Archive for the ‘Entry’ Category



The term college-ready is generally applied to (1) students who are considered to be equipped with the knowledge and skills deemed essential for success in university, college, and community-college programs, or (2) the kinds of educational programs and learning opportunities that lead to improved preparation for these two- and four-year collegiate programs. The college-ready concept is also related to career-ready, equity, high expectations, and rigor.


Calls for placing a greater emphasis on “college readiness” in public education are, generally speaking, a response to the perception that most public schools, particularly public high schools, pay insufficient attention to the postsecondary success of students. In other words, “college-ready” has become a touchstone in a larger debate about what public schools should be teaching and what the purpose of public education should be. For example: Is the purpose of public education to get students to pass a test or to earn a high school diploma? Or is the purpose to provide a challenging course of study that prepares all students for success in higher education and modern careers? The college-ready concept is typically motivated by the belief that all high school graduates should be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes they will need to pursue continued education after graduation, and that a failure to adequately prepare adolescents for collegiate learning denies unprepared students the option to pursue a collegiate education, should they choose to do so, either immediately after graduation or later in life.

Advocates of college readiness and the related concept of “college and career readiness” would contend that the purpose of public education is to look beyond test scores and graduation rates to the knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits students actually need to succeed in adult life. A high school diploma, in this view, should certify readiness for success in university, college, and community-college programs, rather than merely the completion of secondary school. High remediation rates for first-year college students—especially in community colleges, where enrollments in non-credit-bearing “developmental courses” are extremely high nationally—have provided some evidence to support the need for a greater emphasis on college readiness in public schools. Since remedial or developmental college courses typically carry the same tuition costs as credit-bearing college courses, advocates of college readiness may also claim that insufficient academic preparation is both an economic issue and an equity issue because students who graduate from a public high school, but who are not prepared for college-level learning, are forced to pay more in tuition costs if they want to earn a college degree. In addition, students who enroll in college-level developmental courses are less likely, on average, to persist in their collegiate education and earn a degree.

The increased national emphasis on college readiness has led states, foundations, and educational organizations to develop, or at least consider, new ways of evaluating and monitoring college preparedness. While measures such as standardized-test scores, or the types of credits earned and courses taken in high school, can provide some indication of college readiness, accurately predicting student success in postsecondary-degree programs remains an elusive goal—in part because collegiate success is often determined by factors that are not academic in nature or within the control of public schools, such as social and emotional preparedness, a family’s ability to afford college, or parental support for collegiate aspirations, to name just a few potentially complicating factors. Consequently, college-readiness metrics are often seen as proxy indicators rather than reliably predictive measures.


Some educators are wary of the “college-ready” label, and of calls to make college readiness a universal goal of public education, viewing it as a potentially biased approach that could undervalue other post-graduation options, such as military careers, industry-certification programs, or career paths that do not necessarily require a college degree. In this view, students who are not aspiring to complete a college education may end up disadvantaged or alienated. Wariness of the college-ready concept may stem, at least in part, from the perception that public schools promoting college readiness and collegiate aspirations may end up “pushing” or “forcing” students to consider college, even though a collegiate education may not be the best option for some students. In offering a course of study that is largely focused on academic preparation for college, other kinds of preparation—such as career preparation or the practical skills students need to get a job after graduation—may be overlooked or undervalued.

Other educators argue, however, that the college-ready concept is needed to promote greater equity in public education, since public schools should be providing the highest-quality education possible so that students graduate from high school with the widest array of educational and career options possible. Failing to provide an education that culminates in college preparation, in this view, is tantamount to denying students the option to pursue a collegiate education either immediately after graduation or later on in life.

The concept of college readiness also intersects with ongoing debates about whether there is any real distinction between “career-ready” and “college-ready,” given that students will need, or should be taught, the same skills and knowledge regardless of their future aspirations or post-graduation plans. For some educators, not only is the “debate” over career-ready and college-ready seen as misleading or unnecessarily confusing, but it may create artificial distinctions that lead to the same educational inequities that concepts such as career-ready and college-ready were created to overturn—i.e., that college-ready programs will end up providing a high-quality education to students, while career-ready programs will provide a lower-quality or less-valuable education. The general argument is that all students should receive the best possible education regardless of what they may plan to do after graduating from high school, and that any attempt to create different educational tracks for “college-bound students” and “career-bound students” will, inevitably, lead to inequities and uneven educational quality. Since it is impossible to accurately predict any individual student’s future educational choices or career path (which may change dramatically from early adolescence to adulthood), schools should encourage the highest possible aspirations for all students.

Some national surveys of college educators and employers have provided evidence that, when it comes to the knowledge and skills that both college instructors and prospective employers are looking for, career readiness and college readiness may be largely indistinguishable. These surveys have found that incoming college students and younger employees not only have similar knowledge and skill deficits, but that both college educators and employers are looking for similar knowledge, skills, work habits, and aptitudes, including the broad array of skills often called “21st century skills.” Advocates of erasing the distinction between career-ready and college-ready may recommend or use the phrase “college and career ready” as an alternative.

21st Century Skills


The term 21st century skills refers to a broad set of knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits that are believed—by educators, school reformers, college professors, employers, and others—to be critically important to success in today’s world, particularly in collegiate programs and contemporary careers and workplaces. Generally speaking, 21st century skills can be applied in all academic subject areas, and in all educational, career, and civic settings throughout a student’s life.

It should be noted that the “21st century skills” concept encompasses a wide-ranging and amorphous body of knowledge and skills that is not easy to define and that has not been officially codified or categorized. While the term is widely used in education, it is not always defined consistently, which can lead to confusion and divergent interpretations. In addition, a number of related terms—including applied skills, cross-curricular skills, cross-disciplinary skills, interdisciplinary skills, transferable skills, transversal skills, noncognitive skills, and soft skills, among others—are also widely used in reference to the general forms of knowledge and skill commonly associated with 21st century skills. While these different terms may not be strictly synonymous, and they may have divergent or specialized meanings in certain technical contexts, these diverse sets of skills are being addressed in this one entry for the purposes of practicality and usefulness.

While the specific skills deemed to be “21st century skills” may be defined, categorized, and determined differently from person to person, place to place, or school to school, the term does reflect a general—if somewhat loose and shifting—consensus. The following list provides a brief illustrative overview of the knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits commonly associated with 21st century skills:

  • Critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, interpretation, synthesizing information
  • Research skills and practices, interrogative questioning
  • Creativity, artistry, curiosity, imagination, innovation, personal expression
  • Perseverance, self-direction, planning, self-discipline, adaptability, initiative
  • Oral and written communication, public speaking and presenting, listening
  • Leadership, teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, facility in using virtual workspaces
  • Information and communication technology (ICT) literacy, media and internet literacy, data interpretation and analysis, computer programming
  • Civic, ethical, and social-justice literacy
  • Economic and financial literacy, entrepreneurialism
  • Global awareness, multicultural literacy, humanitarianism
  • Scientific literacy and reasoning, the scientific method
  • Environmental and conservation literacy, ecosystems understanding
  • Health and wellness literacy, including nutrition, diet, exercise, and public health and safety

While many individuals and organizations have proposed definitions of 21st century skills, and most states have adopted learning standards that include or address cross-disciplinary skills, the following are three popular models that can serve to illustrate the concept and its applications in education:

For related discussions, see content knowledge and learning standards.


Generally speaking, the 21st century skills concept is motivated by the belief that teaching students the most relevant, useful, in-demand, and universally applicable skills should be prioritized in today’s schools, and by the related belief that many schools may not sufficiently prioritize such skills or effectively teach them to students. The basic idea is that students, who will come of age in the 21st century, need to be taught different skills than those learned by students in the 20th century, and that the skills they learn should reflect the specific demands that will placed upon them in a complex, competitive, knowledge-based, information-age, technology-driven economy and society.

While 21st century skills are relevant to all areas of schooling and academic study, and the skills may be taught in a wide variety of in-school and outside-of-school settings, there are a few primary ways in which 21st century skills intersect with efforts to improve schools:

  • Teachers may be more intentional about teaching cross-disciplinary skills in subject-area courses. For example, in a science course students might be required to learn research methods that can also be applied in other disciplines; articulate technical scientific concepts in verbal, written, and graphic forms; present lab results to a panel of working scientists; or use sophisticated technologies, software programs, and multimedia applications as an extension of an assigned project.
  • States, accrediting organizations, and schools may require 21st century skills to be taught and assessed in courses. For example, states can adopt learning standards that explicitly describe cross-disciplinary skills, and assessments may be designed or modified to evaluate whether students have acquired and mastered certain skills.
  • Schools and teachers may use educational approaches that inherently encourage or facilitate the acquisition of cross-disciplinary skills. For example, educational strategies such as authentic learning, demonstrations of learning, or project-based learning tend to be cross-disciplinary in nature, and students—in the process of completing a research project, for example—may have to use a variety of applied skills, multiple technologies, and new ways of analyzing and processing information, while also taking initiative, thinking creatively, planning out the process, and working collaboratively in teams with other students.
  • Schools may allow students to pursue alternative learning pathways in which students earn academic credit and satisfy graduation requirements by completing an internship, apprenticeship, or volunteer experience, for example. In this case, students might acquire a variety of practical, job-related skills and work habits, while also completing academic coursework and meeting the same learning standards required of students in more traditional academic courses.


While there is broad agreement that today’s students need different skills than were perhaps taught to previous generations, and that cross-disciplinary skills such as writing, critical thinking, self-initiative, group collaboration, and technological literacy are essential to success in higher education, modern workplaces, and adult life, there is still a great deal of debate about 21st century skills—from what skills are most important to how such skills should be taught to their appropriate role in public education. Given that there is no clear consensus on what skills specifically constitute “21st century skills,” the concept tends to be interpreted and applied in different ways from state to state or school to school, which can lead to ambiguity, confusion, and inconsistency.

Calls for placing a greater emphasis on cross-disciplinary skills in public education are, generally speaking, a response to the perception that most public schools pay insufficient attention to the postsecondary preparation and success of students. In other words, the concept has become a touchstone in a larger debate about what public schools should be teaching and what the purpose of public education should be. For example: Is the purpose of public education to get students to pass a test and earn a high school diploma? Or is the purpose to prepare students for success in higher education and modern careers? The push to prioritize 21st century skills is typically motivated by the belief that all students should be equipped with the knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits they will need to pursue continued education and challenging careers after graduation, and that a failure to adequately prepare students effectively denies them opportunities, with potentially significant consequences for our economy, democracy, and society.

A related debate centers on the distinction between “knowledge” and “skills,” and how schools and teachers may interpret—or misinterpret—the concepts. Some educators argue that it’s not possible to teach cross-disciplinary skills separately from knowledge and conceptual understanding—for example, students can’t learn to write well if they don’t have ideas, facts, principles, and philosophies to write about. The basic idea is that “21st century skills” is an artificial concept that can’t be separated out from subject-area knowledge and instruction. Other educators may argue that cross-disciplinary skills have historically been ignored or under-prioritized in schools, and the push to give more emphasis and attention to these skills is simply a commonsense response to a changing world.

The following list provides a few additional examples of representative arguments that may be made in support of teaching 21st century skills:

  • In today’s world, information and knowledge are increasing at such an astronomical rate that no one can learn everything about every subject, what may appear true today could be proven to be false tomorrow, and the jobs that students will get after they graduate may not yet exist. For this reason, students need to be taught how to process, parse, and use information, and they need adaptable skills they can apply in all areas of life—just teaching them ideas and facts, without teaching them how to use them in real-life settings, is no longer enough.
  • Schools need to adapt and develop new ways of teaching and learning that reflect a changing world. The purpose of school should be to prepare students for success after graduation, and therefore schools need to prioritize the knowledge and skills that will be in the greatest demand, such as those skills deemed to be most important by college professors and employers. Only teaching students to perform well in school or on a test is no longer sufficient.
  • Given the widespread availability of information today, students no longer need teachers to lecture to them on the causes of the Civil War, for example, because that information is readily available—and often in more engaging formats that a typical classroom lecture. For this reason, educators should use in-school time to teach students how to find, interpret, and use information, rather than using most or all of the time to present information.

