Acceleration vs. Remediation: What Works for My Students

My kids are good swimmers, and when I say good, I don't mean they are future Olympians, but they both have collected their fair share of medals.  Although they are both fantastic swimmers, their introduction to competitive swimming differed significantly.  My daughter was five years old when she had her first experience.  When we arrived, the pool was full of experienced swimmers ages 7-10.  The coach asked my baby to jump in (no goggles, no fins) and begin swimming alongside the others.  She just completed beginner swim lessons, was unfamiliar with the strokes, and had never swum more than one lap in a pool.  The other swimmers had goggles, fins, and, more importantly, experience.  It did not take long for her to fall behind.  I remember that baby going at it for 45 minutes, never complaining and refusing to quit.  But the moment she got out of the pool, she began crying and said, "Don't make me do that again." It took us two years before she would give competitive swimming a chance.
On the other hand, my son's coach asked him to swim down and back one time on his first day.  She wondered what strokes he knew and asked him to show her.  Based on that information, she placed him in a lane with swimmers at or slightly above his level.  Before they began, the coach explained the steps of each stroke and the 1-2 essential items on which a good swimmer should focus.  The coaches focused on what was needed for each swimmer to be successful.  The difference between the two approaches is that my daughter lost two years of swimming, but my son excelled. 
Both of my children loved to swim and wanted to do well, but the support they received set each of them on very different paths.  Likewise, our struggling learners feel the same about education.  They have the desire to learn, so we must ask ourselves if the support we provide pushes them forward or holds them back.  To make this determination, we must first look at the two methods of intervention most educators choose.

Remediation vs. Acceleration

Region 7 ESC Remediation Acceleration Center for Effective Schools Richard Nash
At a basic level, remediation means reteaching content from previous units or grade levels that students did not learn.  Remediation focuses on various items students have failed to master, is isolated from core instruction, and does not connect to the current content.  Data shows that the learning gaps of students who receive remedial instruction have a greater tendency to expand.  Often, remediation becomes a pull-out, and students begin to see themselves as slow or dumb.  Regarding accountability, one of the most popular catchphrases I hear is, "No one goes backward." But think about this, how do we expect students to gain access to content in real-time if tier 2 and tier 3 are geared to mastery of missing skills from years past and have little to no correlation to current grade-level content?  I have never seen a swimmer win their meet by looking backward the whole race.  And we won't move students forward if we have them focused on what is already behind them.
Acceleration, on the other hand, allows underperforming students to begin learning new concepts before their classmates.  This form of intervention strategically prepares students for success in their present learning.  Rather than concentrating on a litany of items that students have failed to master, acceleration readies students for new learning.  Past concepts and skills are addressed, but always in the purposeful context of future learning.  Acceleration provides a fresh academic start for students every week and creates opportunities for struggling students to learn alongside their more successful peers.
Because of COVID learning loss, we know there is a greater need than ever to accelerate learning.  Data helps us identify every possible gap in student learning starting the first day of school.  The list of things students should know but don't is daunting.  The list is extensive, from fractions to multiplication tables, parts of speech, order of operations, long division, author's purpose, branches of government, and elements on the periodic chart.  Our actions in accelerating student learning are the most significant predictor of student success.  So how do we best accelerate learning for our students? 
Region 7 ESC Remediation Acceleration Center for Effective Schools Richard Nash

Prior Knowledge

Several years ago, I had a principal friend whose school was continuously knocking the math scores out of the park.  When asked what they were doing, he explained that they had started a math club where the teacher would review what students would learn the following week.  He shared that the students who attended, generally struggling students, became more engaged in class and confident in their work.  

The correlation between academic background knowledge and achievement is staggering: prior knowledge can determine whether a 50th-percentile student sinks to the 25th percentile or rises to the 75th (Marzano, 2004).  Accordingly, a crucial aspect of the acceleration model is putting key prior knowledge into place so students have something to connect to new information.  Rather than focus on everything students do not know about the concept, teachers thoughtfully select the prior knowledge that will help students grasp the upcoming standard.  Although the acceleration model revisits basic skills, these skills are laser-selected, applied immediately with the new content, and never taught in isolation.  


A key to unlocking prior knowledge is a student's vocabulary capacity.  Look no further than standardized testing to identify the power of vocabulary.  Studies show that students in grades 4-12 who score at the 50th percentile know approximately 6,000 more words than students scoring at the 25th percentile.  According to Marzano, the number of new vocabulary words introduced in grades 3-5 is on par with the number of new words for high school students (2024). 
Unfortunately, the method of providing a list of words and quizzing on Friday does not help resolve the vocabulary issue.  Traditionally educators use strategies such as searching a dictionary, looking for context clues, or reading around the word to help students identify unfamiliar meanings.  In reality, the chances of a student piecing together a word's meaning from the surrounding text depend both on the individual student's ability and on the text itself.  For example, when students are grappling with dense text containing many unfamiliar words, the odds are remote that they will be able to use context clues to discern meaning.  In fact, students have just a 7 percent chance of understanding new words from that kind of dense text.
Giving students significant amounts of reading or extensive vocabulary lists to study and learn will not solve this problem.  Students need multiple exposures to new words— typically SIX — to grasp, retain and use them.  Much like my children learning critical aspects of the butterfly stroke, it is imperative that the vocabulary students learn is modeled and experienced immediately.  An accelerated learning approach would include activities such as word art, anchor charts that build on the vocabulary, and vocabulary sorts, all familiar strategies.  However, these activities must be performed with an immediate connection to the learning.  Often the best exposure occurs immediately prior to the reading.
Region 7 ESC Remediation Acceleration Center for Effective Schools Richard Nash

Benefits of Acceleration

Our students who are the furthest behind academically have a great deal on the line.  Experts say the struggling student can get legitimately ill at the thought of going to school due to the pressure and overwhelming feeling of failure.  By 5th grade, vulnerable students would describe themselves as lonely, unpopular, and angry.  As vulnerable students progress through school, one will begin to see an increase in depression, anxiety, and misconduct which often results in higher rates of absenteeism and drop-outs.  These feelings of inadequacy and the loss of confidence are devastating to our students.
Every swimmer I have met performs exponentially better in their second race than he did in his first.  The improved performance is a result of gaining experience and putting the coaching into practice.  Likewise, experts like Suzy Pepper-Rollins say that the most common feedback they get from teachers is how quickly student confidence and participation increase through accelerated instruction.  The acceleration approach helps struggling students build their self-efficacy.  Students begin to believe that they can learn, acknowledge that they are not "dumb," and find the tenacity to navigate complex learning, because they believe they deserve to learn.  This marked improvement makes sense.  The concepts are placed directly in the students' paths just in time for the new learning that will occur in core classrooms.  Empowered by their new-found knowledge, students feel safer raising their hands in class.  Their fear of embarrassment diminishes because the odds they will know the correct responses have increased.  A good coach knows that the most powerful tool an athlete can have is the belief that he or she can, and if accelerated learning can give our vulnerable students the same confidence, is it not worth trying?
Region 7 ESC Remediation Acceleration Center for Effective Schools Richard Nash
Region 7 ESC Richard Nash Region 7 ESC Center For Effective Schools
Richard Nash is a Director for Center of Effective Schools at Region 7 ESC and works with leaders in the area of school improvement and high impact tutoring.  Prior to joining us at Region 7 ESC, Richard served in various leadership roles, including Assistant Superintendent, Director of Curriculum and Federal Programs, and High School Principal.
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