What Happens When Students Control Their Own Education?

When a New Hampshire district found itself struggling with low test scores and high turnover, it made a radical decision: Flip the traditional model and let kids take over the classrooms.

Teacher Jenny Wellington (bottom) sits apart from her students, taking notes on their self-led discussion. (Emily Richmond)

In an 11th-grade English class at Pittsfield Middle High School in rural New Hampshire, Jenny Wellington’s students were gathered in a circle debating Henry David Thoreau’s positions on personal responsibility.

“Do you think Thoreau really was about ‘every man for himself?'” asked one 16-year-old boy.

“He lived alone in the woods and didn’t want to pay taxes,” another student shots back. “So, yeah.”

Sitting off to the side, Wellington took rapid notes. When she noticed the conversation being dominated by a couple of voices, she politely suggested someone else chime in. Otherwise, she stayed out of the way and let the discussion take shape.

Welcome to student-centered learning at Pittsfield, a grade 7–12 campus in its third year of an innovative approach to education.

“There used to be a lot more of teachers talking at you—it didn’t matter if you were ready to move on. When the teacher was done with the topic that was it,” said Noah Manteau, a senior this year at Pittsfield. “This is so much better.”

Educators, researchers, and policymakers at the state and national level are keeping close tabs on Pittsfield, which has become an incubator for a critical experiment in school reform. The goal: a stronger connection between academic learning and the kind of real-world experience that advocates say can translate into postsecondary success.

Pittsfield, a former mill town, has about 4,500 predominately white residents, and the Middle High School serves about 260 residents. Fifty-six percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Student-centered learning is fully in place in the high school, and elements of it are being phased in at the middle-school level. The long-term plan is to eventually add it to the nearby elementary school.

Pittsfield’s superintendent, John Freeman, is among the first to acknowledge that adopting student-centered learning was a bold move. Student performance on statewide assessments has long been uneven, and teachers and administrators know there is still significant work to be done. But test scores are just one indicator, and based on multiple other measures, including higher graduation and college-going rates, Freeman feels confident that student-centered learning is moving Pittsfield in the right direction.

At Pittsfield, student-led discussions, small-group work, and individual projects dominate. The traditional grading system has been replaced with a matrix of “competencies,” detailing the skills and knowledge students are expected to master in each class. Students are graded on a scale of 1 to 4—with 2.5 considered “proficient”—and those numbers are converted into letter grades for their transcripts. Teachers meet at regular intervals to review how closely their instruction is aligning with the competencies; they use an online database to continually track individual student growth. Additional online classes allow students to further challenge themselves and earn college credit. Family engagement is considered a key part of each student’s progress. And the Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO) program allows students to earn credit for workplace experiences that reinforce their academic studies, such as interning at a dentist’s office or the local radio station.

All of this means students are shouldering more responsibility for their own learning. And they are expected to develop the kind of critical thinking skills—not just rote knowledge—required for "real world" success. As a result, advocates of student-centered learning say it provides superior preparation for both college and career.

As senior Ryan Marquis put it, “I had to switch from ‘Here’s your study guide and here’s your answer sheet’ to ‘How do you want to learn the content, and how can we support you?’”

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Student-centered learning in Pittsfield—located in the Suncook Valley about 40 minutes north of Manchester—began to take shape in 2008, when the district asked for community input on ways to improve local schools and found overwhelming support for more personalized approaches. The following year, Pittsfield's high school was rated one of the state’s lowest-performing, based on students’ standardized test scores. The one benefit of that dismal ranking was that it later qualified Pittsfield for a $1 million federal School Improvement Grant (SIG).

This set in motion intensive public-private partnerships, and the creation of a community working group to help come up with a new instructional approach. After extensive research, planning, and conversations with parents, the district opted for the student-centered learning model, and the plan was implemented in January 2012.

“People in our community wanted schools to be places where students’ passions and interests were recognized, and their deficits and weaknesses addressed,” said Freeman. “We’re thinking not just about what happens within these walls, but preparing them for success at least seven years beyond high school graduation.”

Around the same time, the district was considering how to implement New Hampshire’s mandate that high schools use a competency-based model, rather than traditional seat-time hours, to award course credit. New Hampshire had also adopted the Common Core State Standards, which set grade-level expectations for what students know and can do, but do not dictate classroom instruction.