The following list provides a few examples of representative arguments that may be made against the concept of 21st century skills:

  • Public schools and teachers have always taught, and will continue to teach, cross-disciplinary skills—they just never gave it a label. The debate over “content vs. skills” is not new—educators have been talking about and wrestling with these issues for a century—which makes the term “21st century skills” somewhat misleading and inaccurate.
  • Focusing too much on cross-disciplinary skills could water-down academic courses, and students may not get “the basics.” The more time teachers spend on skill-related instruction, the less time they will have for content-based instruction. And if schools privilege cross-disciplinary skills over content knowledge, students may be denied opportunities because they are insufficiently knowledgeable. Students need a broad knowledge base, which they won’t receive if teachers focus too much on skill-related instruction or “learning how to learn.”
  • Cross-disciplinary skills are extremely difficult to assess reliably and consistently. There are no formal tests for 21st century skills, so the public won’t know how well schools are doing in teaching these skills.

Classroom Management


Classroom management refers to the wide variety of skills and techniques that teachers use to keep students organized, orderly, focused, attentive, on task, and academically productive during a class. When classroom-management strategies are executed effectively, teachers minimize the behaviors that impede learning for both individual students and groups of students, while maximizing the behaviors that facilitate or enhance learning. Generally speaking, effective teachers tend to display strong classroom-management skills, while the hallmark of the inexperienced or less effective teacher is a disorderly classroom filled with students who are not working or paying attention.

While a limited or more traditional interpretation of effective classroom management may focus largely on “compliance”—rules and strategies that teachers may use to make sure students are sitting in their seats, following directions, listening attentively, etc.—a more encompassing or updated view of classroom management extends to everything that teachers may do to facilitate or improve student learning, which would include such factors as behavior (a positive attitude, happy facial expressions, encouraging statements, the respectful and fair treatment of students, etc.), environment (for example, a welcoming, well-lit classroom filled with intellectually stimulating learning materials that’s organized to support specific learning activities), expectations (the quality of work that teachers expect students to produce, the ways that teachers expect students to behave toward other students, the agreements that teachers make with students), materials (the types of texts, equipment, and other learning resources that teachers use), or activities (the kinds of learning experiences that teachers design to engage student interests, passions, and intellectual curiosity). Given that poorly designed lessons, uninteresting learning materials, or unclear expectations, for example, could contribute to greater student disinterest, increased behavioral problems, or unruly and disorganized classes, classroom management cannot be easily separated from all the other decisions that teachers make. In this more encompassing view of classroom management, good teaching and good classroom management become, to some degree, indistinguishable.

In practice, classroom-management techniques may appear deceptively simple, but successfully and seamlessly integrating them into the instruction of students typically requires a variety of sophisticated techniques and a significant amount of skill and experience. While the specific techniques used to manage classrooms and facilitate learning can vary widely in terminology, purpose, and execution, the following representative examples—taken from Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College by Doug Lemov—will provide a brief introduction to a few basic classroom-management techniques (NOTE: While the general strategies described below are widely used by teachers, the specific terms in bold are not):

  • Entry Routine is a technique in which teachers establish a consistent, daily routine that begins as soon as students enter the classroom—preparing learning materials, making seat assignments, passing in homework, or doing a brief physical “warm-up” activity would all be examples of entry routines. This technique can avoid the disorder and squandered time that can characterize the beginning of a class period.
  • Do Now is a brief written activity that students are given as soon as they arrive in the classroom. This technique is intended to get students settled, focused, productive, and prepared for instruction as quickly as possible.
  • Tight Transitions is a technique in which teachers establish transition routines that students learn and can execute quickly and repeatedly without much direction from a teacher. For example, a teacher might say “reading time,” and students will know that they are expected to stop what they are working on, put away their materials, get their books, and begin reading silently on their own. This technique helps to maximize instructional time by reducing the disarray and delay that might accompany transitions between activities.
  • Seat Signals is a technique in which students use nonverbal signals while seated to indicate that they need something, such as a new pencil, a restroom break, or help with a problem. This technique establishes expectations for appropriate communication and helps to minimize disruptions during class. 
  • Props is the act of publicly recognizing and praising students who have done something good, such as answering a difficult question or helping a peer. Props is done by the entire class and is typically a short movement or spoken phrase. The technique is intended to establish a group culture in which learning accomplishments and positive actions are socially valued and rewarded.
  • Nonverbal Intervention is when teachers establish eye contact or make gestures that let students know they are off-task, not paying attention, or misbehaving. The technique helps teachers efficiently and silently manage student behavior without disrupting a lesson.
  • Positive Group Correction is a quick, affirming verbal reminder that lets a group of students know what they should be doing. Related techniques are Anonymous Individual Correction, a verbal reminder that is directed at an anonymous student; Private Individual Correction, a reminder given to an individual student as discretely as possible; and Lightning-Quick Public Correction, a quick, positive reminder that tells an individual student what to do instead of what not to do.
  • Do It Again is used when students do not perform a basic task correctly, and the teacher asks them to do it again the correct way. This technique establishes and reinforces consistent expectations for quality work.


In recent years, classroom management has received an increasing amount of attention from education leaders, reformers, and researchers, who have begun to investigate, analyze, and document the effective strategies used by successful teachers. The growing emphasis on classroom management is based on the general recognition that effective instruction requires effective classroom management, and that strong management skills are the foundation of strong teaching. In addition, there are now more professional-development opportunities related to classroom management being offered to teachers, and there have been discussions about the role of practical teaching techniques in teacher education and certification programs, and about whether such programs have overemphasized education theory at the expense of practical, applied skills that teachers will need in the classroom, such as classroom-management strategies.


While there is widespread agreement in education that effective classroom management is essential to good teaching, there is often debate about which strategies are most effective, or what is the best way to approach the management of a classroom or other learning environment. For example, some educators might argue that effective classroom management begins with student compliance and classroom orderliness, since learning cannot happen when students are not listening, when they are disobeying the teacher, or when they are disrupting other students in the class. In this case, the teacher needs to establish the behavioral and academic expectations for a class and ensure that students comply with those expectations. Other educators, however, would argue that teachers should approach classroom management by actively involving students in the process. For example, some teachers create common classroom expectations and agreements in collaboration with students. In this case, students play a role in developing the expectations, thereby taking “ownership” over the process, and the teacher then helps the students live up to those expectations by reminding them of the previous agreements they made or by asking the class to reflect on their work and behavior as a group in relation to the agreed-upon expectations—i.e., to identify the areas in which the class is doing well and the areas in which it can improve.



In education, the term equity refers to the principle of fairness. While it is often used interchangeably with the related principle of equality, equity encompasses a wide variety of educational models, programs, and strategies that may be considered fair, but not necessarily equal. It is has been said that “equity is the process; equality is the outcome,” given that equity—what is fair and just—may not, in the process of educating students, reflect strict equality—what is applied, allocated, or distributed equally.

Inequities occur when biased or unfair policies, programs, practices, or situations contribute to a lack of equality in educational performance, results, and outcomes. For example, certain students or groups of students may attend school, graduate, or enroll in postsecondary education at lower rates, or they may perform comparatively poorly on standardized tests due to a wide variety of factors, including inherent biases or flaws in test designs.

The following are a few representative ways in which inequity may enter public education:

  • Societal inequity: Minority students may be disadvantaged by preexisting bias and prejudice in American society, with both conscious and unconscious discrimination surfacing in public schools in ways that adversely affect learning acquisition, academic achievement, educational aspirations, and post-graduation opportunities. While not always the case, inequity in education is most commonly associated with groups that have suffered from discrimination related to their race, ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, or disabilities. For a related discussion, see opportunity gap.
  • Socioeconomic inequity: Evidence suggests that students from lower-income households, on average, underperform academically in relation to their wealthier peers, and they also tend to have lower educational aspirations and enroll in college at lower rates (in part due to financial considerations). In addition, schools in poorer communities, such as those in rural or disadvantaged urban areas, may have comparatively fewer resources and less funding, which can lead to fewer teachers and educational opportunities—from specialized courses and computers to co-curricular activities and sports teams—as well as outdated or dilapidated school facilities.
  • Cultural inequity: Students from diverse cultural backgrounds may be disadvantaged in a variety of ways when pursuing their education. For example, recently arrived immigrant and refugee students and their families may have difficulties navigating the public-education system or making educational choices that are in their best interests. In addition, these students may struggle in school because they are unfamiliar with American customs, social expectations, slang, and cultural references. For a related discussion, see multicultural education.
  • Familial inequity: Students may be disadvantaged in their education due to their personal and familial circumstances. For example, some students may live in dysfunctional or abusive households, or they may receive comparatively little educational support or encouragement from their parents (even when the parents want their children to succeed in school). In addition, evidence suggests that students whose parents have not earned a high school or college degree may, on average, underperform academically in relation to their peers, and they may also enroll in and complete postsecondary programs at lower rates. Familial inequities may also intersect with cultural and socioeconomic inequities. For example, poor parents may not be able to invest in supplemental educational resources and learning opportunities—from summer programs to test-preparation services—or they may not be able pay the same amount of attention to their children’s education as more affluent parents—perhaps because they have multiple jobs, for example.
  • Programmatic inequity: School programs may be structured in ways that are perceived to be unfair because they contribute to inequitable or unequal educational results for some students. For example, students of color tend, on average, to be disproportionately represented in lower-level classes with lower academic expectations (and possibly lower-quality teaching), which can give rise to achievement gaps or “cycles of low expectation” in which stereotypes about the academic performance of minorities are reinforced and perpetuated because they are held to lower academic standards or taught less than their peers. For related a discussion, see stereotype threat.
  • Staffing inequity: Wealthier schools located in more desirable communities may be able to hire more teachers and staff, while also providing better compensation that attracts more experienced and skilled teachers. Students attending these schools will likely receive a better-quality education, on average, while students who attend schools in less-desirable communities, with fewer or less-skilled teachers, will likely be at an educational disadvantage. Staffing situations in schools may also be inequitable in a wide variety of ways. In addition to potential inequities in employment—e.g., minorities being discriminated against during the hiring process, female educators not being promoted to administrative positions at the same rates as their male colleagues—students may be disadvantaged by a lack of diversity among teaching staff. For example, students of color may not have educators of color as role models, students may not be exposed to a greater diversity of cultural perspectives and experiences, or the content taught in a school may be culturally limited or biased—e.g., history being taught from an exclusively Eurocentric point of view that neglects to address the perspectives and suffering of colonized countries or enslaved peoples.
  • Instructional inequity: Students may be enrolled in courses taught by less-skilled teachers, who may teach in a comparatively uninteresting or ineffective manner, or in courses in which significantly less content is taught. Students may also be subject to conscious or unconscious favoritism, bias, or prejudice by some teachers, or the way in which instruction is delivered may not work as well for some students as it does for others. For related a discussion, see personalized learning.
  • Assessment inequity: Students may be disadvantaged when taking tests or completing other types of assessments due to the design, content, or language choices, or because they have learning disabilities or physical disabilities that may impair their performance. In addition, situational factors may adversely affect test performance. For example, lower-income students who attend schools that do not regularly use computers may be disadvantaged—compared to wealthier students with more access to technology at home or students who use computers regularly in school—when taking tests that are administered on computers and that require basic computer literacy. For more detailed discussions, see test accommodations and test bias.
  • Linguistic inequity: Non-English-speaking students, or students who are not yet proficient in English, may be disadvantaged in English-only classrooms or when taking tests and assessments presented in English. In addition, these students may also be disadvantaged if they are enrolled in separate academic programs, held to lower academic expectations, or receive lower-quality instruction as a result of their language abilities. For related discussions, academic languagedual-language education, English-language learner, and long-term English learner.


