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Dual-Language Education


Dual-language education, formerly called bilingual education, refers to academic programs that are taught in two languages (*Since the term bilingual education has negative associations, it is now more commonly called dual-language education, among other terms). While dual-language education has existed in the United States for roughly two centuries, and it reached it height of popularity in the 1970s, the use of dual-language education in public schools has declined significantly in recent decades due to legislative actions that have sought to limit its use, conflicting research on its benefits, pedagogical and ideological disagreements, and diminished funding and resources supporting the approach.

Students who come from non-English-speaking backgrounds, who are not proficient in English, and who require specialized or modified language instruction, are known by a variety of names in the education community: English-language learners (ELLs), English learners (or ELs), limited English proficient (LEP) students, non-native English speakers, language-minority students, and either bilingual students or emerging bilingual students.

When used, dual-language education is generally seen as a way to ensure that non-English-speaking students, or students who are not yet proficient in English, are given equitable opportunities to succeed in and complete their education. While schools and teachers may use a wide variety of dual-language strategies, each with its own specific instructional goals, the programs are typically designed to simultaneously develop English fluency, content knowledge, and academic language—the knowledge, skills, and cultural proficiencies needed to succeed in an academic program.

There are few main forms of dual-language education:

  • Transitional programs provide students with some level of instruction in their primary or native language for a certain period of time—generally one to three years—before students transition into English-only instructional programs. They are known as “one-way” programs because they only serve one group—non-native English speakers.
  • Maintenance programs provide students with concurrent instruction in English and their primary language throughout their elementary-school years—typically pre-kindergarten through sixth grade—with the goal of developing English fluency and academic literacy in both languages. (Both transitional and maintenance programs include instructional strategies associated with English as a second language).
  • Two-way enrichment programs teach both native and non-native English speakers in two languages with the goal of developing bilingual fluency. In some cases, monolingual English-speaking students may be immersed in second-language instruction alongside native speakers of the language with limited English ability.

Although dual-language programs take a wide variety of forms from school to school, the programs generally include the following features:

  • Dual-language curriculum and instruction: Depending on the specific model being used, the curriculum is typically presented bilingually and may be divided into distinct blocks of time—e.g., day one in English, day two in Spanish, day three in English, etc. Instruction typically does not include straight translation from language to language—teachers move through the curriculum as they would in an English-only course. Students in dual-language programs are generally required to meet the same learning standards and graduation requirements as other students.
  • Bilingual teachers and instructional staff: If schools cannot employ bilingual teachers, they may pair monolingual English teachers with an assistant or educational technician who speaks the native language of the students in a class.
  • Dual-language evaluation: When possible or required, students entering dual-language programs will be tested in English and their primary language to determine their proficiency levels in English and their first language. Careful attention is given to their knowledge of both conversational language (the language used in social interactions) and academic language (the language used in educational settings).
  • Culturally and linguistically relevant learning materials: When available, students are given texts, videos, software applications, tests, and other instructional resources that are produced in their primary language, which may also include content and references that reflect the students’ specific cultural background.
  • Dual-language assessments and accommodations: When they are not being tested on their language proficiency, such as in a math course, dual-education students may be assessed in their primary language. They may also be given various testing accommodations, such as bilingual dictionaries or additional time to complete a test.
  • Bilingual orientation and liaisons: Incoming students and their families may be provided some form of orientation, particularly if the students are recently arrived immigrants or refugees who are unfamiliar with the expectations and culture of American public schools. Orientation sessions will be conducted in their native language, and bilingual students or staff members—sometimes called parent liaisons or home liaisons—may be assigned to maintain regular contact with the incoming students and their families.


As noted above, dual-language education has been in decline in the United States in favor of English-only instructional approaches such as English as a second language or sheltered English instruction.

Like multicultural education, dual-language education is predicated on the concept of equity—or the principal of fairness and equal educational opportunity in education. By providing modified language instruction and specialized academic support to non-English-speaking and limited-English-proficient students, it is believed, schools can accelerate their acquisition of English and academic literacy, as well as the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn in school. If limited-English-proficient students are denied instruction in their native language, the reasoning goes, schools reduce the students’ ability to understand what is being taught and meet the same learning standards as English-speaking students (there is strong evidence that the skills and concepts learned in one language can be transferred to another), which can give rise to learning gaps, achievement gaps, opportunity gaps, and other issues.

Bilingual education gained momentum following legislation passed by the United States Congress and a later decision by the Supreme Court of the United States. In the wake of reports on high dropout rates and low academic-achievement levels among non-English-proficient students, the Bilingual Education Act of 1967 began providing funding for transitional bilingual programs. In 1974, the Supreme Court’s Lau vs. Nichols decision—which advocates perceived to be as important to the education of non-English-speaking students as the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was for African Americans—stated that students whose primary language is not English do not have equal educational opportunity without specialized language instruction. While the decision did not recommend a particular remedy, the federal government publicly supported transitional bilingual programs throughout the 1970s.


Given the culturally sensitive and often ideologically contentious nature of the peripheral issues raised by dual-language education—including politicized debates related to citizenship status, English primacy, immigration reform, and employment and social-services eligibility for non-citizens—it is perhaps unsurprising that dual-language education has been the object of debate and controversy, or that there has been a steady erosion of support for the approach over the past three decades (a cultural shift that contributed to the abandonment of the term bilingual education). For example, a significant number of states have adopted “English as the official language” statutes, and citizen referendums have passed in other states prohibiting dual-language instruction except in special cases. In addition, states have generally favored English-only programs such as English as a second language and sheltered English instruction. While it is not clear how many dual-language programs now exist—or what models they use—the programs serve only a small proportion of English-language learners in the United States.

The issues of citizenship and fairness tend to be at the center of debates over dual-language education. Critics often argue that the use of the non-English languages in public school deemphasizes the role of English as a source of linguistic and cultural unification. While critics generally do not object to bilingualism—the ability to speak two languages—they often contend that dual-language instruction inhibits or delays the acquisition of English fluency. Advocates of the practice argue that when used judiciously and effectively—as in many two-way enrichment programs—dual-language education can improve academic achievement, educational attainment, and educational equity.

Given the wide variety of dual-language models and variations, researchers have found it difficult to conduct large-scale studies on their effectiveness, and the research that does exist has largely been inconclusive. Recent findings, however, clearly favor some form of native-language instruction, in tandem with English instruction, for students who are not yet proficient in English. Many proponents of dual-language education believe that the “non-compensatory” nature of two-way enrichment instruction contributes to the success of such programs, since they tend to inherently value, rather than stigmatize, the student’s linguistic and cultural background.

The following are a few representative examples of debates related to dual-language education:

  • Citizenship status and language policies: One of the central debates about dual-language education, and related language policies, is whether public schools should be focused on the assimilation and acculturation of non-English-speaking students, including students who may not have full citizenship status. (While most English-language learners are United States citizens, the conflation of language ability and citizenship status often motivates and complicates ongoing debates.) Both advocates and critics generally agree that all students should become fluent in English and that a bilingual citizenry is a worthy goal. Nevertheless, some educators, school reformers, elected officials, and policy makers do not see linguistic and cultural diversity as a valuable educational asset in schools. Opponents of dual-language education may argue that programs intended solely for language-minority students should be temporary, transitional, and assimilationist—i.e., that they should be designed to promote the cultural assimilation of students into mainstream American society. These critics may be unconcerned about students maintaining their native language and cultural connections, and they may also cite the growing number of non-English-speaking adults in the United State as evidence of a splintering within American society. Advocates, on the other hand, may argue that acculturation—which favors multicultural education and the maintenance of native language ability alongside the acquisition of English proficiency—would strengthen the country both culturally and economically.
  • Immigration: While most language-minority students were born in the United States and are full citizens, some critics believe that dual-language programs encourage illegal immigration. Advocates contend that there is no evidence for such claims, and that millions of eligible students would benefit from some degree of instruction in a language that they know and understand. Nonetheless, a handful of states have passed laws that criminalize the enrollment of undocumented immigrant students in public schools.
  • Curriculum, instruction, and assessment: Since limited-English-proficient students have to meet the same state-required learning standards and graduation expectations that apply to English-speaking students, dual-language education has significant implications for how students are taught. For example, textbooks and other instructional materials may be translated from English or produced outside of the United States, and English-language learners may be given accommodations on standardized tests that some might perceive to be unfair to other students. Since dual-language programs typically do not present both English and non-English versions of the same content—i.e., each lesson, unit, or school day is taught in alternating languages—there may be concern that less-proficient students could fall behind academically, lose motivation, or drop out of school. Some critics of dual-language education may cite examples of students remaining in these programs long after they achieve fluency in English, and they may also express concern about the separation of bilingual children from their English-speaking peers, which may delay assimilation. Proponents argue that what students are learning in their native language will transfer to their English instruction, and that teachers who cannot converse with their students will be unable to design meaningful instructional experiences for them.
  • Staffing and resource allocation: Since dual-language programs must have bilingual teachers or support staff, the practice may raise concerns about funding and hiring. For example, some districts might prioritize the hiring of bilingual educators, which may be perceived as unfair to other candidates and academic departments or to the students who will not benefit from additional teachers in other areas. (This type of staffing debate also intersected with ongoing debates related to affirmative action.)
  • Teacher preparation: As the number of language-minority students increased in the United States, it became clear that many teachers, particularly those from monolingual English backgrounds, were not well prepared to teach them—either in English or another language. As a result, schools, districts, universities, state departments of education, professional associations, and accrediting agencies began to develop a wide variety of policies and strategies to address the problem. Some states, for example, created specific teaching licenses and preparation requirements for dual-language programs. While some of these actions helped stabilize school staffing or improve instructional quality for some students, their inconsistent application often perpetuated the perception that limited-English-proficient students were being taught by unqualified teachers.
  • Parent participation: Because of the linguistic, cultural, and economic barriers faced by many language-minority parents and families, they may struggle to actively and meaningfully participate in their children’s education. Consequently, they may be unfairly perceived as uncaring or disengaged.

