Archive for the ‘Entry’ Category

School Coach

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A school coach—sometimes called a school-improvement coach—is typically an individual hired to advise a school on how to improve its academic program, instructional effectiveness, and student performance. While a school coach acts much like a consultant, the use of the term “coach” is usually intentional—i.e., it’s meant to distinguish the school coach’s role from those of other professional educational consultants. While the specific role and responsibilities of school coaches may vary widely from school to school, there is some degree on consensus on what a school coach is, and is not, within the education community. For example, school coaches are usually mission driven or expertise driven, as opposed to project driven, in the sense that they bring a particular educational perspective, belief system, instructional expertise, or advocacy role to their job. School coaches are often hired specifically for this reason: they are committed to helping schools achieve a specific goal, such as increasing educational equity (an ethical or social-justice goal) or expanding and improving the use of new learning technologies in the classroom (an instructional or programmatic goal).

While school coaches may be independent contractors, many are employed by nonprofit organizations or universities, and they may be hired by a state agency, school district, or school or by an outside organization or foundation. In many cases, school coaches are employed as part of a state program or grant-funded school-improvement project. School coaches may work on a fee-for-services model—i.e., they provide narrowly defined services on a short-term contract that may be renewed annually or every few months. Yet it is also very common for school coaches to be contracted for a multiyear commitment as a school undertakes a comprehensive restructuring of its academic program.

In some cases, school coaches are described as “critical friends”—a common education term that refers to fellow professionals who are understanding, supportive, and empathetic but who are not hesitant to speak candidly about problems and provide constructive criticism about what needs to change. In this way, school coaches are similar to athletic coaches: they are experienced professionals with specialized expertise who advise, train, and mentor the team and who are not hesitant about making individuals put in the practice and hard work necessary to succeed.

School coaches are often former educators and school administrators who can understand the workings and internal politics of a school from an educator’s perspective, although some have previously worked in other professions outside education, such as psychology, business, or communications. Coaches typically have expertise in skills such as group facilitation, interpersonal dynamics, public speaking, and conflict resolution, and they often help educators communicate, collaborate, and solve problems more productively and cooperatively. In some cases, though, a school coach will provide “coaching” on a specific issue, such as training teachers in specialized instructional techniques.

Another variation on the school-coach role is the on-staff coach—a full-time or part-time district or school employee who provides coaching services to educators in a local school system. While on-staff coaching may take many different forms, and job descriptions may vary widely, these positions are often created for educators with highly specialized expertise who are tasked with delivering professional development to teachers. Two common positions, for example, are literacy coaches and learning-technology coaches; the former helps teachers improve the quality of reading and writing instruction in all subject areas, and the later trains teachers in how to use new technological devises and products as instructional assets.

While there are no formal credentialing organizations for school coaches, many organizations around the country offer training, resources, and support networks for school-coaching professionals.

Blended Learning

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The term blended learning is generally applied to the practice of using both online and in-person learning experiences when teaching students. In a blended-learning course, for example, students might attend a class taught by a teacher in a traditional classroom setting, while also independently completing online components of the course outside of the classroom. In this case, in-class time may be either replaced or supplemented by online learning experiences, and students would learn about the same topics online as they do in class—i.e., the online and in-person learning experiences would parallel and complement one another.

Also called hybrid learning and mixed-mode learning, blended-learning experiences may vary widely in design and execution from school to school. For example, blended learning may be provided in an existing school by only a few teachers or it may be the dominant learning-delivery model around which a school’s academic program is designed. Online learning may be a minor component part of a classroom-based course, or video-recorded lectures, live video and text chats, and other digitally enabled learning activities may be a student’s primary instructional interactions with a teacher. In some cases, students may work independently on online lessons, projects, and assignments at home or elsewhere, only periodically meeting with teachers to review their learning progress, discuss their work, ask questions, or receive assistance with difficult concepts. In other cases, students may spend their entire day in a traditional school building, but they will spend more time working online and independently than they do receiving instruction from a teacher. Again, the potential variations are numerous.

Reform

Over the past decade, digital- and online-learning options have become more popular and more widely used in public schools, although many schools have been slow or reluctant to adopt new technologies for number of complex reasons, ranging from inadequate funding, technologies, and computing networks to general organizational recalcitrance and resistance to change. Given the fact that the internet and most digital learning technologies are still relatively new, instructional alternatives such as blended learning could be seen as de facto reform strategies—i.e., by incorporating blended learning, schools and teachers are forced to change the ways in which they have historically instructed and interacted with students. For example, if students begin learning both in-person and online, it might lead schools to reexamine their traditional school schedule and rethink how the typical school day is structured. In many cases, blended learning is one component of a larger reform initiative in a school or district.

For related discussions, see asynchronous learning and synchronous learning.

Debate

Generally speaking, blended learning offers many potential advantages and disadvantages that will largely depend on the quality of the design and execution of a given blended-learning model. Advocates may argue that blended learning gives students the benefits of both online learning and in-person instruction. For example, students can work independently and at their own pace online, but still have access to the personal attention of a teacher and all the assistance, knowledge, and resources such an educator provides. At the same time, teachers can structure courses and deliver instruction more flexibly or creatively than in a traditional classroom setting. That said, advocates of blended learning may also argue that online learning, on its own, is insufficient without in-person or one-on-one interactions with a teacher.

Blended learning may also allow teachers to spend less time giving whole-class lessons, and more time meeting with students individually or in small groups to help them with specific concepts, skills, questions, or learning problems—the basic educational rationale behind “flipped classrooms” or “flipped instruction,” a form of blended learning. Blended learning may also allow schools to teach more students more efficiently at a lower cost to the school and—in the case of higher education—the student. And because students are required to use digital and online technologies in blended-learning situations, they naturally acquire more technological literacy and greater confidence using new technologies. Some supporters may also argue that the blended-learning approach more closely resembles modern workplaces, in which employees may work largely on their own to meet specific objectives, only periodically checking in with their supervisors to give them updates or seek assistance. In this case, students would also be learning skills such as self-discipline, self-motivation, and organizational habits they will need in adult life.

In general, skepticism of digital and online learning (and its many variants) is widespread, at least in part because many technology-enabled educational practices are still largely untested, and their educational utility and value remain in question. For example, one common argument made against online learning is that it lends itself to rote, formulaic tasks that do not promote the kind of higher-order thinking skills that lead to deeper and more meaningful learning for students (although such outcomes will depend largely on the quality of the specific program or model in question).

Critics of blended-learning experiences may also question whether the practice can provide students with enough personal attention, guidance, and assistance from teachers, especially for students who may not be self-directed, self-disciplined, or organized enough to learn effectively without regular supervision from teachers and adults. Without in-person supervision, for example, students could easily spend more of their study time using social media and chatting with friends than doing their schoolwork. Critics also question whether teachers have received or will receive adequate training in how to instruct students effectively in a blended-learning context, given that the practice requires teachers to use new technologies and, possibly, more sophisticated instructional practices. Some educators also express concern that blended learning is merely a way for states or schools to reduce labor costs by substituting technology for people, which could result in teacher lay-offs, higher student-teacher ratios, unforeseen educational deficits, and other potential negative outcomes. Still other critics may simply dismiss blended learning as a passing educational fad. Another complicating factor is the rapid proliferation of for-profit enterprises that are selling digital-learning packages and online-learning systems to schools—a trend that has raised significant concerns about the potential for profiteering and low-quality educational services and products.

Coherent Curriculum

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The term coherent curriculum, or aligned curriculum, refers to an academic program that is (1) well organized and purposefully designed to facilitate learning, (2) free of academic gaps and needless repetitions, and (3) aligned across lessons, courses, subject areas, and grade levels (a curriculum, in the sense that the term is typically used by educators, encompasses everything that teachers teach to students in a school or course, including the instructional materials and techniques they use).

In most cases, the term refers to the alignment of learning standards and teaching—i.e., how well and to what extent a school or teacher has matched the content that students are actually taught with the academic expectations described in learning standards—but it also refers to coherence among all the many elements that are entailed in educating students, including assessments, standardized tests, textbooks, assignments, lessons, and instructional techniques.

An incoherent curriculum, for example, might be an academic program in which teachers have independently decided what students will learn without collaborating with other teachers, basing what they teach on consistent learning expectations or considering what students learned in previous grades and will need to know in subsequent grades. Consequently, what students learn in any given course may unnecessarily repeat lessons from previous years or overlap with what is taught in other courses, or the lessons may not be appropriate for the students’ age or grade level. In addition, the assignments and textbooks given to students may not prepare them for the assessments they will have to complete, and the tests given in a course may not evaluate whether students have met the academic expectations for a particular course or grade level.

A curriculum that is coherently organized and sequenced, on the other hand, avoids these potential issues—at least in theory. What students are learning builds on what they have learned previously, and lessons are not unnecessarily repetitious or redundant across courses, subject areas, and grade levels. Teachers generally know what is being taught by other teachers, particularly teachers in the same subject area, including the subject-area material and standards that are taught in both previous and subsequent grade levels. All learning materials—from textbooks and reading materials to quizzes and tests—are based on the same consistent and coherent set of learning expectations.

Generally speaking, there are two main forms of curriculum coherence:

Vertical coherence: When a curriculum is vertically aligned or vertically coherent, what students learn in one lesson, course, or grade level prepares them for the next lesson, course, or grade level. Teaching is purposefully structured and logically sequenced so that students are learning the knowledge and skills that will progressively prepare them for more challenging, higher-level work. For a related discussion, see learning progression.

Horizontal coherence: When a curriculum is horizontally aligned or horizontally coherent, what students are learning in one ninth-grade biology course, for example, mirrors what other students are learning in a different ninth-grade biology course. In addition, the assessments, tests, and other methods teachers use to evaluate learning achievement and progress are based on what has actually been taught to students and on the learning standards that the students are expected to meet in a particular course, subject area, or grade level.

For related discussions, see core course of study and high expectations.

Reform

Generally speaking, the concept of a coherent curriculum grew out of the recognition that what is taught and learned in schools may not only be misaligned, but—in more extreme circumstances—random, disordered, and potentially detrimental to students. For example, in some schools teachers might decide what gets taught in a course based on personal preference, convenience, past habits, outdated instructional materials, and other factors unrelated to what is appropriate for or in the best interests of students. In addition, curriculum and instructional expectations for teachers might be uneven or nonexistent, which could lead to educational disparities that disadvantage some students. For example, one teacher might cover a lot of material in a given course, and teach it in an engaging way, while a colleague, teaching a similar course, might teach far less content and teach it comparatively poorly (disparities such as these have been well documented in educational research).

For these and other reasons, in recent decades government agencies and education policies, at both the state and federal levels, have either required or encouraged greater standardization in the education of students, with the general goal of improving educational quality and the academic achievement of students. Schools and districts have also embraced more coherent approaches to the design and delivery of learning experiences, either proactively or in response to changes in educational policies and state requirements. The basic rationale is that when educators are working and teaching in concert, and using developmentally appropriate and well-defined learning expectations, students will learn more and leave school better prepared. By exerting more control over the learning process, the reasoning goes, schools, districts, and government agencies will be able to improve educational quality and minimize the factors that have historically produced poor educational results—although whether certain strategies actually produce the desired results remains a source of ongoing debates.

