Project-based learning is weak on learning

Santa Ana fifth-graders built popsicle-stick rafts after reading Gary Paulsen's book, "Hatchet." Photo: Louis Freedberg/EdSource Today

Santa Ana (CA) fifth-graders built popsicle-stick rafts after reading Gary Paulsen’s book, Hatchet, about a boy stranded in the wilderness. Photo: Louis Freedberg/EdSource Today

Would-be paradigm shifters are excited about project-based learning (PBL), but it’s often heavy on doing and light on learning, argues Gisèle Huff, executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation. “Whatever knowledge students may actually acquire seems incidental and not clearly assessed.

In addition, PBL “is not nearly as personalized as its adherents would have us believe,” writes Huff. When students work in groups, often with “little tracking of individual performance, some students naturally coast on the work of others.”

. . .  In Most Likely to Succeed, a film focused on the largely PBL-based High Tech High, one of the two main students takes over a project that he has obsessed over and then fails to complete it in time. Somewhere along the line, the classmates who were once part of his group disappear. They seemingly abdicated their roles, and it is not clear how they benefited from the experience or how they were able to demonstrate their achievements in order to be assessed. The featured student himself doesn’t even master the knowledge and skills critical to the project!

“PBL may work well for kids in boutique school settings” with highly qualified teachers, writes Huff. “But it offers scant hope of solving education problems on the scale that America needs.”

Getting Smart’s Tom Vander Ark, who’s It’s a Project-Based World, is a big PBL fan. He thinks “personalized project-based learning” will “build on ramps to the new economy.”

If students spent five hours every school day engaged in high quality project-based learning, they would put in more than 10,000 hours from kindergarten to graduation – they just might become an expert project manager.

He advocates Gold Standard PBL, which means students choose “challenging real-world problems” that “require demanding demonstration of key concepts and high quality public products after critique and revision.”

I think Huff would ask: How often can schools pull that off?

25 years of charters: They’re not alike

In Charter schools at 25, Education Week looks at what’s changed since Minnesota passed the first law authorizing publicly funded, privately operated charter schools.

One story looks at two very different charter schools. St. Paul’s teacher-led Avalon School draws middle-class, white students interested in project-based learning. Alliance for College Ready Schools in Los Angeles focus on preparing lower-income Latino and black students to be the first in their families to go to college.

Some observers inside and outside the sector contend they have wandered far from their original purpose: to be schools of innovation and serve as a research and development sector for traditional K-12 schools. In many ways, Minnesota still embodies some of the early ideas, while cities such as Los Angeles represent what the charter movement has become: an engine powered by muscular foundations for raising the prospects of low-income African-American and Latino students.

“Raising the prospects” of kids who most need a decent education seems like a good goal to me. If project-based learning isn’t the most effective method for doing that — or black and Latino parents prefer a more structured, orderly school — why is that a problem?

 Nationwide, 5 percent of K-12 students attend charters, but in 14 cities, 30 percent or more have chosen charters.
Harvest Schools in Minneapolis are designed for African-American and East African students. Photo: Minneapolis Post

Harvest Schools in Minneapolis are designed for African-American and East African students.

Blacks make up 28 percent of charter students, nearly double their percentage in traditional public schools, according to an Ed Week analysis of federal data. Twenty-nine percent of charter students are Latino, compared to 25 percent at traditional schools. Whites are under-represented at charters.

Critics also claim all-minority charters — chosen by parents — are “resegregating” education.

Minnesota allows charters targeted to African-American, Native American, Somali and Hmong students, reports Ed Week. Some worry the schools aren’t diverse.

For example, Minneapolis’ Harvest Network of Schools enrolls low-income African-American and East African students, placing some in single-gender programs. The curriculum is “steeped in African history and culture.”

Obviously, some parents prefer Harvest’s focus to what’s offered at their more integrated (but probably low-income, high-minority) neighborhood school.

From project-based learning to college 


San Diego’s High Tech High is designed to give students and work groups flexibility for study and collaboration.

A small, nurturing high school with lots of project-based learning sounds like an education utopia. But does it prepare students for college? Hechinger’s Andra Cernavskis looks at High Tech High, a San Diego charter lauded by the new documentary, Most Likely to Succeed.

SAN DIEGO — During her junior year of high school, Grace Shefcik wrote and directed a play about the Lavender Scare, the time during the Cold War in the 1950s when gay and lesbian people lived in fear of prosecution. . . .

Like most high school juniors, Shefcik and her classmates were studying American History. Unlike most students, however, they did not read a text and then take a test; their English and History instructors for the semester had groups of students research a subject, write it as a play, and then, as a class, produce the three top picks.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Shefcik encountered lectures, textbooks, essays and exams.

“Assignments are most engaging when it’s something I relate back to,” Shefcik says. “The play was something I was really passionate about. It was something I got constant feedback and support on over the year. In college, you don’t get the feedback or see the paper again unless you go back the next quarter and ask for the final paper back, but that’s unheard of.”

“I didn’t really learn study habits at High Tech High,” Shefcik says. “We definitely did testing, but it wasn’t emphasized as important as it is here. Learning how much time I should be studying or even how to study was difficult in my first quarter.”

Mara Jacobs, a High Tech High graduate who’s now at Cornell, “had a harder time transitioning than other students,” she says. “I couldn’t just do the work if I wasn’t bought into how I was being taught.”

Ninth grade students organize nuts and bolts after their end-of-the-year showcase in which they flew their school-made drones for parents and visitors. Photo: Andra Cernavskis

Ninth grade students organize nuts and bolts after their end-of-the-year showcase in which they flew their school-made drones for parents and visitors. Photo: Andra Cernavskis

Two-thirds of the school’s graduates enroll in four-year colleges and universities and the rest in community colleges. Because of college costs, nearly all end up at large, public institutions.