Demonstration of Learning


The term demonstration of learning refers to a wide variety of potential educational projects, presentations, or products through which students “demonstrate” what they have learned, usually as a way of determining whether and to what degree they have achieved expected learning standards or learning objectives for a course or learning experience. A demonstration of learning is typically both a learning experience in itself and a means of evaluating academic progress and achievement.

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

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

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

Generally speaking, there are two primary forms of learning demonstrations:

  1. A project, presentation, product, or portfolio that teachers use as a form of summative assessment—i.e., an evaluation of student learning, skill acquisition, and academic achievement at the conclusion of a defined instructional period, such as a unit, project, course, semester, program, or school year.
  2. A multifaceted assignment that serves as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students, typically during their final year of high school or middle school, or at the end of an academic program or learning-pathway experience (Note: A culminating demonstration of learning may also be used as a form of “summative” assessment). See capstone project for a more detailed discussion.


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

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

It is important to note that demonstrations of learning are typically purposeful teaching strategies designed to achieve specific educational outcomes—i.e., they are not merely “show and tell” opportunities. For example, demonstrations of learning can help teachers determine whether students have acquired skills that cannot be easily evaluated by traditional tests or papers, including the ability to apply skills and knowledge learned in one subject area—such as English language arts, math, or history—to problems in other subject areas or domains. For example: Can students write articulately and persuasively about a complex scientific theory or topic? Can students apply mathematical formulas in a spreadsheet to compile and analyze data and results from a laboratory experiment? Can students research the history of a scientific concept and explain how understanding of the concept changed over time as research findings provided new insights and information? In addition, demonstrations of learning also allow students to show what they have learned in multiple or multifaceted ways. For example, teachers may give students the choice to write a paper, produce a multimedia presentation, or deliver a lecture on a concept. Students may also create a slideshow that describes all the work products they created and the knowledge and skills they learned over the course of a semester or school year.

Although demonstrations of learning can vary widely in structure, purpose, evaluation criteria, and learning objectives from school to school, they commonly require students to present, explain, or defend their project design, theory or action, or results (as in the case of a scientific experiment, for example). Whether students solve a complicated math problem, write a position paper on a social issue, design a working robot, or produce a work of art, drama, or engineering, demonstrations of learning require them to articulate their ideas and respond to questions and inquiries from teachers or other reviewers. A few examples will help to illustrate these general instructional intentions:

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


While some critics may be skeptical of the educational value or benefits of demonstrations of learning (and related strategies), most criticism of or debate about demonstrations of learning is not focused on the strategy itself, or its intrinsic or potential educational value, but rather on the quality of its execution—i.e., demonstrations of learning tend to be criticized when they are poorly designed, when reflect low academic standards, or when students are allowed to complete relatively superficial projects of low educational value. In addition, if teachers and students consider demonstrations of learning to be a formality, rather than an important educational strategy, students may produce lower-quality products as a result. And if the projects, presentations, and products students produce reflect consistently low standards and quality year after year, educators, students, parents, and other may come to view demonstrations of learning as a waste of time or resources.

Achievement Gap


Closely related to learning gap and opportunity gap, the term achievement gap refers to any significant and persistent disparity in academic performance or educational attainment between different groups of students, such as white students and minorities, for example, or students from higher-income and lower-income households.

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

While particular achievement gaps may vary significantly in degree or severity from group to group or place to place, achievement gaps are defined by their consistency and persistence—i.e., achievement gaps are not typically isolated or passing events, but observable and predictable trends that remain relatively stable and enduring over time. While it is possible that some educators may use achievement gap in reference to individual student achievement, it is more likely that a term such as learning gap will be used: achievement gap nearly always refers to disparities of achievement between or among student groups.

The most commonly discussed achievement gap in the United States is the persistent disparity in national standardized-test scores between white and Asian-American students, two groups that score higher on average, and African-American and Hispanic students, two groups that score lower on average. Another achievement gap that has received considerable attention in recent years is the lagging performance of American students on international tests in comparison to students from other developed countries. Although disparities in test scores tend to be the most discussed, scrutinized, and reported achievement gaps, educational performance and attainment disparities may appear in a wide variety of data sets, including graduation rates, college-enrollment rates, college-completion rates, course grades, dropout rates, absenteeism rates, and disciplinary infractions, among many other possible categories of student-achievement data tracked by government agencies, districts, and schools.

The following list provides a representative sample of the major student subgroups that tend to exhibit achievement gaps:

  • White and minority students
  • Male and female students
  • Students from higher-income and lower-income households and communities
  • Native English-speaking students and students who are learning English or who cannot speak English, including recently arrived immigrant or refugee students (see English-language learner)
  • Nondisabled students and students with physical or learning disabilities
  • Students whose parents have earned a college degree and students whose parents have not earned a college degree (these students are often called first-generation if they decide to enroll in college)
  • American students and students from other countries

A growing body of educational research is devoted to studying the underlying causes of achievement gaps and the strategies educators are employing to address them. Yet the causes are often so complex and overlapping that it is nearly impossible to determine all the factors that may give rise to particular achievement gaps or contribute to their persistence. The following list, however, is a representative selection of a few underlying causes identified by educators and researchers:

  • Poverty, income inequality, and lower socioeconomic status contributing to reduced access to educational opportunities, familial support, good nutrition, healthcare, and other factors that tend contribute to stronger educational achievement.
  • Minority status giving rise to racism, prejudice, stereotyping, ethnic bias, and institutionalized predispositions—such as the tendency in schools to lower academic expectations for minorities or enroll them in less-challenging courses—that may negatively affect educational achievement. For a related discussion, see stereotype threat.
  • Lower-quality schools, ineffective teaching, student overcrowding, dilapidated school facilities, and inferior educational resources, programs, and opportunities in economically disadvantaged schools and communities.
  • The disproportionate representation of minority and lower-income students in the lowest-achieving schools, lower-level academic classes, and courses taught by the least experienced or effective teachers.
  • Parent and family factors such as low educational attainment, unemployment, or familial instability contributing to reduced academic motivation, disrupted education, or lower educational and career aspirations.
  • Little or no English-language understanding, fluency, or literacy contributing to educational underperformance, decreased academic motivation, or higher dropout rates.
  • Flawed testing and assessment designs that may inadvertently skew scores for certain groups of students over others, such as computer-based tests administered to students with low technological literacy or tests that are written with a “cultural bias” and use terms, concepts, and situations that may be less understandable to certain groups of students, such as urban minorities or the children of immigrant families. For a more detailed discussion, see test bias.
  • The structure of the American system of public schooling and teacher preparation contributing to lower academic performance in comparison to some higher-performing education systems in other developed countries. In this case, a few internationally administered tests and studies—particularly the Programme for International Student Assessment, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—provide the comparative performance data used to determine international achievement gaps.


In the education community, “closing” achievement gaps is widely considered to be one of the major challenges facing the American public-education system. It is also tends to be one of the top priorities identified by educators, policy makers, elected officials, and others working to improve the education system and individual schools. The achievement-gap issue is closely related to the concept of equity—fairness in education, equal access to learning opportunities, and greater equality in educational achievement, attainment, and benefits.

The growing use of education data by schools, government agencies, and the media, as well as the increasing sophistication of the technologies used to track information related to the academic achievement and educational attainment of students, have exposed achievement gaps that may have been unidentified, overlooked, or ignored in past decades. This exposure has not only raised awareness about the existence of achievement gaps, but it has contributed to increased scrutiny of student achievement—specifically, the achievement of students on the lower end of an achievement gap—and growing calls to address the problem. For example, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—commonly known as the No Child Left Behind Act—requires schools and states to collect and report student-achievement data for multiple student subgroups (among many other provisions). While the controversial legislation is the object of ongoing national debate, one stated intent is to identify, address, and ultimately eliminate achievement gaps. Many other federal, state, and institutional policies—such as universal access to free public preschools or affirmative action in postsecondary admission decisions—represent additional efforts intended to address achievement gaps.

At the district and school level, administrators and teachers may employ a wide variety of strategies to reduce or eliminate achievement gaps. In fact, it could be argued that most education-reform strategies are either directly or indirectly intended to address achievement gaps, given that calls for “reform” typically result from perceived underperformance and a desire to improve the educational achievement of low-performing students. It should be noted, however, that despite the dramatically increased attention to achievement gaps in American public education, and decades of well-intentioned reform efforts by educators and policy makers, achievement gaps have not only persisted, but progress has been modest at best (and in some cases achievement gaps have actually widened).



Co-curricular refers to activities, programs, and learning experiences that complement, in some way, what students are learning in school—i.e., experiences that are connected to or mirror the academic curriculum.

Co-curricular activities are typically, but not always, defined by their separation from academic courses. For example, they are ungraded, they do not allow students to earn academic credit, they may take place outside of school or after regular school hours, and they may be operated by outside organizations. That said, these traditional distinctions between academic and co-curricular programs are being eroded in some schools—see learning pathways for a more detailed discussion.