Professional Learning Community

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A professional learning community, or PLC, is a group of educators that meets regularly, shares expertise, and works collaboratively to improve teaching skills and the academic performance of students. The term is also applied to schools or teaching faculties that use small-group collaboration as a form of professional development. Shirley Hord, an expert on school leadership, came up with perhaps the most efficient description of the strategy: “The three words explain the concept: Professionals coming together in a group—a community—to learn.”

It should be noted that professional learning communities may be called many different things from school to school or place to place, including professional learning groupscollaborative learning communitiescritical friends groups, or communities of practice, to name just a few common terms (terms such as professional learning groups and critical friends groups are typically applied to smaller teams of teachers—usually between four and eight, although group sizes vary—rather than to an entire school that uses small-group collaboration as a form of professional development). In Japan, the practice is called lesson study or lesson research. In addition, professional learning communities can take a wide variety of forms or be organized for different purposes. While some educators define “professional learning community” in a very specific way, others may use the term more loosely, even applying it to meetings or groups that other educators would not consider to be a genuine “professional learning communities.” In fact, Richard DuFour, considered one of the foremost experts on the subject, wrote in 2004 that “the term has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning.” For Dufour and other experts and researchers, the term professional learning community should only be applied to schools in which all teachers and school leaders use specific, recommended strategies. The distinction here is subtle and potentially confusing: When a school is considered a “professional learning community,” educators meet in small groups, but in some cases educators consider the small groups to be “professional learning communities.”

Professional learning communities tend serve to two broad purposes: (1) improving the skills and knowledge of educators through collaborative study, expertise exchange, and professional dialogue, and (2) improving the educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment of students through stronger leadership and teaching. Professional learning communities often function as a form of action research—i.e., as a way to continually question, reevaluate, refine, and improve teaching strategies and knowledge. Meetings are goal-driven exchanges facilitated by educators who have been trained to lead professional learning communities. Participation in meetings may be entirely voluntary, and in some schools only a small percentage of the faculty will elect to participate, or it may be a school-wide requirement that all faculty members participate.

In professional learning communities, teams are often built around shared roles or responsibilities. For example, the teachers in a particular group may all teach the same ninth-grade students or they may all teach science, and these shared attributes allow participants to focus on specific problems and strategies—How do I teach this particular student better? How do I teach this scientific theory more effectively?—rather than on general educational goals or theories. Teachers, for example, will discuss and reflect on their instructional techniques, lesson designs, and assessment practices, while administrators may address leadership questions, strategies, and issues.

While the specific activities and goals of a professional learning community may vary widely from school to school, the following are a few examples of common activities that may take place in meetings:

  • Discussing teacher work: Participants collectively review lesson plans or assessments that have been used in a class, and then offer critical feedback and recommendations for improvement.
  • Discussing student work: Participants look at examples of student work turned in for a class, and then offer recommendations on how lessons or teaching approaches may be modified to improve the quality of student work.
  • Discussing student data: Participants analyze student-performance data from a class to identify trends—such as which students are consistently failing or underperforming—and collaboratively develop proactive teaching and support strategies to help students who may be struggling academically.
  • Discussing professional literature: Participants select a text to read, such as a research study or an article about a specialized instructional technique, and then engage in a structured conversation about the text and how it can help inform or improve their teaching.

Reform

Professional learning communities are nearly always an intentional school-improvement strategy designed to reduce professional isolation, foster greater faculty collaboration, and spread the expertise and insights of individual teachers throughout a school. Because teachers may work largely independently—i.e., they will create courses and lessons on their own and teach behind the closed doors without much feedback from colleagues—teaching styles, educational philosophies, and learning expectations can vary widely from class to class, as can the effectiveness of lessons and instruction.

While professional learning communities may take a wide variety of forms from school to school, they tend to share a variety of common features:

  • Teachers will likely meet regularly—every other week or every month, for example—and work together to improve and diversify their instructional techniques. For example, they may agree to identify and monitor student learning needs in their classes, conduct observations of their colleagues while they teach and give them constructive feedback, collaboratively develop and refine lessons and instructional techniques, and improve the support strategies they use to help students.
  • Time for meetings is often scheduled during the school day, and participation in a professional learning community may be an expected teaching responsibility, not an optional activity that competes with out-of-school personal time.
  • Groups generally work toward common goals and expectations that are agreed upon in advance. Groups may even create mission and vision statements or a set of shared beliefs and values.
  • Meeting procedures are commonly guided by norms, or a set of conduct expectations that group members collaboratively develop and agree on. A norm might address meeting logistics (e.g., start meetings on time, stick to the agenda, and end on time) or interactions (listen attentively to colleagues and make sure feedback is respectful and constructive).
  • Meetings are often coordinated and run by teachers who have been trained in group-facilitation strategies, often by an outside organization or training professional.
  • Meetings typically follow predetermined agendas that are developed by facilitators in response to group requests or identified teacher or student needs.
  • Facilitators typically use protocols—a set of parameters and guidelines developed by educators—to structure group conversations and help keep the discussions focused and productive.
  • Facilitators will make sure that conversations remain respectful, constructive, objective, and goal-oriented, and they may step in and guide the conversation in a more productive direction if it becomes digressive or negative.
  • Facilitators will also ensure that conversations remain objective and factual, rather than subjective and speculative. For example, group members may be asked to cite student-performance data, specific examples, research findings, or other concrete evidence to support their points, and facilitators may point out assumptions or generalizations.

Advocates of professional learning communities argue that the practice can foster and promote a wide variety of positive professional interactions and practices among teachers in a school. For example:

  • Teachers may assume more leadership responsibility or feel a greater sense of ownership over a school-improvement process.
  • Teachers may feel more professionally confident and better equipped to address the learning needs of their students, and they may become more willing to engage in the kind of self-reflection that leads to professional growth and improvement.
  • The faculty culture may improve, and professional relationships can become stronger and more trusting because the faculty is interacting and communicating more productively.
  • Teachers may participate in professional collaborations more frequently, such as co-developing and co-teaching interdisciplinary courses.
  • More instructional innovation may take hold in classrooms and academic programs, and teachers may begin incorporating effective instructional techniques being used by colleagues.
  • Teachers may begin using more evidence-based approaches to designing lessons and delivering instruction.

Debate

While the professional learning community concept is not typically an object of criticism or debate, skeptics may question whether these groups can actually have a positive impact on student learning, or whether the extent of that impact justifies the time or expense required to make them successful. Since it often extremely difficult, from a research perspective, to attribute gains in student performance to any one influence in a school (because so many potential factors can influence performance, including familial or socioeconomic dynamics outside of a school’s control), the benefits of professional learning communities may be difficult to measure objectively and reliably.

It is more likely, however, that professional learning communities will be criticized or debated when they are poorly implemented or facilitated, if they become disorganized and unfocused, if they are perceived as a burdensome or time-consuming obligation, or when teachers have negative experiences within their groups. Like any school-improvement strategy or program, the quality of the design and execution will typically determine the results achieved. If meetings are poorly facilitated and conversations lapse into complaints about policies or personalities, or if educators fail to turn group learning into actual changes in instructional techniques, professional learning communities are less likely to be successful.

In addition, administrators and teachers may encounter any number of potential challenges when implementing professional learning communities. For example:

  • A lack of support from the superintendent, principal, or other school leaders could lead to an inadequate investment of time, attention, and resources.
  • Inadequate training for group facilitators could produce ineffective facilitation, disorganized meetings, and an erosion of confidence in the process.
  • A lack of clear, explicit goals for group work can lead to unfocused conversations, misspent time, and general confusion about the purpose of the groups.
  • A dysfunctional school or faculty culture could contribute to tensions, conflicts, factions, and other issues that undermine the potential benefits of professional learning communities.
  • A lack of observable, measurable faculty progress or student-achievement gains can erode support, motivation, and enthusiasm for the process.
  • Highly divergent educational philosophies, belief systems, or learning styles can lead to disagreements that undermine the collegiality and sense of shared purpose typically required to make professional learning communities successful.

Exhibition

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In education, the term exhibition refers to projects, presentations, or products through which students “exhibit” what they have learned, usually as a way of demonstrating whether and to what degree they have achieved expected learning standards or learning objectives. An exhibition is typically both a learning experience in itself and a means of evaluating academic progress and achievement.

Defining exhibition is complicated by the fact that educators use many different terms when referring to the general concept, and the terms may or may not be used synonymously from place to place. For example, the terms capstone exhibition, culminating exhibition, learning exhibition, exhibition of learning, performance exhibition, senior exhibition, or student exhibition may be used, in addition to capstone, capstone experience, capstone project, demonstration of learning, performance demonstration, and many others. Educators may also create any number of homegrown terms for exhibitions—far too many to catalog here.

In contrast to worksheets, quizzes, tests, and other more traditional approaches to assessment, an exhibition may take a wide variety of forms in schools:

  • Oral presentations, speeches, or spoken-word poems
  • Video documentaries, multimedia presentations, audio recordings, or podcasts
  • Works of art, illustration, music, drama, dance, or performance
  • Print or online publications, including websites or blogs
  • Essays, poems, short stories, or plays
  • Galleries of print or digital photography
  • Scientific experiments, studies, and reports
  • Physical products such as a models, sculptures, dioramas, musical instruments, or robots
  • Portfolios of work samples and academic accomplishments that students collect over time

Generally speaking, there are two primary forms of exhibition:

  1. A multifaceted assignment that serves as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students, typically during their final year of high school or middle school, or at the end of an academic program or learning-pathway experience (in this case, terms such as capstone exhibition, culminating exhibition, or senior exhibition may be used).
  2. A project, presentation, product, or portfolio that teachers use as a form of summative assessment—i.e., an evaluation of student learning, skill acquisition, and academic achievement at the conclusion of a defined instructional period, such as a unit, course, semester, program, or school year (in this case, terms such as performance exhibition, learning exhibition, or student exhibition may be used).

Reform

Schools and educators may use exhibitions as part of a wide variety of educational and instructional strategies, such as community-based learning, project-based learning, or proficiency-based learning, to name just a few. While exhibitions are diverse in both content and execution, they are typically evaluated against a common set of criteria or standards, using a rubric or scoring guidelines, to ensure consistency during the evaluation process from student to student or exhibition to exhibition, or to determine whether and to what extent students have achieved expected learning standards for a particular assignment, lesson, project, or course. Exhibitions may be evaluated by a teacher or group of teachers, but in some cases review panels of peers, community members, and outside experts—such as local business leaders or scientists—contribute to the evaluation process or provide students with constructive feedback. Some exhibitions are even public events open to anyone in a school community. Students may also be asked to provide a formal reflection on what they have learned and created that describes how well they did in meeting either expected or self-imposed learning goals.

Exhibitions are typically designed to encourage students to think critically, solve challenging problems, and develop skills such as oral communication, public speaking, research, teamwork, planning, self-sufficiency, goal setting, or technological and online literacy—i.e., skills that will help prepare them for college, modern careers, and adult life. Exhibitions may also be interdisciplinary, in the sense that they require students to apply skills or investigate issues across many different subject areas or domains of knowledge. Exhibitions may also encourage students to connect their projects to community issues or problems (also see community-based learning), or to integrate outside-of-school learning experiences, including activities such interviews, scientific observations, or internships (also see learning pathway).

