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Student-Centered Practices for Underserved Youth

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This post is by Diane Friedlander, a Senior Associate at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), and Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, where she is Faculty Director of SCOPE. Her latest book is Beyond the Bubble Test: How Performance Assessments Support 21st Century Learning (Wiley, 2014). 

Seniors at Dozier-Libbey Medical High School in Antioch, California, delve into medical ethics after three years of high school in which health and medicine are interwoven across the curriculum. While students in their senior year take a class in medical ethics, in which they learn about the eugenics movement and medical experimentation, they also study medical ethics across the curriculum. For example, in English class, they read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about the African American woman whose body was used to harvest stem cells without her family's consent. Now her stem cells are the most widely used in the world.

In physics, the students develop, design, and build a device of their choosing to enable a disabled person to do something about which the students are personally passionate. The students identify the stakeholders for the device, whom it could benefit or harm, and what it would cost to make. Across the three courses, students deeply investigate the meaning of disability and biases in the notions of "fixing" a disability; this inquiry concludes in a research paper. Research for the paper is conducted in English class, outlined and drafted in medical ethics class, and graded by both teachers.

These students are engaged in deeper learning, which motivates them; enables them to think critically and creatively; and activates many opportunities for them to investigate, collaborate, and communicate in many forms. Unfortunately, this kind of deep inquiry into an interdisciplinary project is a rare experience for low-income students of color in the United States. For the past 13 years, as an unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the nation has moved to an increasingly inequitable system as low-performing schools, particularly those serving low-income students of color in segregated settings, relied more and more on drill-and-kill rote instruction of basic skills primarily in English and math. In fact, most high schools in the United States remain structured for an industrial era when few graduates attended college or had professional careers. However, specialized skills and knowledge are now required for at least 70 percent of jobs

Fortunately, growing acknowledgement that U.S. schools, particularly those working with traditionally underserved populations, are not preparing all students adequately for college and career success has sparked a series of reform efforts. Through the development of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and corresponding new assessment systems, as well as locally developed initiatives, there is a growing emphasis on deeper learning competencies, including a flexible understanding of and ability to apply core academic content, think critically, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and learn how to learn, as exemplified by the students at Dozier-Libbey.

In studying schools that succeed for low-income students of color in California, we have found that there are a set of student-centered practices that enable students to access the kinds of deeper learning experiences they need to achieve success in college, career, and life. As we show in our recently released study, Student-Centered Schools: Closing the Opportunity Gap, such schools are outperforming most other schools in communities that are serving similar populations, especially in terms of college preparatory course completion, high school graduation and college persistence rates, and student achievement on standardized tests. Our recent study included four high schools in California, including Dozier-Libbey Medical High School in Antioch, Life Academy in Oakland, Impact Academy of Arts and Technology in Hayward, and City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco. All of the schools are non-selective in their admissions criteria and serve predominately low-income students of color. The schools are using student-centered practices through either the Linked Learning initiative or Envision Education model. Across the country, schools using similar practices record similar successes, like those in the Internationals Network for Public Schools, the New York Performance Standards Consortium, Boston Pilot Schools Network, and the Asia Society. 

Although schools like Dozier-Libbey exist across the country, they are rare in low-income communities of color. To the degree that deeper learning remains inaccessible and unavailable to these students, the United States will never be able to solve its equity dilemma. The evidence is clear: the skills required to be truly "college- and career-ready" will only be obtained when students have access to a curriculum that provides ample opportunity to develop higher order skills.

The notion that students from low-income backgrounds are incapable of deeper learning has been difficult to challenge because educators have not had access to clear and compelling examples that show how it can be done. Our research provides such examples and identifies essential instructional practices that other schools can adopt to create deeper learning environments, including:

  • High expectations to ensure that all students have access to college and career  opportunities;
  • rigorous, inquiry-based instruction and group learning opportunities that support the development of deep understanding of content as well as problem-solving and collaboration skills;
  • a shift in teaching orientation from task completion to mastery, enabling students to learn at their own pace and to revise their work until they can demonstrate deep understanding;
  • authentic and performance-based assessments that enable students to demonstrate their learning; and
  • relevant curricula that connect and expand upon what students know and care about.

In addition, structures and practices that personalize the school experience enable students to develop foundational relationships with adults and the life skills to manage the adult world, as well as the orientation to envision a bright future for themselves. They include:

  • Advisory programs that match teachers to a small group of students for whom they are responsible over multiple years to provide the infrastructure of personalized academic support;
  • community rituals and rites of passage that allow students to be recognized for their accomplishments and support their confidence and motivation to succeed;
  • instructional strategies that are customized to students' strengths, interests, and needs and enable them to find pathways to understanding;
  • social-emotional skill development, which provides students with the tools to navigate the adult world.

These kinds of practices are often reserved for students in affluent schools or upper tracks, who enter high school well-prepared, self-confident, and motivated. Additional supports are necessary to adopt these strategies in schools serving students who lack basic skills and academic self-confidence. To support students who enter school with low academic skills and face educational challenges related to poverty or language fluency, the schools in our study adopted in-class and out-of-class strategies to support students' ongoing academic development. These strategies include:

  • The use of advisory classes to provide academic support for culminating assessments, projects, and other homework;
  • differentiated instruction;
  • tutorial and after-school support; and
  • provision of additional resources and support to English learners and special education students.

Finally, while promising, implementing student-centered practices requires tremendous transformation of teaching approaches, school organization, and leadership orientation, particularly in schools previously under the threat of being labeled as "failing." School staff need opportunities for collaboration, shared and distributed leadership, and a culture of self-reflection to create the kinds of environments to fully support their students' success.  Specifically, the following practices are important:

  • A shared vision that is collaboratively developed and held by all school staff,
  • collaboration time that includes grade-level and department-level opportunities to share best practices and strategies to serve individual students,
  • teacher leadership opportunities to support decision making close to the classroom, and
  • a culture of reflection so all educators can continually refine their practice.

Every student, regardless of ethnicity, family income, or parent education, should have access to schools where they feel well-known, cared for, and valued--schools where they are asked to delve into deep questions of ethics and create real solutions to problems, like the students at Dozier-Libbey. However, it is important to remember that providing all students true access to deeper learning also requires the supportive practices of a personalized learning environment; academic supports; and supports for teacher learning, reflection, and leadership.

Diane Friedlaender is a Senior Associate at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. She is the author of several SCOPE publications, including Windows on Conversions (2006), High Schools for Equity: Policy Supports for Student Learning in Communities of Color (2007), and Student-Centered Schools: Closing the Opportunity Gap (2014).

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