Generally speaking, reforms focused on improving educational equity seek to identify disparities in educational performance or results, and then introduce modifications intended to address or compensate for those inequities—e.g., by increasing funding levels, redesigning school programs, teaching students in different ways, or providing comparatively more educational services and academic support to students with greater needs. One of the fundamental theories motivating equity-driven educational reforms is that people and groups who suffer from discrimination, prejudice, or unfair treatment may develop emotional responses and behaviors that can perpetuate the consequences of discrimination even when discrimination is not clearly or actively present. In this way, some of the disadvantages stemming from unfair treatment and prejudice may be difficult to discern—a situation that, in education, requires proactive strategies with broad application in schools, rather than reactive strategies that address inequities on a case-by-case basis. For these and other reasons, “equity pedagogy”—i.e., consciously teaching with equity as a primary goal—is sometimes called “teaching for social justice,” since the object of the equity-based strategies both begins with and extends beyond the specific students in a specific class.

Reforms intended to increase educational equity are, quite simply, far too numerous to usefully summarize here. In fact, a significant percentage of the concepts, terms, and strategies discussed in this resource are directly or peripherally related to issues of educational equity. For this reason, we encourage you to explore other entries for more detailed discussions.


Increasing fairness in education has long been—and perhaps always will be—marked by disputes and controversy. While the relevant debates are both numerous and nuanced, many of them center on divergent interpretations of fairness and equality. For example, a school might choose to allocate resources—funding, teachers, staff time, etc.—equally among all students. In this hypothetical case, white, wealthy, and high-performing students would receive the same amount of school resources as minority, low-income, and special-needs students. On the other hand, another school might choose to allocate resources in ways that it deems to be equitable. In this case, minority, low-income, and special-needs students might receive comparatively more resources in an attempt to compensate for and overcome preexisting factors that might place them at an educational disadvantage. For some, equal resource allocation may be seen as equitable (every student receives the same level of resources), while to others equal resource allocation is fundamentally inequitable because it fails to take into account the preexisting inequities in society that may have already placed some students at an educational or aspirational disadvantage, including racial prejudice and income inequality.

Another source of debate stems from the conception of America as a meritocracy in which anyone—if they work hard enough—can succeed and prosper. Public education has long played a prominent role in this conception, and many would consider a good education to be a gateway to the middle-class opportunity, career advancement, and long-term financial security and prosperity. On the other hand, America’s well-documented history of racism, sexism, and classism has prevented certain groups from receiving equal treatment and opportunities—in both education and in the larger society. While countless advancements in civil rights have arguably led to greater equality, many would contend that diminished societal inequity, or a greater understanding or awareness of inequity, does not mean that inequities no longer exist. Those who believe in and prioritize meritocracy may perceive unequal educational allocations, accommodations, or compensations to be unfair (because some students are being given an unfair advantage, which may diminish opportunities for other, and possibly more deserving, students), while others, who don’t perceive America to be a true meritocracy, may argue that the unequal distribution of educational resources is the only fair way to level the playing field and ensure that every student has an equal—or equitable—opportunity to succeed. A well-known example of this debate would be affirmative action in hiring and school admissions.

The following represent a few illustrative examples of debates related to educational equity and equity-driven reforms:

  • What is the proper role and purpose of a school and teachers? Do schools exist to maintain society as it’s currently structured or improve it? Should a teacher support the status quo or actively seek to change it? In this case, some may argue that the primary purpose of a school is to prepare students to join the labor force and become contributing members of the existing society, while others would contend that schools should seek to address and redress social problems and assist in finding and promoting solutions.
  • How should schools and teachers properly negotiate privilege, including racial, cultural, educational, or socioeconomic privilege? Should schools treat each student equally? Or should schools seek to “level the playing field” for those who are disadvantaged? Some may argue that schools are doing too much for the disadvantaged, and thereby creating new disadvantages for other students. (For example, some believe that undocumented immigrant students and families are taking unfair advantage of the system, and that these students are using resources that would otherwise go to the children of taxpaying citizens). Others argue that schools need to provide extra help to the underprivileged, since the privileged already have advantages—whether fairly of unfairly attained—and the underprivileged will only remain so unless schools and society actively improve their conditions. (In this case, educational resources may be perceived as limited commodities, and therefore the “haves” must give up some of their wealth, influence, and control to the “have-nots”—a perception that mirrors the so-called “redistribution of wealth” debates in American economic policy.)
  • Should public schools remain social institutions or should they embrace free-market strategies? Capitalism is based on competition—among talent, resources, ideas, etc.—and should public schools, if they are going to be effective, also embrace competition among teachers and institutions? Advocates may argue that more competition among public schools, or between public schools and private schools, will increase accountability and educational quality, while opponents typically contend that such approaches will only exacerbate existing inequities—i.e., wealthy students and communities will get even better educational opportunities than they already have because those with money and power will use their advantages to increase their privileges and secure the best-quality education for their children, possibly at the expense of other children or what is best for society as a whole.
  • To what extent does racial, gender, and socioeconomic discrimination still exist? Is discrimination no longer a major problem in American society or in public education? This is perhaps one of the most controversial debates related to educational equity. The Civil Rights Movement, citizen activism, progressive legislation, and other cultural shifts have dramatically changed attitudes toward people of color, women, the poor, the LGBT community, and the disabled over the past several decades. Some may argue that even though positive changes have certainly taken hold, America is nowhere near becoming a discrimination-free society. In education, students of color still underperform compared to their white peers, , for example, and they are still disproportionately represented in lower-level courses or special-education programs. Others may point to policies such as affirmative action, or the assistance given to students with disabilities, as evidence that formerly discriminated-against groups are now being given the same (or even more) educational opportunities as other groups. In this case, they might argue that even though discrimination still exists it is no longer a major factor in American education, and that some educational policies—such as those perceived to be motivated by so-called “political correctness”—may go too far in their attempts to compensate for America’s history of discrimination.



In education, the term relevance typically refers to learning experiences that are either directly applicable to the personal aspirations, interests, or cultural experiences of students (personal relevance) or that are connected in some way to real-world issues, problems, and contexts (life relevance).

Personal relevance occurs when learning is connected to an individual student’s interests, aspirations, and life experiences. Advocates argue that personal relevance, when effectively incorporated into instruction, can increase a student’s motivation to learn, engagement in what is being taught, and even knowledge retention and recall. The following are a few representative forms of personal relevance:

  • Individual choices: A teacher might ask students to write about the United States presidency, but then allow them to choose which president they will study. A student with a personal interest in hiking and the outdoors might select Theodore Roosevelt, for example, because he was a naturalist and conservationist who led scientific expeditions and helped establish the first national parks.
  • Product choices: If a particular learning standard is being taught, such as “conduct historical research using original sources,” a teacher might allow students to demonstrate their research skills by creating different products. For example, a student interested in filmmaking might create a short documentary using archival photography. A student interested in music and technology might produce an audio podcast in the style of an old radio-news program or presidential address. Another student who aspires to be a writer might choose to write a historical essay or short work of historical fiction that incorporates period facts and details.
  • Varied content: In a news and journalism course, for example, a teacher might ask students to monitor and analyze news stories about current world events. Students might be allowed to choose an area of personal interest—e.g., politics, environmentalism, science, technology—and monitor news reports in those areas as relevant events unfold. Even though students are studying different news topics, the course teaches students about effective reporting techniques, how news is created, how to analyze news coverage, and how effective news stories are structured, for example.
  • Cultural connections: In a world-history course, a teacher might allow students to investigate certain historical topics or time periods through a culturally relevant connection. For example, during lessons on imperialism and colonialism, students from different cultural backgrounds might choose to write essays that explore the effects of imperialism and colonialism from the standpoint of their racial, ancestral, or cultural heritage.

Life relevance occurs when learning is connected in some way to real-world issues, problems, and contexts outside of school. Life relevance is generally intended to equip students with practical skills, knowledge, and dispositions that they can apply in various educational, career, and civic contexts throughout their lives. As with personal relevance, advocates contend that life relevance can improve engagement, motivation, and learning acquisition. Life relevance may also intersect in a variety of ways with personal relevance. The following are a few representative forms of life relevance:

  • Skill acquisition: While instructing students, a teacher might incorporate practical skills that students can apply throughout their lives. For example, students might be asked to use technology to create a variety of products that demonstrate what they have learned, such as audiovisual presentations, websites, software programs, databases, or spreadsheets. While the students are learning history, science, or mathematics, for example, they are also acquiring technology skills that will be useful in adult life.
  • Practical context: When teaching abstract mathematical concepts, a teacher might use practical life contexts to help the concepts “come alive” for students. For example, students might be asked to follow a favorite sports team and conduct mathematical analyses using team statistics. Similar teaching strategies could be used with a variety of different data, such as demographic, economic, or financial data.
  • Current events: In a unit on presidential elections in a social-studies course, students might be asked to monitor campaign advertising on radio, television, and the internet, and then research the accuracy of the statements being made. Students may then write an analysis of how campaigns manipulate the presentation of facts to influence voter opinions about a particular candidate or issue.
  • Community connections: In a government course, a teacher might draw comparisons between national governmental functions and how the government works in the local community. The teacher might ask students to study local politics, interview elected officials, and put together a citizen-action proposal that will be presented to the city or town council. As students learn about local politics, they get a more concrete understanding of how government works at the state or national level.
  • Career aspirations: In a business course, a teacher might ask students to develop a business plan for a proposed company. Students pick an industry that interests them—such as fashion, video games, or cooking—and then they research existing businesses in the field, determine how they will raise start-up funding, create a marketing campaign, and pitch their final proposals to local business leaders. While learning about business and economics, students also learn whether the career path is a good fit for them, and they acquire practical skills that will help them when they enter the workforce.


Educators may use a wide variety of educational strategies to increase the relevance of what is taught and learned in schools—just a few examples include 21st century skills, authentic learning, career-themed academies, community-based learning, differentiation, learning pathways, personalized learning, and project-based learning. It should be noted that while there have been growing calls nationally for schools to increase their emphasis on teaching relevant concepts and skills, relevance in education is not a new concept—teachers have been integrating relevance into their lessons and teaching since formal schools were created, albeit to widely varying degrees. In addition, career and technical education programs have long been focused on career preparation.


While few arguments are made against the concept of greater relevance in education, there is often debate about the degree to which schools should address relevance and the best ways to go about it. In particular, there may be debate about or criticism of the specific strategies and practices used to increase relevance, some of which may be met with misunderstanding, skepticism, or apprehension. For example, in recent years many educators, policy makers, educational organizations, and philanthropic foundations have called on schools to focus on the “new three Rs”: rigor, relevance, and relationships—i.e., to make sure that (1) students are held to high expectations and challenged academically and intellectually, (2) what gets taught reflects both personal and life relevance, and (3) educators form strong relationships with students and get to know them and their specific learning needs well. While some may express concern that the new three Rs will replace the original three Rs—reading, writing, and arithmetic—advocates would argue that the “rigor, relevance, and relationships” concept does not in any way displace the necessity of teaching students how read, write, and do math. Still, the perception that students are not “getting the basics” is fairly widespread in the United States, and efforts to change or improve schools are often perceived to be in conflict with more traditional forms of education, which are associated in the public mind with “the basics.”

Other critics may argue that striving for greater relevance will introduce too much choice or flexibility in terms of content (what gets taught), process (how it gets taught), and products (what students do or produce to show what they have learned). Reforms, in this view, may “water down” courses, not teach the most important subjects, or fail to adequately prepare students. Increasing relevance in teaching may also require teachers to make significant changes to the ways in which they have traditionally taught. For example, lessons may need to be entirely reconceived or teachers may need to learn new instructional techniques. Given the numerous ways in which relevance may play out in schools, it is important to acquire a strong understanding of a particular school’s academic philosophy, how its program is structured, and what results it’s achieving.