It is important to note that exhibitions are typically purposeful teaching strategies designed to achieve specific educational outcomes—i.e., they are not merely “show and tell” opportunities. Although exhibitions can vary widely from school to school in terms of structure, evaluation criteria, and learning objectives, they commonly require students to share, explain, and defend their project design, theory or action, or results (as in the case of a scientific experiment, for example). Whether students solve a complicated math problem, write a position paper on a social issue, develop a business plan, or produce a work of art or engineering, exhibitions require them to articulate their ideas and respond to questions and inquiries from teachers or other reviewers. A few examples will help to illustrate these general instructional intentions:

  • Writing, directing, and filming a public-service announcement that will be aired on public-access television.
  • Designing and building a product, computer program, app, or robot to address a specific need, such as assisting the disabled.
  • Interning at a nonprofit organization or a legislator’s office to learn more about strategies and policies intended to address social problems, such as poverty, hunger, or homelessness.
  • Conducting a scientific study over several months or a year to determine the ecological or environmental impact of changes to a local habitat.
  • Researching an industry or market, and creating a viable business plan for a proposed company that is then “pitched” to a panel of local business leaders.

For related discussions, see authentic learning, relevance, and 21st century skills.

Debate

Most criticism of or debate about exhibitions is not focused on the strategy itself, or its intrinsic or potential educational value, but rather on the quality of its execution—i.e., exhibitions tend to be criticized when they are poorly designed or reflect low academic standards, or when students are allowed to complete relatively superficial projects of low educational value. In addition, if teachers and students consider exhibitions to be a formality, lower-quality products typically result. And if the projects reflect consistently low standards, quality, and educational value year after year, educators, students, parents, and community members may come to view exhibitions as a waste of time or resources.

Stereotype Threat

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Stereotype threat refers to the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group. The term was coined by the researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, who performed experiments that showed that black college students performed worse on standardized tests than their white peers when they were reminded, before taking the tests, that their racial group tends to do poorly on such exams. When their race was not emphasized, however, black students performed similarly to their white peers.

This research shed light on the ways student performance on tests may be affected by a heightened awareness of racial stereotypes. Because stereotype threat is believed to contribute to race- and gender-based achievement gaps, the theory has drawn considerable attention and debate, prompting efforts to reduce or eliminate the effect in educational and testing situations. It has also raised larger questions about the fairness of high-stakes tests—tests used to make important decisions about students, teachers, or schools.

In their studies, Steele and Aronson found that situational factors—more than individual personality or other characteristics—can strengthen or weaken the stereotype-threat effect. For example, student performance was influenced by the way a test was described. When students were told that the test measured their intelligence, black students performed significantly worse than their white peers, but when they were told that the test diagnosed their ability to solve problems, the race-based performance gap disappeared. Other influential factors include the difficulty of the task and the relevance of the negative stereotype to the task. In addition, the stereotype-threat effect appeared to be stronger among students who wanted to perform well and who more strongly identified with the stereotyped group.

Many studies have looked at both race- and gender-based stereotypes, including one that found that women performed less well in a chess match when they were told they would be playing against a male. When they were reminded that women tend to be worse at chess than men, their performance also declined.

Many questions remain about the cognitive mechanisms behind stereotype threat, and subsequent research has focused on three factors: stress, performance monitoring, and efforts to suppress negative thoughts and emotions. For example, if students try to suppress thoughts about negative stereotypes, or if they are worried that their poor performance may confirm stereotypes, the effort and associated emotions may divert mental energy from answering a test question or solving a problem.

Other studies suggest that the consequences of stereotype threat can extend beyond test performance. Over longer periods of time, chronic stereotype threat may cause students to blame themselves, distance themselves from the stereotyped group,  disengage from situations and environments perceived to be threatening, or “self-handicap”—e.g., study less so that poor scores can be blamed on a lack of studying rather than low intelligence.

Stereotype threat may affect many other dimensions of schooling and education reform beyond testing. A classroom or school culture, for example, can potentially exacerbate or mitigate the negative consequences of stereotype threat—in both subtle and blatant ways. Education policies, even those aimed at combating race-based achievement gaps, can paradoxically strengthen existing stereotypes about students from certain racial and ethnic groups, while media outlets may reinforce stereotypes by focusing news reporting and analysis on the racial dimension of achievement gaps. Standardized test results may also be viewed, by some, to be “evidence” that certain groups are intrinsically less capable of academic achievement, and both teachers and students may internalize cultural messages and react to them in negative or self-damaging ways.

To cite just one example: Teachers may give subtle signals that they perceive girls to be less capable in math and science, while suggesting—implicitly or explicitly—that boys are expected to excel in math and science. If the girls internalize theses messages, they may shy away from challenging math problems or learning opportunities such as math-team competitions. If stereotype threat then causes them to perform below their real ability on tests, it may confirm their feelings and perceptions of inferiority.

Reform

Awareness of the potential consequences of stereotype threat has potentially far-reaching implications for schools and education reform, particularly for efforts aimed at reducing or eliminating achievement gaps and opportunity gaps among racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural groups. Given the pervasive use of high-stakes testing in elementary and secondary education, and the well-documented persistence of achievement gaps, educators and researchers may want to know how much of these gaps may be a result of stereotype threat, whether stereotype threat is actually exacerbating educational inequities, and what can be done, if anything, to mitigate the effect.

Some research has indicated that negative consequences can, to some extent, be mitigated. For example, the effect may be reduced by educating students about the issue and underscoring that the existence of stereotypes and stereotype threat does not necessarily mean that performance will be adversely affected. One approach that has gained considerable influence in recent years is teaching students that intelligence and academic performance can be improved through effort and hard work. See growth mindset for a more detailed discussion.

The following are a few additional examples of strategies that have shown promise in mitigating the effects of stereotype threat:

  • Training and encouraging educators to maintain high learning expectations for all students, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, or perceived ability.
  • Fostering positive and supportive school and classroom cultures, which includes strong and trusting relationships among students and between teachers and students.
  • Embracing and celebrating, rather than ignoring, student diversity in educational settings, and cultivating the perception that diversity is an educational asset that provides benefits to all students.
  • Consistently repeating and reinforcing the message that stereotyped students can and are expected to do well in school and on tests.
  • Communicating to students the belief that they are capable of achieving at high levels, even while giving critical feedback on their work. (A teacher might say, for example, “I wouldn’t give you this criticism if I didn’t believe, based on what you’ve written here, you could make this work even better.”)

Debate

Critics of stereotype-threat theory have charged Steele, Aronson, and other researchers with overestimating the significance of stereotype threat in race-based achievement gaps, given that many contributing factors—including differences in socioeconomic status and unequal access to high-quality schools and teaching—may cause and perpetuate achievement gaps and opportunity gaps. Another source of debate is that some of the studies that support stereotype-threat theory have used flawed methods, including an absence of control groups, which undermines the potential reliability and validity of the findings (although this is a common, known, and widely discussed issue in education research).

Carnegie Unit

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The Carnegie unit is a system developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that based the awarding of academic credit on how much time students spent in direct contact with a classroom teacher. The standard Carnegie unit is defined as 120 hours of contact time with an instructor—i.e., one hour of instruction a day, five days a week, for 24 weeks, or 7,200 minutes of instructional time over the course of an academic year.

In most public high schools, course credits are still largely based on the 120-hour Carnegie-unit standard. Most states and American high schools require students to earn between 18 and 24 credits—with each credit representing one Carnegie unit—to be eligible for a diploma. Yet some high schools are moving away from the traditional grading, crediting, grade-promotion, and graduation systems based on contact hours with a teacher. In these schools, grades, credits, and decision about grade promotion and graduation are based on student demonstrating proficiency in meeting required learning standards. For a related discussion, see proficiency-based learning.

History

The Carnegie unit is named after American industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), a Scottish-born immigrant who amassed a fortune in steel production before selling the Carnegie Steel Company for $480 million to J.P. Morgan in 1901. After the sale, Carnegie was one of the wealthiest men in the world and he became a philanthropist who invested in causes related to education, libraries, the arts, and world peace.

The Carnegie unit came into widespread use during a time when efforts were being made across the country to standardize public education and ensure that schools applied more uniform, consistent, and effective teaching methods and learning expectations when educating students. Still, the 120-hour Carnegie unit did not achieve widespread adoption by schools and colleges until the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which was established in 1906, began to provide retirement pensions for university professors—with the stipulation that participating universities must adopt the Carnegie-unit system. Today, the retirement fund is known as TIAA-CREF. As a result of this decision, by 1910 nearly all the colleges and secondary schools in the United States were using the 120-hour standard to award course credits and determine progress toward graduation.

During a speech in 1993, Ernest L. Boyer, then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, made the following statement: “I am convinced the time has come to bury, once and for all, the old Carnegie unit. Further, since the Foundation I now head created this academic measurement a century ago, I feel authorized this morning to officially declare the Carnegie unit obsolete.” Boyer later wrote: “I urgently hope we can move beyond the old Carnegie units. I find it disturbing that students can complete the required courses, receive a high school diploma, and still fail to gain a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated, more authentic view of life.”

Debate

Like Boyer, critics of the Carnegie-unit standard argue that the awarding of academic credit should be based on demonstrated student achievement and learning progress rather than on how many hours students spend in class (often called “seat time” by educators). The criticism arises from the fact that credits based on contact hours may have different meaning, in terms of learning acquisition and progress, from student to student or course to course. For example, students might earn a minimum passing grade in a course and yet still receive credit without having demonstrated that they have achieved expected learning standards or acquired the essential skills taught in the course. Different teachers may also apply different grading schemes or learning expectations from course to course, so that a “B” in one course means something much different than a “B” earned in a similar course. In these cases, critics argue, course credits based on contact time do not certify competency, and they may allow students to progress in their education and earn a diploma even though they have major learning gaps or educational deficiencies.

Vision Statement

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vision statement, or simply a vision, is a public declaration that schools or other educational organizations use to describe their high-level goals for the future—what they hope to achieve if they successfully fulfill their organizational purpose or mission. A vision statement may describe a school’s loftiest ideals, its core organizational values, its long-term objectives, or what it hopes its students will learn or be capable of doing after graduating.

The term vision statement is often used interchangeably with mission statement. While some educators and schools may loosely define the two terms, or even blur the traditional lines that have separated them, there appears to be general agreement in the education community on the major distinctions between a “vision” and a “mission.” Generally speaking, a vision statement expresses a hoped-for future reality, while a mission statement declares the practical commitments and actions that a school believes are needed to achieve its vision. While a vision statement describes the end goal—the change sought by a school—a mission statement may describe its broad academic and operational assurances, as well as its commitment to its students and community.

For a more detailed discussion, see mission and vision.

Brain-Based Learning

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Brain-based learning refers to teaching methods, lesson designs, and school programs that are based on the latest scientific research about how the brain learns, including such factors as cognitive development—how students learn differently as they age, grow, and mature socially, emotionally, and cognitively.

