How a diverse school district is using a strategy usually reserved for ‘gifted’ students to boost everyone

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The teachers were fighting three enemies. The Monday fatigue that made the third graders yawn through their screens. The disturbances of the Wi-Fi that muffled conversations. Time itself.

They battled the uncontrollable through smiles: Teacher Annie Nguyen wore a hooded sweatshirt with white furry panda ears — it was pajama day, and the students took to the chat box to express their excitement.

They’re in third grade, a critical year for multiplication and reading, but because of the pandemic, they’re in Zoom school at Highline’s McMicken Heights Elementary. The setup gives them significantly less face time with their teachers, and because the clock was ticking, Nguyen and her colleagues had to keep the lesson moving, no matter what.

They’re practicing a learning strategy known as “acceleration”: Keep students progressing to more advanced lessons. Catch them up as needed. Don’t dwell on what was missed.

While COVID-19-related “learning loss“ is a new phenomenon, making up lost ground is not. There’s plenty of research on what happens when education is disrupted by natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, or planned breaks in learning, like summer.

In Highline Public Schools, leaders consulted that research when trying to mitigate the havoc that the pandemic could wreak on students’ learning, and landed on acceleration. In many cases, districts turn to acceleration to leapfrog gifted students ahead. Highline, a diverse district where 71% of students are living in poverty, is trying to speed up students across the board.

And they’re finding it can work for everyone.

Acceleration entails focusing on key building blocks, or standards. Looking closely at what students know and don’t through a variety of check-ins, which allows teachers to change how students are grouped. Every unit starts with a pretest, so teachers don’t waste time. And they use “asynchronous” or independent time to catch students up.

It’s an alternative lens. “We’re really trying to stay in a mindset where we’re not talking about learning loss,” said Susanne Jerde, Highline’s chief academic officer. “It’s important to understand that some students have learning loss, but we also want to build on the fact that our students have other opportunities to grow.”

What tells Jerde it’s working: On a districtwide diagnostic test, the i-Ready, the percentage of students below grade level overall on math didn’t grow significantly from one and two years ago. In third grade, the results were steady, though there were slight dips in some other grades.

It’s hard to interpret these results when students test at home, Jerde said, surrounded by distractions or caregivers. But the i-Ready scores, coupled with anecdotes, make her think students are learning. And she also took their i-Ready participation rates — 80% in reading and 86% in math in grades one through eight — as a sign of success.

“The alternative is to remediate and say they’re a year behind,” Jerde said.

Who gets a boost?

The concept of accelerating students ties into vitriolic debates over who gets “advanced” instruction and how. The research behind Highline’s approach shows many students aren’t placed at the appropriate grade level.

Called “The Opportunity Myth,” a 2018 paper from a New York-based consulting group TNTP followed about 4,000 students and found that most spent about six months of class time a year on assignments below their grade level, or that were too easy. Kids learn better if you move them forward, and explicitly involve them in their growth.

Mindset matters. Teachers can approach instruction from looking at what students miss instead of how they’re growing — which, said Nguyen, becomes “a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I only believe that a student has so much potential, then I’m right. I’ll only teach a kid to that potential.”

So she tries to be “obnoxiously optimistic.”

Nguyen brought that optimism to that Monday math class. “Does it matter, the order of the numbers?” Nguyen said. “A fancy way to say that is the associative property. Say that with me.”

They unmuted, repeating the term. “Think about what happens when two people share really well,” she said, alluding to the task they’d need to accomplish in their breakout groups — and how they’d catch up later if they didn’t.

One boy started speaking but was interrupted by static. Quickly, Nguyen moved the lesson along: “Who else wants to go?”

“You can break apart the biggest number so it will be easier,” offered a student called “Dinkneh BMX Champ” on screen.

She explained that when they started this unit on Friday, students were at different levels. Today, they’d work through problems on grids together to hone their skills.

Click. Nguyen beamed the class up into breakout rooms, each one with a student coach. She and co-teacher Jaymie Torres Ibarra bounced between the rooms, watching, prompting engagement where there was none.

By the end of class, Nguyen had figured out who needed help, and asked them to meet her in another Zoom room later that day.

How Highline accelerated

For decades, schools faced an annual problem: the summer learning slide. When kids are on summer break, they lose ground. But students from families with more resources fall back less. And a 2007 study from Johns Hopkins University scholars suggests that much of the so-called achievement gap is more connected to this time than school itself.

Related research coupled with COVID-19 had Alexandria Haas, principal of Highline’s McMicken Heights Elementary, thinking about “a different way of teaching and learning.”

Two years ago, after “The Opportunity Myth” was released, Jerde said, Highline began paying close attention to TNTP’s work on acceleration.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco last spring, Jeffrey Tsang, a partner with TNTP, tried to problem-solve learning loss before it happened. “Our hypothesis was that the tendency would be to remediate: Gaps would widen, kids will suffer,” he said.

