American K-12 public education all across the nation is at a difficult and critical crossroads. We are at a time when keen global competition underscores the need for exceptional performance in our primary and secondary schools. Yet, state and federal governments face unprecedented budget deficits and limited resources for the foreseeable future. Additionally, our schools are being called upon to do an even better job of preparing students for the 21st century. There is growing evidence that success in the 21st Century requires more than what has traditionally been the content of schooling. It requires more and different types of knowledge, skills, and learning.
To help students acquire this knowledge base and skills, many educators and leaders are calling for transformative changes in our schools and changes in how we help students learn. This transformative change is called by many names: performance-based learning, standards-based learning, and student-centered learning. The Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) describes this transformation to more student-centered learning as the need for:
... growing a greater variety of higher quality educational opportunities that enable all learners -- especially and essentially underserved learners -- to obtain the skills, knowledge and supports necessary to become civically engaged, economically self-sufficient lifelong learners. (2011)
Can our schools be transformed to meet these challenges? More importantly, can they be high performing, efficient, and student-centered at the same time? To explore these questions, the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine conducted a study in 2010-2011 of a sample of Maine high schools. Funded in part by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the study examined the degree to which these More Efficient high schools were also student-centered.
In 2010, NMEF identified some of the key principles and attributes of studentcentered learning. The principles are that:
- Student-centered education systems provide all students equal access to the skills and knowledge needed for college and career readiness in today's world.
- Student-centered education systems align with current research on the learning process and motivation.
- Student-centered education systems focus on mastery of skills and knowledge.
- Student-centered education systems build student's identities through a positive culture with a foundation of strong relationships and high expectations.
- Student-centered education systems empower and support parents, teachers, administrators, and other community members to encourage and guide learners through their educational journey.
The key attributes are that:
- Curriculum, instruction and assessment embrace the skills and knowledge needed for success.
- Community assets are harnessed to support and deepen learning experiences.
- Time is used flexibly and includes learning opportunities outside the traditional school day and year.
- Mastery-based strategies are employed to allow for pacing based on proficiency in skills and knowledge.
The goal of the study reported here was to determine to what extent these principles and attributes may be found in the high schools. To that end, once a sample of More Efficient high schools was identified, the beliefs, strategies, and practices found in these schools were examined in light of the 2010 NMEF key principles and attributes.