Press Release: Giving Students a Voice Is Critical to Education Reform and Student Success

Published apr. 11, 2012

Boston, MA (April 11, 2012) — The more educators give students choice, control, challenge, and opportunities to collaborate, the more motivated and engaged those students will be and the more they will learn, according to a new research paper from the innovative, cross-disciplinary project Students at the Center: Teaching and Learning in the Era of the Common Core. The paper—Motivation, Engagement and Student Voice—is one of three that Jobs for the Future (JFF) released today. Funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the project focuses attention on the need to put middle and high school students at the center of education reform strategies in order to significantly raise U.S. educational achievement rates, increase completion rates, and help the nation close persistent race and income gaps.

Two additional papers released today highlight the vital importance of positive teacher-student relationships and of student-centered assessment practices in improving achievement. Personalization in Schools pinpoints the power of individualized instruction, which can only succeed when teachers know their students well and develop mutual trust and respect with them. Assessing Learning calls for a balanced approach to assessment—using a variety of tools such as portfolios and presentations, classroom formative techniques, and large-scale standardized assessments—to help students manage their own learning and help teachers analyze learning and respond to each student’s needs.

The publication of today’s papers completes the first phase of Students at the Center, a project that spans disciplines as diverse as brain research and school district practices to affirm that all young people can acquire the skills, knowledge, and expertise needed for 21st-century college and career success. This level of learning includes and goes beyond the Common Core State Standards. 

The next phase of Students at the Center will address further research questions. It will also engage policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders in education reform at the district, state, and national levels in broad discussions about student-centered approaches, particularly about spreading practices beyond individual classrooms and schools.

“Our opportunity—and challenge—is to bring the power of the student-centered approach into harmony with the common core,” said Nancy Hoffman, vice president at JFF. ““In the face of continuing attempts to raise U.S. educational achievement and attainment for all students, educators have to work with young people in a way that gains their agreement that what schools offer makes sense for them. Given the distractions of today’s media culture, this is a heavy lift.”

Until now, educators have had few places to turn for a comprehensive accounting of the key components of this emerging field. Students at the Center provides a wide-ranging and thoughtful platform to start filling those gaps. In addition to the research papers, the Students at the Center website contains a searchable resource database that JFF is constantly expanding. It includes videos, online resources, and research literature that have been gathered by the project’s research teams and by the larger student-centered learning community to enhance the valuable knowledge base for the field of student-centered approaches to learning.

Education researchers, writers, practitioners, and policymakers have been invited to attend a symposium on April 25-26 to identify how student-centered approaches to learning can be implemented at the district, state, and national levels to advance the goals of education reform and to align with the Common Core. The results of this dialogue will be featured on the Students at the Center website

Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice

Eric Toshalis and Michael J. Nakkula write with deep concern that the movement to raise education standards through the Common Core may fail unless teachers are supported to motivate and engage their students. The authors conclude that one of the most powerful tools schools have to increase learning is fostering student voice—empowering youth to express their opinions and influence their educational experiences so they feel they have a stake in the outcomes. 

Toshalis and Nakkula observe that: 

  • Both intelligence and motivation are malleable. Helping students understand that they can acquire skills through effort, regardless of past achievement, increases their motivation to try. 
  • Grouping so-called “unmotivated students” together and sequestering them from supposedly “motivated students” is likely to exacerbate existing motivational dispositions and intellectual capacities.
  • Providing opportunities for choice, control, and collaboration are potent strategies for increasing academic achievement. Young people are likely to be more motivated and engaged in an activity when they have a voice in how it is conducted and can affect how it concludes.
  • Despite the benefits of technology, today’s myriad digital distractions can threaten productivity and cognitive complexity in learning. It is essential to teach adolescents when to unplug and how to focus on one activity at a time. 

