What We Know About Accelerating Student Achievement and Helping Young People Thrive

Mom and daughter on smartphone

Many different life experiences inform how we grow and thrive as adults. While K-12 academic learning influences multiple dimensions of life success, concerns about declining achievement among 9- and 13- year old students in key subjects like math and reading—as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP—have led to questions about the long-term challenges facing today’s young people. 

In response, the recently launched federal student achievement policy agenda has emphasized three ways to accelerate learning. They include:

  1. Increasing student attendance;
  2. Providing high-dosage tutoring; and
  3. Boosting summer learning and afterschool learning time. 

Evidence plays a critical role in designing and implementing approaches that accelerate learning and provide all students with equal access to a quality education. In fact, states and localities across the country have made progress across these three areas in part by enacting policy and implementing programs and interventions that are designed to improve outcomes and help students learn. This blog post describes some of what AIR has learned about the approaches in the federal agenda.

Increasing Student Attendance

Chronic absenteeism, which is typically defined as missing 10% or more of school days each year or time period, is associated with lower reading and math achievement. Further, students who are chronically absent in middle and high school have a higher risk of both dropping out and of experiencing negative outcomes later in life, such as substance use. To address this challenge, educators are exploring evidence-backed approaches to increasing student attendance across all grades.

  • Attendance-related text messages show promise. An AIR study found that an adaptive text messaging intervention reduced the expected chronic absence rate (20.5%) by 2.5 to 3.6 percentage points. The reduction was even greater for students with a prior history of chronic absences. For this population of students, intensified messaging (sent from school staff directly to parents) reduced chronic absence more than automated alerts alone. Over the next five years, AIR will update the text message bank from this study and continue exploring how texting interventions can be updated and potentially scaled to address persistent, urgent problems of chronic absence in a post-pandemic era. 
  • Conditions for learning and absence are interrelated. A 2019 Attendance Works report describes how chronic absence and conditions for learning are interconnected issues. For example, when schools provide engaging, supportive, and culturally responsive environments, families are inclined to help their children get to school and students are motivated to attend. Going further, students who attend class regularly and feel supportive relationships with teachers can have more substantive, meaningful educational experiences. The report includes case studies from Georgia and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District that illustrate how chronic absence and conditions for learning can be addressed through comprehensive, data-informed actions. 

Addressing Chronic Absenteeism

AIR’s Equity Initiative funds the Equitable Attendance Policy Partnership, a collaboration with the New Jersey Department of Education and the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The team works with states to harness principles of equitable evaluation to contribute to the attendance policy and implementation evidence base, while remaining grounded in the strengths and needs of the those who are most affected by attendance policy inequities.

The Student Engagement and Attendance Center (SEAC) supports state education agencies and local education agencies in their efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism and increase student engagement. SEAC develops tools, products, and resources on chronic absence interventions and improving student engagement in learning, including new tools to facilitate learning recovery by identifying strategies to reengage with youth and families.


Providing High-Dosage Tutoring

Professional Learning Services for Educators

AIR operates the Fuchs Tutoring program, a suite of professional learning services designed to help educators implement high-quality, effective tutoring and intervention programs in schools. In addition to direct training services to districts and schools, the program offers interactive professional learning institutes that help educators learn, practice, and begin implementing evidence-based programs.

Tutoring programs can be especially effective in helping address achievement gaps among students who are at risk for poor learning outcomes. In 2021, the American Rescue Plan included $129 billion in education funding for new programs and interventions designed to address the pandemic’s effect on student learning. This funding, along with the latest federal student achievement agenda, enabled educators and states to invest in programs like high-dosage tutoring. Key considerations for such leaders include the following: 

  • Rely on evidence-informed decision-making. Education leaders must consider both the scalability and sustainability of tutoring programs to meet students’ needs for academic support. AIR developed four recommendations to guide education leaders in their understanding of evidence-based tutoring interventions to accelerate student learning. These recommendations are to:
    1. Examine the demonstrated effectiveness of different tutoring models and programs to ensure that they are backed by evidence;
    2. Consider the workforce required to implement large-scale programs and ensure a fit between the type of intervention and staff training and skills; 
    3. Strive for strong, positive relationships between tutors and students that can generate meaningful outcomes for students beyond academic gains; and
    4. Set up rigorous monitoring systems that can allow education leaders to adjust and target interventions to meet the greatest needs.
  • Emphasize the importance of continuous improvement. AIR’s Jenny Scala notes in a recent Education Week article that high-dosage tutoring alone is not the solution. For system leaders, tutoring should be included as part of a comprehensive, student-centered, data-informed continuous improvement approach. AIR and ExpandED Schools, for example, recently embarked on a new collaboration designed to explore their comprehensive high-impact tutoring model in partnership with New York City Public Schools, the lessons learned from which will be shared with ExpandED Schools to inform their work.


Developing Learner-Centered Ecosystems by Continuing to Increase Summer Learning and Afterschool Time

As part of the COVID-19 relief funding, the U.S. Department of Education made increased investments in out-of-school time opportunities, including summer and afterschool programs. And, in a recent report, co-author and AIR Scholar Karen Pittman makes the case for creating learning ecosystems that leverage "school and community resources to provide rich learning experiences that build real-world competencies, commitments, and connections that support youth thriving." AIR has a long history of working with state and local systems and federal programs to implement, evaluate, and improve expanded learning and out-of-school time programs. New evidence in this area is described below.

  • Afterschool and summer programs support multiple positive outcomes. A growing evidence base suggests that afterschool and summer learning programs can have a positive influence on young people under the right conditions. Studies of afterschool and summer programs, for example, have demonstrated many potential positive outcomes, including increased engagement in school, improved school day attendance, fewer unexcused absences, fewer disciplinary referrals, improved academic performance, fewer behavior problems, and improved social and emotional competencies. 
  • Summer learning programs have the potential to accelerate learning. Recent data have shed light on the role of summer school as a post-pandemic learning recovery strategy. For example, researchers from the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) found that students who attended summer school improved their test scores in math but not in reading. The positive results for math are a good sign, but more high-quality, evidence-based summer school programming is needed to offset the overall losses facing most districts. In addition, AIR’s ongoing independent study of summer learning in Texas looks at how state policy supports the implementation of evidence-based design principles in summer learning programs. Study findings, which will be released in late 2024, will elevate lessons learned about how evidence-based practices are realized through state and local policy, tools, resources, and technical assistance and how they are implemented in more than 60 local education agencies
  • Community schools offer a way to broaden supports for students, their families, and the community. Community schools are receiving new attention and investment because of their potential to holistically support students and their families. A community school strategy typically incorporates four pillars: integrated supports, expanded learning time, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership. A team of AIR experts is learning about the implementation and outcomes of community schools in action through our long-term partnership with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and other systems. In CPS community schools, for example, high-implementing community schools are associated with increases in social, emotional, and academic learning, as well as environments that promote safety and belonging for students and their families.

We know that lessons learned from this work can help inform future decision-making and elevate promising practices to support program implementation. Through projects such as the Pre K–12 Research on Education Strategies to Advance Recovery and Turnaround (RESTART) Network, AIR will continue contributing evidence, insights, and information about what works to move the dial on academic equity and student achievement. Additional insights, uncovered as part of the federal research agenda, will also provide critical ideas for how best to support students, families, and communities in their efforts to improve outcomes and strengthen student achievement.