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Students take ownership, find success

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on November 7, 2013)

As educational researchers, my colleagues at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College aim to improve current practice in real schools. Like medical scientists, Peabody faculty members often direct investigations that compare the effects of one type of education “treatment” with what happens in similar classrooms that do not receive the treatment. The goal is to figure out what works best to improve student learning, to share those findings with the wider education community so that others can benefit and to implement the successful practices on a larger scale. In education, we call this “scaling up.”

Every school is unique, however, and often what works in one classroom or community fails to work in another. Scaling up is challenging. Peabody researchers, with scholars from several other universities, are trying to learn how schools can more easily transfer successful strategies across settings. Through our National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools, we are starting to glean some ideas about the kinds of conditions that increase the odds of success.

A new report authored by Peabody researchers Marisa Cannata, Katherine Taylor Haynes and Thomas Smith points to students’ feeling ownership and responsibility for their own academic success as one of the signature characteristics of effective schools.

Cannata and her colleagues studied four high schools in the Fort Worth Independent School District, gathering data on ninth- and 10th-grade students in English, math and science. Two of the schools had higher gains in student achievement, and two had lower gains. Both pairs of schools were similar and included students from racial minorities, students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, or students who are English language learners.

The researchers found that in the schools that had higher student gains, teachers and administrators consciously sought to create a culture of learning and engagement. How did they do this? First, they worked with students to change their beliefs about their own abilities. They encouraged their students to see themselves as able to be successful learners. Second, they actually challenged them to succeed through rigorous coursework and expectations for high performance.

Teachers and school leaders did not assume that the changed mindset they were looking for would come about naturally. They knew they had to apply the right combinations of challenge and encouragement. And, just as they asked more of their students, the teachers held themselves accountable for their students’ success.

Other conditions for success in the more effective schools included having a shared sense of mission, structures in line with the mission, safe and orderly environments, positive teacher-student relationships, and responsibility all around.

Based on their findings, the researchers are collaborating with district and school leaders and teachers to develop a program to replicate these conditions and to evaluate the results in three Fort Worth schools. A prototype is being tested in a small number of classrooms now. The goal is to create similar cultures of student ownership and responsibility, which we hope will lead to higher student performance.

To the above findings, I would add that parents, too, can encourage children to see themselves as successful learners and to take ownership of their own educational futures. The results might be surprising.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.