Research suggests students have experienced more unfinished learning over the last year than ever before. With the COVID-19 pandemic waning, school systems are facing a critical choice about how to respond. To move forward, we must focus on two bold priorities: Accelerating students back to grade level, and adding one million new teachers of color to our schools in the next decade. These priorities can help to create a stronger, more equitable education system.

Learning Acceleration

As teachers return to the classrooms, should they use the traditional approach of reviewing all the content students missed, known as remediation? Or should they start with the current grade’s content and provide “just-in-time” supports when necessary, known as learning acceleration?

A May 2021 report by TNTP and Zearn, a nonprofit organization whose online math platform is used by one in four elementary students in the United States, provides one of the first direct comparisons of these two approaches — and compelling new evidence that school systems should make learning acceleration the foundation of their academic strategies next year and beyond. Findings include:

  • Students of color and those from low-income backgrounds were more likely than their white, wealthier peers to experience remediation — even when they had already demonstrated success on grade-level content.
  • Students who experienced learning acceleration struggled less and learned more than students who started at the same level but experienced remediation instead.
  • Learning acceleration was particularly effective for students of color and those from low-income families.

This is strong evidence that learning acceleration works, and that it could be key to unwinding generations-old academic inequities the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated.

Diversifying the Teaching Profession

To help students accelerate back to grade-level after the disruption of the pandemic, schools will need more great teachers than ever. And as a growing body of research and years of advocacy by civil rights organizations and education leaders of color has shown, the U.S. has an especially urgent need for teachers of color. While all students benefit from having teachers of color — in the form of greater engagement, higher achievement, and cross-cultural interactions — the benefits are most significant for students of color. Students with the same racial or ethnic background as their teacher are more likely to complete high school and go to college, less likely to be suspended, and more likely to be referred to gifted and talented programs. For Black students, having just one Black teacher in elementary school can improve their lives far into adulthood.

Yet across the country, teachers don’t look like the students they serve. While 53% of students in the United States identify as people of color, 80% of teachers are white, and 40% of public schools don’t have a single teacher of color. Further, our own analysis of teacher preparation programs nationwide has shown that they are significantly whiter, on average, than the public school population: In the 50 states and Washington D.C., enrollees at teacher preparation programs — quite literally the future teaching workforce —are nearly 64% white, while public school students are 47% white. Without immediate action, this teacher diversity gap will widen as schools lay off teachers to close looming budget deficits, since “last-in, first-out” layoff rules often disproportionately affect teachers of color. For the teacher workforce to mirror student demographics, we would need to add one million teachers of color to our nation’s schools.

We have an opportunity in this critical moment to transform the demographics of the teaching profession — as evidenced by the growing network of practitioners focused on the issue, a federal administration that has signaled this issue as a priority for K-12 education along with similar signals among some states, grassroots organizers and advocates who are ready to engage and mobilize, and a growing public awareness of systemic racism.

How Donors Can Help

Providing students with diverse, talented teachers and the challenging, engaging school experiences that can accelerate them back to grade level is possible — and will create far better learning experiences for many students than they received before the COVID-19 pandemic. Donors can help advance these efforts by supporting organizations with explicit commitments to:

  • Recruiting and/or retaining educators of color;
  • Advancing policies at the state and federal level that promote diversification of the educator workforce;
  • Providing teachers and schools with the resources and support to make learning acceleration a reality for all students; and/or
  • Exploring and improving their own commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion so that staff and leadership reflect the communities they serve.