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Topics / Professional Learning for Educators

How to Accelerate Learning for All Students in the 2020–21 School Year

Carnegie Corporation of New York grantees support grade-level instruction to overcome lost learning caused by the pandemic

With a new school year set to begin, teachers are still dealing with a number of challenges related to what educators are referring to as the COVID-19 slide or unfinished learning. Most schools have limited data about student attendance and depth of learning since last March when the pandemic led to massive school closures. In addition, many school systems opted to forgo final tests and adopted a pass/fail grading system. When teachers approach learning in the new school year, they may be tempted to review critical content and skills that students may have missed due to the pandemic’s drastic interruption in schooling. For schools serving the most vulnerable populations, this could mean their students fall further behind peers attending better-resourced schools that proceed with grade-level work.

The key idea is to accelerate student learning rather than remediate it.


Fortunately, there are school systems, curriculum developers, and professional learning providers encouraging a different approach. They advocate beginning the year with grade-level work underscored by high-quality curriculum and professional learning to help teachers ensure success. The key idea is to accelerate student learning rather than remediate it.

Freire Schools, a charter network in Philadelphia serving 3,200 students who are all eligible for free and reduced lunches, is one system making this commitment. During the 2017–18 school year, Freire selected Illustrative Mathematics (IM Math), a Carnegie Corporation grantee, as its new 6–12 curriculum provider, and Teaching Lab — another Corporation grantee — as its professional learning partner.  “We had a collection of teachers from each campus who led a curriculum search,” says Teryn Thomas, Freire director of teaching and learning. “We looked closely at four different tier 1 curricula as ranked by EdReports. In the end, we selected IM Math and Teaching Lab because the content was user-friendly and accessible for all stakeholders.”

IM Math is a nonprofit organization committed to creating a world where learners know, use, and enjoy mathematics. It advances this commitment through a problem-based core curriculum designed to address content and practice standards to foster learning for all. Students learn by doing math, solving problems in mathematical and real-world contexts, and constructing arguments using precise language. IM Math is distributed through multiple partners and collaborates with Open Up Resources to make full-course middle school math curriculum freely available. 

Teaching Lab is a nonprofit organization with a mission to fundamentally shift the paradigm of teacher professional learning for educational equity. Teaching Lab focuses its work in communities that educate traditionally underserved and marginalized students and supports implementation of high-quality instructional materials, such as IM Math, through the creation of “labs” in school systems. Labs involve 10–25 educators working with students in the same or similar grade levels and subject areas who meet regularly to collaborate, plan, learn, and share successes and challenges in implementing high-quality curriculum.

“There is no more challenging work than shifting teacher practice and beliefs. Both are critical if students are to achieve the high expectations that new standards offer them,” says Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Jim Short. “Working with a great curriculum like IM Math and a thoughtful professional learning provider like Teaching Lab should put Freire students on a trajectory for unprecedented success. I hope their journey, as well as the many others working with Teaching Lab, is one that others learn from and choose to replicate in the future. Dedicated school leaders who combine high-quality instructional materials with effective professional learning are leveraging the ultimate formula for success for all students.”

Math teachers appreciate that mathematics is highly dependent on prior understanding and skill development. As a result, they are most likely to question readiness of students for grade-level content when the new year begins. “Teachers have expressed this point continually,” says Freire’s Thomas. “When they teach students who don’t have the prerequisite skills to learn advanced mathematical concepts, there is a constant pressure to build the conceptual knowledge through new approaches. Teaching Lab supports teachers in building the confidence they need to do this effectively.”

Armed with powerful resources from IM Math, Tamala Wiley, director of math partnerships at Teaching Lab, designed summer professional development experiences to prepare math educators for the anticipated challenges of the 2020–21 school year. The plan addressed three possible school settings: face-to-face, remote learning, and hybrid (partial face-to-face and remote). The focus for each remained the same – giving students access to grade-level work to accelerate learning.