Personalized Learning


The term personalized learning, or personalization, refers to a diverse variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students. Personalized learning is generally seen as an alternative to so-called “one-size-fits-all” approaches to schooling in which teachers may, for example, provide all students in a given course with the same type of instruction, the same assignments, and the same assessments with little variation or modification from student to student. Personalized learning may also be called student-centered learning, since the general goal is to make individual learning needs the primary consideration in important educational and instructional decisions, rather than what might be preferred, more convenient, or logistically easier for teachers and schools.

The term personalized learning (and related synonyms) has become more widely used by online schools and companies selling online learning programs. It should be noted that “personalized learning,” as it is typically designed and implemented in K–12 public schools, can differ significantly from the forms of “personalized learning” being offered and promoted by virtual schools and online learning programs. In some schools, however, personalized learning many take the form of “blended learning,”or the practice of using both online and in-person learning experiences when teaching students. When investigating or reporting on personalized learning, it is important to determine precisely how the term is being used in a specific context. For a related discussion on personalized learning and online schools, see the Debate section below.

Personalized learning is intended to facilitate the academic success of each student by first determining the learning needs, interests, and aspirations of individual students, and then providing learning experiences that are customized—to a greater or lesser extent—for each student. To accomplish this goal, schools, teachers, guidance counselors, and other educational specialists may employ a wide variety of educational methods, from intentionally cultivating strong and trusting student-adult relationships to modifying assignments and instructional strategies in the classroom to entirely redesigning the ways in which students are grouped and taught in a school.

Because personalized learning has such broad implications, and the term encompasses such a wide variety of potential programs and strategies, it may be difficult to determine precisely what the term is referring to when it is used without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation.

The following representative examples will help illustrate the concept. Schools and educators might personalize learning for students by:

  • Reconfiguring the operational and educational structure of a large school so that students are organized into smaller groups and paired with a consistent team of teachers who get to know the students and their learning needs well. While this strategy takes a wide variety of forms from school to school, a few of the most common approaches are “smaller learning communities,” teaming, themed-based academies, or “schools-within-a-school”—an approach that involves the creation of distinct academic programs, or “schools,” within the operational structure of larger school.
  • Eliminating the practice of grouping students into different academic “tracks” or tiered course levels based on their perceived ability or past academic performance—a practice called “heterogeneous grouping” or “mixed-ability grouping,” in which students of various ability levels are enrolled in the same course or program. In these cases, as well as in other educational settings, teachers may employ a variety of personalized instructional and academic support strategies generally called differentiation, differentiated learning, or differentiated instruction.
  • Schools may create or offer students a variety of learning pathways—i.e., a wider and more diverse selection of learning experiences. Common examples include career-related internships that allow students to satisfy school graduation requirements or meet state-required learning standards; dual-enrollment experiences that allow students to take courses at alternate institutions, such as colleges or universities, while also earning academic credit at their home school; or independent-study projects, which allow students to self-design learning experiences in collaboration with a teacher, mentor, or advisor.
  • Students may create and maintain personal learning plans, which describe their academic, collegiate, and career goals, while mapping out the educational decisions they need to make to achieve their goals, or portfolios, which are a cumulative record of a student’s academic work and accomplishments. Teachers, advisors, and educational specialists may use these plans and portfolios to guide how they teach and support specific students.
  • Replacing more traditional homeroom periods or study halls with advisories—time in the school day for educators to meet with small groups of students and advise them on academic, social, and postsecondary-planning issues. Students may also be paired with advisors, adult mentors, or peer mentors who meet regularly with students over the course of several months, a year, or multiple years to help them acclimate to a school, navigate educational options, or plan for higher education and careers after graduation.
  • Using alternative educational approaches and instructional methods—such as authentic learning, blended learning, community-based learning, or project-based learning, to name just a few—that may give students more personal choice in their education and more opportunities pursue learning experiences that reflect their personal interests, career aspirations, or cultural heritage. Increasingly, a variety of digital and online learning options are being used to personalize learning for students.
  • Increasing the level of choice and personal responsibility students have in the instructional process. The concept of “student voice” refers to the values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds of individual students and groups of students in a school, and to instructional approaches and techniques that are based on student choices, interests, passions, and ambitions. As an alternative to more traditional forms of instruction in which teachers may make unilateral decisions with little or no input from students, introducing more student voice into the learning process in one way to personalize learning.


While personalized learning in public schools may become the object of debate, most debates tend to center on specific applications of personalized learning—such as the strategies described above—rather than on the general concept or pedagogical philosophy (which is so encompassing, multifaceted, and far-reaching that it would difficult to isolate specific arguments for or against it). That said, the idea of “personalized learning,” in whatever manifestation, does have its ardent proponents and its equally ardent critics.

In some cases, criticism and debate about personalized learning may stem, at least in part, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the strategy. For example, the idea of “individualized instruction”—creating distinct courses of study and instructional strategies for every student—was popular for a brief of time in the 1970s until educators realized that it was impractical and unfeasible to develop unique academic programs for dozens of students in a class. Personalization, personalized learning, and personalized instruction—the practice of varying instructional techniques in a classroom to effectively teach as many students as possible—is not synonymous with individualized instruction as it was defined in the 1970s. The conflation of related but distinct terms and strategies such “differentiated instruction,” “personalized instruction,” and “individualized instruction” has likely contributed to ongoing confusion and debates about personalized learning, particularly given that these distinct terms are commonly used interchangeably.

It should also be noted that online schools and educational programs promoting “personalized learning” have also become the object of criticism, debate, and controversy. Many for-profit virtual schools and online collegiate 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 “personalized learning” to promote programs of dubious educational value.

Student-Growth Measures


Student-growth measures compare the relative change in a student’s performance on a specific test with the performance of all other students on that same test. The scores of all students are used to create an “index of student growth” and to identify a median achievement score that can be used as a point of comparison for all student scores—i.e., some students will show growth that is greater than the median, while others will show growth that is lower than the median.

The terms student-growth measures and student-growth percentiles are sometimes used interchangeably with value-added measures, but the two approaches are technically quite different. In contrast with value-added measures, student-growth measures do not attempt to control for outside factors that may influence a student’s relative improvement on a test, such as individual ability, family income, or the educational attainment of parents, for example.

For a more detailed discussion, including relevant reforms and debates on the topic, see value-added measures.

Credit Recovery


Credit recovery is a term used to describe a wide variety of educational strategies and programs that give high school students who have failed a class the opportunity to redo coursework or retake a course through alternate means—and thereby avoid failure and earn academic credit. In some cases, credit recovery is touted as a dropout-prevention strategy. The most familiar form of credit recovery is perhaps summer-school programs that allow students to recover credit from courses they have failed during the regular school year.

Credit recovery is most common at the high school level, although community colleges and other collegiate institutions may also offer credit-recovery programs. Students may take a credit-recovery course during normal school hours, after school, on vacation breaks, or over the summer. In recent years, online credit-recovery courses and programs have quickly proliferated, many of which are privately developed software applications that districts and schools must purchase or subscribe to. Schools may use an online service that offers complete courses or one that specializes in more targeted “micro-courses” that allow students to address particular learning standards or complete specific units or subsections of a course.

Online credit-recovery programs are still a relatively new learning option for schools and students, and the programs can vary widely in design and quality. Students may work through an online program during school hours and under the guidance of a teacher, or they may work at their own pace after school hours with little oversight. In some cases, students may have video conversations or chat with teachers and support specialists who monitor progress and provide feedback and necessary tutoring.


As more districts and schools have begun using some form of credit recovery—particularly online programs—debate about the value of such learning options has grown. Some critics argue that online credit-recovery programs are not as challenging or educationally valuable as traditional classroom experiences in which students have direct contact and personal relationships with teachers. Critics may also question the extent to which schools have established adequate oversight and quality control for online credit-recovery programs, especially prepackaged, third-party software applications developed by for-profit companies or outside organizations. One major concern about credit recovery programs—both online programs and those offered by teachers—is that, in some cases, students are being “pushed through the system” and earning academic credit for having passed mediocre or watered-down courses that are inferior substitutes for the real thing. In addition, a credit-recovery program may or may not be well aligned with the learning expectations or assignments of the course that a student has failed. Credit recovery also intersects with ongoing debates about grading policies, since some grading schemes, such as grade averaging, may increase the likelihood that students will fail a course.

While advocates argue that online learning applications allow students to work at their own pace, make up lost ground after normal school hours, or complete an activity multiple times until they truly understand a concept or problem, some critics question whether online credit-recovery options, no matter how well designed, can replace direct contact with a teacher and peers in a traditional classroom setting. Yet because credit recovery can vary so widely in design, it’s important to investigate how the programs are structured and used. For example, some credit-recovery options may be highly customized to address the distinct learning needs of a specific student, some may include intensive oversight and support from a teacher, and some may be hybrids—students may work part of the time online and part of the time with a teacher or specialist. In addition, online programs typically provide highly detailed information that teachers would not be able to obtain in a traditional educational setting. For example, software applications may track precisely how long students worked through a problem or how many attempts it took a student to complete a learning activity—data that may then be used by teachers to identify specific student-learning needs or deficits.

In recent years, public schools have faced increasing external pressure to improve academic achievement and graduation rates. New state and federal policies—not to mention calls for reform from elected officials, the media, and local communities—have increased scrutiny of public-school performance, especially quantifiable indicators of success such as standardized-test scores and graduation rates, which are now widely reported on state websites and in news stories. Since poor results can have a variety of consequences for districts or schools, ranging from negative publicity to budget reductions, some critics argue that schools may be more inclined to embrace quick-fix solutions, including credit-recovery programs that may reduce dropouts but that do so by lowering academic expectations and awarding credit to students who remain inadequately prepared.

Academic Support


The term academic support may refer to a wide variety of instructional methods, educational services, or school resources provided to students in the effort to help them accelerate their learning progress, catch up with their peers, meet learning standards, or generally succeed in school. When the term is used in educational contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what “academic support” is referring to. The terms support or supports may also be used in reference to any number of academic-support strategies.

In practice, academic support encompasses a broad array of educational strategies, including tutoring sessions, supplemental courses, summer learning experiences, after-school programs, teacher advisors, and volunteer mentors, as well as alternative ways of grouping, counseling, and instructing students. Academic support may be provided to individual students, specific student populations (such as non-English speakers or disabled students), or all students in a school. State and federal policies may require schools to provide academic support to certain student populations, such as identified special-education students, or schools may voluntarily create support programs to address specific performance results or trends, such as large numbers of dropouts, course failures, behavioral problems, etc. While the term academic support typically refers to the services provided to underperforming students, it may be used in reference to “enrichment” programs and more advanced learning opportunities provided to higher-achieving students.

While the design and purpose of academic-support programs may vary widely from school to school, the following are some representative examples of common forms of academic support:

  • Classroom-based strategies: Teachers continually monitor student performance and learning needs, and then adjust what they teach or how they teach to improve student learning.
  • School-based strategies: Schools create academic-support opportunities during the school day, such as learning labs, to increase the instructional time that academically struggling students receive, while also varying the way that instruction is delivered. For example, if students in a course primarily learn in large or small groups that all work at the same pace, students in a learning lab or other support program might work one-on-one with a teacher and be given more time to practice skills or learn complex concepts.
  • After-hours strategies: Schools may provide after-school or before-school programs, usually within the school building, that provide students with tutoring or mentoring, or that help students prepare for class or acquire study skills, for example.
  • Outside-of-school strategies: Community groups and volunteer-based learning programs, often working in partnership with local public schools, may provide a variety of programs, such as reading programs for young children, that are connected to what students are learning in school.
  • Vacation-break strategies: Strategies such as summer school or “summer bridge programs” may be created to help students catch up (if they fell behind during the previous year) or prepare for the next grade (if there are concerns they might struggle academically or drop out of high school). Similar support programs and learning opportunities may be provided during vacation breaks in the fall, winter, and spring.
  • Technology-assisted strategies: Schools may use digital and online learning applications, such as visual simulations or gamed-based learning, to help students grasp difficult concepts, or teachers may use course-management programs that allow them to archive course materials and communicate with students online. These options may be self-directed by students or overseen by teachers, or they may be provided during the school day or they may allow students to work from home at their own pace.

