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New research shows effectiveness of student-centered learning in closing the opportunity gap

June 17, 2014
By Barbara McKenna
Study shows benefits of student-centered learning.
Study shows benefits of student-centered learning.
Personalized instruction, high expectations and hands-on and group learning are at the core of "student-centered" learning practices.

While, nationally, students of color and low-income students continue to achieve at far lower levels than their more advantaged peers, some schools are breaking that trend. New research from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) is documenting these successes at four such schools in Northern California —schools in which traditionally underserved students are achieving above state and district averages.

Earlier this year SCOPE released individual case studies of these schools as part of its Student-Centered Schools Study — funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Today, SCOPE has released the culminating research: a cross-case analysis and its technical report, a research brief and policy brief, and an interactive online tool for educators. Together, these pieces offer evidence of the positive impact of student-centered learning and practical hands-on tools educators can use to reflect on and develop their practice.

Student-centered practices emphasize personalization; high expectations, hands-on and group learning experiences, teaching of 21st century skills, performance-based assessments; and opportunities for educators to reflect on their practice and develop their craft as well as shared leadership among teachers, staff, administrators, and parents. These practices are more often found in schools that serve affluent and middle-class students. Schools that incorporate these key features of student-centered practice are more likely to develop students that have transferrable academic skills; feel a sense of purpose and connection to school; as well as graduate, attend, and persist in college at rates that exceed their district and state averages.

"The numbers are compelling," said Stanford University Professor and SCOPE Faculty Director Linda Darling-Hammond, "students in the study schools exhibited greater gains in achievement than their peers, had higher graduation rates, were better prepared for college, and showed greater persistence in college. Student-centered learning proves to be especially beneficial to economically disadvantaged students and students whose parents have not attended college."

"The products from this study not only provide the evidence that student-centered approaches work but practical tools for educators that can be used to foster meaningful learning that enables all students to thrive, especially low-income students and students of color," said Nick Donohue, President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

The study also addresses the policy changes that are essential to student-centered schools, including funding, human capital policies, and implementation.

Transforming the kinds of learning spaces most needed by underserved students requires educators who are well-prepared to create authentic learning experiences, grounded in students’ experiences while addressing their gaps in knowledge and skills. Educators need strong pre-service training as well as ongoing support to ensure that they are meeting students’ needs.

Transforming schools requires adequate funding to attract and retain high-quality staff and to provide a rich set of curriculum experiences for students both inside and beyond the school. It also requires that federal and state governments support innovative schools more and mandate less; transform their assessment systems to support deeper learning; and develop systemic learning opportunities among educators, schools, districts, and other agencies. This is no small task, but the practices of the schools in this study—and the contexts that surround them—shed light on the types of teaching and policy supports needed to achieve these goals.

For more information, visit: SCOPE.