A few examples of common educational opportunities that may be considered co-curricular include student newspapers, musical performances, art shows, mock trials, debate competitions, and mathematics, robotics, and engineering teams and contests. But given the differing interpretations of the term, as well as its many potential applications, it’s best to determine precisely how co-curricular is being used in a particular educational context.

Co-curricular vs. Extracurricular

Generally speaking, co-curricular activities are an extension of the formal learning experiences in a course or academic program, while extracurricular activities may be offered or coordinated by a school, but may not be explicitly connected to academic learning. This distinction is extremely fuzzy in practice, however, and the terms are often used interchangeably. Athletics, for example, are typically considered to be extracurricular activities, while a science fair would more likely be considered a co-curricular activity, given that students are learning science, participation may be required by the school, students may be graded on their entries, or a science teacher may coordinate the fair. Still, in some schools certain athletics activities might be considered “co-curricular,” while in other schools a science fair may be labeled “extracurricular.”

High-Stakes Test


A high-stakes test is any test used to make important decisions about students, educators, schools, or districts, most commonly for the purpose of accountability—i.e., the attempt by federal, state, or local government agencies and school administrators to ensure that students are enrolled in effective schools and being taught by effective teachers. In general, “high stakes” means that test scores are used to determine punishments (such as sanctions, penalties, funding reductions, negative publicity), accolades (awards, public celebration, positive publicity), advancement (grade promotion or graduation for students), or compensation (salary increases or bonuses for administrators and teachers).

High Stakes vs. Low Stakes

A “low-stakes test” would be used to measure academic achievement, identify learning problems, or inform instructional adjustments, among other purposes. What distinguishes a high-stakes test from a low-stakes test is not its form (how the test is designed) but its function (how the results are used). For example, if test results are used to determine an important outcome, such as whether a student receives a high school diploma, the test would be considered a high-stakes test regardless of whether it’s a multiple-choice exam, an oral exam, or an essay exam. Low-stakes tests generally carry no significant or public consequences—the results typically matter far more to an individual teacher or student than to anyone else—and scores are not used to burnish or tarnish the reputation of teachers or schools.

While high-stakes tests come in many forms and may be used for a wide variety of purposes, the following provide a brief overview of a few representative applications of high-stakes testing:

  • Students: Test results may be used to determine whether students advance to the next grade level or whether they receive a diploma. For example, a growing number of states require students to pass a reading test to advance from third grade to fourth grade, while others require students to pass a test to graduate from high school.
  • Educators: Test results may be used in the job-performance evaluations of teachers or to determine professional compensation. For example, in recent years more school reformers, elected officials, and policy makers have been calling for teacher pay (including bonuses), as well as hiring, firing, and tenure decisions, to be partly based on student test scores. For a related discussion, see value-added measures.
  • Schools: Tests results may be used to trigger penalties for schools, including negative public ratings, the replacement of staff members, or even closure. For example, some federal and state policies require that test results be used to impose a variety of consequences, such as firing or transferring some or all of a school’s administrators and faculty, or forcing a school to pay for additional services and transportation costs for students. In addition, standardized-test scores are also increasingly being used, along with other measures, in various state and independent efforts to assign A–F letter grades to schools.


As a school-reform mechanism, the use of high-stakes testing is generally motivated by the belief that the promise of rewards or the threat of punishment will motivate and incentivize educators to improve school performance, teaching effectiveness, and student achievement. By attaching rewards and punishments to tests scores, the reasoning goes, students, teachers, and school administrators will take the tests seriously, make personal or organizational changes, and put in the necessary effort to improve scores. (It should be noted that this rationale is among the most contentious issues in education today, and research on human motivation suggests that such incentives and punishments may not work as intended. For a more detailed discussion, see Debate below.)

Another major rationale for high-stakes testing is that scores can be used to hold schools and teachers accountable for providing a high-quality education to all students, including student groups that may have historically underperformed academically or been underserved by schools, such as students who live in high-poverty communities or troubled urban areas, or students of color, students with special needs, and students from low-income households. In this case, high-stakes testing is related to the concept of equity—fairness in education, access to learning opportunities, and greater equality in educational achievement, attainment, and benefits—and the strategy is broadly motivated by the desire to close learning gaps, achievement gaps, and opportunity gaps.

Another common feature of high-stakes testing is the public reporting of test results. While individual student scores remain confidential, average or aggregate test scores for schools, districts, and states are commonly reported in public forums, and they tend to receive widespread attention from parents, the media, and the general public. Given that schools are public institutions supported by tax revenues, the public reporting of test results is generally motivated by the belief that school performance should be transparent and publicly known, policies and government agencies should regulate schools and ensure quality, and parents and the public have the right to know when a school is underperforming and should have the opportunity to advocate for improvements.

While high-stakes tests are used for a wide variety of purposes, the following descriptions provide a few representative examples of the major ways in which high-stakes testing is used to influence the performance of students, educators, and schools:

  • School and school-system reform: Perhaps the most widely discussed example of high-stakes testing is the 2001 federal law commonly known as the No Child Left Behind Act, which is considered one of the most far-reaching efforts to use high-stakes tests to drive the improvement of schools, teaching quality, and student achievement. In brief, the law—as it was originally designed, at least—mandates that each state develop learning standards and standardized tests to track school performance. The tests are administered at multiple grade levels to measure how well students are meeting the standards. The law also require that test results be tracked and reported separately for different “subgroups” of students, such as minority groups, students from low-income households, students with special needs, and students with limited proficiency in English. By publicly reporting the test scores achieved by different schools and student groups, and by tying those scores to rewards, penalties, and funding, the law aims to improve schools deemed to be underperforming—as determined by test scores—and close long-standing achievement gaps. To hold schools accountable for improvement, schools and districts have to report test results for a variety of student subgroups, such as African American and Hispanic students, not just average results, which could mask differing levels of achievement among student groups. Schools and districts are then required to show that they are making progress toward “proficiency,” which is defined by each state and measured by state-developed standardized tests. Failing to achieve proficiency can trigger a variety of penalties, sanctions, and potential funding consequences, including the stigma of being labeled a “low-performing school.” For each year that a school fails to meet a state’s benchmarks for improvement, the stakes are raised and sanctions may become more severe. Ultimately, a low-performing school might be closed, converted to a charter school, put under the management of a private company, or taken over by a state department of education, among other possible outcomes. While the No Child Left Behind Act is one of the most controversial and contentious educational policies in recent history, and the technicalities of the legislation are highly complex and still evolving (for example, the U.S. Department of Education recently granted states the option of submitting proposals that, if approved, would waive certain provisions in the law), it is one widely discussed example of high-stakes testing being used to influence school, teacher, and student performance.
  • High school graduation: Generally speaking, widespread concerns about whether high school graduates lack the education and skills necessary to succeed in college, modern workplaces, and adult life have motivated calls for high-stakes graduation tests. The basic rationale is that diplomas should represent readiness for postsecondary learning and careers, and that students should not be allowed to earn a diploma if they haven’t acquired sufficient skills and knowledge. Citing complaints and evidence (such as surveys of college instructors and employers) that many public-school graduates are not well prepared, some reformers, elected officials, and policy makers have sought to base the awarding of high school diplomas on test results, which are perceived—by advocates—to be sufficient proof that students are prepared to move on. Many states have passed policies related to graduation tests, and some states have tried different approaches to address concerns about the fairness of such exams. For example, some states allow students who fail to retake tests multiple times and students with disabilities to demonstrate proficiency in alternate ways. For related discussions, see measurement errortest accommodations, and test bias.
  • Grade promotion: To help ensure that students are not simply moved on from one grade level to the next without acquiring the skills they will need to succeed academically, test results are sometimes used to determine whether students will be promoted in their education. Reading ability in the elementary grades, for example, is often the focus of these score-based promotion policies.
  • Teacher evaluation: Student test results are being factored in to teacher evaluations as part of a wide-ranging effort to reward “effective” teachers and to either support or penalize “ineffective” teachers. In recent years, many states have changed teacher-evaluation policies and systems to make student test scores a “significant” factor in the evaluation process. As result, student test results are being factored into teacher evaluations, potentially influencing decisions related to compensation, tenure, hiring, and firing.


High-stakes testing is one of the most controversial and contentious issues in education today, and the technicalities of the debates are both highly complex and continually evolving. While a comprehensive discussion of this debate is beyond the scope of this resource, the following brief descriptions provide an illustrative overview of the major arguments commonly made for and against high-stakes testing.

Proponents of high-stakes testing may argue that the practice:

  • Holds teachers accountable for ensuring that all students learn what they are expected to learn. While no single test can measure whether students have achieved all state learning standards (standardized tests can measure only a fraction of these standards), test scores are nevertheless one method used to determine whether students are learning at a high level.
  • Motivates students to work harder, learn more, and take the tests more seriously, which can promote higher student achievement.
  • Establishes high expectations for both educators and students, which can help reverse the cycles of low educational expectations, achievement, and attainment that have historically disadvantaged some student groups, particularly students of color, and that have characterized some schools in poorer communities or more troubled urban areas.
  • Reveals areas of educational need that can be targeted for reform and improvement, such as programs for students who may be underperforming academically or being underserved by schools.
  • Provides easily understandable information about school and student performance—in the form of numerical test scores—that reformers, educational leaders, elected officials, and policy makers can use to develop new laws, regulations, and school-improvement strategies.
  • Gives parents, employers, colleges, and others more confidence that students are learning at a high level or that high school graduates have acquired the skills they will need to succeed in adulthood.