Brain-based learning is motivated by the general belief that learning can be accelerated and improved if educators base how and what they teach on the science of learning, rather than on past educational practices, established conventions, or assumptions about the learning process. For example, it was commonly believed that intelligence is a fixed characteristic that remains largely unchanged throughout a person’s life. However, recent discoveries in cognitive science have revealed that the human brain physically changes when it learns, and that after practicing certain skills it becomes increasingly easier to continue learning and improving those skills. This finding—that learning effectively improves brain functioning, resiliency, and working intelligence—has potentially far-reaching implications for how schools can design their academic programs and how teachers could structure educational experiences in the classroom.

Related terms such as brain-based education or brain-based teaching, like brain-based learning, refer to instructional techniques that are grounded in the neuroscience of learning—i.e., scientific findings are used to inform educational strategies and programs. Other related terms, such as educational neuroscience or mind, brain, and education science refer to the general field of academic and scientific study, not to the brain-based practices employed in schools.

Reform

A great deal of the scientific research and academic dialogue related to brain-based learning has been focused on neuroplasticity—the concept that neural connections in the brain change, remap, and reorganize themselves when people learn new concepts, have new experiences, or practice certain skills over time. Scientists have also determined, for example, that the brain can perform several activities at once; that the same information can be stored in multiple areas of the brain; that learning functions can be affected by diet, exercise, stress, and other conditions; that meaning is more important than information when the brain is learning something new; and that certain emotional states can facilitate or impede learning—among many other findings.

Given the breadth and diversity of related scientific findings, brain-based learning may take a wide variety of forms from school to school or teacher to teacher. For example, teachers may design lessons or classroom environments to reflect conditions that facilitate learning—e.g., they may play calming music to decrease stress, reduce the amount of time they spend lecturing, engage students in regular physical activity, or create comfortable reading and study areas, with couches and beanbag chairs, as an alternative to traditional desks and chairs. They may also encourage students to eat more healthy foods or exercise more—two physical factors that have been shown to affect brain health.

The principles of brain-based learning are also being introduced into teacher-preparation programs, and an increasing number of colleges and universities are offering courses and degrees in the field. For example, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education now offers a Mind, Brain, and Education master’s-degree program.

Debate

Because educational neuroscience is still a relatively young field, the methods and technologies of cognitive science are still being developed and tested. That said, people are often predisposed to view scientific findings as incontrovertible “facts” rather than complex and evolving theories, so it’s possible that some educators may view scientific findings as being more “solid” than they actually are, or they may misinterpret scientific evidence and act upon findings in ways that would not be recommended by the research. In addition, “neuroscientific myths”—widespread misinterpretations of scientific evidence—can potentially give rise to educational practices of dubious value.

Another point of potential debate is how educators should balance the findings of neuroscience with the practicalities of teaching. For example, some neuroscientists might argue that teachers shouldn’t lecture for longer than ten minutes, but it is probably more practical to interpret that recommendation as a guideline, not a strict instructional prescription. Other findings might support the use of treadmills in classrooms—because the brain is more stimulated during physical activity—but such options may be impractical, unworkable, inadvisable, or financially infeasible in many school settings.

Dual Enrollment

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The term dual enrollment refers to students being enrolled—concurrently—in two distinct academic programs or educational institutions. The term is most prevalently used in reference to high school students taking college courses while they are still enrolled in a secondary school (i.e., a dual-enrollment student), or to the programs that allow high school students to take college-level courses (i.e., a dual-enrollment program). For this reason, the term early college is a common synonym for dual enrollment.

When students are dually enrolled in courses at two separate educational intuitions, they may or may not receive academic credit at one or both of the schools. If students do have the opportunity to earn academic credit at both institutions, the term dual credit may also be used (see discussion below). In some cases, the college credits students earn through a dual-enrollment experience can be used to satisfy high school graduation requirements, and in other cases the high school will not allow the course, for a variety of possible reasons, to satisfy credit requirements for graduation. High school students may also elect to take a college course independently, and they will therefore be “dually enrolled,” but the high school may not have facilitated or been involved in the decision. In most cases, the college credits earned by dual-enrollment students are recognized at the collegiate level and can qualify as completed course credits after a high school student is accepted into a postsecondary degree program (the acceptance of credit, however, is always an individual institutional decision).

In some cases, high school students take dual-enrollment courses on a college campus, alongside regular college students, while in other cases students take the courses online or from instructors who offer college-level courses at a high school or community center. Some colleges and universities allow high school students to take the courses for free, or they may offer reduced-priced tuition or fees, while in other cases students pay the full cost of a course. If the cost of a dual-enrollment course is fully or partially subsidized, the participating college, the high school, or a state or private program may cover or share the costs. In a word, dual-enrollment courses, programs, and experiences come in a wide variety of possible configurations—far too many to exhaustively catalog here.

Dual Enrollment vs. Dual Credit

Simply put, dual enrollment refers to students taking courses concurrently at two separate institutions, while dual credit refers to students completing a single course to earn academic credits that are recognized by two or more institutions. Yet a dual-enrollment experience may or may not allow students to earn dual credit, and a dual-credit experience may not entail concurrent enrollments in two separate institutions—it all depends on how a specific course-taking situation is structured.

To give one illustrative example, high school programs such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate allow some students to earn academic credit that is accepted by some colleges and universities. In the view of some educators, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses may be considered “dual credit” experiences because students can potentially earn both high school and college credit. Yet these programs are always offered by the high school a student attends, so they are not in any way dual-enrollment experiences. Given that the distinction between dual enrollment and dual credit can overlap, and the definitions are often conflated or confused, it’s important to investigate the specific configuration of a particular program or course-taking situation.

Reform

In recent years, dual-enrollment programs, courses, and experiences have grown in popularity in the United States, and they are generally viewed as a way to expose students to collegiate learning, demystify the collegiate experience, provide more challenging learning opportunities, increase postsecondary aspirations, or accelerate the attainment of a college degree—all of which can contribute to higher enrollment, success, and degree-attainment rates in postsecondary education programs.

In addition, since dual-enrollment programs may allow students to earn both high school and college credit simultaneously, they can decrease the amount of time—by a semester, year, or even more—commonly required to earn a two- or four-year postsecondary degree. And because the cost of dual-enrollment courses may be fully or partially subsidized, the expenses and loan debt averted by students and families can also improve the chances that a student will choose to enroll in and complete a postsecondary program. (The growing costs associated with earning a college degree, and concerns about taking on loan debt, are among the most frequently cited reasons why students decide not to pursue postsecondary education.)

Dual-enrollment programs are also a way for high schools to increase the learning opportunities available to students. For example, local colleges may offer specialized courses that are not available in the high school, such as Chinese language, engineering, nursing, or advanced mathematics (among many other potential courses not commonly offered in high schools). Some dual-enrollment students may simply want to challenge themselves intellectually and academically, while others may want to “try” a dual-enrollment course to see if college is a good fit for them.

For related discussions, see college-ready and learning pathway.

Debate

Advocates of dual-enrollment programs and experiences tend to point out the potential benefits described above—that exposing students to collegiate learning, demystifying the college experience, providing academic and intellectual challenges, and making college more affordable can increase postsecondary aspirations, improve a student’s chance of success college, and accelerate the attainment of a postsecondary degree.

Skeptics of dual-enrollment may question whether some high school students are emotionally and socially ready for college, whether some will fail and become discouraged, or whether there is adequate oversight and guidance for secondary students on college campuses. Others may question whether the college courses address state learning standards, whether the courses are equivalent to or appropriate for the high school academic program, whether high schools should allow college courses to satisfy graduation requirements, and whether the proper procedures are in place to ensure that the college courses are sufficiently challenging academically.

Of course, the potential benefits or downsides of dual-enrollment experiences depend on a wide variety of factors, including whether a student simply happens to have a positive or negative experience in a particular course or program. In addition, transportation, scheduling, and other logistical issues can complicate programs, while a lack of orientation and academic-support services at the participating colleges can decrease the chances that some students will succeed in a dual-enrollment experience. Some may express concerns related to student safety if dual-enrollment experiences require students to leave school grounds without supervision from teachers or other adults.

Project-Based Learning

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Project-based learning refers to any programmatic or instructional approach that utilizes multifaceted projects as a central organizing strategy for educating students. When engaged in project-based learning, students will typically be assigned a project or series of projects that require them to use diverse skills—such as researching, writing, interviewing, collaborating, or public speaking—to produce various work products, such as research papers, scientific studies, public-policy proposals, multimedia presentations, video documentaries, art installations, or musical and theatrical performances, for example. Unlike many tests, homework assignments, and other more traditional forms of academic coursework, the execution and completion of a project may take several weeks or months, or it may even unfold over the course of a semester or year.

Closely related to the concept of authentic learning, project-based-learning experiences are often designed to address real-world problems and issues, which requires students to investigate and analyze their complexities, interconnections, and ambiguities (i.e., there may be no “right” or “wrong” answers in a project-based-learning assignment). For this reason, project-based learning may be called inquiry-based learning or learning by doing, since the learning process is integral to the knowledge and skills students acquire. Students also typically learn about topics or produce work that integrates multiple academic subjects and skill areas. For example, students may be assigned to complete a project on a local natural ecosystem and produce work that investigates its history, species diversity, and social, economic, and environmental implications for the community. In this case, even if the project is assigned in a science course, students may be required to read and write extensively (English); research local history using texts, news stories, archival photos, and public records (history and social studies); conduct and record first-hand scientific observations, including the analysis and tabulation of data (science and math); and develop a public-policy proposal for the conservation of the ecosystem (civics and government) that will be presented to the city council utilizing multimedia technologies and software applications (technology).

In project-based learning, students are usually given a general question to answer, a concrete problem to solve, or an in-depth issue to explore. Teachers may then encourage students to choose specific topics that interest or inspire them, such as projects related to their personal interests or career aspirations. For example, a typical project may begin with an open-ended question (often called an “essential question” by educators): How is the principle of buoyancy important in the design and construction of a boat? What type of public-service announcement will be most effective in encouraging our community to conserve water? How can our school serve healthier school lunches? In these cases, students may be given the opportunity to address the question by proposing a project that reflects their interests. For example, a student interested in farming may explore the creation of a school garden that produces food and doubles as a learning opportunity for students, while another student may choose to research health concerns related to specific food items served in the cafeteria, and then create posters or a video to raise awareness among students and staff in the school.

In public schools, the projects, including the work products created by students and the assessments they complete, will be based on the same state learning standards that apply to other methods of instruction—i.e., the projects will be specifically designed to ensure that students meet expected learning standards. While students work on a project, teachers typically assess student learning progress—including the achievement of specific learning standards—using a variety of methods, such as portfolios, demonstrations of learning, or rubrics, for example. While the learning process may be more student-directed than some traditional learning experiences, such as lectures or quizzes, teachers still provide ongoing instruction, guidance, and academic support to students. In many cases, adult mentors, advisers, or experts from the local community—such as scientists, elected officials, or business leaders—may be involved in the design of project-based experiences, mentor students throughout the process, or participate on panels that review and evaluate the final projects in collaboration with teachers.

