework provides an excellent opportunity for educators to shift their instruction, problem-solving, and planning to include student strengths in addition to areas of needed support. Below we outline the difference between the strengths and deficit lens, how focusing on strengths benefits all key stakeholders in education, and specific guidance on using a strengths-based approach in MTSS.
In these stressful times of seeing more struggling students in need of Tier 2 and Tier 3 support, it's easy to glance over Tier 1 needs by thinking they are sufficient. Often times an overview of the data will lead us to believe this common thought, however skimming over Tier 1 data is causing us to miss key red flags that push our numbers of Tier 2 and Tier 3 even higher.
We can address this concern with some “Best Practices” and procedures built into how we meet the needs of all our students. Utilizing data and applying differentiated practices are two critical components to success with all of our students.
Supporting students’ social-emotional development has always been essential. But this year especially, educators are realizing the critical role of social-emotional learning (SEL). In remote learning contexts teachers need to come up with creative ways to keep students engaged and connected as well as practice key social skills. Teachers working with students in-person may have found that their students are struggling with more social, emotional, and behavioral issues, given all they have gone through this year.