Press Release: Students at the Center Project Refocuses Reform Debate on Meeting Individual Needs to Meet Higher Standards

Published mar. 14, 2012

Boston, MA  (March 14, 2012) — Cutting-edge research shows that adapting K-12 classrooms to individual interests, needs, and strengths is essential to maximizing each student’s learning and improving schools, according to an ambitious new interdisciplinary project, Students at the Center: Teaching and Learning in the Era of the Common Core. The first three papers, which Jobs for the Future released today with funds from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, are part of a series focusing attention on putting middle and high school students at the center of education reform strategies in order to significantly raise U.S. educational achievement, increase completion rates, and help close persistent race and income gaps.

Student-centered approaches to learning reject the one-size-fits-all instruction that can result from pressure to increase student scores on standardized tests. But they do not lower standards or ignore them. Rather, student-centered practices help teachers connect meaningfully with their students and individualize instruction to each, while also taking advantage of the social aspects of learning—adolescents’ propensities to collaborate with their peers. Capitalizing on the adaptability of the brain, student-centered approaches start from the premise that all students can learn when provided with instruction that truly engages them and adapts to their changing needs. All young people can acquire the skills, knowledge, and expertise needed for 21st-century college and career success. These include and go beyond the Common Core State Standards.

The Students at the Center website contains a searchable resource database that will be added to on an ongoing basis. It includes videos, websites, and external research papers that have been gathered by the papers' authors and the larger student-centered learning community to enhance the usefulness of this knowledge base.

“The Students at the Center project is an urgent reminder that in order to meet higher expectations, we must all pay attention to the most fundamental issues of how students learn and how best to teach them,” said Nancy Hoffman, vice president at Jobs for the Future. “The series demonstrates that in order to improve outcomes, states and districts must set the conditions for students and teachers to learn from each other; to access rich, engaging curricula; and to build active learning communities.”

Jobs for the Future is releasing the papers in three rounds, culminating in an April symposium in Boston. Today’s papers focus on 1) teaching — what student-centered learning looks like in action; 2) school districts — how school systems can begin or expand student-centered approaches; and 3) the brain – what biology and cognitive science tell us about how students learn.  

The second group of papers will be released March 28; the final three papers will be released April 11. On April 25-26, education researchers, writers, practitioners, and policymakers have been invited to attend a symposium to further identify how student-centered approaches to learning can be implemented at the district, state, and national levels to further the goals of education reform and to align with the Common Core standards. 

Mind, Brain, and Education

By Christina Hinton, Kurt W. Fischer, and Catherine Glennon 

New findings from the emerging global field of mind, brain, and education suggest that student-centered approaches could increase learning and improve achievement. This paper is the first to consider student-centered approaches to learning in light of biology and cognitive science research about the way young people learn best.

Mind, Brain, and Education includes these key findings:

  • The brain is continually changing, as learning experiences shape its architecture, so students’ abilities are always developing. Student-centered approaches to learning use a variety of ongoing assessments to monitor learning and make adjustments quickly.
  • Each student has a complex profile of strengths and limitations and learns best through experiences tailored to his or her needs and interests. 
  • Learning and emotion work together in the brain. Students thrive academically when educators nurture positive relationships, teach emotional regulation, and provide shelter from toxic stress. Student-centered approaches address emotion’s central role in education.
  • The brain is learning virtually all the time, in both formal and informal contexts. Student-centered approaches capitalize on this characteristic through a range of nontraditional learning experiences, such as afterschool enrichment, internships, and community programs.

“This scientific evidence that emotion is fundamental to learning settles long-standing ideological debates concerning whether educators  should be responsible for emotional development—if educators are responsible for intellectual development, they are inherently involved in emotional development as well,” said Christina Hinton, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Teachers at Work—Six Exemplars of Everyday Practice

By Barbara Cervone and Kathleen Cushman

Until now, research on what teaching and learning actually looks like in student-centered schools has been stunningly sparse.  During site visits to six schools, the authors observed a range of proven models for enacting student-centered approaches that are raising the achievement of underserved populations. This paper identifies the common foundation of student-centered practices, all beginning with teachers figuring out how to engage individual students and supporting students in taking more responsibility for their learning. 

Teachers at Work contains brief videos that illustrate what student-centered approaches "look like" in practice - and how student-centered schools really are different than the rest.  Samples are captured in these short clips from the Just Listen series of videos of high school students from NYC iSchool.  Hear ElijahHannah, and Maranda discuss why student-centered approaches are helping them move from childhood to adulthood. 

“In the six schools we profiled in Teachers at Work, almost every student flourishes and achieves academically and socially,” said Barbara Cervone, Ed.D., lead author of the paper, and founder and president of What Kids Can Do, Inc. “But it is the commitment of the teachers to be constant learners, to evolve along with the education process, that stood out for us as one of the more important success factors in promoting student-centered learning.”

Teachers at Work—Six Exemplars of Everyday Practice includes these key findings:

  • Student-centered teachers support each student in developing a new relationship to learning—defined by ever more complex challenges, increasing autonomy, and expanding awareness of connections of one’s own work to the larger world.
  • Student-centered teachers forge a new relationship to teaching — one where they constantly shift among multiple roles, from curriculum planner, classroom facilitator, and assessor, to advisor and community connector.
  • Student-centered schools develop a culture that encourages teachers to continually try new things and get rid of what does not work. 

Changing School District Practices

By Ben Levin, Amanda Datnow, and Nathalie Carrier

Student-centered practices have spread to some schools and classrooms, but are not yet predominant, especially system-wide. The authors examined the scope of commonly defined student-centered practices currently used in school districts and charter schools and highlight the key factors districts should weigh when considering implanting student-centered approaches. They observed that:

  • We have increasing knowledge about what high-performing districts do to support better and more equitable student outcomes. These lessons should inform plans to extend student-centered approaches to learning.
  • System-wide implementation of student-centered approaches presents particular problems because it aims to change longstanding traditions of teacher practice and classroom culture that have been inherent to U.S. schooling.
  • School districts interested in implementing student-centered approaches need to be more strategic and deliberative in their work. System leaders should consider the full range of possibilities, likely starting with a combination of creating special programs or schools while working to change practice in all schools and for all students.

“If student-centered learning is to become more mainstream than it currently is, it will be essential that school districts play an active role and take into account the significant challenges involved,” said Ben Levin, Ph.D., professor and Canada Research Chair in Education Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. 

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 evidenced-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.
Twitter: @JFFtweets