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Expeditionary Learning Schools Boosted Reading, Math, Study Finds

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Expeditionary Learning middle schools in Washington, D.C., and New York City improved mathematics and reading learning, particularly for students who remained with the project-based school model for all three years of middle school.

That's the conclusion of a new longitudinal study by Mathematica Policy Research, "Impacts of Five Expeditionary Learning Middle Schools on Academic Achievement," the first to match students in Expeditionary Learning schools with demographically similar district students.

Ira Nichols-Barrer, a Mathematica researcher and the lead author of the study, and Joshua Haimson, a senior researcher at Mathematica, used administrative data to match and track students who entered the Expeditionary Learning schools and district middle schools after 2010. They found that in reading, students who stayed in the Expeditionary Learning middle schools gained on average five months' worth of additional learning after two years, and seven months' worth of additional learning after three years, compared to students who attended other district schools. In math, the difference was delayed, but ultimately stronger: three months of additional learning after two years, and 10 months—about a full academic year—of additional learning after three years.

Expeditionary Learning uses curricular projects to teach concepts and skills in different subjects, with a focus on critical thinking and problem-solving, either as a curriculum for a particular subject or as a whole-school improvement model. About 161 schools in 30 states use a schoolwide model, and the Mathematica study focused on two Washington charter schools and three regular district schools in New York City, all at the middle-school level, that had used the program as a whole-school reform.

"That kind of approach, where there's a focus on skills that might not manifest immediately on standardized tests, might explain" the increasing effects over time, said Nichols-Barrer.

The researchers hope to repeat their study with a larger sample of program schools and gather more information about the specific school practices and professional development that might contribute to better learning over time.

"[EL schools] really emphasize the development of not only early, really basic math and reading skills but of critical thinking and what they call 'deeper learning.' There's a lot of interest in those types of skills across the country," Haimson said.

Photo: Lisnanlly Guaba, 18, discusses college applications with Assistant Principal Jenny Rodriguez, right, during a mentoring session at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in New York City, which was part of the study. Photo by Melanie Burford/Prime for Education Week.

An earlier version misstated the Washington Heights school's relationship to the study.

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