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Unearthing secrets to student success

By February 29, 2012June 14th, 20162 Comments

In the decade-plus since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, schools and districts have struggled to bring all students to proficiency in core academic areas, as measured by standardized assessments. No question about it—students do need to be proficient in core subject areas, yet a legitimate criticism of this high-stakes environment, as found by researcher Wayne Au, has been that it can narrow the curriculum to tested subjects and result in an increase in teacher-centered pedagogy.

But what if student-centered learning, with an additional emphasis on intangibles like effort, motivation, and character, could result in an increase in student achievement outcomes? The Expeditionary Learning program is based on just that premise. In Expeditionary Learning schools (students engage in team-based, interdisciplinary “learning expeditions,” including fieldwork, case studies, projects, and service learning—all with an underlying focus on culture and character. These learning expeditions are intended not only to foster students’ academic growth, but also to contribute to the community. In Rochester, New York, for example, students worked on a proposal to beautify the area by uncovering a river that had been paved over and creating a riverfront park area. In Denver, Colorado, students proposed to build a planned new school as a “green” school, researching environmentally friendly building practices, proposing a school design, and creating pamphlets to present their findings to the district.

Program developers and staff have long been convinced that this approach results in improvements in student achievement, and quasi-experimental research from the RAND Corporation, Brown University, and other highly regarded institutions backs them up, showing statistically significant achievement gains and decreases in achievement gaps in Expeditionary Learning schools. None other than President Barack Obama called Capital City Public Charter School, an Expeditionary Learning School, an “example of how all our schools should be.”

What are Expeditionary Learning schools doing to foster this success? We want to see it firsthand, so we’ll be working with the Expeditionary Learning program, through a grant from Nellie Mae, to study student-centered learning practices in an Expeditionary Learning school in Springfield, Massachusetts.

What will we find? Stay tuned for our results.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Emily Hoeschen says:

    As an advocate for school improvement, we have focused a lot on the instructional practices of the educator as far as school reform. Taking innovative ideas and strategies and implementing them with sustainability in our schools.
    After reading this article, I feel we have left out an intricate part: the students. Sometimes we overlook the impact students have on their “own” outcomes and school change.
    Now you got me thinking… if we involve students in the areas of engagement, motivation, etc. how might all of our collective efficacy affect change in our schools.
    A novel idea to say the least….

  • Au, has been that it can narrow the curriculum to tested subjects and result in an increase in teacher-centered pedagogy.

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