In addition to the various support settings and delivery methods described above, academic support may also have a specific educational focus or goal. A few representative examples:

  • Relationship-based support: In schools, strategies such as teaming or advisories may be used to build stronger and more understanding relationships between teachers and students. The general idea is that students will be better served and more effectively taught if teachers know students well and understand their distinct learning needs, interests, and aspirations.
  • Skill-based support: In some cases, schools may decide to create a literacy program, for example, that provides all students with more concentrated instruction, practice, and guidance in reading, writing, and communicating. The support may be provided during regular classes, during the school day, or after regular school hours. Support that focuses on math skills or technological literacy are two other common examples.
  • Needs-based support: Many or most forms of academic support are based on identified learning needs, and schools will provide supplemental or intensive instruction, practice, and guidance to students who are struggling academically or who have specialized needs—these can include students with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or developmental disabilities; students who are learning English or cannot speak English; students who recently immigrated to the United States, or students who are performing academically or developing intellectually well below or above the expectations for their age or grade level.

For a related discussion, see expanded learning time.


The provision of some form of academic support to students is typically one of the principal goals of most contemporary school-reform efforts, since the general intent of these strategies is to improve the performance of schools, the effectiveness of teachers, and the learning of students—and increasing the amount of “support” students receive, in whatever form, is one of the main ways schools can improve the educational achievement, aspirations, and attainment of students. From school to school, however, what specifically constitutes “academic support” may not only vary widely in design and execution, but schools may perceive or interpret both the purpose and obligations of academic support in significantly different ways.

For example, one school may provide only a few support options, such as an after-school program and tutoring services, while another school might have been entirely restructured to provide ongoing academic support, both inside and outside the classroom, to all students throughout the school year and over the course of the summer. In the first case, the school may view academic support as something that is “added on” to an academic program and that is provided only upon request or in response to clear evidence of need. Unless school regulations require the provision of academic support, a student, parent, or guardian may be seen as having the primary responsibility for requesting support services. Teachers are responsible for teaching courses and helping students succeed in those courses, but other forms of academic support and guidance are the responsibility of counselors, support specialists, and parents.

In the second example, the school may have an entirely different philosophy. Academic support might be considered a fundamental, inextricable component of an effective school that should to be provided to every student and integrated in some way into every course, learning experience, and student-teacher relationship. In this case, administrators, teachers, counselors, and other staff members would assume responsibility for providing the academic support students need to succeed regardless of whether parents request additional support or whether state and federal policies obligate the school to provide supplemental services. For teachers, providing academic support to students is part of their daily professional responsibilities, and the school may create the necessary conditions that allow teachers to provide that support by modifying schedules, adjusting workloads, or offering specialized training. In fact, many reform strategies, initiatives, and debates hinge on these two general approaches to “support” and fall somewhere on the spectrum between these two philosophical poles.

The collection and analysis of academic-performance data is another relevant feature of academic support that intersects with school reform. In recent decades, districts and schools have been placing an increasing emphasis on evidence-based reform strategies, leadership decisions, and student support. The general idea is that by analyzing school data, reading academic studies, or conducting action research schools can more precisely determine their programmatic and instructional weaknesses, and then develop more focused and effective ways to improve those weaknesses.

In addition, state and federal policies also affect the kinds of academic support provided in schools. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, for example, a student with a disability is defined as having intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments, speech or language impairments, visual impairments, serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities. For children ages three through nine, based on the discretion of state and local education agencies, the definition of a disability can include any child who is experiencing delays in physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development. In public schools, various forms of specialized academic, emotional, and social support and services are provided to students who meet the criteria outlined in educational regulations.

Classroom Observation


A classroom observation is a formal or informal observation of teaching while it is taking place in a classroom or other learning environment. Typically conducted by fellow teachers, administrators, or instructional specialists, classroom observations are often used to provide teachers with constructive critical feedback aimed at improving their classroom management and instructional techniques. School administrators also regularly observe teachers as an extension of formal job-performance evaluations.

Classroom observations may be called learning walks, teacher observations, walkthroughs, and many other things, and they may be conducted for shorter or longer periods of time—from a few minutes to a full class period or school day. Educators may also use a wide variety of classroom-observation methods—some may be nationally utilized models developed by educational experts, while others may be homegrown processes created by the educators using them. In many cases, observation notes are recorded using common templates or guidelines that describe what observers should be looking for or what the observed teacher would like feedback on. Increasingly, educators are conducting and recording classroom observations using digital and online technologies—such as smartphones, tablets, and subscription-based online systems—that can provide educators with observational functionality and data analytics that would not be possible if paper-based processes were used.

While classroom observations are conducted for a wide variety of purposes, they are perhaps most commonly associated with job-performance evaluations conducted by school administrators and with professional learning communities—groups of teachers who work together to improve their instructional skills. Classroom observations may be conducted by teachers in the same content area or grade level—in these cases, teachers share students or similar expertise—or they may be conducted by teachers across academic disciplines—in this case, the goal may be to observe and learn from the varied instructional practices used in different types of classes.

It should also be noted that many educators make a strict delineation between observations made for the purposes of helping a teacher improve, and those conducted for the purposes of job-performance evaluation. Some educators may object to the use of walkthrough, or other terms associated with non-administrative observations, when referencing evaluative observations by school administrators.


Generally speaking, classroom observations could be considered a de-facto school-improvement strategy, since they are typically intended to improve instructional quality and teaching effectiveness, whether they are conducted by fellow teachers or by administrators.

Since teachers often work in relative isolation from their colleagues—e.g., they may create courses and lessons on their own, or teach behind the closed doors of a classroom without much feedback from colleagues—teaching styles, educational philosophies, and academic expectations often vary widely from class to class, as does the effectiveness of lessons and instructional techniques. Classroom observations arose in response to these common trends, and they are often used as a form of professional development intended to foster greater collaboration and more sharing of expertise and insights among teachers in a school.


Classroom observations may become the object of debate or criticism for a variety of reasons. For example, if classroom observations are used as part of a job-evaluation process, school leaders, teachers, and teacher unions may have divergent ideas about how the observations should be conducted and what the evaluation criteria should be. In addition, while classroom observations have long been used in the job-performance evaluations of teachers, some critics contend that the observations contribute relatively little to the improvement of teaching for several possible reasons:

  • Principals may not use consistent, evidence-based evaluation criteria.
  • Principals may not have been trained in proper observation strategies, or they may not have the teaching experience or expertise required to evaluate instructional techniques.
  • Job-performance observations are typically prescheduled, which means that teachers can prepare in advance and alter their methods, and that the quality of teaching on the observed day may not be representative of a teacher’s normal practice.
  • The feedback teachers receive may be superficial, inconsistent, or unhelpful in terms of improving instructional quality.
  • Most teachers receive high job-performance ratings from principals, even in poorly performing schools where there is evidence that low-quality teaching is occurring.

Classroom observations may also challenge established institutional conventions and teaching practices, which can make the strategy an emotional topic in some schools. For example, some teachers may not see any value in the process, they take issue with the specific criteria being used, they may not approve of certain people watching them teach, or they may be uncomfortable with the idea of being observed because they they may feel threatened or insecure in such situations, to name just a few possible reasons.



A widely used adjective in education, evidence-based refers to any concept or strategy that is derived from or informed by objective evidence—most commonly, educational research or metrics of school, teacher, and student performance. Among the most common applications are evidence-based decisions, evidence-based school improvement, and evidence-based instruction. The related modifiers data-based, research-based, and scientifically based are also widely used when the evidence in question consists largely or entirely of data, academic research, or scientific findings.

If an educational strategy is evidence-based, data-based, or research-based, educators compile, analyze, and use objective evidence to inform the design an academic program or guide the modification of instructional techniques. For example, ninth-grade teachers in a high school may systematically review academic data on incoming freshman to determine which students may need some form of specialized assistance and which students may be at greater risk of dropping out or struggling academically. By looking at absenteeism, disciplinary infractions, and course-failure rates during middle school, teachers can identify students who are more likely to struggle in ninth grade, and they can then proactively prepare academic programs, services, and learning opportunities to reduce the likelihood that those students will fail or drop out. In this case, educators are taking an evidence-based approach to instructing and supporting students in ninth grade. (This specific example is often called an “early warning system.”)

While research and “quantitative” numerical data are arguably the most common forms of evidence used in education and school reform, educators also use a wide variety of “qualitative” information to diagnose student-learning needs or improve academic programming, including discussions with students and parents, work products created by students and teachers, the results of surveys completed by students and school staff, or observations of teaching—among many other possible forms of evidence. In professional learning communities, for example, groups of teachers may meet regularly to discuss evidence such as research literature, lesson materials, or student-work samples as a way to improve their teaching skills or modify instructional techniques in ways that work better for certain students. Teachers in the group may also observe colleagues while they teach and then provide them with constructive feedback and advice. For a related discussion, see action research.


The use of objective evidence in education reform has grown increasingly common in recent decades, and a wide variety of research and data are now regularly used to identify strengths and weaknesses in schools, guide the design of academic programming, or hold schools and teachers accountable for producing better educational results, for example. From tracking standardized-test scores and graduation rates to using student information systems, sophisticated databases, and other new educational technologies, today’s educators are more likely to use educational data, in one form or another, on a regular basis. In addition, educational research is increasingly being used by reform organizations, charitable foundations, elected officials, policy makers, school leaders, and teachers to inform everything from federal education policies to philanthropic investments to specialized teaching techniques in the classroom.

The growing use of evidence, data, and research in education mirrors a general information-age trend, in a wide variety of fields and professions, toward more objective, fact-based decisions. Historically, educators had to rely largely on personal experience, professional judgment, past practices, established conventions, and other subjective factors to make decisions about how and what to teach—all of which could potentially be inaccurate, misguided, biased, or even detrimental to students. With the advent of modern data systems and research techniques, educators now have access to more objective, precise, and accurate information about student learning, academic achievement, and educational attainment.


Debates about evidence-based approaches to education or school reform depend largely on the evidence and context in question, including how the available evidence is specifically being used or not used. For example, in some situations educators may argue that there is now such an overabundance of data that it has become infeasible, or even impossible, for schools and educators to act thoughtfully and appropriately on available evidence, given that merely collecting, processing, and analyzing so much data or research findings requires far more money, time, human resources, and specialized expertise than schools, districts, or state education agencies have. In other cases, schools and school systems may largely or entirely ignore available evidence; consequently, readily diagnosable school problems may go unaddressed, while effective, well-established teaching practices are never used.

The quality of available evidence, as well as the methods used to interpret research and data, can also contribute to ongoing debates. As in many other fields and professions, education is fraught with conflicting viewpoints, beliefs, and philosophies that can give rise to the misinterpretation or distortion of seemingly concrete and objective evidence. For example, the selection and presentation of data can be manipulated to confirm or disprove existing theories, and cherry-picking certain research findings, and ignoring others, can be used to generate the perception that certain educational strategies are more successful than they truly are. When researching or reporting on evidence-based approaches to school reform, it is important to investigate the source, quality, reliability, and validity of the evidence in question.