Opponents of high-stakes testing may argue that the practice:

  • Forces educators to “teach to the test”—i.e., to focus instruction on the topics that are most likely to be tested, or to spend valuable instructional time prepping students for tests rather than teaching them knowledge and skills that may be more important.
  • Promotes a more “narrow” academic program in schools, since administrators and teachers may neglect or reduce instruction in untested—but still important—subject areas such as art, health, music, physical education, or social studies, for example.
  • May contribute to higher, or even much higher, rates of cheating among educators and students, including coordinated, large-scale cheating schemes perpetrated school administrators and teachers who are looking to avoid the sanctions and punishments that result from poor test performance. Systematically changing test answers, displaying correct answers for students while they are taking the test, and disproportionately targeting historically low-performing students for expulsion are just a few examples taken from recent scandals.
  • Has been correlated in some research studies to increased failure rates, lower graduation rates, and higher dropout rates, particularly for minority groups, students from low-income households, students with special needs, and students with limited proficiency in English.
  • May diminish the overall quality of teaching and learning for the same disadvantaged students who are the intended beneficiaries of high-stakes testing. Because of strong pressure on schools and teachers to improve test results and avoid score-based penalties, students of color and students from lower-income households and communities may be more likely to receive narrowly focused, test-preparation-heavy instruction instead of an engaging, challenging, well-rounded academic program.
  • Exacerbates negative stereotypes about the intelligence and academic ability of minority students, who may worry so much about confirming negative racial stereotypes that they underperform on important exams (a phenomenon generally known as “stereotype threat”). And if such students perform so poorly that they fail a high-stakes graduation test, the failure will only limit their opportunities in higher education or future employment, which only perpetuates and reinforces the conditions that give rise to stereotypes.

Student-Centered Learning


The term student-centered learning refers to a wide 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 and groups of students. To accomplish this goal, schools, teachers, guidance counselors, and other educational specialists may employ a wide variety of educational methods, from modifying assignments and instructional strategies in the classroom to entirely redesigning the ways in which students are grouped and taught in a school.

Because “student-centered learning” has broad implications, and the term may encompass a wide variety of potential instructional strategies and academic programs, it may be difficult to determine precisely what the term is referring to when it is used without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation. In some cases, the term may have a very specific, technical meaning, but in others it may be vague, undecipherable jargon. For example, some educators use the term synonymously with “personalized learning” (and related terms), while others see personalized learning as one aspect of student-centered learning, but not a synonymous term or concept. For these reasons, it is important to investigate precisely how the term is being used, and what it is referring to, in a specific educational context.

The term student-centered learning most likely arose in response to educational decisions that did not fully consider what students needed to know or what methods would be most effective in facilitating learning for individual students or groups of students. For example, many traditional approaches to schooling could be considered “school-centered,” rather than student-centered, because schools are often organized and managed in ways that work well for organizational operations, but that might not reflect the most effective ways to educate students. For example, it’s far more manageable—from an institutional, administrative, or logistical perspective—if all students are being taught in classrooms under the supervision of teachers, if they are given a fixed set of course options to choose from, if they all use the same textbooks and learning resources, or if their education unfolds according to a predetermined schedule.

Advocates of student-centered learning want to challenge or overturn many common organizational or instructional tendencies in schools by making student learning the primary objective—i.e., all considerations that do not in some way improve or facilitate student learning would become secondary (or lower) in importance. The basic rationale is that schools should be designed to enhance student learning, not improve organizational efficiency.


Dating back to the 1930s, if not earlier, American educators have used the terms “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” to describe two distinct approaches to instruction. Teacher-centered typically refers to learning situations in which the teacher asserts control over the material that students study and the ways in which they study it—i.e., when, where, how, and at what pace they learn it. In classes that would be considered teacher-centered, the teacher tends to be the most active person in the room and do most of the talking (e.g., by lecturing, demonstrating concepts, reading aloud, or issuing instructions), while students spend most of their time sitting in desks, listening, taking notes, giving brief answers to questions that the teacher asks, or completing assignments and tests (for a related discussion, see direct instruction). In addition, in teacher-centered classrooms, teachers may also decide to teach students in ways that are easy, familiar, or personally preferred, but that might not work well for some students or use instructional techniques shown to be most effective for improving learning.

In contrast, student-centered typically refers to forms of instruction that, for example, give students opportunities to lead learning activities, participate more actively in discussions, design their own learning projects, explore topics that interest them, and generally contribute to the design of their own course of study. Additionally, student-centered instruction is often associated with classrooms that feature desks arranged in circles or small groups (rather than rows of desks that face the teacher), with “self-guided” or “self-paced” learning, or with learning experiences that occur outside of traditional classroom settings or school buildings, such as internships, apprenticeships, independent research projects, online classes, travel experiences, community-service projects, or dual-enrollment courses, for example (for a related discussion, see learning pathway).

Education researchers and historians have found that teacher-centered instruction has been the dominant mode in American public schools for more than a century, and evidence suggests that only a small fraction of instructional settings in American public schools could be considered authentically “student-centered” (though a greater proportion of teachers might describe their approach to instruction as “student-centered”). That said, some aspects of student-centered instruction—such as the arrangement of desks into circles or small groups, or assignments that allow students to choose their own reading materials—have been widely adopted by teachers. In many cases, the typical instructional setting in public schools likely features a blend of teacher-centered and student-centered approaches.

While student-centered learning has sometimes been criticized as a fuzzy concept that refers to a vague assortment of teaching strategies, or that means different things to different educators, in recent years some education reformers and researchers have sought to define the term with greater precision. While the definition of the term is still evolving, advocates of student-centered learning tend to emphasize a few fundamental characteristics:

  1. Teaching and learning is “personalized,” meaning that it addresses the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students.
  2. Students advance in their education when they demonstrate they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn (for a more detailed discussion, see proficiency-based learning).
  3. Students have the flexibility to learn “anytime and anywhere,” meaning that student learning can take place outside of traditional classroom and school-based settings, such as through work-study programs or online courses, or during nontraditional times, such as on nights and weekends.
  4. Students are given opportunities to make choices about their own learning and contribute to the design of learning experiences.

For related discussions, see authentic learningdifferentiationrelevancestudent engagement, and student voice.



The use of the term learner as a synonym for student has grown in popularity among educators in recent years. While the precise origins of this usage are likely impossible to determine, the decision to use learner in place of student may be due to a couple of factors:

  • Learner underscores and reinforces the goal of the educator-student relationship—learning—rather than the respective roles played by students and teachers. Educators tend to use terms such as project-based learning and community-based learning, for example, rather than project-based teaching and community-based teaching—both of which could be considered synonyms. While this preference may seem arbitrary on the surface, it does appear to serve a semantic purpose: learning can occur in the absence of teaching, but teaching doesn’t occur without some form of learning taking place. I.e., learners can learn without teachers, but students are only students when they have teachers.
  • Similarly, learner updates the concept of a student, potentially distancing the term from the characteristics and connotations traditionally associated with the word student: students learn in schools, they sit in classrooms, they are taught by teachers, they are passive recipients of taught knowledge, etc. If the goal is to update traditional conceptions and perceptions of students—e.g., that they can learn both inside and outside of a school or classroom, they can learn independently or from adults who are not classroom teachers, they can take more responsibility over what they learn and how they learn, they can be young children or older adults returning to complete their education, etc.—then distancing the concept from preformed, limiting, or outmoded associations could be useful.

For related discussions, see learning experience, learning environment, learning pathway, and student-centered learning.

Learning Lab


The term learning lab refers to a location in a school, such as a classroom or dedicated section of the library, where students can go to receive academic support, or to the programs school create that deliver academic support. While learning labs take a wide variety of forms from school to school, and they may be known by a wide variety of names (including unique, homegrown names), the strategy tends to share a few common attributes from place to place:

  • Learning labs are typically offered during the school day, but in some cases they may be offered before the regular school day starts or after it ends (for a related discussion, see expanded learning time).
  • Learning labs are often open to any student who wants additional instructional assistance in a specific subject area or help with a particular assignment or project, but in some schools students may be required to attend a learning lab to receive help with an identified learning need—such as persistent difficulties in a math course, for example.
  • Learning labs may have dedicated staff members and support specialists, such as educators who are trained in literacy instruction (i.e., how to teach students to read and write more effectively). In other cases, teachers may be assigned to learning labs on a rotating basis, and students may go to a learning lab on a specific day to receive help in a particular subject area, such as math, science, or social studies.
  • Learning labs may provide academic assistance in all subject areas, or they may provide intensive support in a specialized academic area—perhaps the two most common forms of dedicated learning labs are math labs and literacy labs.
  • Learning labs are often used to support special-education students or students with identified learning disabilities. In these cases, learning labs will supplement or augment the students’ regular academic courses—i.e., the students receive more instructional time in specific academic disciplines or more intensive academic assistance on course-related work—with the goal of helping these students keep pace with their peers or meet expected learning standards.
  • Learning labs may be entirely optional and voluntary in some schools, while in others they may be intentionally integrated into a school’s academic program. For example, a school may believe that all students can benefit from additional academic support, and it may choose to replace traditional study-hall periods with learning labs. In this case, all or most students will be enrolled in some form of learning lab, where they receive academic assistance or where they work on school projects under the guidance of teachers and staff members. The general goal of this approach would be to replace unstructured class periods (study halls) with more structured instructional periods (learning labs) that utilize available school time more purposefully and productively. For a related discussion, see academic acceleration.
  • Learning labs may be more common in the upper grades—i.e., high school and middle school—where students move from class to class and teacher to teacher throughout the school day. Yet elementary schools may also use support strategies similar to learning labs.