Denying students access to grade-level content is counterproductive and further widens achievement gaps. Accelerating student learning requires providing just-in-time support to students that is planned in intentional and practical ways.

Ryan Colon, director of math content design for Teaching Lab


“Denying students access to grade-level content is counterproductive and further widens achievement gaps,” says Ryan Colon, director of math content design for Teaching Lab. “Accelerating student learning requires providing just-in-time support to students that is planned in intentional and practical ways.” As Teaching Lab defines it, acceleration does not mean speeding through content to cover more ground; rather, it means intentionally supporting students with knowledge and skills where they need it, so they can continue with grade-level work. This support may include tutoring, small group instruction, regularly scheduled intervention blocks of focused learning, and the use of data to determine the level of mediation needed for each situation.

Accelerating student learning also helps address issues of equity. “Prior to Teaching Lab, our teachers were not aware of the impact of the disparity between students of color and the opportunity to see grade-level material,” says Freire’s Thomas. “An unintended consequence of this is that they were making decisions about the content students saw that was not connected to the College and Career Ready Standards and only served to broaden the gap that prevents students of color from achieving at the rates of their peers.”

Accelerating student learning is challenging under normal circumstances, but under the conditions of 2020–21, it can seem overwhelming. Teaching Lab and IM Math took three key actions to help teachers committed to acceleration achieve success in the new school year. 

IM Math established new unit plans that will save the school system and teachers countless hours of decision making and planning.


First, IM Math established new unit plans that will save the school system and teachers countless hours of decision making and planning. These plans indicate highest-priority lessons for each unit, lessons from previous grades that will most efficiently get students up to speed, and grade-level lessons that can be compressed or deemphasized. They also specify lessons to add from the previous year and lessons to remove or modify from the current year. They identify formative assessments, often from the previous year, that could provide early-warning indications as to where students may need the most help in an upcoming unit. 

Secondly, IM Math produced a guide for distance learning that organizes instruction into three phases: explore, deep dive, and synthesize and apply. The guide identifies the most important lessons for students in face-to-face or online learning settings. It also distinguishes lessons that students can be expected to do on their own. It proposes that lessons in the explore and synthesize and apply phases be done largely independently and with no need for coordination. The deep dive lessons, meanwhile, are critical for in-person, synchronous learning time. All lessons are labeled and organized according to this framework.

Thirdly, Teaching Lab planned and executed summer professional learning to support Freire’s commitment to accelerating student learning, much of which helped Freire educators put Teaching Lab’s guidance into practice. For example, a tool for accelerating learning helps teachers identify the most appropriate places in the grade-level curriculum for assessing prerequisites and determining where targeted support may be required.

Beyond Freire Schools, Teaching Lab facilitated remote professional learning this summer for many other school systems that are committed to implementing high-quality instructional materials. Its professional learning model, regardless of in-person or remote conditions, requires that teachers experience what they will expect of their students. “We are mindful of how long we ask teachers to engage online, just as they will have to think about the same for their students,” says Teaching Lab’s Colon. During this summer’s remote learning sessions, Teaching Lab facilitators anticipated teacher settings for the fall, allocated time in the same way they recommend that teachers use it, and identified pre-work and other assignments to be completed offline while using online time to address the most critical content. In addition, Teaching Lab’s professional learning modeled the use of new tools to support learner engagement.

While end-of-session surveys are more positive than normal, it will be several months before Teaching Lab has an accurate read on the impact of its support in Freire and other schools. It is committed to measuring changes in teacher mindsets and will be collecting summer, fall, and spring data via teacher surveys.

“There are so many people out in the field right now claiming to be experts at helping to close the COVID gap,” says Friere’s Thomas, “but there are only a few real experts who are willing to learn the intricacies of your setting, identify the available tools to use, and then support teachers across an entire school year to overcome these challenges.”


Stephanie Hirsh, former executive director of Learning Forward, is an author and consultant specializing in professional learning, leadership development, and organization improvement.