Debate

As a reform strategy, project-based learning may become an object of debate both within a school or in the larger community. Schools that decide to adopt project-based learning as their primary method of instruction, as opposed to schools that are founded on the philosophy and use the method from their inception, are more likely to encounter criticism or resistance. The instructional nuances of project-based learning can also become a source of confusion and misunderstanding, given that the approach represents a fairly significant departure from more familiar conceptions of schooling.

In addition, there may be debate among educators about what specifically does and doesn’t constitute “project-based learning.” For example, some teachers may already be doing “projects” in their courses, and they might consider these activities to be a form of project-based learning, but others may dispute such claims because the projects do not conform to their more specific and demanding definition—i.e., they are not “authentic” forms of project-based learning since they don’t meet the requisite instructional criteria (such as the features described above).

The following are a few representative examples of the kinds of arguments typically made by advocates of project-based learning:

  • Project-based learning gives students a more “integrated” understanding of the concepts and knowledge they learn, while also equipping them with practical skills they can apply throughout their lives. The interdisciplinary nature of project-based learning helps students make connections across different subjects, rather than perceiving, for example, math and science as discrete subjects with little in common.
  • Because project-based learning mirrors the real-world situations students will encounter after they leave school, it can provide stronger and more relevant preparation for college and work. Student not only acquire important knowledge and skills, they also learn how to research complex issues, solve problems, develop plans, manage time, organize their work, collaborate with others, and persevere and overcome challenges, for example.
  • Project-based learning reflects the ways in which today’s students learn. It can improve student engagement in school, increase their interest in what is being taught, strengthen their motivation to learn, and make learning experiences more relevant and meaningful.
  • Since project-based learning represents a more flexible approach to instruction, it allows teachers to tailor assignments and projects for students with a diverse variety of interests, career aspirations, learning styles, abilities, and personal backgrounds. For related discussions, see differentiation and personalized learning.
  • Project-based learning allows teachers and students to address multiple learning standards simultaneously. Rather than only meeting math standards in math classes and science standards in science classes, students can work progressively toward demonstrating proficiency in a variety of standards while working on a single project or series of projects. For a related discussion, see proficiency-based learning.

The following are few representative examples of the kinds of arguments that may be made by critics of project-based learning:

  • Project-based learning may not ensure that students learn all the required material and standards they are expected to learn in a course, subject area, or grade level. When a variety of subjects are lumped together, it’s more difficult for teachers to monitor and assess what students have learned in specific academic subjects.
  • Many teachers will not have the time or specialized training required to use project-based learning effectively. The approach places greater demands on teachers—from course preparation to instructional methods to the evaluation of learning progress—and schools may not have the funding, resources, and capacity they need to adopt a project-based-learning model.
  • The projects that students select and design may vary widely in academic rigor and quality. Project-based learning could open the door to watered-down learning expectations and low-quality coursework.
  • Project-based learning is not well suited to students who lack self-motivation or who struggle in less-structured learning environments.
  • Project-based learning raises a variety of logistical concerns, since students are more likely to learn outside of school or in unsupervised settings, or to work with adults who are not trained educators.

Learning Standards

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Learning standards are concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education. Learning standards describe educational objectives—i.e., what students should have learned by the end of a course, grade level, or grade span—but they do not describe any particular teaching practice, curriculum, or assessment method (although this is a source of ongoing confusion and debate).

Following the adoption of a variety of federal and state policies—notably the No Child Left Behind Act, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965—all states now use standardized assessments designed to evaluate academic achievement in relation to a set of learning standards. Until the development and widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards for the subjects of English language arts and mathematics, and more recently the Next Generation Science Standards, learning standards in the United States were independently developed by states, usually as part of a collaborative committee process overseen by a state’s department of education that included educators and subject-area specialists, as well as public-commentary periods (although both development and adoption processes varied from state to state). When investigating or reporting on learning standards, it is important to know how they were developed, what knowledge and skills they describe, and how they are actually used in schools.

While learning standards vary in content, purpose, and design from state to state, most standards systems in the United States share a few common attributes:

  • Subject areas: Learning standards are typically organized by subject area—e.g., English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, health and wellness, etc. Most standards systems use the same general subject-area categories that public schools have been using for decades, although some may be refined to reflect new knowledge or changing educational priorities, such as “science and technology” or “health and wellness.”
  • Learning progressions: In each subject area, standards are typically organized by grade level or grade span—consequently, they may be called grade-level expectations or grade-level standards—and the sequencing of standards across grades or stages of academic progress is called a “learning progression” (although terminology may vary from place to place). Learning progressions map out a specific sequence of knowledge and skills that students are expected to learn as they progress through their education. There are two main characteristics of learning progressions: (1) the standards described at each level are intended to address the specific learning needs and abilities of students at a particular stage of their intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development, and (2) the standards reflect clearly articulated sequences—that is, each grade-level learning expectation builds upon previous expectations while preparing students for more challenging concepts and more sophisticated coursework at the next level. The basic idea is to make sure that students are learning age-appropriate material (knowledge and skills that are neither too advanced nor too rudimentary), and that teachers are sequencing learning effectively or avoiding the inadvertent repetition of material that was taught in earlier grades. For a more detailed discussion, see learning progression.
  • Educational goals: Many sets of learning standards also include overarching, long-term educational goals—i.e., what students should be able to do when they have completed their public-school education. These overarching goals will typically describe the knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits that public schools should be teaching and cultivating in stages throughout a student’s education. For example, they may address critical thinking, logical reasoning, and problem solving; oral and written communication; perseverance and work ethic; digital technology and media; or multicultural literacy (valuing and understanding other perspectives, races, and cultures)—i.e., broadly applicable skills that will help students succeed in adult life.
  • Content: While each set of learning standards is unique, there is often a great deal of commonality from system to system or state to state. For example, while different sets of mathematics standards may use different descriptions, or they may sequence specific learning expectations differently, most mathematics standards describe similar quantitative concepts, principles, and reasoning. That said, in subjects such as history, social studies, or science—which contain an enormous variety of possible concepts, facts, skill sets, and areas of study, not to mention politically and ideologically contentious issues—learning standards will likely reflect greater content-related disparities. In addition, some learning standards are considered to be more precise, exacting, and prescriptive—e.g., they will describe the specific punctuation marks that students should know how to use correctly at a particular grade level—while others are considered to be more general, encompassing, and descriptive—e.g., they will explain more broadly what students should be able to do when writing (articulate concepts clearly, use grammatical conventions correctly, cite sources accurately, etc.).

The following examples, taken from the Common Core State Standards English Language Arts Standards for grades 9–10, can serve to illustrate what learning standards are and how they describe educational expectations:

Reading

  • Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language of a court opinion differs from that of a newspaper).
  • Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

Writing

  • Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Language

  • Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking.
  • Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
  • Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Speaking and listening

  • Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.
  • Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.

Reform

In the United States, learning standards could be considered a de facto reform strategy, given that they are a relatively recent historical development, and they are generally intended to improve the effectiveness of schools, the quality and consistency of teaching, and the academic achievement of students (whether or not they accomplish this goal remains a subject of debate). The following are a few representative ways in which learning standards are used to improve public education:

  • Educational consistency: Learning standards are, generally speaking, a way to promote greater consistency and commonality in what gets taught to students from state to state, school to school, or classroom to classroom. Before the advent of learning standards and other efforts to standardize public education, individual schools and teachers determined learning expectations in a given course, subject area, or grade level—a situation that can give rise to significant educational disparities.
  • Quality control: Learning standards are also seen as a way to improve school quality, teaching effectiveness, and student learning. By mandating the use of learning standards in public schools, for example, states, policy makers, and elected officials can increase the likelihood that students will acquire—at a minimum—a certain body of skills and knowledge during their public-school education.
  • Accountability: If states base standardized tests or other assessments on learning standards, they can—at least to some degree—measure whether schools are teaching students the required material. If students in a particular school underperform, steps can be taken to improve performance. For example, in the case of high-stakes tests designed to measure whether or not students have achieved expected learning standards, poor school performance can trigger a variety of consequences.
  • Prioritization: Given that there is a vast number of subjects, concepts, facts, perspectives, and skills that schools could potentially be teaching, learning standards are a way to determine educational priorities in a state or education system. For example, learning standards are a way to prioritize the teaching of certain historical subjects over others—say, the civic, social, political, and economic history of the United States and other countries over the history of sports, entertainment, and fashion.
  • Pacing: Depending on their specific content and sequencing, learning standards can accelerate (or slow down) learning progress—at least in relation to other standards or educational systems. If learning standards are modified to require certain concepts to be taught in earlier grades, for example, students may learn them earlier and be able to move on to more sophisticated ideas and material. For a related discussion, see acceleration.
  • Expectations: Learning standards also establish academic expectations for schools, teachers, and students in terms both content (what gets taught) and depth (the level or degree to which it is taught). If learning standards are made more challenging, exacting, or demanding, the reasoning goes, more complex topics and more sophisticated skills will be taught by schools and learned by students. The basic rationale is that if schools apply the same high expectations to every student, then more students will achieve those higher expectations, or at least get closer to achieving those expectations, than if the expectations were lower.
  • Coherence: Learning standards can promote greater academic and instructional coherence, or “alignment,” within a school or education system. Because standards are carefully mapped out and sequenced, they can help schools and teachers avoid redundancy or unnecessary repetition, while also creating a progression of instruction in which each lesson builds on previous lessons, moving students from simpler concepts to more complex and challenging concepts, from lower-level thinking to higher-level thinking, or from less-sophisticated skills to more-sophisticated skills as they progress through their education. For a related discussion, see coherent curriculum.
  • Teaching: Depending on how they are written, learning standards can influence the ways in which schools and educators teach students. If standards are written to emphasize factual content and memorization, for example, rather than deeper comprehension and the application of knowledge, that emphasis will likely be reflected in the teaching materials and methods used by educators. In the first case, for example, worksheets, textbooks, lectures, videos, and tests may be seen as effective ways to teach factual content and determine whether students can recall historical dates, execute a mathematical formula, or write a grammatical sentence. In the second case, teachers may need to use alternative methods to teach students how to use the knowledge and skills they have acquired to solve complex problems, evaluate ambiguous issues, complete challenging tasks, or produce sophisticated work products.
  • Equity: Learning standards are also seen as a way to increase equity and fairness within an educational system. For example, there is strong evidence that students of color and students from lower-income households are held to lower academic expectations, or enrolled in lower-level classes, more frequently and consistently than their white and wealthier peers. As many educators have pointed out, this situation (often called the “soft bigotry of low expectations”) can create a “cycle of low expectations,” possibly even a multigenerational cycle, in which minority and low-income students never catch up with their peers academically, earn collegiate degrees at the same rates, or achieve the same social, professional, or economic status. Learning standards—because they are applied to all students in an education system—are seen by many educators as a way to ensure that minority and disadvantaged students are held to the same expectations, and given the same quality of education, as other students. For related discussions, see achievement gap, high expectations, opportunity gap, multicultural education, and stereotype threat.
  • Resources: If states and schools use the same learning standards, it also allows them to make use of the same educational resources, whether it’s textbooks, online learning programs, tests, or the curriculum and lesson plans that teachers create to organize a course. In the case of textbooks and other learning resources, it may be possible for states or schools to share educational resources or save money when purchasing resources. For example, before many states adopted the Common Core State Standards, textbook publishers had to create different English or math textbooks for each state. Similarly, each state contracted with different test developers to create unique standardized tests each year that were based on the state’s learning standards, but initiatives such as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) were created to develop tests that could be used by multiple states. In addition, common learning standards allow teachers to share educational materials—such as instructional plans, reading lists, projects, and assignments—and several online resource-sharing websites have recently been created to facilitate the exchange of standards-based educational materials among teachers.