Rather than becoming competing forces, this unique combination of circumstances provided Pittsfield with enviable synergies, education experts say. “One of the downfalls of personalized learning has often been a regression to the lowest standard,” said Sonja Santelises, vice president of K-12 policy and practice for the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Education Trust. The confluence of the Common Core, high school competencies, and student-centered learning in Pittsfield, said Santelises, offered “a rare opportunity” to set high expectations for learning that are supported by a rigorous and innovative instructional framework. At the same time, she added, the community’s buy-in has been critical, particularly during the earliest planning stages. Accountability must also be a top priority, Santelises said: Teachers should be continually checking students’ progress against the standards and adjusting instruction accordingly.

“These are not just nice things to have—they’re absolutely essential to have if you’re going to bring about meaningful change,” Santelises said.

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What is student-centered learning? In its broadest sense, it describes an approach where teachers function more as coaches than lecturers. While it’s gaining momentum nationally, the definition is still evolving. The term is sometimes used—incorrectly, say the model’s advocates—to describe any kind of free-form learning that is not “teacher centered.” The New England-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation defines the model as personalized instruction that allows students to advance at their own rate, with opportunities for “anywhere, anytime” learning outside the confines of the traditional school day and building. Students must also have input in determining how they will learn, choosing among opportunities such as online classes and independent study. Project-based learning, in which students build connections between the academic course content and their own interests and career goals, is another popular route.

According to Rebecca Wolfe, director of the nonprofit Jobs For the Future’s Students at the Center project, student-centered learning shares the Common Core’s underlying goal: helping students develop their critical thinking skills while better preparing them for the real-world challenges of college and career. “They are absolutely complementary—and should be part of the same whole—when done right,” Wolfe said.

Student-centered learning is not without its critics. Some question the philosophical premise, while others worry about the potentially daunting logistical requirements. There are also concerns that student-centered learning can result in a chaotic classroom environment, and that some students won’t progress quickly enough to cover the required curriculum. Learners who already trail their peers could be the most vulnerable.

“The idea of ‘student-centered everything’ is one of those orthodoxies where it’s easy to fall off the end of the cliff,” said Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C. “It works a lot better in the content areas than in skills-based instruction like reading comprehension, for example.”

As for letting students demonstrate proficiency by non-traditional means, Pondiscio said “as long as the projects are rigorous and challenging, I see no problem with allowing students to produce work product that interests and engages them—provided it’s aligned to the content expectations.”

Recent research from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education found the student-centered model is working in unexpected places, including urban high schools with high percentages of minority and low-income students. Consider a June 2014 study looking at student-centered learning in four northern California public high schools, all smaller, open-enrollment campuses. The Stanford researchers concluded that regular assessments were helping teachers better monitor student progress and adjust instruction accordingly. Students were also finding ways to connect their learning to their own interests and the wider community outside of school.

“Students in the study schools exhibited greater gains in achievement than their peers, had higher graduation rates, were better prepared for college, and showed greater persistence in college,” said Stanford University Professor and SCOPE Faculty Director Linda Darling-Hammond in a statement about the new research. “Student-centered learning proves to be especially beneficial to economically disadvantaged students and students whose parents have not attended college."

At Pittsfield, the shift to student-led discussions was a fairly steep learning curve for everyone, including teacher Jenny Wellington. To build her lesson on Thoreau, Wellington first turned to the school’s “competencies,” which are drawn from the state’s Common Core standards. For the 11th grade, that means students should be able to interpret the literature they read, and craft arguments using the text as evidence. Wellington uses a mix of student-led discussions, small group work, writing assignments and the occasional traditional test to measure the progress of the class.

“I’m giving them a point of focus but I’m not telling them what to think,” Wellington said. “My role is to make sure they are following through with a thought or an idea and not just jumping around. Once they hit on something they have to go deeper—and find support for their position from the text.”

The students keep track of how often each of them contributes to the conversation, setting goals both for themselves and for the class overall. For the most part, Wellington remains on the sidelines, although she occasionally stops the conversation for an in-class writing assignment to give quieter students an extra moment to collect their thoughts and consider what they want to say.

“When I have really strong student dominating the discussions, I’ll tell them privately to hang back a little,” Wellington said. “They all get feedback from me every time, after every discussion. That’s hard data for them, and they love it.”