“Being student centered in teaching and using student voice to direct at least some of the activity in schools may require educators, administrators, and policymakers to advocate for a reform agenda that challenges current standardizing practices,” said Toshalis, Ed.D., coauthor of the paper and assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

Personalization in Schools

Susan YonezawaLarry McClure, and Makeba Jones evaluate formal attempts to personalize U.S. secondary education and assess the research on teacher-student relationships and their impact. With a focus on programs for low-income and minority youth, the authors  examine school reforms that have incorporated personalization. To improve student achievement and emotional well-being significantly, they conclude, increasing personalization must be the goal of a widespread, sustained organizational effort.

Yonezawa, McClure, and Jones demonstrate that: 

  • Teacher-student relationships are central to personalization. They lie at the heart of a variety of widespread reforms designed to support young people as students and as emerging adults. 
  • Positive relationships between youth and adults improve student outcomes on a range of measures, including academic, behavioral, physical, and emotional well-being. The gains are particularly evident for low-income and minority youth. 
  • More research is needed on implementing personalization-oriented reforms. The most effective practices appear in small schools, advisory programs, and efforts that focus on improving youth-adult relationships versus large-scale, district-wide reform. 
  • There are promising new ways to increase personalization, including career-based curricula, multiple pathways, technology, and community schools.

“Personalization promotes pro-social behaviors as well as academic benefits such as higher standardized test scores, increased motivation, and fewer retention and special education referrals,” said Yonezawa, Ph.D., associate project research scientist with the University of California, San Diego’s Center for Research in Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE).

Assessing Learning

To paint a picture of what student-centered assessment can be, Heidi AndradeKristen Huff, and Georgia Brooke examine the range of assessment practices, including classroom-based and local, state, and national assessments. They conclude that a blend of practices—each with different purposes, advantages, and limitations—can create a balanced, student-centered assessment system, with great benefits for preparing students for college and careers. The authors pay particular attention to large-scale, standardized tests,  which are ubiquitous in U.S. schools, and to computer-based assessments, which hold promise in a balanced assessment system. 

Andrade, Huff, and Brooke observe that: 

  • Student-centered approaches to assessment are individualized and motivating. They focus on learning and growth, help students regulate their own learning, and are useful to a variety of audiences, including district leaders, teachers, and the students themselves. 
  • No single type of assessment can inform learning and instruction and simultaneously aid policy decisions. Student-centered assessment should be part of a balanced system of assessments—both formal and informal. 
  • When they are part of a balanced system, large-scale tests can provide useful feedback to students, teachers, and others when they are based on theories of learning, sensitive to the context in which they are administered, and provide instructionally relevant reports. 
  • Schools and districts report impressive gains in student achievement via teacher-created assessments that directly measure the curricula enacted in classrooms and foster professional collaboration. 
  • Modern assessment technologies hold great promise for their ability to give immediate feedback to each student and because teachers can respond to individual learning needs with greater speed, frequency, focus, and flexibility.

“Good assessment can promote learning as well as measure it,” said Heidi Andrade, Ed.D., associate professor of educational psychology and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the School of Education, University at Albany-State University of New York. “Recent advances suggest that a balanced system of formative, interim, and summative assessment can provide the feedback that students, teachers, administrators, and parents need to guide effective teaching and learning.” 

About Nellie Mae Education Foundation 
The Nellie Mae Education Foundation is the largest charitable organization in New England that focuses exclusively on education. The Foundation supports the promotion and integration of student-centered approaches to learning at the middle and high school levels across New England. To elevate student-centered approaches, the Foundation utilizes a strategy that focuses on: developing and enhancing models of practice; reshaping education policies; increasing the body of evidence-based knowledge about student-centered approaches and increasing public understanding and demand for high-quality educational experiences. The Foundation’s initiative and strategy areas are: District Level Systems Change; State Level Systems Change; Research and Development; and Public Understanding. Since 1998, the Foundation has distributed over $110 million in grants.

About Students at the Center
Students at the Center synthesizes existing research on key components of student-centered approaches to learning. The papers that launch this project renew attention to the importance of engaging each student in acquiring the skills, knowledge, and expertise needed for success in college and a career. Students at the Center is supported generously by funds from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

About Jobs for the Future

Jobs for the Future works with our partners to design and drive adoption of education and career pathways leading from college readiness to career advancement for those struggling to succeed in today’s economy.

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