Debate

Learning standards are a major source of debate in the United States—and even more so since the No Child Left Behind Act connected high-stakes testing to learning standards and most states replaced preexisting standards with the Common Core State Standards. The arguments both for and against learning standards are highly complex, and it is not possible to address every nuance here. The following, however, will serve to illustrate a few of the major debates about learning standards:

  • Should states or the federal government determine what students learn in public school? Or should local communities, parents, and students make these decisions? Some argue that—to maintain educational quality and ensure that students are prepared to be productive adults, workers, and citizens—educational experts, elected officials, and government agencies need to play a role in setting educational standards and learning expectations. Without such guidelines and requirements, there is no way to ensure a minimum level of educational quality in public schools, or ensure that students are taught the most critically important knowledge and skills. Others argue, however, that learning standards are a form of governmental overreach, and that decisions about what gets taught in schools should remain local—or, in the view of some, familial and individual. In this case, the debate often intersects with political, ideological, and moral differences, or fears about the students being “indoctrinated” into certain ideologies, given that some standards address subjects that are broadly contentious in American society—e.g., teaching evolution in science courses, multiculturalism in social studies, or sex education in health courses.
  • Are learning standards forcing schools and educators to use a mandated curriculum? There is a great deal of confusion about the distinction between learning standards and curriculum, and whether they are qualitatively and substantively different or effectively the same. Some argue that standards only describe broad learning expectations and content categories, and that they do not tell teachers how to teach or even to a great extent what to teach. For example, a standard that requires students to learn and understand how “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” work in American government does not require teachers to teach those ideas in any specific way—they can use any number of instructional approaches, learning materials, or historical examples to teach students the concepts described in the standards. Others believe, or express concern, that learning standards are a form of forced curriculum that will limit what teachers can teach, while also deprioritizing or neglecting certain subjects. Some critics even contend that parents should be able be able to control what gets taught to their children in school.
  • Are learning standards useful, effective guidelines for schools and educators? Or are they burdensome regulatory requirements that take up valuable resources and time without adding much educational value? As some educational experts have pointed out, learning standards can become overbuilt if they are either too prescriptive or so numerous and comprehensive that there is simply not enough time to ensure that students learn and master every standard. In the second case, educators and others may debate whether teaching a specific set of learning standards is even feasible, given the amount of time and the average number of years that students typically attend public school. And depending on how states structure their learning standards and related compliance requirements, there could be a wide variety of potential debates and criticism related to compliance obligations, including whether schools have sufficient time and funding to meet the requirements, or whether teachers have been given the training they need to modify their lessons and bring them into alignment with standards.
  • Do learning standards address the most important and appropriate knowledge and skills? In the education community, there is often debate about whether a specific set of standards addresses the right content or establishes appropriate learning expectations. Given the enormous breadth, depth, and multiplicity of knowledge and skills that could potentially be addressed in learning standards, it is perhaps unsurprising that educators would hold divergent views about educational priorities for students. Both within and outside of the education community, debates about the content of learning standards also intersect with broader political, ideological, and religious differences and debates in the United States.
  • Are learning standards too prescriptive or are they not prescriptive enough? In the view of some educators, learning standards that are too prescriptive, detailed, or numerous can reduce a teacher’s professional autonomy, instructional flexibility, and responsiveness to student learning needs. In this case, standards may be perceived as a burdensome checklist that teachers need to work through. Other educators, however, believe that the very fact that standards are prescriptive or required is what makes them effective. In this example, learning standards may be seen as way to improve educational consistency and quality across a complex system that includes both more-effective and less-effective teachers, or as a way to protect students from the long-term personal and societal harm that may result from low educational expectations and low-quality teaching.
  • Do standards represent authentic learning progressions, or are they merely content progressions or teaching progressions? This somewhat technical debate occurs mostly among educators, researchers, and education experts. The basic idea is that standards, by necessity, are created by adults with only a limited understanding of how students actually learn and develop cognitively at specific ages. Therefore, grade-level standards and learning progressions reflect “best-guess” ideas about how content or teaching should be sequenced across grades, but they do not necessarily reflect the ways in which students actually learn new knowledge and acquire new skills. Consequently, they may not facilitate learning in the most effective ways, or they may inadvertently promote and reinforce less-effective teaching strategies.

Test Accommodations

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Test accommodations are any modifications made to tests or testing conditions that allow students with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or limited English-language ability to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a testing situation. Common modifications include extending the amount of time students are given to complete a test, reducing the number of test items, having someone else write down test answers, or listening to questions read aloud by text-to-speech conversation software. Students who are still learning the English language are also eligible for accommodations such as bilingual glossaries or test questions presented in their native language. The accommodations may apply to both standardized tests administered to large populations of students, including high-stakes tests used to make important decisions about students, and to the assessments that teachers use to evaluate what students have learned in a particular course.

The general goal of providing testing accommodations is to create a level playing field for students whose disabilities or language abilities may adversely affect their ability to show on a test what they have learned. A few obvious examples include offering Braille-based exams to blind students, providing written rather than oral instructions to deaf students, or making a testing location wheelchair accessible for wheelchair-bound students. There are, however, less obvious—but often equally necessary—accommodations, such as extended testing time for students with documented learning disabilities or neurological conditions that may cause them to take more time to process certain kinds of information. In addition, students with disabilities may also be eligible to complete alternative forms of assessment rather than sitting for a test—one example would be submitting a portfolio of their work that is then evaluated by educators.

A variety of state and federal policies require schools to provide test accommodations. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, for example, requires states to have regulations and guidelines governing testing accommodations. Test developers often provide guidance on accommodations and how they can be provided to students without affecting testing validity—i.e., the recommended accommodations should not interfere with the test’s ability to measure what it is supposed to measure. State education agencies usually have strict guidelines for which accommodations are permitted on state exams used for the purposes of school accountability. For most students with disabilities, federal and state regulations require any alternative assessments to be based on the same learning standards that apply to all other students (for a small percentage of students, however, their disabilities are considered significant or severe enough to qualify them for alternative assessments that are based on modified learning standards).

The following are a few representative testing accommodations made for students with disabilities:

  • Students may have test instructions clarified by a teacher or test administrator.
  • Tests may be presented in a different format, such as in larger-sized font or by being read to students by text-to-speech software.
  • Students may be allowed to say their answers aloud to someone who will document them in written form.
  • Students may be allowed to take the test in a different setting or to take frequent breaks during the testing session.
  • Students may have a specified amount of extra time—such as 150 percent of the time given to other students—or they may be able to take a test over the course of multiple sessions and days.

The following are a few representative testing accommodations made for students who are not proficient in English:

  • Students may have access to materials that give bilingual word-to-word translations (without defining the words) or to dictionaries and glossaries that define English terms in their native language.
  • A translator may provide an oral translation of test items in a student’s native language.
  • Students may be allowed to respond to questions in their own language, with a translator documenting the responses in English.
  • Students may be given more time to complete a test.

Reform

Testing accommodations are typically an integral component of test-based educational policies and reforms aimed at ensuring that all students, including those with special learning needs and disabilities, have fair and equal access to a high-quality public education, which extends to how students demonstrate what they have learned on tests and other assessments. A variety of laws—including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and state-specific special-education legislation—require schools to provide accommodations and additional services for students with specialized needs.

To ensure that tests and assessments accurately measure the abilities and academic progress of students, test accommodations are generally limited  to only those specific and appropriate modifications that educators, experts, and test developers have determined will allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do. Restricting test accommodations in this manner is intended not only to ensure testing validity and fairness to other students, but also to ensure that test results don’t overestimate or underestimate student abilities. For example, inaccurately inflated scores could lead to the withholding of specialized services and accommodations that students may actually need, while inaccurately low scores could mask a student’s true academic potential and abilities, which could result in him or her being placed into courses that are insufficiently challenging. Accurate measurement based on the appropriate use of accommodations is also important to educators who want a precise picture of what students know and can do, since testing results are often used to inform the instructional and support modifications that students may need.

Testing accommodations also have significant implications for high-stakes testing, given that test scores—whether they are accurate or inaccurate—may be used to make important decisions about schools and teachers. If students with disabilities and limited English proficiency are not allowed appropriate accommodations, schools could inaccurately be deemed “low-performing” and be subject to sanctions, funding reductions, negative publicity, and other consequences. For example, the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires standardized test scores to be reported for various student subgroups, including students of color, students with disabilities, and students who are not proficient in English. If one student subgroup fails to meet expected proficiency and progress levels, the school may be labeled “low-performing” even if a majority of its students perform well on the test. In this case, if testing accommodations were not provided to students with disabilities, the school would be disadvantaged. And schools with large populations of students who are not proficient in English, for example, would be at an even greater disadvantage.

Debate

Since there is little debate among educators about the need and ethical responsibility to provide appropriate testing accommodations to students who have a documented need for them, debates tend to center on whether the most appropriate forms of accommodations are being used. In addition, some debate or misunderstanding may stem from less-obvious accommodation situations, such as those related to cognitive impairments rather than physical disabilities.

The following are representative arguments that may be made in favor of appropriate testing accommodations:

  • They help students more accurately demonstrate their actual level of knowledge and skill, reducing the potential for inaccurate or misleading scores.
  • They can increase a student’s confidence and comfort level in testing situations, mitigating the anxiety or fear of failure that may adversely affect test performance.
  • They can help students with disabilities or language barriers improve their academic confidence and grades, while also recognizing their academic strengths and abilities.
  • On college-entrance exams, accommodations can make it possible for capable students with learning disabilities to continue their education.

The following are representative arguments that may be made against test accommodations:

  • If inappropriately applied, test accommodations can contribute to score inflation. If teachers then overestimate a student’s level of knowledge and skill, based on inflated scores, the student may be assigned unsuitable or overly challenging schoolwork, which could lead to frustration and failure.
  • If accommodations artificially increase a student’s performance, producing an inaccurate picture of his or her ability level, the student may not receive the specialized assistance and services he or she needs.
  • If the overuse of accommodations produces inflated test results for certain groups of students, it could appear that their school no longer needs special-education resources and staff, which could cause the school or district to lose the funding and resources needed to serve their higher-need student populations.

Class Rank

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The term class rank refers to the hierarchical ranking of students based on academic performance or grade point average. Rankings may be expressed in numerical order (first, second, third, top ten, etc.) or as percentiles (top ten percent, top twenty-five percent, etc.). Class rank is typically determined at the end of middle school or high school, and it is used to determine academic honors such as valedictorian (first in the class) and salutatorian (second in the class). While schools do not typically make an entire set of rankings for a graduating class public, it is quite common for schools to publicly announce and celebrate top-ranked students, particular those who end up in the “top ten” or top-tenth percentile.