There have been unexpected developments: When Wellington used a traditional multiple choice test to measure students’ grasp of the content at the end of a subject unit, many of them scored poorly on some of the basic facts of Thoreau’s biography. But their written responses to the essay portion of the test, asking them to explain and interpret transcendentalism, were a different kind of surprise. “They blew me out of the water,” Wellington said. “Their understanding was clearly deeper than just those facts.”

In an age when Google’s search engine is as close as a cell phone, “I would question whether a student knowing the year Thoreau died is really essential,” said Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based organization focused on high school transformation. “If students didn’t know that he lived in the 19th century, that might be problem. If you’re going to talk about transcendentalism you need to know facts about it, and about the people who espoused it, to provide evidence for your conclusions.”

There are other education theorists who take this argument even further, insisting that there’s little need for much of the rote learning that takes place in public schools. However, “there’s a danger of going from one extreme to another,” Rothman said. “Just testing students on basic facts doesn’t help students develop those deeper understanding and learning. And just having them show they can communicate and write longer essays without some basis in knowledge isn’t going to help them, either.”

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Like many of the nation’s public schools, both large and small, Pittsfield must contend with a high-need student population and a post-recession struggle for adequate funding. Until recently, those challenges were exacerbated by a culture of low expectations for students, say Pittsfield teachers. In 2013, Pittsfield’s 11th graders had a proficiency rate of 61 percent for reading on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exam; the statewide average for reading was 77 percent. In math, Pittsfield’s proficiency rate of 36 percent was the same as the state average, but that’s almost double the 19 percent that the school reported for the 2008-09 school year. Until 2011, Pittsfield had been on upward trend for several years, but during the past two school years, scores have fallen.

The district has also been challenged by system-wide instability. Pittsfield has a higher-than-average number of residential rental properties, which means it has more student turnover than many of the state’s other small towns, said Superintendent Freeman, who took the helm in 2008 after nine years as one of the district's principals. Teacher turnover has also been high: Since 2011, about 60 percent of the teachers and administrators at the middle-high school have been replaced, in part because some staff members rejected the shift to student-centered learning. Freeman said the school has also taken a more aggressive approach to evaluating the performance and potential of non-tenured teachers.

Test scores aside, Pittsfield has improved in key areas since it launched its student-led curriculum. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, Pittsfield’s dropout rate in 2013 was 2.3 percent, down from 3.6 percent in 2010. During the same three-year period, the graduation rate climbed to 80 percent from 75 percent. And the college-going rate jumped to 60 percent from 47 percent.

Laureen Avery of UCLA’s Center X also points out that the school is no longer in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s high schools. Avery is the lead evaluator of the school’s Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, a $5 million federal investment it shares with a network of 12 other New England campuses; the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Rural School and Community Trust have each contributed an additional $500,000 to the group of schools, and Nellie Mae, located in Quincy, Mass., has awarded a separate $2 million grant to Pittsfield specifically to put student-centered learning into place.

“I’ve never seen any school—big or little—pay such close attention to student data,” Avery said. “They have a really well-developed way of tracking progress. Yes, Pittsfield is a unique, small school. But they’re succeeding with processes that could be transferrable to another campus.”

Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s deputy education commissioner, emphasizes that a student-led program like Pittsfield’s could not have worked without strong leaders, supported teachers, and an engaged community. “You can have the best ideas in the world,” Leather said. “But ultimately, it all comes down to implementation.”

To that end, Freeman has worked hard to carve out time for professional development. He has also eliminated the principal position and instead installed two deans at the helm: one for curriculum and instruction and one for building management. That clear delineation of duties means the first dean can focus on supporting classroom teachers while the second deals with the day-to-day tasks involved in running the school.

For Jenny Wellington, who has spent 12 years teaching—six in New York City public schools, two years at the University of New Hampshire, and four at Pittsfield—it’s still a daily challenge to manage everything student-centered learning requires. The academic, social and emotional needs of her Pittsfield students are not dissimilar to those of her former pupils in the Bronx, Wellington said.

But she says the changes at Pittsfield have made it easier for her to respond to those challenges. She regularly visits her colleagues’ classrooms, gleaning ideas about how to get students to steer their own learning and looking for opportunities for joint projects. This fall, for example, biology students will be expected to write a persuasive essay about the use of human stem cells in research—an essay that will also be evaluated by their English teacher.

“I’ve learned to step back more and let the students lead,” Wellington said. “To let go of the idea that I have to be center stage all the time has been incredibly freeing. I feel like I’m a better teacher.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.