It’s Not What You Do, But How You Do It

Attend nearly any D.C.-based education event, and you’re bound to hear an endorsement for XXXX program or approach. You can practically see the Hill staffers pinging someone back at the office to be sure to include XXXX in legislative language. These endorsements drive me nuts. Because within every XXXX lives an enormous diversity in quality — and quality is what makes the difference for kids.

I saw what a difference quality makes during recent visits to two schools, each implementing project-based learning.

Project-based learning (PBL) has an intuitive draw for educators: It’s a teaching method that, in theory, develops critical thinking and content knowledge simultaneously by engaging students in a process of inquiry. As students work through projects, they are also building important skills, such as collaboration and communication. The problem is that, in practice, PBL is difficult to implement well, since the multiple emphases (content delivery, inquiry, and skill-building) create a tough balancing act for educators.

Take my first visit to a high school that was in the first few years of implementing a project-based approach. The educators wanted to ensure that students were building collaboration skills, so students worked in groups in nearly every classroom. Unfortunately, students were doing little more than summarizing textbook material in groups; teachers disguised this task as a “project” by charging the students with presenting their summaries in various formats.

In one education psychology class, students were learning about sleep, a topic that could have been paired with any number of driving questions (such as: How should our school district set high school start times?). But instead, the teacher had students working in groups to summarize short portions of the textbook, each student taking on a specified role (e.g., draw a picture of the passage, define key words, etc.). To make matters worse, the teacher gave students the entire class period to work on this small task, pushing the share-out into the next day and wasting a great deal of students’ time.

Contrast this picture with the project-based approach in my second school visit. In this school, projects were clearly tied to standards (what students should learn), engaging questions (inquiry), and classroom processes that would help students build collaboration and problem-solving skills. For example, in an engineering class, students had to figure out how to help a handicapped community member mow his lawn. (Their solution: a remote-control lawnmower that they actually built.) Along the way, they utilized engineering, math, and science concepts (aligned to standards), worked as a team, and built connections with their community.

To encourage and support different instructional approaches, the principal at this school created co-teaching assignments that combined different subjects (social studies and art, for example). And during a collaborative planning session, teachers assessed themselves on the degree to which their current projects met the principles of the project-based approach, and they brainstormed ways they could adjust mid-project to improve their students’ experience.

These two schools, admittedly extremes of PBL implementation, raise some important lessons for any educational initiative. Instructional approaches must be grounded in sound research and theory (PBL passes muster), but even more important, implementation must expose educators to, and support them in providing, a quality experience for students, broadly conceptualized as:

  1. Engaging students in meaningful learning opportunities,
  2. Expecting students to grapple with complex material, and
  3. Ensuring that students gain important content knowledge along the way.

There are, of course, other components to good instruction, but these set a foundation.

If you’re interested more in the “how” than the “what,” you might consider attending The Education Trust’s 2014 National Conference on Nov. 13-14 in Baltimore. The second school profiled in this post will be presenting on how it tackles the PBL challenge.

Rutgers–Newark: Leading the Way in Diversity, Degrees

SixYearFor years, Rutgers University–Newark struggled to embrace its diversity — students reported feeling unwelcome on campus based on race, ethnicity, and religion. And it showed in in the university’s graduation rates: In 2002, more than half of white students graduated, while only 38 percent of African Americans got a degree.

But new leadership — both at the Rutgers system level and at the Newark campus level — sought to change that. With an enthusiastic focus on diversity, Rutgers-Newark leaders convened faculty and staff to work together across campus to provide the academic supports, resources, and instruction that helped all students — and particularly the first-generation and low-income students — toward a degree.

Those efforts included: Continue reading

Schools That Dispel the Myth

We give our Dispelling the Myth Award to schools each year that are providing a rich, coherent curriculum for all students and closing gaps in opportunity and achievement for low-income students and students of color. Together, they dispel the damaging myth that schools can do very little to help students overcome the barriers of poverty and discrimination. Hear what the award-winning principals had to say:

Join us at our 2014 national conference, where we’ll have breakout sessions with our award-winners, who will share their best practices and lessons learned. Register now — our early-bird rate ends in seven days!

Watching New Teachers

As my children and my neighbors’ children graduated from college and entered the workforce, several of them and their friends took teaching positions straight out of college. Every time, I was struck by how little they knew about the field they were entering and how huge the challenge they had taken on. Smart and dedicated, they simply had no experience managing a classroom, organizing instruction, thinking through how children learn, or any of the myriad problems posed by teaching. Some have stuck with it, and some have not. But those who have stuck with it have had to overcome a lot of confusion. Continue reading

Questioning the Deficit

Why do black and Hispanic students perform worse than white students? This is the question at the heart of achievement gap. The problem, though, is that this question places the blame on students, inferring that they somehow lack something and have to “catch up” to their peers. Simply asking that question renders one group of students less than another group.

BlackWhiteQuestionMark(1)This is called deficit language, and it has plagued educational research and public conversation around the achievement gap for years despite information about its harm. Deficit language ranges from the genetic inferiority of races (see: The Bell Curve, which posits that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites) to an assumption that hidden, self-perpetuating rules prevent the poor from rising out of poverty (Ruby Payne is best known for this work). In practice, it is when black and Hispanic students are not referred to gifted classes as often as white students or are not provided challenging curricula. Continue reading

What If You Had a 5 Percent Chance of Graduating College?

Would you enroll in college (or send your son or daughter), if you (or they) had only a 5 percent chance of graduating?

What about 10 percent? 15 percent?

… No?

More than 450,000 students do it every year, enrolling in four-year colleges and universities with atrociously low graduation rates — so low, in fact, that students are more than five times as likely to drop out or transfer than earn the degree they were seeking. (Not sure which those colleges are? Check out our interactive map.) Continue reading

Common Core Helps — Not Hurts — Students of Color

Two researchers at Mount St. Mary recently penned an opinion piece that ran in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog. It highlighted a lack of diversity — in both authors and subject matter — among the list of recommended texts that are aligned to the Common Core: Of 171 books recommended for elementary children, only 18 are by authors of color, and few of them, in general, reflect the lives of children of color and the poor.

Those are abysmal numbers, and the recommended list should, indeed, reflect more diversity. But the title of the piece — “How Common Core’s Recommended Books Fail Children of Color” — sensationalizes the message and risks complicating an already-controversial cloud of conversation around new college- and career-ready standards. Continue reading

Need-Blind Is Just Like Colorblind: Why Low-income Kids Should Receive Preferential Consideration in College Admissions

Need-blind college admissions processes evaluate applicants solely based on a broadly defined definition of merit (wink wink), detaching information on students’ financial need from the application review and final admission decision. Since need-blind colleges, particularly those that meet students’ full financial need, never reject a prospective student because of an inability to pay, this process is often considered the gold standard in college admissions.

In reality, it is more like fool’s gold. Continue reading