When investigating or reporting on class rank, it is important to ask questions about and determine the precise methodology used to compile and calculate the rankings, since class-ranking systems may vary from school to school.

Reform

Some educators view class rankings as an impediment to certain reforms. In these cases, class rank may be viewed as an outmoded system that has persisted largely due to institutional and cultural tradition, not because it provides genuine educational value. Reformers may argue that class ranking is fundamentally inequitable or that it focuses students on academic competition rather than more authentic, meaningful, or beneficial ways of learning. Some educators would prefer to see class rank replaced with the “Latin honors” system of cum laude (with honors), magna cum laude (with high honors) or summa cum laude (with highest honors), which has long been widely used in collegiate institutions, but that has recently become more popular in secondary schools. The main argument for Latin honors (or any similarly designed system) is that it can recognize the achievements of more students, as well as a much broader spectrum of academic accomplishment, rather than only a handful of students whose performance may be based on relatively small or even numerically miniscule differences in grade point average. In addition, Latin honors may be seen as a way to de-emphasize the perceived importance of academic competition in schools.

In recent years, so-called “percent plans” have been adopted in some states—such as California, Florida, and Texas—that give students who graduate from an in-state public school in a top percentile of their graduating class automatic admission to state colleges or universities. In some cases, valedictorians or other high-ranked students may receive additional benefits, including discounted or waived tuition. Percent plans, and their attendant state policies, have complicated efforts to modify or eliminate the practice of class ranking.

Debate

Historically, class rank has been one of the major academic indicators that colleges and universities have used to assess the quality of applicants and make admissions determinations. In recent years, several colleges across the country have stopped requiring students to submit standardized-test scores on applications; instead, these institutions rely on class rank, grade point average, course grades, essays, personal accomplishments, and other information to make admissions decisions. Yet in larger collegiate institutions, which may receive thousands or tens of thousands of applications a year that need to be processed efficiently, numerical indicators of academic performance (such as class rank, grade point average, or standardized-test scores) may be relied on more heavily during the admissions process. Advocates of class-ranking systems say the practice gives college-admissions offices or prospective employers a clear comparative measure of how a particular student has performed academically relative to other students in his or her graduating class. Some also argue that class ranking can create positive academic competition, motivate students to work harder, and deservedly recognize and reward high-achieving students who may have pursued a more challenging course of study.

Critics of class rank argue that the practice can breed excessive academic competition, and that rankings are a misleading indicator of academic performance. In some schools, depending on the particular grading system in use, student GPAs may be so numerically close that they have to be calculated to several decimal places to differentiate one student’s performance from another’s. In these cases, a mere thousandth of a point difference in GPA may determine which student becomes the valediction or which students fall within the top tenth percentile. Such vanishingly small differences in academic performance not only render class-rank comparisons essentially meaningless, some would argue, but such systems often create unintended consequences that underscore the meaningless of the rankings—for example, a graduating class with ten or twenty-five valedictorians who all achieved numerically perfect academic records. Critics of class rank tend to argue that intense academic competition can be academically unproductive and potentially harmful to students, since it can lead to a variety of negative outcomes:

  • Students experiencing greater anxiety, peer competitiveness, or feelings of failure based on fractional differences in GPA or class rank.
  • Students declining to take educationally valuable courses or pursue personal interests because certain courses may be considered too challenging (therefore presenting a greater likelihood of a lower grade) or they may present a mathematical disadvantage when it comes to calculating GPA or class rank (such as non-weighted courses in schools that use weighted-grade systems).
  • Students narrowly fixating on numerical indicators of academic performance and minuscule scoring discrepancies that might adversely affect their GPA, rather than enjoying learning, challenging themselves academically, embracing and overcoming failures, or focusing on the larger purpose and benefits of education.

Weighted Grades

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Weighted grades are number or letter grades that are assigned a numerical advantage when calculating a grade point average, or GPA. In some schools, primarily public high schools, weighted-grade systems give students a numerical advantage for grades earned in higher-level courses or more challenging learning experiences, such as honors courses, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate courses. In many cases, the terms quality points or honor points may be used in reference to the additional weight given to weighted grades. In the case of students who have completed courses considered to be more challenging than regular courses, the general purpose of a weighted grade is to give these students a numerical advantage when determining relative academic performance and related honors such as honor roll or class rank.

In some weighted-grade systems, for example, a grade in a higher-level course may have a “weight” of 1.05, while the same grade in a lower-level course has a weight of 1.0. In this system, a grade of 90 in an honors course would be recorded as a 94.5 or 95, while a 90 in a similar “college-prep” course would be recorded as a 90. An alternate system might add five “quality points” to grades earned in honors courses (90 + 5 = 95) and eight quality points to all grades earned in Advanced Placement courses (90 + 8 = 98). In another variation, an A in a higher-level course may be awarded a 5.0, for example, while an A in a lower-level course is awarded a 4.0. Lower grades in weighted courses would also receive the same one-point advantage—a grade of C, for example, would be assigned a 3.0, while a C in a regular course would be assigned a 2.0. In yet another variation, .33 may be added to all grades earned in Advance Placement courses, so that an A (4.0) would be recorded as a 4.33. While the examples above represent a few common formulations, grading systems and GPA scales may vary significantly from one school or school district to the next.

Given that weighted-grade systems may be calculated in dramatically different ways from school to school, reporters should investigate how weighted grades are calculated, what rationale is being used to support them, and what advantages or disadvantages may result for students.

While the term weighted grades typically refers to the practices described above, it is important to note that weighting may also refer to different levels of “weight” given to particular assignments within a course. For example, a final test may be given more “weight” in determining a course grade—say, 20 percent of the final grade—than an individual homework assignment, which may reflect only a small percentage of the final grade

In addition, some colleges and universities may ask high schools to provide both weighted and unweighted GPAs on student transcripts so that admissions offices can evaluate the differential effect of weighted grades—i.e., how certain course selections and weighted grades affected the GPA calculation.

Debate

The fundamental rationale for weighting grades is that the practice provides an incentive for students to challenge themselves academically. By assigning greater value to grades earned in more challenging courses, weighted grades remove a potential disincentive posed by tougher courses—i.e., students worrying that a lower grade in a tougher course might adversely affect their GPA or class rank. In addition to providing incentives to students, advocates may argue that weighted grades deservedly reward students who take tougher courses, recognize higher levels of academic accomplishment, and provide a more fair or balanced system of grading in schools with multiple academic tracks.

Critics of the practice tend to make the following arguments:

  • Weighted grades discourage students from taking certain classes that may be educationally valuable but that may present a numerical disadvantage when calculating GPA and class rank. Art and music classes are rarely weighted, for example, so students may not consider art and music courses out of fear that such courses will adversely affect their GPA and class standing.
  • Weighted grades are not academically meaningful unless the grades are based on a single set of learning standards that are evaluated consistently from course to course. In other words, unless schools can verify that a grade of A in one course actually represents greater academic accomplishment than an A earned in another course, the use of weighted grades can be misleading. For example, it’s possible that a course labeled “college prep” may actually be more challenging than a course labeled “honors.”
  • Weighted grades may actually act as disincentives, rather than incentives, for students. While weighted grades may make challenging courses seem less “risky” to students, it’s also possible that students, once enrolled in the course, may not work as hard because they know that a lower grade is worth as much as a higher grade in another course. In addition, students enrolled in lower-level courses know that their efforts are being assigned less value by the grading system, so even if a student works hard and earns a good grade in a college-prep course, that effort will still be assigned a lower value than grades earned by students in higher-level courses.
  • Weighted grades can devalue certain courses and reinforce cultural divisions within a school. Because both teachers and students know that lower-level courses are assigned a lower value, the practice of weighting grades reinforces the prestige associated with higher-level courses and the stigma associated with lower-level courses—for both teachers and students. Consequently, teachers may not want to teach lower-level courses, and students may feel embarrassed or ashamed to take them.
  • Weighted grades create opportunities for students to manipulate the grading process. In this view, weighted grades focus students on superficial outcomes—peer completion and higher numerical scores—rather than on more substantive outcomes, such as mastering new skills, exploring new ideas, learning from failure, or enjoying and appreciating the learning process, for example.

Capacity

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Educators typically use the term capacity in reference to the perceived abilities, skills, and expertise of school leaders, teachers, faculties, and staffs—most commonly when describing the “capacity” of an individual or school to execute or accomplish something specific, such as leading a school-improvement effort or teaching more effectively. The term may also encompass the quality of adaptation—the ability of a school or educator to grow, progress, or improve. Common variations include educator capacity, leadership capacity, school capacity, and teacher capacity, among others.

The phrase “building capacity”—a widely used bit of education jargon—refers to any effort being made to improve the abilities, skills, and expertise of educators. If the purpose is to reduce a school’s reliance on outside contractors or services, for example, educators may say they want to “build internal capacity.” When these terms and phrases are used in education contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what the term is referring to. In fact, some educational professionals, literature, and resources will call on school leaders to “build capacity” in a specified area without ever describing precisely what capacities should be improved or exactly how they might be improved.

For a related discussion, see professional development.

Education System

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The term education system generally refers to public schooling, not private schooling, and more commonly to kindergarten through high school programs. Schools or school districts are typically the smallest recognized form of “education system” and countries are the largest. States are also considered to have education systems.

Simply put, an education system comprises everything that goes into educating public-school students at the federal, state, or community levels:

  • Laws, policies, and regulations
  • Public funding, resource allocations, and procedures for determining funding levels
  • State and district administrative offices, school facilities, and transportation vehicles
  • Human resources, staffing, contracts, compensation, and employee benefits
  • Books, computers, teaching resources, and other learning materials
  • And, of course, countless other contributing elements

While the term education system is widely and frequently used in news media and public discourse, it may be difficult to determine precisely what the term is referring to when it is used without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation.

Like the teaching profession, education systems are, by nature, extremely complex and multifaceted, and the challenges entailed in reforming or improving them can be similarly complex and multifaceted. Even reforms that appear to be straightforward, simple, or easily achieved may, in practice, require complicated state-policy changes, union-contract negotiations, school-schedule modifications, or countless other conditions. For a related discussion, see systemic reform.

Given its widespread use and universal familiarity, the term education system can fall prey to what psychologist call the “illusion of knowledge”—or the tendency for people to think they have a better understanding of something than they actually do. For example, most people would say they understand what a teacher is and does, yet—if pressed—many people would not be able to explain precisely what people need to do to become certified as teachers, how state policies and requirements may dictate or influence what teachers teach in a course, what specific instructional methods are commonly used by teachers and which seem to work best, how educational research informs new instructional approaches, or how certain kinds of professional development can improve teaching effectiveness in a school, among many other things. When investigating or reporting on education reforms, it may be useful to look for more concrete, understandable, and relatable ways to describe abstract concepts such as education system.

