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As children return to school in September after an unprecedented year of learning disruption, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents and the New Jersey Department of Education face huge challenges in getting students back on track. While some parents were able to supplement remote instruction through tutors and micropods, others—due to job responsibilities, childcare issues or lack of resources—were unable to keep their kids at grade level. How should we approach these challenges? How should teachers teach when a classroom includes children who had the support to keep up with their studies and other children who fell way behind? For instance, if your child is entering fourth grade, should teachers review third grade material to catch everyone up? Or should teachers go right to fourth grade material?

THE WAY FORWARD

Lucky for us, we know the answer to this quandary. Yet it will be up to parents to hold their district and school board’s feet to the fire and ensure everyone is following best practices. The COVID-19 pandemic took a terrible toll on student growth. In New Jersey, a study from the non-profit JerseyCAN found that, among the state’s K-8 students, approximately 393,000 are below grade level in reading and 430,000 are below grade level in math. Put another way, reading proficiency dropped from 58 percent in spring 2019 to 39 percent in fall 2020 to 34 percent in January 2021. Low-income children and students of color suffered the most loss.

Question: What do we do now? Answer: Accelerate, don’t remediate.

What does this mean? The national non-profit TNTP (formerly the The New Teachers Project) teamed up with Zearn, which supplies computer-based math instruction for one out of four American students, to compare results for classrooms where teachers used remediation and classrooms where teachers used acceleration. In more concrete terms, let’s say you have a child who is beginning fourth grade after a rocky third grade year. If a teacher is using remediation—“meeting students where they are”—he or she will go back to material missed during the previous year. If a teacher is using acceleration, he or she will stick to fourth grade material; the district will fill in gaps through one-on-one tutoring and summer/after school programs.

TNTP found that kids who had access to acceleration did 27 percent better on grade-level work than kids doing remediation. They struggled less and learned more. The kids having remediation never caught up to grade level work and, researchers say they may never get there. From the report Accelerate, Don’t Remediate: “Schools need to be ready on the first day back with a fundamentally different strategy for diagnosing lost learning and putting every student on a fast track back to grade level—a strategy designed to accelerate their exposure to grade-appropriate work, not delay it.”

Let’s say your second grader missed some important instruction in reading because it’s really hard to learn phonemic awareness through Zoom screens. While those conceptual gaps need to be filled in, he’s a year older and fully capable of critically thinking about second grade-level books. TNTP analysts say teachers and school leaders should run every concept through a simple test: “Will this help every student, regardless of the aspects of their identity, get back to grade level?” If it will, teach it. If it won’t, then accelerate student learning by continuing exposure to grade appropriate content, while addressing students’ social-emotional needs.

PUTTING RESOURCES BEHIND A NEW STRATEGY

What’s the alternative to this acceleration strategy? That second grade teachers go back to first grade material, with the result that by the end of second grade your child will be missing the exposure he needs for what will be required in third grade. This becomes a vicious cycle that will continue throughout his K-12 education. That’s why we need that “fundamentally different strategy.” But how do we pay for it? Through the second largest infusion of federal funds schools have ever seen.

The Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan Act includes $125 billion for K-12 schools. Here’s what New Jersey is slated to receive:
$2,764,587,703 for New Jersey K-12 schools
$138.2 million reserved to address learning loss
$27.6 million reserved for summer enrichment
$27.6 million reserved for after-school programs

This influx of funds is how schools can afford this acceleration strategy. And this is why there has never been a more important time for you to be your child’s advocate. Ninety percent of the American Rescue Plan money flows directly to districts (plans must be submitted to the New Jersey Department of Education this November).

What is your school district doing to help teachers prepare for a different sort of instruction than they’ve been trained for? What summer and after-school programs is your district offering? Are they ignoring the data and planning on remediation instead of acceleration? And what about social-emotional support? Our kids have been through a traumatic year and possibly experienced personal loss. The federal money is intended to fund programs that can help students come to grips with unparalleled disruption and isolation.

Be an informed advocate for your children. Speak to other parents, go to school board meetings and ask questions about your district’s approach. Assume the best, but be prepared to unleash your inner lion/lioness to hold your district accountable for keeping kids on track.

Laura Waters is founder and managing editor of NJ Education Report. She and her husband have four children and live in Lawrenceville.

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