While learning labs are less likely to be a source of debate outside of schools, they may become the object of debates within schools for reasons that will vary from place to place. For example, teachers and staff members may question whether learning labs are the best way to allocate limited school resources—primarily teachers and school time. In these cases, some may argue that learning labs are not the best way to utilize experienced classroom teachers, who should be teaching courses in their subject area, not providing tutoring to students or helping students in subjects that are outside of their particular expertise. In other cases, learning labs may replace school time that teachers had used for other purposes—for example, preparation periods that allowed teachers to get their own work done so they didn’t have to do as much planning and preparation for classes on their personal time. In addition, learning labs may also become a source of debate if they are poorly designed and supervised, if they complicate school and staff schedules, or if they fail to produce the desired improvements in student achievement.



Differentiation refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment. Differentiation is commonly used in “heterogeneous grouping”—an educational strategy in which students of different abilities, learning needs, and levels of academic achievement are grouped together. In heterogeneously grouped classrooms, for example, teachers vary instructional strategies and use more flexibly designed lessons to engage student interests and address distinct learning needs—all of which may vary from student to student. The basic idea is that the primary educational objectives—making sure all students master essential knowledge, concepts, and skills—remain the same for every student, but teachers may use different instructional methods to help students meet those expectations.

Teachers who employ differentiated instructional strategies will usually adjust the elements of a lesson from one group of students to another, so that those who may need more time or a different teaching approach to grasp a concept get the specialized assistance they need, while those students who have already mastered a concept can be assigned a different learning activity or move on to a new concept or lesson. In more diverse classrooms, teachers will tailor lessons to address the unique needs of special-education students, high-achieving students, and English-language learners, for example. Teachers also use strategies such as formative assessment—periodic, in-process evaluations of what students are learning or not learning—to determine the best instructional approaches or modifications needed for each student.

Also called “differentiated instruction,” differentiation typically entails modifications to practice (how teachers deliver instruction to students), process (how the lesson is designed for students), products (the kinds of work products students will be asked to complete), content (the specific readings, research, or materials students will study), assessment (how teachers measure what students have learned), and grouping (how students are arranged in the classroom or paired up with other students). Differentiation techniques may also be based on specific student attributes, including interest (what subjects inspire students to learn), readiness (what students have learned and still need to learn), or learning style (the ways in which students tend to learn material best).

Differentiation vs. Scaffolding

As a general instructional strategy, differentiation shares may similarities with scaffolding, which refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. Because differentiation and scaffolding techniques are used to achieve similar instructional goals—i.e., moving student learning and understanding from where it is to where it needs to be—the two approaches may be blended together in some classrooms to the point of being indistinguishable. That said, the two approaches are distinct in several ways. When teachers differentiate instruction, they might give some students an entirely different reading (to better match their reading level and ability), give the entire class the option to choose from among several texts (so each student can pick the one that interests them most), or give the class several options for completing a related assignment (for example, the students might be allowed to write a traditional essay, draw an illustrated essay in comic-style form, create a slideshow “essay” with text and images, or deliver an oral presentation). Alternatively, when teachers scaffold instruction, they typically break up a learning experience, concept, or skill into discrete parts, and then give students the assistance they need to learn each part. For example, teachers may give students an excerpt of a longer text to read, engage them in a discussion of the excerpt to improve their understanding of its purpose, and teach them the vocabulary they need to comprehend the text before assigning them the full reading.

The following comparison chart will help illustrate the differentiation concept and its major component strategies:

Element Traditional Example Differentiated Example
Practice A math teacher explains how to calculate slope to the entire class and gives students fifteen problems to practice. A math teacher pre-tests students to determine their understanding of critical mathematical skills and then arranges students into groups based on their learning progress and understanding. Some students work online to practice the skills, some work in groups with the teacher, and some work individually with occasional teacher support.
Process In an art class, students complete the following activities in order: write an artist statement, critique a peer’s work, and then compile artifacts for a portfolio of their art. Students determine the order in which they will write an artist statement, critique a peer’s work, and compile artifacts for a portfolio of work. Some tasks can be done at home and some in class, and some can be done collaboratively and some individually.
Products In a social studies class, students write a four-page essay arguing a position related to free speech that uses supporting evidence drawn from historical and contemporary sources. Students may elect to write an essay, op-ed, or persuasive speech, or they may create a short documentary arguing a position related to free speech that uses supporting evidence drawn from historical and contemporary sources.
Content In English class, students read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and discuss the messages it conveys about race and racism in the United States. Students choose between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Invisible Man to discuss different messages about race and racism in the United States. The three groups share their knowledge with each other.
Assessment  In a math class, students take an exam and are given a percentage grade based on how many answers were correct. Students take an exam and receive feedback on which mathematics standards they have mastered, which standards they are making progress on, and which standards need more attention. The feedback suggests remedies for students with learning gaps and new projects for students who have mastered all the required skills and knowledge.
Grouping  Students are either grouped as a full class or they work independently most of the time. Teachers use grouping strategies to address distinct learning needs. Students may be working independently, in small groups, in pairs, or using technology. Some groupings are by choice and some are assigned based on common learning needs. Some groupings or individual students work closely with the teacher and others have more independence.
Interest In a social studies class, the teacher assigns a single topic, such as the Civil War, for a unit or project, and all students research the same historical event. The teacher poses a question, such as “Why do nations go to war?” Students may select a military conflict that interests them most and address the question in different ways—for example, one student may choose to read historical literature about World War II, while another student may research films about the Vietnam War.
Readiness In an English course, the teacher plans out the course topics and reading assignments in advance, and all students work through the same series of readings, lessons, and projects at the same pace. The teacher evaluates students to determine what they already know, and then designs lessons and projects that allow students to learn at different levels of difficulty, complexity, or independence. For example, teachers may determine reading levels and then assign a variety of texts, reflecting different degrees of difficulty, to ensure an appropriate level of reading challenge for each student.
Learning style In a math course, every student receives the same problems and assignments, which are all structured in the same way. The teacher assigns a topic: solving quadratic equations. Some students choose to work with a software program that uses visual representations and simulations, other students work in teams and solve a series of problems from a book that increase in difficulty, and still others watch an online tutorial that can be viewed multiple times until the concept becomes clear.


Differentiation plays into ongoing debates about equity and “academic tracking” in public schools. One major criticism of the approach is related to the relative complexities and difficulties entailed in teaching diverse types of students in a single classroom or educational setting. Since effective differentiation requires more sophisticated and highly specialized instructional methods, teachers typically need adequate training, mentoring, and professional development to ensure they are using differentiated instructional techniques appropriately and effectively. Some teachers also argue that the practical realities of using differentiation—especially in larger classes comprising students with a wide range of skill levels, academic preparation, and learning needs—can be prohibitively difficult or even infeasible.

Yet other educators argue that this criticism stems, at least in part, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the strategy. In her book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms, the educator and writer Carol Ann Tomlinson, who is considered an authority on differentiation, points out a potential source of confusion: “Differentiated instruction is not the “Individualized Instruction” of the 1970s.” In other words, differentiation is the practice of varying instructional techniques in a classroom to effectively teach as many students as possible, but it does not entail the creation of distinct courses of study for every student (i.e., individualized instruction). The conflation of “differentiated instruction” and “individualized instruction” has likely contributed to ongoing confusion and debates about differentiation, particularly given that the terms are widely and frequently used interchangeably.

Achievement Growth


Achievement growth refers to academic progress made over a period of time, as measured from the beginning to the end of the defined period. Achievement growth can be tracked and determined for individual students, schools, states, or countries, and a wide variety of variables and methodologies may be used to determine whether “growth” is being achieved.

In general, achievement growth is tracked and calculated to determine how effectively or how quickly students, schools, states, or countries are improving, and “achievement” is most commonly measured using standardized-test scores—although other metrics, such as graduation rates, may be included in certain methods or reports. Achievement growth is also commonly reported in a comparative format—i.e., how different states or countries, for example, are improving achievement in comparison to one another, or how certain groups of students, such as minorities or English-language learners, may be improving comparatively.

Achievement growth also intersects with efforts to improve public schools in a variety of ways, typically by using achievement growth as factor when making important decisions about schools or educators. For example, teacher compensation or job security may be based in part on achievement-growth measures, or schools may be subject to penalties or negative publicity if they fail to achieve expected levels of growth. For more in-depth discussions, see high-stakes test and value-added measures.

When investigating achievement-growth statistics, it is important to determine precisely how growth was calculated, since a wide variety of factors—such as length of the measured period, the calculation methodology and tests that were used, or the size of the represented student population or subgroups—can produce significant variation in results. For example, a school may experience a dramatic or atypical drop in standardized-test scores one year, which will have a much bigger affect on perceived achievement growth if comes at the end of a three-year period as opposed to ten-year period. Similarly, an atypical drop in test scores would skew the perception of growth if it came at the beginning of a three-year period, since it would appear that the school made significant achievement gains when, in reality, the gains may be based largely on a statistical anomaly.

While the term achievement growth may be applied to individual students in certain cases, the term learning growth is likely more common at the individual level.