It is also worth noting that while both quantitative and qualitative evidence are widely used in education, there is debate about how these different types of evidence should be weighed and considered. For example, some educators believe that qualitative evidence is “squishy” and more susceptible to subjectivity, while others may argue that quantitative evidence is too narrow and limited and that it should not be used without taking other forms of evidence into consideration, including the opinions and perspectives of students and teachers.

For a related discussion, see measurement error.

Shared Leadership


Shared leadership is the practice of governing a school by expanding the number of people involved in making important decisions related to the school’s organization, operation, and academics. In general, shared leadership entails the creation of leadership roles or decision-making opportunities for teachers, staff members, students, parents, and community members. Shared leadership is widely seen as an alternative to more traditional forms of school governance in which the principal or administrative team exercises executive authority and makes most governance decisions without necessarily soliciting advice, feedback, or participation from others in the school or community.

In practice, shared leadership may be defined differently from school to school, and it may take a wide variety of forms. One of the most common forms of shared leadership is a leadership team—i.e., a group of administrators, teachers, staff members, and others who meet regularly to make important school decisions and/or coordinate a school-improvement initiative. Shared leadership may also take other forms: formal committees created to oversee a specific program or provide feedback to the school principal and administration; teams of teachers organized by content area or academic department who meet regularly and provide recommendations on instructional decisions or the design of the academic program; or community meetings in which school leaders listen to the viewpoints and opinions of community members—teachers, students, parents, and others—and then act on their recommendations. That said, these examples constitute only a small selection of possible shared-leadership designs.

When a school adopts shared leadership, the specific features of the model are often formalized in school policies and incorporated into the official functions of the school. In perhaps its most fully realized expression, shared leadership extends well beyond day-to-day managerial and operational concerns to encompass leadership responsibilities such as long-range planning, school-improvement coordination, academic-program design, and decisions related to the kinds of professional development provided to teachers and staff members. Some schools, for example, are entirely led by teachers, with administrative roles such as principal and assistant principal held on a rotating basis by different teachers in the school. For related discussion, see teacher-leader and school community.

Shared leadership is also related to the concept of voice in education. In this case, shared leadership is a practical way to include the “voices”—i.e., the opinions, viewpoints, feedback, insights, and wisdom—of students, teachers, parents, and community members in the leadership decisions made by a school.


In most cases, the decision to adopt a shared-leadership model, or to create opportunities for shared leadership in a school, results from an affirmative decision to abandon top-down, administration-driven, or hierarchical systems of school governance. As a school-reform strategy, shared leadership is motivated by a wide variety of rationales, including the following representative examples:

  • By distributing leadership roles and responsibilities throughout an organization, principals and administrators will be less managerially burdened and can devote more time to bigger-picture leadership responsibilities related to the overall condition and performance of the school—e.g., ensuring that the school culture remains positive and productive, that teachers continue to grow and improve their teaching abilities, that student achievement improves, that important responsibilities are being effectively executed and coordinated, that the staff remains accountable to the school’s mission and vision and to its students, etc.
  • In a school setting, administrators can build greater support and understanding among faculty, staff members, students, and parents when they provide opportunities for others to lead, take on more responsibility, and contribute to important decisions.
  • Sharing leadership responsibilities helps schools become more inclusive and self-reflective because more people are exchanging important information, discussing issues, and making decisions collaboratively.
  • Distributing leadership responsibilities encourages teachers, staff members, and others to feel more personally invested in the success of the school and more responsible for its performance and results. By sharing decision-making authority with others in the organization, people will become more engaged in and committed to what they are doing.
  • By sharing leadership more broadly, administrators are not only encouraging the professional aspirations and growth of other members of the school organization, but they are also nurturing the development of leadership experience and skills within the school, and thereby cultivating the next generation of school leaders.
  • Shared leadership enables schools to draw on a larger pool of talent, wisdom, expertise, and experience beyond a single principal or relatively small group of administrators. By letting individuals focus their attention, energy, and skills on what they do best, the whole organization, and the students in particular, will benefit.


While shared leadership can benefit a school in many ways, it can also introduce a variety of complications and complexities that might be avoided in a top-down leadership model. For example, shared leadership may make it more challenging to navigate and manage all the different personalities, relationships, and skill levels involved in making important school decisions; it might increase the complexity and frequency of internal management-related communications to the point that it becomes burdensome or counterproductive; or it may delay important decisions while people work to schedule meetings or secure majority approval. In these cases, it’s likely that debates about shared leadership may arise in response to the inadequacies of a specific leadership model, or to how the model has been executed, rather than resulting from a philosophical objection to the general concept or approach. As with any school-reform concept or strategy, the success or failure of shared leadership often depends on the quality of its design and execution, and, of course, on the strengths and abilities of the leaders involved.

Teacher Voice


In education, teacher voice refers to the values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, expertise, and cultural backgrounds of the teachers working in a school, which extends to teacher unions, professional organizations, and other entities that advocate for teachers.

As both a philosophical stance and a school-improvement strategy, the concept of teacher voice in education has grown increasingly popular in recent decades. Generally speaking, teacher 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 the faculty. Teacher 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, expertise, and perspectives of the teachers in a school. While the degree to which teacher voice is both solicited and valued can vary considerably from school to school, educators are increasingly embracing teacher voice in decisions related school leadership and governance, instruction, curriculum, and professional development.

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

In public schools, it is now more common for teachers to play a role in school-leadership decisions, and administrators are more likely to solicit and act upon teacher concerns and viewpoints than in the past. Historically, teacher unions and academic departments, which typically have chairpersons with defined leadership responsibilities, have been the most common channels through which teachers participated in school governance. In recent years, however, the role of teachers in leadership and instructional decisions has expanded and diversified, and alternative governance strategies, such as shared leadership and leadership teams, are becoming more common in schools throughout the United States. Teachers are also playing a more active role in instructional decisions, including the design of school curricula and assessments, and in the selection of academic texts, learning technologies, and other educational resources. More recently, teachers have become increasingly active in voicing their concerns about teacher-performance evaluations, including the criteria used to define effective teachers and determine whether their pay scales should be based in part on student performance (for related discussions, see high-stakes test and value-added measures). Teachers may also be involved in selecting the types of professional development and training offered by a school or district, including teacher-led forms of professional development such as professional learning communities. And, of course, teachers may also share their opinions with a larger audience by serving on committees at the district, state, or national levels; by writing books, blogs, or newspaper editorials; or by taking on a leadership role in a union or professional association, such as a membership organization for teachers in a specific subject area.

School Culture


The term school culture generally refers to the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how a school functions, but the term also encompasses more concrete issues such as the physical and emotional safety of students, the orderliness of classrooms and public spaces, or the degree to which a school embraces and celebrates racial, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural diversity.

Like the larger social culture, a school culture results from both conscious and unconscious perspectives, values, interactions, and practices, and it is heavily shaped by a school’s particular institutional history. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, and other staff members all contribute to their school’s culture, as do other influences such as the community in which the school is located, the policies that govern how it operates, or the principles upon which the school was founded.

Generally speaking, school cultures can be divided into two basic forms: positive cultures and negative cultures. Numerous researchers, educators, and writers have attempted to define the major features of positive and negative school cultures, and an abundance of studies, articles, and books are available on the topic. In addition, many educational organizations, such as the National School Climate Center, have produced detailed descriptions of positive school cultures and developed strategies for improving them (given the complexity of the topic, however, it is not possible to describe all the distinctions here).

Broadly defined, positive school cultures are conducive to professional satisfaction, morale, and effectiveness, as well as to student learning, fulfillment, and well-being. The following list is a representative selection of a few characteristics commonly associated with positive school cultures:

  • The individual successes of teachers and students are recognized and celebrated.
  • Relationships and interactions are characterized by openness, trust, respect, and appreciation.
  • Staff relationships are collegial, collaborative, and productive, and all staff members are held to high professional standards.
  • Students and staff members feel emotionally and physical safe, and the school’s policies and facilities promote student safety.
  • School leaders, teachers, and staff members model positive, healthy behaviors for students.
  • Mistakes not punished as failures, but they are seen as opportunities to learn and grow for both students and educators.
  • Students are consistently held to high academic expectations, and a majority of students meet or exceed those expectations.
  • Important leadership decisions are made collaboratively with input from staff members, students, and parents.
  • Criticism, when voiced, is constructive and well-intentioned, not antagonistic or self-serving.
  • Educational resources and learning opportunities are equitably distributed, and all students, including minorities and students with disabilities.
  • All students have access to the academic support and services they may need to succeed.


School culture has become a central concept in many efforts to change how schools operate and improve educational results. While a school culture is heavily influenced by its institutional history, culture also shapes social patterns, habits, and dynamics that influence future behaviors, which could become an obstacle to reform and improvement. For example, if a faculty culture is generally dysfunctional—i.e., if interpersonal tensions and distrust are common, problems are rarely addressed or resolved, or staff members tend to argue more than they collaborate or engage in productive professional discussions—it is likely that these cultural factors will significantly complicate or hinder any attempt to change how the school operates. This simple example illustrates why school culture has become the object of so many research studies and reform efforts—without a school culture that is conducive to improvement, reform becomes exponentially more difficult.

The following describe a few representative examples of common ways that schools may attempt to improve their culture:

  • Establishing professional learning communities that encourages teachers to communicate, share expertise, and work together more collegially and productively.
  • Providing presentations, seminars, and learning experiences designed to educate staff and students about bullying and reduce instances of bullying.
  • Creating events and educational experiences that honor and celebrate the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the student body, such as hosting cultural events and festivals, exhibiting culturally relevant materials throughout the school, inviting local cultural leaders to present to students, or making explicit connections between the diverse cultural backgrounds of students and what is being taught in history, social studies, and literature courses. For related discussions, see multicultural education and voice.
  • Establishing an advisory program that pairs groups of students with adult advisor to strengthen adult-student relationships and ensure that students are well known and supported by at least one adult in the school.
  • Surveying students, parents, and teachers about their experiences in the school, and hosting community forums that invite participants to share their opinions about and recommendations for the school and its programs.
  • Creating a leadership team comprising a representative cross-section of school administrators, teachers, students, parents, and community members that oversees and leads a school-improvement initiative.


Since most members of a school community will benefit from a more positive culture, and cultural factors tend to contribute significantly to emotional states such as happiness and unhappiness or fulfillment and dissatisfaction, the concept of a more positive school culture is rarely, in itself, controversial. For this reason, debates tend to arise (if they arise at all) in response to specific reform proposals, rather than to the general goal of improving a school culture. Yet given that organizational dysfunction is, by nature, an entrenched pattern of often unconscious behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that tend to obstruct organizational change and improvement—and because human beings can become deeply attached to emotions and behaviors that may make them less happy, fulfilled, productive, or successful—attempts to reform school cultures may be more likely encounter resistance, criticism, or controversy in schools that are most in need of cultural reforms. In recent years, problems related to school culture are being cited as reasons for why schools should be closed or why a significant percentage of the teaching faculty should be fired. In these cases, “school culture” may become a flashpoint in larger debates about specific school-reform policies and strategies.

Because all school cultures are unique, it is important to investigate and develop an understanding of the underlying causes of any debates, including the preexisting cultural conditions that may be contributing to the debates. To adapt Tolstoy’s famous opening line in Anna Karenina: All positive school cultures share common features, but each negative school culture is negative in its own way.

Critical Thinking


Critical thinking is a term used by educators to describe forms of learning, thought, and analysis that go beyond the memorization and recall of information and facts. In common usage, critical thinking is an umbrella term that may be applied to many different forms of learning acquisition or to a wide variety of thought processes. In its most basic expression, critical thinking occurs when students are analyzing, evaluating, interpreting, or synthesizing information and applying creative thought to form an argument, solve a problem, or reach a conclusion.