Tsang hearkened back to “The Opportunity Myth” study. His conclusion: “We must get kids back on grade level as quickly as possible.”

TNTP updated its guide for pandemic-era acceleration. One key concept — a term that Tsang and Highline educators say often — is “just-in-time teaching.” That means giving a student just the right amount of help to move forward in a subject where they’ve missed a prerequisite skill, like the after-class help Nguyen and Torres Ibarra provided.

This summer, Tsang helped prepare Highline for online acceleration. He focused on four issues: What standards should be emphasized less to teach the important ones more efficiently? Which prerequisite skills were missed? How do you measure and diagnose those gaps? And how do you then modify the sequence of material based on what kids know and need to learn?

For Nguyen, summer was a time to test these ideas. She orchestrated a weeklong pilot by rounding up the children of some friends. She wanted to see whether the ideas the district had discussed made sense when put into practice with actual children involved, so she could bring some lessons to her colleagues.

She and Kimberly Campi, an English language learner facilitator and instructional math coach, developed an elaborate system of Google Docs to track their students’ learning, sort students according to the help they needed each day, and create rubrics that show what students are expected to absorb.

Nguyen tries to keep the groups “as fluid as possible,” because her goal is “to push them to the next day, to the next group.” It helps when students can see their growth in concrete ways.

Whittling down the lessons is hard, Haas said. It means being OK with pausing some work in progress. “It is pandemic schooling,” she said.

These ideas resonated with Robin Totten, the principal of Highline’s Gregory Heights Elementary. At her previous job at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Urban School Improvement, she turned to acceleration frequently. “The strategies that we often reserved for ‘gifted and talented kids’ are great strategies that work for every student,” she said.

She sees acceleration “as a great anti-racist practice” because “we’re taking a strategy that would typically have been reserved for the kids in self-contained gifted programs.” Those programs are often segregated.

Tough beginnings

Nguyen and Torres Ibarra’s third grade Zoom classroom wasn’t always the buzzing, laughing environment it is now. In the beginning, students kept their cameras off. Break rooms were silent. The two teachers forged individual connections to change the atmosphere.

Then, they turned classroom management into the lesson itself. Even while ruthlessly prioritizing, they made time to teach the students how to learn. They started by making “talk charts” that showed students what they could say to their peers. It felt forced at first.

They gave students social prompts to practice these skills. They slowly introduced more academics, starting with straightforward lessons.

It wasn’t just those two teachers who had to break the ice. “There wasn’t a class that taught pandemic teaching 101,” Totten said.

Districts trying out acceleration should consider some potential missteps. Tsang said executing it successfully depends on having teachers who are willing and able to do it. He also warned districts against trying to accelerate learning without prioritizing what they need to teach more.

And, some say, because of the variation between environments, technology and teachers, it’s hard to make any significant conclusions about what works. In Highline, it’s been hard to sustain, especially during a pandemic, Haas said. “It’s very easy to be lost in the minutia and the things that aren’t working.”

Students teaching students

The answer to a ticking clock, Nguyen said, is precision. With technology troubles, there were moments when she struggled to pick apart student success because so many variables obscured the picture. That murkiness forced the teachers to further polish their tests: To find useful information, they needed to articulate what they were looking for. Still, they want to know more.

On a recent Friday, the McMicken Heights third graders pushed through writing class. Their goal: To write stories with beginnings, middles, endings, problems and solutions. They had drafted fractured fairy tales — swapping conventional stories for different characters and plots — in Google Docs.

The beginning felt like whack-a-mole as Torres Ibarra and her colleagues checked in on student work in one big Zoom room.

Before sending students into breakout rooms, she made their task clear. She read prompts for providing compliments and suggestions, speaking in a singsong voice, all smiles, as she showed examples of good feedback.

The minute his breakout room opened, Dinkneh, a serious kid in a yellow sweatshirt, a blue watch and glasses, began reading his version, The Three Little Knights, to another student, a boy named Bryant.

“Little knight! Little knight! Let me in,” he said loudly, his eyes wide as he told Bryant that “the king warned them to look out for the big bad DRAGON!!!” He read so fast he had to gasp and catch his breath.

Nguyen popped in, just as Dinkneh’s audio dropped. “Are you still there, sweetie?”

Bryant was supposed to be coaching, but it was nearly impossible to hear him: He spoke quietly, his screen was off, there was background noise.

Nguyen prompted him to give more specific feedback, then prompted Dinkneh to respond graciously.

Haas visited class that day, and was impressed to see a student with disabilities newly introduced to the general setting “rocking it,” she said.

“I am anxious to see what kids are learning,” Haas said. “I have heard anecdotally that my teachers are starting to see that impact.”

Highline Public Schools planned to reopen to some younger children in March.

“I’m bracing myself,” Haas said. “I am anticipating that there’ll be some gaps.”

It will be a moment of truth.

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