Since achievement-growth statistics are typically used to evaluate the effectiveness of education systems, schools, or teachers, they are generally motivated by a desire to improve educational quality or performance. For this reason, the statistics could be considered a de-facto reform strategy, since there would be no need to track, calculate, and report achievement growth if the status quo was considered acceptable. In general, achievement-growth measures are either used to make the case that improvement is needed or to equip education leaders, policy makers, and elected officials with the information and arguments they need to improve results.

In recent years, there has been an increasing emphasis on and attention to growth-related measures in the United States. In general, the attention is based on the recognition that a school, state, or country may begin well behind another state, school, or country, but that reforms could be introduced that accelerate improvement in relation to others. For example, a school located in a high-poverty urban community may begin with standardized-test scores that are much lower than the scores in suburban schools in wealthier communities, but the urban school, despite facing significant disadvantages, may improve scores at a much faster rate relative to its suburban counterparts. Given that academic achievement can be influenced by factors outside the control of school or education system, the basic idea is that growth-related measures are a more reliable and useful indicator of how a school or system is improving, or of how they are addressing and overcoming factors that may adversely affect achievement. In addition, by looking at the schools and systems that are achieving greater and more rapid growth, the reasoning goes, education leaders can identify reform strategies that could be instructive to or adopted by others.


Supporters of achievement-growth measures are generally concerned that if schools or states, for example, are only judged by achievement scores, and not by achievement growth over time, it can mask achievement gains and—by extension—the exceptional leadership, reform strategies, or teaching practices that might have contributed to the improvement.

On the other hand, critics of achievement-growth measures are generally concerned that the use of growth measures, rather than achievement measures tied to learning standards, will inevitably lead to the lowering of educational expectations for certain groups of students, particularly minority and low-income students. In essence, their argument is that if a group of students shows strong achievement growth, but those students still can’t read or write at an acceptable level, for example, then the growth they have achieved is not really a cause for praise or celebration.



Often used in research literature and technical reporting, the term cohort refers to a group of individuals who have something in common. In education, cohort is typically applied to students who are educated at the same period of time—a grade level or class of students (for example, the graduating class of 2004) would be the most common example of a student cohort. Cohorts may also be divided into demographic or statistical categories, or subgroups, by age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, or English-language proficiency, among other categories. Educators often track academic data related to specific student groups, such as standardized-test scores or graduation rates, and the performance of these cohorts is often compared to other cohorts.

While the use of the term cohort may seem like unnecessary jargon in some cases, it can be useful when cohorts overlap with or diverge from traditional grouping terms. For example, since class refers both to students at a certain grade level and to students enrolled in a specific course, the use of both senses of class could cause confusion in some contexts—cohort, therefore, becomes a useful synonym. Another example would be educational situations in which students begin an academic program at the same time, but then complete it at different times. In these cases, students might be considered members of the same cohort, but they may not proceed through an academic program at the same pace or earn in degree in the same year. For example, schools, districts, and government agencies often track four-year, five-year, and six-year graduation rates for a cohort of students who began school at the same time.

Leadership Team


A leadership team is typically a group of administrators, teachers, and other staff members who make important governance decisions in a school and/or who lead and coordinate school-improvement initiatives. While most leadership teams are composed of on-staff administrators and educators, the specific composition of a team can vary widely from school to school, and the teams may also include student, parent, and community representatives—a variation that is often called a school-improvement committee or school-improvement council, among other terms. Participants may volunteer for a leadership team, or they may be recruited by administrators. Educators may also receive a stipend for taking on leadership-team responsibilities, especially if the school has received a grant to fund the positions, but it can be just as common for educators to volunteer their time. Not all schools have leadership teams.

Readers should note that, while the term leadership team is commonly used throughout the country, educators frequently create unique, home-grown vocabularies and names when referring to these teams, committees, or councils in their school or district.


A more traditional leadership-team model might include the subject-area department chairs, such as the head of the English department, math department, and so on. But in recent decades, leadership teams have evolved into a form of shared leadership—the practice of expanding the number of people involved in making important decisions related to the organization, operation, and academics of a school. Leadership teams are frequently created to carry out a school-improvement plan, or action plan, and they typically function somewhat like executive committees—i.e., they are made up of individuals delegated to make decisions or execute specific responsibilities in the interests of the larger organization. Leadership teams may also include specialists who can speak and act on behalf certain student populations, such as educators with expertise in teaching disabled students or who have language skills that can assist in communicating with non-English-speaking students and parents. For a related discussion, see voice.

While the specific roles and responsibilities of a leadership team may vary widely from school to school or district to district, its functions may include any of the following representative examples:

  • Developing, coordinating, and leading a school-improvement initiative.
  • Analyzing student-performance data and proposing specific strategies to address programs, courses, or instructional areas in need of improvement.
  • Encouraging, facilitating, and supporting greater collaboration among teachers in the school.
  • Overseeing and improving professional-development opportunities for teachers and staff members.
  • Selecting, revising, or updating the school’s curriculum, textbooks, or learning technologies.
  • Addressing issues related to faculty relationships and the school’s professional, social, or academic culture.
  • Making recommendations on school-budget decisions related to learning resources and program funding.
  • Improving internal communications—among faculty and staff—and external communications—between the school and its broader community.

Student Voice


In education, 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 a school- or instructional-improvement strategy, the concept of student voice has grown increasingly popular in recent decades. Generally speaking, student voice can be seen as an alternative to more traditional forms of governance or instruction in which school administrators and teachers may make unilateral decisions with little or no input from students. For a more detailed discussion of the concept, see voice.

Historically, student councils and other forms of student-led government were the most common channels for students to share their opinions and viewpoints, but many of these opportunities did not allow students to make authentic contributions to the leadership of a school. Increasingly, more school districts now have voting or nonvoting student seats on the school board, and some states even elect student representatives to the state board of education. Students may also be asked to serve on a formal committee, such as a school-improvement committee, or participate in the hiring of a new superintendent, principal, or teacher. In addition to taking on leadership roles in a school, student voice is playing a larger role in instructional decisions. Students may be involved in selecting education materials, or they may be given more choices over learning content, products, and processes in the classroom (which educators consider to be a form of student voice). In addition, students may write stories for their school or community newspapers, and they may blog about their opinions about and experiences in school.

For related discussions, see differentiation, learning pathwaypersonalized learning, relevance, and student engagement.

Growth Mindset


The concept of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In recent years, many schools and educators have started using Dweck’s theories to inform how they teach students.

A mindset, according to Dweck, is a self-perception or “self-theory” that people hold about themselves. Believing that you are either “intelligent” or “unintelligent” is a simple example of a mindset. People may also have a mindset related their personal or professional lives—“I’m a good teacher” or “I’m a bad parent,” for example. People can be aware or unaware of their mindsets, according to Dweck, but they can have profound effect on learning achievement, skill acquisition, personal relationships, professional success, and many other dimensions of life.

Dweck’s educational work centers on the distinction between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.” Dweck’s research suggests that students who have adopted a fixed mindset—the belief that they are either “smart” or “dumb” and there is no way to change this, for example—may learn less than they could or learn at a slower rate, while also shying away from challenges (since poor performance might either confirm they can’t learn, if they believe they are “dumb,” or indicate that they are less intelligent than they think, if they believe they are “smart”). Dweck’s findings also suggest that when students with fixed mindsets fail at something, as they inevitably will, they tend to tell themselves they can’t or won’t be able to do it (“I just can’t learn Algebra”), or they make excuses to rationalize the failure (“I would have passed the test if I had had more time to study”).

Alternatively, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” writes Dweck. Students who embrace growth mindsets—the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere—may learn more, learn it more quickly, and view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve their learning and skills.


Dweck’s delineation between fixed and growth mindsets has potentially far-reaching implications for schools and teachers, since the ways in which students think about learning, intelligence, and their own abilities can have a significant effect on learning progress and academic improvement. If teachers encourage students to believe that they can learn more and become smarter if they work hard and practice, Dweck’s findings suggest, it is more likely that students will in fact learn more, and learn it faster and more thoroughly, than if they believe that learning is determined by how intelligent or unintelligent they are. Her work has also shown that a “growth mindset” can be intentionally taught to students. Teachers might, for example, intentionally praise student effort and perseverance instead of ascribing learning achievements to innate qualities or talents—e.g., giving feedback such as “You must have worked very hard,” rather than “You are so smart.”

For a related discussion, see brain-based learning.