Critical thinking entails many kinds of intellectual skills, including the following representative examples:

  • Developing well-reasoned, persuasive arguments and evaluating and responding to counterarguments
  • Examining concepts or situations from multiple perspectives, including different cultural perspectives
  • Questioning evidence and assumptions to reach novel conclusions
  • Devising imaginative ways to solve problems, especially unfamiliar or complex problems
  • Formulating and articulating thoughtful, penetrating questions
  • Identifying themes or patterns and making abstract connections across subjects


Critical thinking is a central concept in educational reforms that call for schools to place a greater emphasis on skills that are used in all subject areas and that students can apply in all educational, career, and civic settings throughout their lives. It’s also a central concept in reforms that question how teachers have traditionally taught and what students should be learning—notably, the 21st century skills movement, which broadly calls on schools to create academic programs and learning experiences that equip students with the most essential and in-demand knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need to be successful in higher-education programs and modern workplaces. As higher education and job requirements become competitive, complex, and technical, proponents argue, students will need skills such as critical thinking to successfully navigate the modern world, excel in challenging careers, and process increasingly complex information.

Critical thinking also intersects with debates about assessment and how schools should measure learning acquisition. For example, multiple-choice testing formats have been common in standardized testing for decades, yet the heavy use of such testing formats emphasizes—and may reinforce the importance of—factual retention and recall over other skills. If schools largely test and award grades for factual recall, teachers will therefore stress memorization and recall in their teaching, possibly at the expense of skills such as critical thinking that are vitally important for students to possess but far more challenging to measure accurately.

Academic Language


Academic language refers to the oral, written, auditory, and visual language proficiency required to learn effectively in schools and academic programs—i.e., it’s the language used in classroom lessons, books, tests, and assignments, and it’s the language that students are expected to learn and achieve fluency in. Frequently contrasted with “conversational” or “social” language, academic language includes a variety of formal-language skills—such as vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, syntax, discipline-specific terminology, or rhetorical conventions—that allow students to acquire knowledge and academic skills while also successfully navigating school policies, assignments, expectations, and cultural norms. Even though students may be highly intelligent and capable, for example, they may still struggle in a school setting if they have not yet mastered certain terms and concepts, or learned how to express themselves and their ideas in expected ways.

In the United States, the term academic English may be used synonymously with academic language, given that the dominant language used in public schools is English. The term academic literacy may also be used interchangeably with academic language, although the two terms may be defined differently from place to place. When academic language is intentionally taught or monitored in schools, the term academic-language development, or ALD, may be used.

While the term is most commonly applied to language-specific skills, competency in academic language also bleeds into a wide variety of related non-linguistic skills that are difficult or impossible to separate out from language ability, including foundational academic skills (organizing, planning, researching), cognitive skills (critical thinking, problem solving, interpreting, analyzing, memorizing, recalling), learning modes (questioning, discussing, observing, theorizing, experimenting), and work habits (persistence, self-discipline, curiosity, conscientiousness, responsibility), in addition to other forms of literacy required to succeed in modern schools, such as technological literacy, online literacy, media literary, or multicultural literacy, among others (for a related discussion, see 21st century skills).

In the United States, the term is often applied to English-language learners who need to develop English proficiency concurrently with academic language to succeed in schools where English is the primary language of instruction. All students, however, need to acquire academic language to thrive and succeed in academic settings, particularly students with cognitive or developmental delays, students who may live in unsupportive, dysfunctional, or unstable environments, and children from high-poverty, low-education, and otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds who enter school without basic language and literacy skills. By the time they begin school, most children have developed the ability to communicate interpersonally, and students continue to develop conversational-language skills throughout their education. For native-English speakers, the development of academic language builds progressively on conversational skills, but the challenge for English-language learners is to learn both conversational and academic language concurrently.

While there is no official, formal definition, academic language refers to more than just vocabulary and grammar in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Due to the proliferation of linguistic irregularities, symbols, idiomatic expressions, and slang in the English language, learning academic English can be challenging, particularly for non-native speakers (for example, why do English speakers say embarrassment, shyness, and likelihood, instead of embarrassness, embarrasshood, shyment, shyhood, or likeliment?) In addition to grammatical rules, academic language also demands that students acquire proficiency in different linguistic systems (such as the metric system or mathematical terms and signs) or contextual language (many words used in everyday conversation have specific meanings in specialized fields, such as product in math, inflation in economics, or bug in software coding, while others have complex, abstract meanings, such as democracy, justice, or equality).

There are a number of factors that influence the acquisition of academic language, including the “language modeling” students receive at home. For example, do their parents correct language errors, explain the meaning of words, use a diverse vocabulary, keep books in the house, or encourage their children to read and discuss texts? While intentional English-language modeling is more common in wealthier, higher-educated, English-speaking households, it is often irregular or absent in disadvantaged and non-English-speaking home environments.


Educators may debate how long it will take for certain students or student groups, such as English-language learners, to develop academic language. For example, many educators and researchers believe that, on average, English-language learners can require five to seven years of academic study and dual-language education before they acquire sufficient proficiency in academic language to transition successfully into regular courses—and yet most English-language learners, such as those in English-as-a-second-language programs, do not receive this level of dual-language instruction and support. It is not unusual for teachers to believe, once English-language learners have achieved conversational English proficiency, that the students no longer need specialized instruction. In fact, some states have moved toward decreasing specialized instruction for English-language learners, and some have imposed limits on the duration that English-language learners can receive specialized services (some schools and educators, however, disregard the rules and provide specialized instruction to English-language learners until they are capable of passing an assessment that demonstrates they are ready to transition into regular academic courses). Other states, districts, and schools, however, may be moving to increase specialized dual-language instruction and support for English-language learners.

The acquisition of academic language can also conflict with cultural identities. For example, students of color, ethnic minorities, and English-language learners may feel that they are being “forced” to learn a style of language that they associate with a cultural group they may feel excluded from (e.g., white, middle-class America or highly educated groups). Underlying racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic tensions can exacerbate these feelings, and students and their families may consequently feel conflicted about academic language. For example, correcting the use of urban slang in a writing assignment may be interpreted as a personal criticism by the student rather than an academic judgment, or parents may be uncomfortable when their children begin using unfamiliar words and expressions at home.

Class Size


Class size refers to the number of students in a given course or classroom, specifically either (1) the number of students being taught by individual teachers in a course or classroom or (2) the average number of students being taught by teachers in a school, district, or education system. The term may also extend to the number of students participating in learning experiences that may not take place in a traditional classroom setting, or it may also refer to the total number of students in a particular grade level or “class” in a school (although this usage is less common in public education).

It should be noted that schools, districts, and state and federal education agencies commonly track and report “average class sizes.” While average class sizes are commonly expressed as a ratio of students to teachers, a “student-teacher ratio” is usually different than average class size. For a more detailed discussion, see student-teacher ratio.


In recent decades, a variety of reform efforts have been focused on decreasing class sizes, or the average class sizes in an education system, as a strategy for improving school and student performance. After research studies found that smaller class sizes could have positive effects on student learning and academic achievement, many initiatives—both at the level of state and federal policy, and in individual schools and districts—sought to lower student-teacher ratios. The basic rationale is that if teachers have fewer students, they can devote more time and attention to each student, including more time diagnosing specific learning needs, critiquing work products, and giving students one-on-one instruction and academic support, for example.

To understand how class size can affect teaching, consider the following hypothetical example. If a teacher has five classes with 20 students in each class, the teacher is responsible for 100 students. If each class is increased to 30 students, the teacher would then be responsible for 150 students—a 50 percent increase in the teaching workload. If a teacher with 20 students in each class spends only 15 minutes reading, analyzing, and responding to a writing assignment (a short amount of time), the teacher will have to devote 300 minutes to the process for each class—or about five hours—while five classes given writing assignments would require 25 hours. For a teacher with 150 students, the time required would be 2,250 minutes—or nearly a full 40-hour workweek. So if the teacher gave one writing assignment a week in each class, the time required to teach the course and score the writing assignments would likely be between 65 and 80 hours, depending on class sizes. As this example illustrates, at a certain point class size, for purely logistical reasons, will affect the instructional options available to teachers, since the demands of lesson preparation, teaching duties, and assignment grading can quickly become unmanageable as class sizes increase. And the more students that teachers have, the more likely it is that they will have to rely on instructional methods that require less time to complete, such as grading short-answer worksheets or scoring multiple-choice tests, for example.

While average class sizes may be reduced in a variety of ways, the two main approaches have been through educational policy and funding mechanisms, and by reconfiguring the organizational and instructional systems in a school.

Both the federal government and numerous states have passed legislation and adopted supplemental funding measures intended to either require or encourage schools to reduce average class sizes. Because reducing student-teacher ratios generally requires the hiring of additional teachers, possibly even a significant number of teachers (in the case of states and large school districts), some class-size-reduction policies can entail significant increases in educational expenditures—particularly when schools look to hire experienced and qualified teachers (who generally cost more) or teachers in subject areas with a shortage of qualified candidates.

Since the desired benefits of smaller class sizes do not necessarily require lower student-teacher ratios, an alternative way to reduce, or effectively reduce, class size is to use a variety of instructional- and school-configuration strategies broadly known as “small learning communities.” While many different school designs and teaching methods are used to create small learning communities within new or existing schools, the general goal is to increase the amount of one-on-one attention, personalized instruction, or academic support for students. In small learning communities, students are paired with teachers, counselors, and support specialists who, over time, get to know the students and their specific learning needs well, enabling them to educate the students more effectively. Even though the average student-teacher ratio in a school may or may not change in small-learning-community settings, students will be grouped and supported in ways that can potentially reproduce the benefits of smaller class sizes. It is important to note, however, that smaller learning communities, and related strategies such as advisories or teaming, may take a wide variety of configurations from school to school, and they may be more effective or less effective depending on the quality of their design and execution.


In recent decades, there has been much debate about class size and whether simply reducing student-teacher ratios will lead to improved student learning and academic achievement—particularly on a large scale, such as in a state’s public-education system. While reducing class sizes, and the attendant professional burdens placed on teachers, seems to be a logical way to improve the amount of instructional time and attention given to each student, research studies have found mixed results: some indicate that smaller class sizes produce educational benefits for students, but others suggest that strong teaching is the main factor, and that simply hiring more teachers—who may not necessarily more experienced and skilled teachers—will simply increase educational costs without producing the desired results.

In the ongoing debate about class size, costs tend to play a significant role. For example, critics of lower student-teacher ratios may argue that an effective teacher can teach a larger class of students better than an ineffective teacher can teach a smaller class, and therefore the benefits do not justify the increased costs. Proponents may counter that both effective and less-effective teachers will be more effective in smaller classes, and that such across-the-board benefits for all students justify the additional costs. Of course, many other nuanced arguments are also made on both sides of the debate.

The class-size debate also entails several technical arguments. For example, there is ongoing debate over the precise point at which students begin to benefit from smaller classes. Some evidence suggests that lowering class sizes may not have a positive affect on student achievement until the average size drops below 20 students, and that educational benefits are measureable only when student-teacher ratios fall to 18 to 1 or 15 to 1. In this case, a state might expend a significant amount of time, human resources, and money on reducing average class sizes, for example, but then fail to reduce ratios enough to see any measurable benefits.

Another common source of discussion and debate is the most optimal class size for students of different ages or grade levels. For example, younger students typically require more time, attention, and instructional support from teachers, and some studies have have a correlation between smaller class sizes at the elementary level and better academic results, particularly for high-need student populations and when smaller class sizes are maintained across grade levels (e.g., kindergarten through third grade). For this reason, some educators and experts argue that class size is a more important instructional factor when students are younger, and that the benefits of small class sizes diminish as students age and progress in their education.

High Expectations


In education, the term high expectations, or the phrase common high expectations, typically refers to any effort to set the same high educational standards for all students in a class, school, or education system. The concept of high expectations is premised on the philosophical and pedagogical belief that a failure to hold all students to high expectations effectively denies them access to a high-quality education, since the educational achievement of students tends to rise or fall in direct relation to the expectations placed upon them. In other words, students who are expected to learn more or perform better generally do so, while those held to lower expectations usually achieve less.