Protocol

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A protocol is a set of step-by-step guidelines—usually in the form of a simple one- or two-page document—that is used by educators to structure professional conversations or learning experiences to ensure that meeting, planning, or group-collaboration time is used efficiently, purposefully, and productively. The National School Reform Faculty and the School Reform Initiative are the two primary sources of protocols in the United States, and hundreds of protocols can be downloaded from their websites.

While the specific purpose, process, and goals of a protocol may vary widely, educators commonly use protocols to structure professional discussions about instructional techniques, student work, student-performance data, or research studies and articles. The use of protocols serves several general purposes:

  • Ensuring that educators remain focused on the specific, agreed-upon objectives and goals for a professional conversation.
  • Building the foundational communication and facilitation skills essential to effective professional collaboration.
  • Helping to nurture a culture of collegiality, trust, and mutual appreciation.
  • Ensuring everyone in the group has an opportunity to contribute and be heard during a discussion.
  • Reducing the tendency toward subjective, digressive, or one-sided conversations.
  • Promoting focused, substantive, in-depth conversations about a specific topic.
  • Encouraging active, respectful listening among all participants.
  •  Providing a “safe space” for teachers to share their work with colleagues without being concerned about negative criticism.
  • Allowing difficult questions or issues to be raised in constructive ways.
  • Eliminating unhelpful excuses, complaints, or comments about student behavior from professional discussion.
  • Keeping conversations focused on goals, solutions, and results.

Protocols are specifically designed to encourage all participants in a discussion to listen actively and respectfully and to contribute constructive comments and feedback while refraining from less productive forms of conversation, such as digressions, complaints, excuses, or disparaging comments. Protocols may be used to structure discussions or group activities and, once completed, they are often followed by some form of debriefing process during which participants discuss what they learned from the experience and/or how the process worked well and how it could be improved.

Protocols are most commonly used in professional learning communities—groups of educators, usually teachers, who meet regularly, share expertise, and work collaboratively to improve their teaching skills and the academic performance of their students. In most cases, an assigned facilitator leads a group of teachers through a protocol to make sure that the conversation follows the established process and that everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the discussion. Protocols also commonly suggest that educators select a “recorder” who takes notes on the group discussion, a “time keeper” who monitors time and keeps the group on schedule, and a “process observer” who monitors the discussion and points out problems that arose or positive outcomes that resulted.

Debate

Advocates of protocols argue that their use helps groups of educators stay on task, avoid unhelpful or unproductive behaviors, and remain focused on goals and results. But to those recently introduced to protocol-guided conversations and activities, the process may feel artificial, stilted, or overly prescriptive. Protocols are specifically designed to generate professional conversations and interactions that would not naturally occur without a protocol, and some educators may argue that they stifle the kind creative thinking or lucky accidents that can result from the free, unobstructed exchange of ideas. If protocols are poorly facilitated, or if they are poorly matched with the specific objectives of a particular conversation, any potential utility they might have provided could be undermined or diminished. For this reason, advocates of protocols typically suggest that they only be used under the guidance of a trained or certified facilitator.

Parent Voice

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In education, parent voice refers to the values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds of the parents, guardians, and families of students enrolled in a school, which extends to parent groups, cultural organizations, and other entities related to a school through familial connections.

As both a philosophical stance and a school-improvement strategy, the concept of parent voice in education has grown increasingly popular in recent decades. Generally speaking, parent voice can be seen as an alternative to more hierarchical forms of governance or decision making in which school administrators may make unilateral decisions with little or no input from parents. Parent voice is also predicated on the belief or recognition that a school will be more successful—e.g., that teachers will be more effective and professionally fulfilled, that students will learn and achieve more, and that parents will feel more confidence in the school and more involved in their child’s education—if school leaders both consider and act upon the values, opinions, beliefs, and perspectives of the parents, guardians, and families in a school community. While the degree to which parent voice is both solicited and valued can vary considerably from school to school, educators are increasingly embracing parent voice in both leadership and instructional decisions.

For a more detailed discussion of the concept, see voice.

Historically, parent involvement in school leadership was fairly limited, consisting largely of traditional parent-teacher associations that, for example, raised money for school programs or organized school volunteers (among many other possible roles and responsibilities). In recent years, however, parents are increasingly being asked, or they are requesting, to serve on formal school committees and leadership teams, or to provide their opinions and feedback on a wide variety of issues and programs. At the elementary level, parent volunteerism in schools is quite common, although volunteerism rates tend to decline as their children age. Given their personal and emotional investment in the success of a school their child attends, parents, guardians, and family members may be more likely to run for seats on the district school board or seek local elected office. And with the advent of the online organizing and advocacy tools, and a concurrent increase in citizen journalism and activism, parents are also forming their own organizations to advocate for or fight against particular issues, such as bullying, special-needs education, or school funding, for example. In addition, parent involvement in school activities is considered particularly important for students more likely to struggle in school, such as students from lower-income or less-educated households, recently arrived immigrant or refugee students, or students with physical or learning disabilities, for example.

For a related discussion, see shared leadership.

Proficiency-Based Learning

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Proficiency-based learning refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education. In public schools, proficiency-based systems use state learning standards to determine academic expectations and define “proficiency” in a given course, subject area, or grade level (although other sets of standards may also be used, including standards developed by districts and schools or by subject-area organizations). The general goal of proficiency-based learning is to ensure that students are acquiring the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to success in school, higher education, careers, and adult life. If students fail to meet expected learning standards, they typically receive additional instruction, practice time, and academic support to help them achieve proficiency or meet the expected standards.

Defining proficiency-based learning is complicated by the fact that educators not only use a wide variety of terms for the general approach, but the terms may or may not be used synonymously from place to place. A few of the more common synonyms include competency-based, mastery-based, outcome-based, performance-based, and standards-based education, instruction, and learning, among others.

In practice, proficiency-based learning can take a wide variety of forms from state to state or school to school—there is no single model or universally used approach. While schools often create their own proficiency-based systems, they may also use systems, strategies, or models created by state education agencies or outside educational organizations. Proficiency-based learning is more widely used at the elementary level, although more middle schools and high schools are adopting the approach. As with any educational strategy, some proficiency-based systems may be better designed or more effective than others.

Recently, the terms competency-based learning or competency-based education (and related synonyms) have become more widely used by (1) online schools or companies selling online learning programs, and (2) colleges and universities, particularly those offering online degree programs. It should be noted that “competency-based learning,” as it is typically designed and implemented in K–12 public schools, can differ significantly from the forms of “competency-based learning” being offered and promoted by online schools and postsecondary-degree programs. At the collegiate level, for example, competency-based learning may entail prospective adult students receiving academic credit for knowledge and skills they acquired in their former careers—an approach that can reduce tuition costs and accelerate their progress toward earning a degree. It should also be noted that many online schools and educational programs, at the both the K–12 and higher-education levels, have also become the object of criticism and debate. Many for-profit virtual schools and online degree programs, for example, have been accused of offering low-quality educational experiences to students, exploiting students or public programs, and using the popularity of concepts such as “competency-based education” to promote programs of dubious educational value. When investigating or reporting on proficiency-based or competency-based education, it is important to determine precisely how the terms are being used in a specific context.

Reform

Proficiency-based learning is generally seen as an alternative to more traditional educational approaches in which students may or may not acquire proficiency in a given course or academic subject before they earn course credit, get promoted to the next grade level, or graduate. For example, high school students typically earn academic credit by passing a course, but a passing grade may be an A or it may be a D, suggesting that the awarded credit is based on a spectrum of learning expectations—with some students learning more and others learning less—rather than on the same consistent standards being applied to all students equally. And because grades may be calculated differently from school to school or teacher to teacher, and they may be based on different learning expectations (i.e., some courses might be “harder” and others “easier”), it may be possible for students to pass their courses, earn the required number of credits, and receive a diploma without acquiring important knowledge and skills. In extreme cases, for example, students may be awarded a high school diploma but still be unable to read, write, or do math at a basic level. A “proficiency-based diploma” would be a diploma awarded to students only after they have met expected learning standards.

While the goal of proficiency-based learning is to ensure that more students learn what they are expected to learn, the approach can also provide educators with more detailed or fine-grained information about student learning progress, which can help them more precisely identify academic strengths and weakness, as well as the specific concepts and skills students have not yet mastered. Since academic progress is often tracked and reported by learning standard in proficiency-based courses and schools, educators and parents often know more precisely what specific knowledge and skills students have acquired or may be struggling with. For example, instead of receiving a letter grade on an assignment or test, each of which may address a variety of standards, students are graded on specific learning standards, each of which describes the knowledge and skills students are expected to acquire.

When schools transition to a proficiency-based system, it can entail significant changes in how a school operates and teaches students, affecting everything from the school’s educational philosophy and culture to its methods of instruction, testing, grading, reporting, promotion, and graduation. For example, report cards may be entirely redesigned, and schools may use different grading scales and systems, such as replacing letter grades with brief descriptive statements—e.g., phrases such as does not meet, partially meets, meets the standard, and exceeds the standard are commonly used in proficiency-based schools (although systems vary widely in design, purpose, and terminology). Schools may also use different methods of instruction and assessment to determine whether students have achieved proficiency, including strategies such as demonstrations of learning, learning pathways, personal learning plans, portfolios, rubrics, and capstone projects, to name just a few.

Debate

While there is a widespread agreement that students should be held to high academic expectations, and that public schools and teachers should make sure that students acquire the most important knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in adult life, there is often disagreement and debate about the best way to achieve these goals. For this reason, debates about proficiency-based learning tend to be focused on the methods used by schools, rather than the overall objective of the strategy (i.e., all students meeting high standards and achieving proficiency—a goal that few dispute).

Proponents of proficiency-based learning may argue that the approach greatly improves the chances that students will learn the most critically important knowledge, concepts, and skills they will need throughout their lives, and that proficiency-based learning can help to eliminate persistent learning gaps, achievement gaps, and opportunity gaps. For these reasons, advocates of proficiency-based learning argue that the practice is a more equitable approach to public education, since it holds all students to the same high standards regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status, or whether they attend schools in poor or affluent communities (uneven standards being applied to minority and non-minority students, or the uneven quality of teaching and facilities from school to school, are believed to be major contributing causes of issues such as achievement gaps). Proponents may also point to the weaknesses or failures of existing systems—which allow students to get promoted from one grade to the next and earn a diploma without acquiring important knowledge and skills—as evidence that proficiency-based approaches, of whatever sort, are needed. For a related discussion, see social promotion.

Critics of proficiency-based learning may argue that the transition will require already overburdened teachers to spend large amounts of time—and possibly uncompensated time—on extra planning, preparation, and training, and that proficiency-based learning can be prohibitively difficult to implement, particularly at a statewide level. Critics may also take issue with the learning standards that proficiency-based systems utilize, or with the specific features of a system used in a particular school. For example, parents often express concern that the abandonment of traditional letter grades, report cards, transcripts, and other familiar academic-reporting strategies will disadvantage students who are applying to colleges and universities (because the reporting strategies will be unfamiliar to college-admissions professionals, or because proficiency-based systems may eliminate many of the competitive dimensions of academic achievement, such as GPAs or class rank, that tend to favor high-achieving students). Others may question whether there is sufficient evidence that proficiency-based learning will actually work as intended.