Learning Loss


The term learning loss refers to any specific or general loss of knowledge and skills or to reversals in academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education. While learning loss can manifest in a wide variety of ways for a variety of reasons, the following are a few representative examples of widely recognized forms of learning loss:

  • Summer break: Perhaps the most commonly cited form is “summer learning loss,” which occurs when students take extended breaks in their education during the summer. Since most public schools typically take summer breaks that can last up to two or two-and-a-half months, summer learning loss is a fairly universal and well-documented issue in the United States. Consequently, schools may adopt a variety of strategies intended to mitigate the learning loss that occurs over summer breaks. If students are unprepared upon returning to school in the fall, for example, teachers may review content that was taught the previous year or schools may provide some students with additional instructional time or academic support. Districts and schools may also offer a variety of summer learning programs designed to help students make up lost academic ground, provide greater educational continuity, or accelerate academic progress. Another common strategy is generally known as expanded learning time, which encompasses any attempt to improve learning acquisition, or reduce learning loss, by increasing the amount of time students are in school and receiving instruction from teachers. For a related discussion, see transition.
  • Interrupted formal education: Students may experience significant interruptions in their formal education for a wide variety of reasons. One of the most commonly cited examples is the learning loss experienced by recently immigrated refugee students who, often due to societal unrest in their home countries, have been unable to attend school for extended periods of time—in fact, in some cases these students may never have attended a formal school or may not have attended school for several years. The term “students with interrupted formal education,” or SIFE, is often used in reference to these students.
  • Returning dropouts: If a student returns to school after dropping out for an extended period of time, even multiple years, the student may have experienced significant learning loss or gaps in their education. In these cases, students may need to repeat previous grades, complete additional coursework, or accelerate their learning progress in other ways.
  • Senior year: The senior year of high school is often considered to be a potential source of learning loss. Since high schools commonly have course-credit requirements that allow students to satisfy the majority of their graduation requirements in advance of their senior year, many twelfth-grade students elect to take a reduced course load or leave school after half a day. If students complete their credit requirements in math during eleventh grade, for example, and they do not elect to take math class during twelfth grade, they could be at a disadvantage when taking placement tests or a math course during their first year of college (in fact, these students may be required to take a full-priced remedial math course that does not allow them to earn course credit and satisfy graduation requirements). In addition, some educators and reformers feel that senior-year learning loss represents a missed opportunity for students, and many schools have pursued strategies aimed at mitigating senior-year learning loss, including capstone projects, multifaceted assignments that serve as culminating academic and intellectual experiences for students, or increasing graduation requirements so that students need to take “four years” of math, English, science, and social studies. For related discussions, see core course of study and credit.
  • School absence: A prolonged health-related absence would be another potential source of learning loss, as would any family decision to remove students from school or discontinue their formal education. Another common form of absence is the school suspension or expulsion, which can lead to either minor or significant learning loss. In some cases, districts and schools have explored alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, reasoning that the denial of formal education may not the best way to address behavioral issues or help troubled students who may already be on the path to dropping out or worse, such as choosing criminal pursuits over completing their education and finding gainful employment.
  • Ineffective teaching: Lower-quality teaching can, in some cases, lead to slower academic progress, which produce learning losses in relation to other students or in terms of where students are expected to be at a specific stage in their education. For example, some studies have found evidence that highly effective teachers can teach students up to a year and a half (or more) of content in a single year, while other teachers may teach students only a half year of content over the course of a full year of school. If students receive poor-quality teaching over multiple years, learning losses can compound and grow more severe, decreasing the students’ chances of catching up with their peers or completing school.
  • Course scheduling: While relatively rare, school schedules—if they are not properly designed and coordinated—can lead to learning loss for some students. Perhaps the most commonly discussed examples are certain forms of block scheduling, which can create half-year or yearlong gaps in the continuity of instruction in some subjects, such as in mathematics or world language (most schools that use block scheduling, however, will typically takes steps to avoid such gaps).

Grade Averaging


Grade averaging is the practice of calculating semester, end-of-term, or end-of-year course grades by taking the sum of all numerical grades awarded in a course and then dividing that sum by the total number of grades awarded. Using this process, teachers calculate the mean—or average—final grade for a marking period, which may be recorded as a numerical grade or a letter grade that reflects a numerical equivalent (for example, a grade of A– may be equivalent to a 90). Grade averaging and the cumulative calculation of grade point averages (or GPAs) are among the most common grading practices used in American public schools.

While grade averaging is a straightforward mathematical process, variations in grading systems from school to school may introduce layers of complexity. For example, some schools used weighted grades, the practice of assigning a numerical advantage to grades earned in higher-level courses, and others may assign different levels of importance or “weight” to certain grades earned in a course—e.g., a final exam may represent 30 percent of a final grade, while a homework assignment may represent only five percent. In addition, some teachers also base grades on non-academic factors such as student behavior, in-class participation, timely homework completion, or attendance. While the examples above reflect a few common grading formulations, grading systems and GPA scales may vary significantly from one school or school district to the next.

Since grading systems typically reflect the particular structure of an academic program, and they be calculated in different ways from school to school, reporters should investigate how grades are calculated, what rationale is being used to support them, and what advantages or disadvantages may result for students.


In recent years, grade averaging and other traditional grading practice has become the target of reform, which has made the practice a source of debate.

Advocates may argue that grade averaging has been standard practice in public schools for decades, that it’s a simple and easily understood system for calculating grades, and that students who perform poorly on assignments or fail to meet course expectations should not be given the opportunity to earn a grade that is comparable to or potentially higher than students who performed well throughout the course and fulfilled all course expectations. In this view, averaging grades not only rewards consistent performance, but a failure to base final grades on consistent performance would be unfair to students who performed well throughout the semester, term, or year.

Critics of grade averaging, on the other hand, may argue that the practice not only presents a misleading or inaccurate picture of student achievement, academic effort, and learning growth over time, but that it can have harmful affects on student motivation, self-confidence, and educational attainment. While the arguments against grade averaging are both numerous and nuanced, the following represent a few major points of criticism:

  • Grade averaging does not accurately represent academic effort or learning growth. If the grades earned at the beginning of a course or semester count the same as the grades earned at the end of a term, if a student struggles at first, works hard, and dramatically improves over time, the grades awarded earlier in the course will bring down the student’s final grade. Consequently, the effort and academic progress made over the course of a semester or year will not be reflected in the final grade. The same rationale would apply to grade point averages: if students fail several courses during their freshmen year, but then they make a dramatic turnaround and earn all As for the remainder of their high school tenure, their final GPAs will not reflect that improvement because those early failures are factored in to the final average. In addition, teachers may not have the autonomy when averaging grades to consider non-academic factors such as an unforeseen health issue or a family crisis that may negatively affect a student’s academic performance for a certain period of time.
  • Grade averaging introduces a disincentive to improve. If a student fails a few assignments early in the year, those early failures will impose clear mathematical limits on the final grade a student can ultimately achieve. Consequently, students may not be motivated to work harder or overcome past failures because their final grades won’t reflect that effort or learning progress.
  • Grade averaging advantages students who begin a course prepared and disadvantages students who begin unprepared. Since learning progress and effort may not be accurately represented when grades are averaged, students who begin school with more education, skills, or family support have a strong advantage—in terms of their likelihood of earning a good grade—than students who arrive less prepared. And since academic readiness tends to mirror demographic factors such as socioeconomic and minority status, grade averaging may also raise concerns about equity.
  • Grade averaging does not accurately capture what students have learned or failed to learn. Advocates of proficiency-based learning, for example, might argue that averaging grades is an inadequate method for measuring and reporting on academic achievement and learning progress. If grades are not tied to established learning standards, and student work is not consistently evaluated from course to course and teacher to teacher, then grades not only convey little information about what students have learned, but they may in fact present a misleading or inaccurate picture of academic accomplishment. In this view, grade averaging only exacerbates the potential for misrepresentation.

Action Plan


An action plan is a plan created to organize a district- or school-improvement effort. It may take the form of an internal school document or a website that can be viewed publicly. Action plans may be reviewed and revised annually—based on progress made over the course of the preceding year or to reflect evolving school goals and values—but multiyear action plans are also common.

Action plans typically include information such as the following:

  • A school’s improvement goals, such as targets for improved student test performance or graduation rates
  • The specific actions or strategies a school will undertake to achieve its goals
  • The roles and responsibilities assigned to staff members
  • The project timeline or the deadlines to be met
  • The resources allocated to its execution
  • The milestones or growth targets expected to be achieved at specific stages of the plan’s execution
  • The data or other forms of evidence that will be collected for the purposes of action research or project evaluation

While the “plan of action” concept is straightforward, the design, use, and purpose of action plans may differ significantly from district to district or school to school. That said, there are generally two basic forms of action plan:

  • A systemic action plan is designed to organize a comprehensive or multifaceted educational-improvement plan focused systems-level changes—major redesigns of the structure and operations of a district or school, particularly its academic program. A systemic plan would map out and organize the complexities of coordinating such an initiative, typically for the purpose of making sure that the plan is coherently designed (all the parts are feasible and work together), aligned in both purpose and execution (all the parts make sense and are focused on achieving the same goals), and understood and agreed on by all those responsible for its execution.
  • A project-specific action plan is similar in all major features to a systemic action plan, except that its scope would be limited to a district program, grant-funded initiative, academic department, or some other subordinate part of a school system. The potential downside of a project-specific action plan is that it may fail to take into account potential effects on the larger system, or its execution may result in redundancies or other unforeseen conflicts with preexisting plans or programs.


In many cases, action plans are a required component of a state program, a grant-funded initiative, or a government policy. For example, schools that are determined to be “low performing” by a state education agency may be required to create and implement an action plan. In these cases, districts and schools may be required to report on action-plan progress over the course of a school year and account for any unmet goals. Many plans, however, are voluntarily developed and undertaken by schools committed to improvement and to achieving better educational results for students. Action plans are also used to help maintain fidelity to the commitments described in a school’s vision and mission statements, or the obligations that accompany the acceptance of a public or private grant.

In many schools, a leadership team will oversee the development and coordination of the plan, but committees of students, parents, and community members may also participate. Schools may also hire outside organizations or school coaches to help them develop their action plan, monitor progress, and make in-process adjustments. For a related discussion, see shared leadership.


