A New Experience of Learning
The Acceleration Academies prioritize students in the Needs Improvement or Warning levels of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) for participation in the Academies, excluding those who have chronic attendance or behavior challenges. Although quantitative analysis has concluded that Acceleration Academies have a positive impact on student performance on state assessments, the program’s effects extend beyond that single metric, according to district and school leaders. What seems likely is that a set of interrelated outcomes leads to improvements in students’ test scores.
This begins with the fact that, during the Academies, many students experience school in a whole new way. Personalized instruction, positive interactions with adults and peers, and expanded enrichment opportunities often enable students to see school as a place where they can truly be successful.
Many leave the Academies with a sense of accomplishment, knowing that they persisted through long days and gained knowledge and skills that they can use when they return to their regular classroom. With this often comes increased confidence, as students see that they are capable of learning and overcoming academic challenges.
In a more personalized environment, students are able to take more risks than they might in the regular classroom. And they notice that their teachers not only encourage them to “fail fast and fail forward,” as one teacher put it, but also to wrestle independently with the material. In the words of one student, “Here, they let you struggle so you can learn from your mistakes, which helps you in the future.” Instead of demonstrating how to solve a problem, teachers are able to let students work through it and guide them to, rather than give them, the answer. This dynamic is more difficult in a regular classroom when teachers are compelled to get through a lesson before the period ends and it is time to move on to something or someone else.
They Focus on You
Like teachers and administrators, many students noted the smaller classes as one of the best aspects and/or most distinguishing features of Acceleration Academies. One of the perceptible advantages of having fewer students in the classroom is that teachers are able to spend more time with each student, which enables them to quickly assess students’ individual learning styles and deliver instruction in ways that meet potentially diverse learning needs. One student described the personalized attention by saying, “Teachers focus on you, and know how you learn and how you think.” Students mentioned being able to understand more, both because their teachers taught differently – for example, incorporating more technology or hands-on activities – and because their teachers had time to slow down and reinforce the content.
Relaxed and Purposeful
In addition to enjoying the personalized attention during the Acceleration Academies, a number of students also noted that their lessons were more engaging and that their teachers made efforts to promote a “work hard, play hard” mentality. One student described her Acceleration Academy teacher in the following way: "She tries her hardest to make everything as fun as possible, but so that we learn something. She gets us to try to push our limits." A number of students attribute teachers’ ability to relax and have fun with students to the lack of disruptions and distractions caused by behavior issues. From talking during class to more serious infractions, Acceleration Academies tend to be free from much of the “drama” that occupies students’ and teachers’ minds during the rest of the school year. Perhaps for this reason, at least one student feels that “Teachers seem to be a lot nicer than in normal school. They would make jokes, but in normal school, they’re normal teachers…boring.”
Students also noted the relaxation of some school rules and practices during Acceleration Academies, such as wearing uniforms or having assigned seats. These additional freedoms further demarcate the Academies from the rest of the school year, and serve as additional incentives for participation.
Invested in Learning
Research in both psychology and education is very clear about the role of motivation in learning, and has demonstrated clear links between motivation and academic achievement. As Toshalis and Nakkula have written, "Students exist within a dynamic ecology; it shapes them, while they also shape it. Knowing each student well enough to see how this web of causality motivates him or her to achieve is crucial to teaching that student well...Educators need to understand what they can about the different social, economic, and cultural contexts of their students and how these influence their efforts in the classroom. Moreover, it is beneficial to view these differences not as impediments to overcome but as resources that can enhance learning." We saw this asset-based approach to learning very much in evidence in many Academies classrooms. Teachers chose topics that they felt would be relevant to their students – whether focused on current events, enduring human questions, historical events with contemporaneous resonances, or simply by introducing games that were highly interactive and engaging.
Approximately 19 percent of Lawrence Public Schools students have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), while the percentage of students on (IEPs) in the academies is, on average, 5 percentage points lower (19% students with IEPs in the district, 14% in the Academies). This discrepancy is likely a result of those students who have IEPs that are related primarily to behavioral challenges that preclude their participation in the Academies. Riley is quick to point out that the district has a long way to go in fully serving young people with behavioral issues that may relate to the effects of trauma and/or conditions associated with poverty. The district also has a suite of other interventions, such as Saturday school and summer school, and more targeted interventions for specific needs – for example, an advanced educational technology tool that was originally designed for students with learning disabilities has been integrated into the regular classroom and is wildly popular with students.
Perhaps most surprisingly, students on IEPs generally do not need additional accommodations during the Academies because of the mix of small class size, excellent teaching, and highly targeted standards. As one teacher said, “In my classroom I have to really teach a variety of learners who have many different needs while still very consciously keeping my expectations of them very high regardless of any disabilities that they may have or outside variables that are interfering with their learning."
For one of the principals we interviewed, it had not occurred to her that students didn't need special accommodations during the Academies until we asked the question – leading her to wonder if there might be a larger lesson to learn about how the regular classroom is structured. "I guess sometimes accommodations can kind of be a crutch for a student...We don't accommodate during the week that they're here. We kind of meet them where they're at and move forward."
The Acceleration Academies are timed to coincide with state testing. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) is given twice a year. The English Language Arts test is typically given at the end of February, on the heels of the February Academies, and the Math test is typically given in May, following the April Academies.
While all of the students know that the tests are coming, students in grades 3-8 did not seem preoccupied by this fact during the Academies.
Teachers seemed more aware of the tests, though their primary goal was more oriented toward ensuring that every student in their class met the standards. In any case, it didn’t seem to cramp their teaching style. “Just because we’re trying to get them to do better on a test doesn’t mean we’re only going to be doing worksheets…we are trying to teach them in a different and more engaging way,”said one teacher. Another told us, "It’s not constant practice tests. We’re doing critical thinking activities. We’re doing conversations, simulating an assessment, like a narrative task, but doing that in creative ways."
Most of the school leaders we interviewed did not consider testing the first order of business in the Academies; instead, we witnessed what we interpreted as an unrelenting focus on helping students grow, and a sense of urgency about helping young people master the standards through highly engaging learning experiences. As one middle school principal told us: “If it’s test prep, I’m not interested in being here. Test prep doesn’t teach kids. It’s so isolated and kids wouldn’t want to come [to the Academies]. I mean, it does prepare kids…by making them think in higher order ways…but there’s just no drill and kill.”
In a parent focus group at one particular school, parents reported that their children felt extremely stressed about the upcoming state tests, but it seemed that the stress was attached not to the Academies, but rather to the fact that the students would be taking a new, more demanding exam.
At the high schools in Lawrence, the tests are a more present and immediate concern. On our visit to the High School Learning Center (HLC), a small alternative school in the system, we learned that the students enrolled there are attending the Academies so that they can pass the MCAS and graduate. They also receive two credits toward completion of their diploma. Despite this more instrumental approach to the Academies, the students at HLC seemed genuinely appreciative of a more enriched learning environment.
A Lasting Impact
Parents, teachers and the students themselves told us that the Academies have a lasting impact. Many finish the week with a sense of accomplishment, knowing that they persisted through long days and gained knowledge and skills that they can use when they return to their regular classroom. With this often comes increased confidence, as students see that they are capable of learning and overcoming academic challenges. Some students even give presentations about what they learned in the Academies in their regular classrooms, enabling teachers to see some of their students in a different light and sparking in fellow students a desire to attend the Academies in the future.