Putting students at the center

Research shows student-centered approaches result in achievement and engagement
By: | October 3, 2016

For centuries now, we have come to believe that there is only one way for students to learn—come to school, sit at a desk, be taught by a teacher, and be tested. We’ve operated schools as if they were industrial factories, with teaching and learning practices that mimic assembly-line and batch-processing manufacturing. But we can no longer rely on the methods of the past. Today, we need more students achieving at high levels to ensure a more equitable and prosperous future for our communities. Schools need student-centered strategies, rather than a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to education.

In student-centered environments, learning is personalized, competency-based, takes place anytime, anywhere, and students take ownership over their learning.

Take high school math for example. In a recent study, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that students in student-centered classrooms had both higher levels of engagement and increased learning in class. They also demonstrated higher growth on a test of problem-solving skills than those who learned in classrooms that were not student-centered. While too many students around the country are falling behind in math skills, student-centered practices encourage the use of mathematical reasoning to understand why problems are solved rather than just how. Students are able to articulate their mathematical thinking and critique others while identifying real-world applications to concepts they learn in the classroom.

Enhancing student-centered practices with technology also increases student engagement and achievement. The online learning program STEM21 Academy, for example, blends online learning with in-person support for students in grades 9-12, allowing them to master digital media skills while simultaneously absorbing advanced content in the sciences. Last year, 9th grade STEM21 students in 12 urban schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut showed significantly increased student achievement compared with peers who did not engage in the online program. Additionally, underserved students, female students, racial minorities, and students receiving free or reduced-price lunch who were involved with STEM21 experienced an increase in achievement levels.

Closing the gap

Here’s another advantage: Infusing student-centered practices into curriculums helps to close the opportunity gap for underserved students. Last year, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), studied four non-selective, urban California high schools ‚Äì two of which blend rigorous academics and workplace training, and the other two of which emphasize personalized learning and 21st century skills. The students in these schools, who are overwhelmingly low-income and majority black and Latino, significantly outperformed their peers in surrounding districts, outpacing them on state assessments, graduating at a higher rate and leaving high school with a much higher completion rate of courses required for admission into the California state college system. Furthermore, the two schools that were able to track student attainment beyond high school both reported significantly higher rates at which students stayed in college, far exceeding the national average, particularly among first-generation college-goers.

Given the growing interest in redesigning the high school experience in cities and school districts across the country, the studies detailed in Centered on Results provide a solid evidence base for redesigning public school systems. This research is an important step in demonstrating and quantifying the power of student-centered learning to increase engagement and achievement, and better prepare students for college and life. However, this is only the beginning of shifting public awareness towards the value of an up-to-date education system that places students at the center.

Nicholas C. Donohue is the president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization in New England based exclusively on education.