February 19th, 2021

Promising Practices to Accelerate Learning for Students with Disabilities During COVID-19 and Beyond - Introduction



COVID-19 shuttered school buildings and the impact on students will potentially be significant for years to come. Experts predict that school closures last spring could leave students a full year behind in math — with even greater impact as disruptions in instruction continue through the 2020–2021 school year. While instructional loss will affect most students, it could have a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities and other historically marginalized populations, including students of color, students impacted by poverty, and English language learners. For example, one study looked at the amount of grade-level content students had learned in math and reading during the fall semester. The researchers found that in schools that predominantly served students of color, scores were 59 percent of the historical average in math compared to 67 percent for all students. For reading, students of color had learned 77 percent of the content in reading compared to 87 percent for all students.

Even before COVID-19, these students with disabilities, students of color, English language learners (ELLs), and students impacted by poverty experienced persistent opportunity gaps and lower achievement compared to their nondisabled, native English speaking, and affluent peers. For instance, proficiency and graduation rates of students with disabilities continue to trail those of their peers, even though research demonstrates that they can meet the same academic standards when provided high-quality instruction and needed services and supports.

Generally, remedial instruction that simply reteaches content has been the default approach to bringing struggling students up to grade level. The major shortcoming of this approach is that students are pulled out of class to work on skill development in the target academic area, and the time spent away from their general classroom results in less engagement in grade-level curriculum. In other words, while remediation may help students improve isolated skills, the gap in these students’ subject-specific knowledge continues to widen. Additionally, while the remediation may prevent a widening gap in certain skills, it may not be sufficient to close the gap or to help students catch up as their peers forge ahead.

COVID-19 continues to exacerbate opportunity gaps. Students are struggling to access online resources, participate in virtual classrooms, and connect meaningfully with teachers and peers. Students with disabilities and ELLs carry the additional burden of accessing needed specialized instruction and related services and supports that were provided in person before the pandemic. In many cases, these services and supports have been disrupted or denied due to the pandemic. Students of color who have disabilities or who are ELLs face even more compounding challenges due to inequitable distribution of educational resources. What’s more, these students may lack accessible devices or reliable broadband and, as a result, will have more difficulty benefiting from distance or blended learning.

Planning for Equity and Inclusion: A Guide to Reopening Schools

Principle 4: Reimagine Learning
States and districts must prioritize high-quality instruction and educational experiences, whether in-person, fully distanced, or through blended learning, and provide opportunities not just to remediate student learning but to accelerate progress.

1. Educate students with disabilities alongside their peers
2. Redesign and accelerate curriculum
3. Use continuous formative assessments
4. Prioritize inclusion of students with disabilities

It is critical that schools take immediate steps to address the issue of instructional loss and prevent students from falling further behind. NCLD released a guide that outlines key principles to help shape inclusive and equitable learning opportunities for all students in the 2020–2021 school year. One of those principles is “reimagine learning” — an ambitious and critical goal to mitigate instructional loss from the pandemic. Until now, our nation’s schools have struggled to find effective ways to accelerate learning, or, as defined in a report by TNTP, “putting every student on a fast track to grade-level [proficiency].” The report highlights that children who have faced barriers academically, whether due to a disability, lack of English language proficiency, or other factors, rarely “catch up,” regardless of whether they receive additional support and services. Too often, these students are on a parallel but different trajectory from their peers who are performing at grade level.

Given that so many students have missed critical instruction since the start of the pandemic, there is an urgent need to identify what works — and to scale effective, research-based models that accelerate learning and improve outcomes for students, now and in the years to come. While states, districts, and schools pilot new approaches, policymakers, school leaders, educators, and parents should be vigilant in measuring the efficacy of these models and hold themselves to high standards of accountability, ensuring that sufficient guardrails are in place. This brief explores some of those models and highlights important considerations for historically marginalized student populations, especially students with disabilities.

Importantly, COVID-19 will have far-reaching consequences on students, teachers, schools, and education systems overall. For instance, it has exacerbated teacher shortages and has added additional stress and work to teachers’ already full plates. Implementing effective models to accelerate instruction and mitigate instructional loss must be only one piece of the overall strategy to support all students, families, teachers, and schools to maximize student outcomes during and after the pandemic. Indeed, focusing on acceleration or learning recovery without simultaneously addressing teacher shortages, funding scarcity, and other pressing challenges cannot be successful.

Part 1:

Research-Based Approaches to Accelerate Learning

Part 2:

Implementing Acceleration Approaches With Success

Part 3:

State-Level Policy Recommendations and Actions

Part 4:

Federal-Level Policy Recommendations and Actions


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