Action plans may be debated, viewed with skepticism, or criticized if they are perceived to be poorly constructed, overly ambitious or infeasible, inconsistent with the school’s stated values and commitments, or biased in favor of some students over others, among many other possible concerns. Top-down or unilateral action plans created “behind closed doors” without the involvement of teachers, students, parents, and other members of the community may be more likely to become objects of criticism, particularly if poor communication also gives rise to confusion or misunderstanding in the community. Some may also question whether an action plan will actually effect positive change in the school, particularly in situations where previously developed plans either failed or were prematurely abandoned. Like any proposed course of action, the effectiveness and benefits of an action plan rely entirely on the quality of the design and execution.

Community-Based Learning


Community-based learning refers to a wide variety of instructional methods and programs that educators use to connect what is being taught in schools to their surrounding communities, including local institutions, history, literature, cultural heritage, and natural environments. Community-based learning is also motivated by the belief that all communities have intrinsic educational assets and resources that educators can use to enhance learning experiences for students. Synonyms include community-based education, place-based learning, and place-based education, among other terms.

Proponents of community-based generally argue that students will be more interested in the subjects and concepts being taught, and they will be more inspired to learn, if academic study is connected to concepts, issues, and contexts that are more familiar, understandable, accessible, or personally relevant to them. By using the “community as a classroom,” advocates would argue, teachers can improve knowledge retention, skill acquisition, and preparation for adult life because students can be given more opportunities apply learning in practical, real-life settings—by researching a local ecosystem, for example, or by volunteering at a nonprofit organization that is working to improve the world in some meaningful way.

While the methods and forms of community-based learning are both sophisticated and numerous, the concept is perhaps most readily described in terms of four general approaches (all of which might be pursued independently or combined with other approaches):

  • Instructional connections: In this form of community-based learning, teachers would make explicit and purposeful connections between the material being taught in the classroom and local issues, contexts, and concepts. For example, the workings of a democratic political system may be described in terms of a local political process; statistics and probability may be taught using stats from a local sports team; a scientific concept may be explained using an example taken from a local habitat or ecosystem; or the Civil War may be taught using examples and stories drawn from local history. In this scenario, students may still be educated within the school walls, but community-related connections are being used to enhance student understanding or engagement in the learning process.
  • Community integration: In this approach, educators might take advantage of local experts by inviting them into the school to give presentations, participate in panel discussions, or mentor students who are working on a long-term research project. The school may also partner with a local organization or group to provide additional learning experiences in the school—e.g., a local engineering firm or scientific institution may help the school develop a robotics program or judge science-fair projects. In this scenario, students are still being educated within the school walls, but community resources and authorities are being used to enhance the learning experience.
  • Community participation: In this approach, students would learn, at least in part, by actively participating in their community. For example, students may undertake a research project on a local environmental problem in collaboration with a scientist or nonprofit organization; participate in an internship or job-shadowing program at a local business for which they can earn academic credit or recognition; volunteer at a local nonprofit or advocacy campaign during which they conduct related research, write a paper, or produce a documentary on what they learned; or they may interview doctors, urgent-care professionals, health-insurance executives, and individuals in the community without health insurance to learn about the practical challenges faced when attempting to expand health-care coverage. In this scenario, students are learning both within and outside of the school walls, and participatory community-based-learning experiences would be connected in some way to the school’s academic program.
  • Citizen action: This approach would be considered by some experts and educators to be the fullest or most “authentic” realization of community-based learning—students not only learn from and in their community, but they also use what they are learning to influence, change, or give back to the community in some meaningful way. For example, students may write a regular column for the local newspaper (rather than simply turning in their writing to a teacher); research an environmental or social problem and then create an online petition or deliver a presentation to the city council with the goal of influencing local policy; or volunteer for a local nonprofit and create an multimedia presentation, citizen-action campaign, or short documentary intended to raise awareness in their community about a particular cause. In this scenario, the audience for and potential beneficiaries of a student’s learning products would extend beyond teachers, mentors, and other students to include community organizations and the general public.


Community-based learning is considered a way for educators to enhance the concepts being taught by connecting them to personal, first-hand experiences and familiar, accessible examples. In this way, community-based learning is often positioned as an alternative to more traditional forms of learning in which students may read about people, places, or events they have never experienced or to concepts that can only be understood abstractly. War is a common concept taught in history class, for example, but it’s not something that is commonly experienced by most American students—and, consequently, the effects and implications of war may not be fully felt or grasped. A community-based approach to teaching students about war might entail visiting a war memorial that lists the names of local soldiers who died in combat, interviewing local veterans about their experiences, researching how a particular war affected their local community, or hosting discussions with a veteran’s group or a recently arrived refugee who relocated to the community from a war-torn area.

Community-based learning is also promoted as a way to develop stronger relationships between the school and its community, while also increasing the community’s investment in, understanding of, and support for the school and the learning experiences it provides. For example, school-reform proposals may be met with skepticism, criticism, or resistance from the local community, particularly if they are misunderstood or misinterpreted. Yet if a significant percentage of community members are meaningfully involved in the school’s new approach to educating students, participating community members would not only have a stronger understanding of the strategies being implemented, and of why the new teaching approaches are being adopted, but they would also be able to help other community members better understand the reforms.

For related discussions, see authentic learning, project-based learning, and relevance.


Like any school-reform strategy that necessitates significant changes in the ways that schools operate and students are taught, community-based learning can become the object of debates or controversy. Some people, including educators, may express concern that community-based approaches will “water down” courses, that students will fail to acquire fundamental academic knowledge, and that test scores may drop. Parents and community members may express unease because the new approach looks significantly different than the more familiar concept of school they are accustomed to. Logistical issues and complications, as well as safety concerns, may also arise, since students may leave the school grounds for certain activities, they may have to use public transportation, and they may be supervised or taught by adults who are not teachers.

Educators may also express skepticism or resistance because community-based learning can complicate school schedules and require more planning and creativity, thereby increasing teacher workloads, or because they are not being given the planning time, training, or resources they need to learn and use community-based approaches effectively. In its more developed forms, community-based learning can also require a lot of coordination between the school and outside organizations and individuals, which can have both financial and human-resource implications. In some cases, schools recruit parents or community volunteers to coordinate programs to reduce costs or burdens on school personnel.

Advocates would argue that community-based learning needs to be skillfully designed and deployed in schools—doing too much, too quickly, without a strong plan and sufficient training for teachers can greatly increase the likelihood that problems will arise. They may also argue that even though community-based learning can require more from schools and teachers—more funding, more planning, more work, more professional development—the benefits are well worth the investment: students will be more excited about learning, they will learn more, and they will be more able to apply what they have learned in real-life settings.

Learning Environment


Learning environment refers to the diverse physical locations, contexts, and cultures in which students learn. Since students may learn in a wide variety of settings, such as outside-of-school locations and outdoor environments, the term is often used as a more accurate or preferred alternative to classroom, which has more limited and traditional connotations—a room with rows of desks and a chalkboard, for example.

The term also encompasses the culture of a school or class—its presiding ethos and characteristics, including how individuals interact with and treat one another—as well as the ways in which teachers may organize an educational setting to facilitate learning—e.g., by conducting classes in relevant natural ecosystems, grouping desks in specific ways, decorating the walls with learning materials, or utilizing audio, visual, and digital technologies. And because the qualities and characteristics of a learning environment are determined by a wide variety of factors, school policies, governance structures, and other features may also be considered elements of a “learning environment.”

Educators may also argue that learning environments have both a direct and indirect influence on student learning, including their engagement in what is being taught, their motivation to learn, and their sense of well-being, belonging, and personal safety. For example, learning environments filled with sunlight and stimulating educational materials would likely be considered more conducive to learning than drab spaces without windows or decoration, as would schools with fewer incidences of misbehavior, disorder, bullying, and illegal activity. How adults interact with students and how students interact with one another may also be considered aspects of a learning environment, and phrases such as “positive learning environment” or “negative learning environment” are commonly used in reference to the social and emotional dimensions of a school or class.

For related discussions, see learner, learning experience, and learning pathway.

Student Work


When used by educators, the term student work refers to all of the assignments, products, and projects that students complete to demonstrate what they have learned. Student work could include research papers, essays, lab results, presentations, tests, videos, and portfolios, among many other potential products.

The term student work, and the phrases looking at student work or discussing student work, are commonly used in reference to the collaborative evaluations of academic work products that take place in professional learning communities—groups of educators who meet regularly and work together to improve their professional knowledge and skills. The review and discussion of student work is one of many methods used by educators to evaluate the effectiveness of their curriculum and teaching methods. If the quality of student work is poor, for example, teachers may revisit how they taught the lesson and develop alternative approaches to help students improve their understanding or the quality of their work. Alternatively, high-quality student work may indicate that a lesson is well designed and that students understood both the material and the purpose of the lesson. In addition, teachers will review student work, either individually or collaboratively, to determine whether students have achieved expected learning standards or course objectives—i.e., the specific knowledge, skills, or work habits that educators want students to learn by the end of a lesson, unit, project, or course.


Given that student work results directly from the philosophy, design, and goals of an academic program, from the lessons developed by teachers, and from the type and quality of instruction students receive, the characteristics of student work will inevitably change when schools or instructional strategies change. For example, teachers have historically given all students in a particular course the same series of tests and assignments. Consequently, student work is relatively uniform from student to student, with variations limited largely to quality and correctness. Yet some alternative approaches to teaching students, such as personalized learning, for example, introduce instructional variations that are based on the specific learning needs or interests of individual students. Other strategies, such as project-based learning, require students to produce work products that may be very different from the forms of work historically completed by students. In these settings, student work will be less uniform because different students may study and write about different topics, for example, or they may produce different work products.