The effect that expectations can have on performance—commonly called the Pygmalion effect—has been extensively researched and documented in a variety of fields. In education, the seminal work of Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, published in their 1968 book Pygmalion in the Classroom, is considered the first major attempt to document the effects that teacher expectations have on student performance.

In many ways, the concept of high expectations is not just an educational or instructional issue, but also an ethical and social-justice issue. The concept of high expectations could be seen as an antipode to the often-heard phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” which refers to the lowering of expectations—either intentionally or unintentionally—for certain student groups, such as minorities, low-income students, special-education students, English-language learners, and other groups that have historically underperformed or underachieved. The basic idea is that lowering expectations for certain groups only exacerbates and perpetuates the conditions that cause or contribute to lower educational, professional, financial, or cultural achievement and success. In education, the way to break this self-perpetuating “cycle of low expectations,” it is believed, is to raise academic expectations and make sure all students receive the assistance they need to reach those high expectations.

For related discussions, see equity, rigor, learning standards, and stereotype threat.

Standardized Test


A standardized test is any form of test that (1) requires all test takers to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from common bank of questions, in the same way, and that (2) is scored in a “standard” or consistent manner, which makes it possible to compare the relative performance of individual students or groups of students. While different types of tests and assessments may be “standardized” in this way, the term is primarily associated with large-scale tests administered to large populations of students, such as a multiple-choice test given to all the eighth-grade public-school students in a particular state, for example.

In addition to the familiar multiple-choice format, standardized tests can include true-false questions, short-answer questions, essay questions, or a mix of question types. While standardized tests were traditionally presented on paper and completed using pencils, and many still are, they are increasingly being administered on computers connected to online programs (for a related discussion, see computer-adaptive test). While standardized tests may come in a variety of forms, multiple-choice and true-false formats are widely used for large-scale testing situations because computers can score them quickly, consistently, and inexpensively. In contrast, open-ended essay questions need to be scored by humans using a common set of guidelines or rubrics to promote consistent evaluations from essay to essay—a less efficient and more time-intensive and costly option that is also considered to be more subjective. (Computerized systems designed to replace human scoring are currently being developed by a variety of companies; while these systems are still in their infancy, they are nevertheless becoming the object of growing national debate.)

While standardized tests are a major source of debate in the United States, many test experts and educators consider them to be a fair and objective method of assessing the academic achievement of students, mainly because the standardized format, coupled with computerized scoring, reduces the potential for favoritism, bias, or subjective evaluations. On the other hand, subjective human judgment enters into the testing process at various stages—e.g., in the selection and presentation of questions, or in the subject matter and phrasing of both questions and answers. Subjectivity also enters into the process when test developers set passing scores—a decision that can affect how many students pass or fail, or how many achieve a level of performance considered to be “proficient.” For more detailed discussions of these issue, see measurement error, test accommodationstest bias and score inflation.

Standardized tests may be used for a wide variety of educational purposes. For example, they may be used to determine a young child’s readiness for kindergarten, identify students who need special-education services or specialized academic support, place students in different academic programs or course levels, or award diplomas and other educational certificates. The following are a few representative examples of the most common forms of standardized test:

  • Achievement tests are designed to measure the knowledge and skills students learned in school or to determine the academic progress they have made over a period of time. The tests may also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of a schools and teachers, or identify the appropriate academic placement for a student—i.e., what courses or programs may be deemed most suitable, or what forms of academic support they may need. Achievement tests are “backward-looking” in that they measure how well students have learned what they were expected to learn.
  • Aptitude tests attempt to predict a student’s ability to succeed in an intellectual or physical endeavor by, for example, evaluating mathematical ability, language proficiency, abstract reasoning, motor coordination, or musical talent. Aptitude tests are “forward-looking” in that they typically attempt to forecast or predict how well students will do in a future educational or career setting. Aptitude tests are often a source of debate, since many question their predictive accuracy and value.
  • College-admissions tests are used in the process of deciding which students will be admitted to a collegiate program. While there is a great deal of debate about the accuracy and utility of college-admissions tests, and many institutions of higher education no longer require applicants to take them, the tests are used as indicators of intellectual and academic potential, and some may consider them predictive of how well an applicant will do in postsecondary program.
  • International-comparison tests are administered periodically to representative samples of students in a number of countries, including the United States, for the purposes of monitoring achievement trends in individual countries and comparing educational performance across countries. A few widely used examples of international-comparison tests include the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
  • Psychological tests, including IQ tests, are used to measure a person’s cognitive abilities and mental, emotional, developmental, and social characteristics. Trained professionals, such as school psychologists, typically administer the tests, which may require students to perform a series of tasks or solve a set of problems. Psychological tests are often used to identify students with learning disabilities or other special needs that would qualify them for specialized services.


Following a wide variety of state and federal laws, policies, and regulations aimed at improving school and teacher performance, standardized achievement tests have become an increasingly prominent part of public schooling in the United States. When focused on reforming schools and improving student achievement, standardized tests are used in a few primary ways:

  • To hold schools and educators accountable for educational results and student performance. In this case, test scores are used as a measure of effectiveness, and low scores may trigger a variety of consequences for schools and teachers. For a more detailed discussion see high-stakes test.
  • To evaluate whether students have learned what they are expected to learn, such as whether they have met state learning standards. In this case, test scores are seen as a representative indicator of student achievement.
  • To identify gaps in student learning and academic progress. In this case, test scores may be used, along with other information about students, to diagnose learning needs so that educators can provide appropriate services, instruction, or academic support.
  • To identify achievement gaps among different student groups, including students of color, students who are not proficient in English, students from low-income households, and students with physical or learning disabilities. In this case, exposing and highlighting achievement gaps may be seen as an essential first step in the effort to educate all students well, which can lead to greater public awareness and changes in educational policies and programs.
  • To determine whether educational policies are working as intended. In this case, elected officials and education policy makers may rely on standardized-test results to determine whether their laws and policies are working or not, or to compare educational performance from school to school or state to state. They may also use the results to persuade the public and other elected officials that their policies are in the best interest of children and society.


While debates about standardized testing are wide-ranging, nuanced, and sometimes emotionally charged, many debates tend to be focused on the ways in which the tests are used, and whether they present reliable or unreliable evaluations of student learning, rather than on whether standardized testing is inherently good or bad (although there is certainly debate on this topic as well). Most test developers and testing experts, for example, caution against using standardized-test scores as an exclusive measure of educational performance, although many would also contend that test scores can be a valuable indicator of performance if used appropriately and judiciously. Generally speaking, standardized testing is more likely to become an object of debate and controversy when test scores are used to make consequential decisions about educational policies, schools, teachers, and students. The tests are less likely to be contentious when they are used to diagnose learning needs and provide students with better services—although the line separating these two purposes is notoriously fuzzy in practice (thus, the ongoing debates).

While an exhaustive discussion of standardized-testing debates is beyond the scope of this resource, the following questions will illustrate a few of the major issues commonly discussed and debated in the United States:

  • Are numerical scores on a standardized test misleading indicators of student learning, since standardized tests can only evaluate a narrow range of achievement using inherently limited methods? Or do the scores provide accurate, objective, and useful evidence of school, teacher, or student performance? (Standardized tests don’t measure everything students are expected to learn in school. A test with 50 multiple-choice questions, for example, can’t possibly measure all the knowledge and skills a student was taught, or is expected to learn, in a particular subject area, which is one reason why some educators and experts caution against using standardized-test scores as the only indicator of educational performance and success.)
  • Are standardized tests fair to all students because every student takes the same test and is evaluated in the same way? Do the tests have inherent biases that may disadvantage certain groups, such as students of color, students who are unfamiliar with American cultural conventions, students who are not proficient in English, or students with disabilities that may affect their performance?
  • Is the use of standardized tests providing valuable information that educators and school leaders can use to improve instructional quality? Is the pervasive overuse of testing actually taking up valuable instructional time that could be better spent teaching students more content and skills?
  • Do the benefits of standardized testing—consistent data on school and student performance that can be used to inform efforts to improve schools and teaching—outweigh the costs—the money spent on developing the tests and analyzing the results, the instructional time teachers spend prepping students, or the time students spend taking the test?
  • Do math and reading test scores, for example, provide a full and accurate picture of school, teacher, and student performance? Do standardized tests focus too narrowly on a few academic subjects?
  • Does the narrow range of academic content evaluated by standardized tests cause teachers to focus too much on test preparation and a few academic subjects (a practice known as “teaching to the test”) at the expense of other worthwhile educational pursuits, such as art, music, health, physical education, or 21st century skills, for example?
  • Do standardized tests, and the consequences attached to low scores, hold schools, educators, and students to higher standards and improve the quality of public education? Do the tests create conditions that undermine effective education, such as cheating, unhealthy forms of competition, or unjustly negative perceptions of public schooling?
  • Should some of the most important decisions in public education—such as whether to reduce or increase school funding or fire teachers and principals—be made entirely or primarily on the basis of test scores? Are standardized-test scores, which could potentially be misleading or inaccurate, too limited a measure to use as a basis for such consequential decisions?

Opportunity Gap


Closely related to achievement gap and learning gap, the term opportunity gap refers to the ways in which race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, community wealth, familial situations, or other factors contribute to or perpetuate lower educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment for certain groups of students.

Generally speaking, opportunity gap refers to inputs—the unequal or inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities—while achievement gap refers to outputs—the unequal or inequitable distribution of educational results and benefits. Learning gap refers to relative performance of individual students—i.e., the disparity between what a student has actually learned and what students are expected to learn at a particular age or grade level.

Opportunity gaps can take a wide variety of forms—too many to comprehensively describe here. The following, however, are a few representative factors that can give rise to opportunity gaps:

  • Students from lower-income households may not have the financial resources that give students from higher-income households an advantage when it comes to performing well in school, scoring high on standardized tests, and aspiring to and succeeding in college. Poor nutrition, health problems resulting from a lack of healthcare, or an inability to pay for preschool education, tutoring, test-preparation services, and/or college tuition (in addition to a fear of taking on student-loan debt) may all contribute to lower educational achievement and attainment.
  • Minority students may be subject to prejudice or bias that denies them equal and equitable access to learning opportunities. For example, students of color tend to be disproportionately represented in lower-level courses and special-education programs, and their academic achievement, graduation rates, and college-enrollment rates are typically lower than those of their white peers.
  • Students raised by parents who have not earned a college degree or who may not value postsecondary education may lack the familial encouragement and support available to other students. These students may not be encouraged to take college-preparatory courses, for example, or their parents may struggle with the complexities of navigating the college-admissions and financial-aid process.
  • Students raised in a non-English-speaking family or culture could experience limited educational opportunities if their acquisition of English proficiency, fluency, and literacy is delayed. If courses are taught exclusively in English, if educational materials are printed in English, or enriching educational programs are conducted in English or require English fluency, students who are learning or struggling with English may be denied full participation in these opportunities.
  • Economically disadvantaged schools and communities may suffer from less-effective teaching, overcrowded schools, dilapidated facilities, and inadequate educational resources, programs, and opportunities—all of which can contribute to lower educational performance or attainment.
  • Small schools located in geographically isolated rural areas may not be able to offer the same diversity of educational opportunities—such as multiple world-language courses or co-curricular programs like science fairs, debate competitions, robotics clubs, or theatrical performances, for example—that are available to students in larger schools. Rural students may also have less access to libraries, cultural institutions, museums, internships, and other learning opportunities because they do not exist, they are too far away, or there is no free or low-cost public transportation.
  • A lack of internet connectivity, computers, and new learning technologies in rural schools, inner-city schools, and lower-income communities can place students at a disadvantage when it comes to acquiring technological skills, taking computer-based tests, or accessing knowledge and learning opportunities online.