More than 70 percent of High Tech High graduates from all five schools in the network have earned a degree or are still in college, according to school administrators. That compares to 39.9 percent of 18- to 24-year olds who were enrolled in degree-granting programs nationally in 2014, writes Cernavskis.

Most students make the transition. Shefcik organized study groups, made the dean’s list and chose a cognitive science major.

I don’t think it’s just a question of project-based learning. Small schools that concentrate on engaging students need to prepare their graduates for a world that’s not always engaging.

Charter group: Close low-performing school

A low-performing charter school with university affiliations should be closed, says the California Charter Schools Association. The charter group believes in accountability.

West Sacramento Early College Prep, which is run by University of California at Davis, Sacramento City College and the Washington Unified School District, is one of the worst-performing schools in the statereports the Sacramento Bee

 “I think the school is doing a great job,” said Harold Levine, president of the school’s board and dean of the UC Davis Education School. “I think we are doing what the state of California is asking us to do: develop college-ready kids.”

All students in the first graduating class of 32 went on to university, community college, trade school or the U.S. Marines.

The school serves students in sixth through 12th grade. Many come from low-income families and have emotional problems, according to Levine.  

Levine says students at the school don’t fare well on the state’s standardized tests, known as STAR tests, because they aren’t aligned to “the way we want them to think.” He said the school adopted project-based learning in 2008 that is more closely aligned with the new Common Core State Standards curriculum that California students will begin to be tested for in 2014.

The dean noted that California students are no longer taking STAR tests. He questioned why the charter association is using an “outmoded” measure to decide if a school is performing well academically.

“If anything, the CCSA should look to us and work with us to see what useful reforms can come to California,” Levine said.

The school rates as a 1 out of 10 — the lowest level — compared to schools with similar demographics.

The best and the brightest have no freakin’ idea what they’re doing, responds Darren, who teaches math at a Sacramento high school. But they know how to make excuses.

I’m told that Common Core will boost students’ academic thinking beyond mere regurgitation of facts, that they’ll understand the material on a deeper level. If this school is teaching its students to operate that way, wouldn’t those students perform even better on the STAR tests, which supposedly ask for only a cursory, fill-in-the-blank-style understanding?

I’m no fan of the Common Core standards or of the effort to use them to impose so-called discovery learning or any other educational fad on us, but even CC supporters must concede that using CC standards to excuse and explain low performance is a harsh indictment indeed.

If this school is the best UC Davis eggheads can come up with, “how much confidence should we taxpayers have in that university’s school of education?” asks Darren.

Small schools that recruit disadvantaged students often boost graduation and college enrollment rates by paying attention to students. (Community colleges take anyone and some four-year schools are almost as open.) It’s much harder to raise achievement levels.

I can’t understand my child’s teacher

At back-to-school night for her fifth-grader, Dahlia Lithwick felt like a dummy, she writes in Slate. She couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying.

The evening passed in a blur of acronyms, test names, and emendations to last year’s system. Which I also didn’t understand. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I understood significantly less at this open house than I did at my sons’ open house during a sabbatical last year, when it took place overseas and in a foreign language.

Public education has been overwhelmed by jargon, she writes. There are more acronyms — MAP and SOL and EAPE—than words.

Even if we can all agree about the singular benefits of “project-based learning across the curriculum,” I am less than perfectly certain any of us knows what it means.

Her child’s school is now “un-levelling,” parents were told. And soon it will be “fitnessgram testing.”

I checked with friends this morning to find out if I was alone in my sense that I had fallen asleep in the late 1990s and woken to a world in which I have no idea what schools even do anymore. My friend Stephanie advised me that her back to school night involved a discussion with a teacher about “interfacing with a child’s developmental space,” as well as a reference to “scaffolding text to text connections” in Ramona the Pest. My friend Laurel was told by her child’s teachers that “the children will be required to work in groups in this class, as collaboration is a 21st-century skill.”

Lithwick plans to use an education jargon generator to prep for her first teacher conference, she writes.

I tried the jargon generator. “We will generate child-centered interfaces within the core curriculum,” it suggested. “We will expedite meaning-centered paradigms across the curricular areas.” It sounds perfectly plausible. “We will aggregate interdisciplinary enrichment through cognitive disequilibrium.” Indeed.

Good teachers, low value-added scores

At a very high-achieving Brooklyn elementary school, the fifth-grade teachers posted low value-added scores, writes Michael Winerip in the New York Times. They’re a talented, hard-working group, says the principal. So what happened?

Though 89 percent of P.S. 146 fifth graders were rated proficient in math in 2009, the year before, as fourth graders, 97 percent were rated as proficient. This resulted in the worst thing that can happen to a teacher in America today: negative value was added.

The difference between 89 percent and 97 percent proficiency at P.S. 146 is the result of three children scoring a 2 out of 4 instead of a 3 out of 4.

. . . In New York City, fourth-grade test results can determine where a child will go to middle school. Fifth-grade scores have never mattered much, so teachers have been free to focus on project-based learning.

If Winerip’s theory is correct, all of New York City’s fifth-grade teachers should have low value-added scores. Or perhaps there’d be an effect only in schools with students who care about getting into a good middle school.

Update: Winerip provides an example of creative teaching:

Using the new curriculum, children work in groups to solve real-life problems. On Friday, each group spent an hour developing a system to calculate who ate more — eight students sharing seven submarine sandwiches; five students sharing four; or four sharing three. Each child developed his own solution, and the group decided which way was best.

. . . This week, students will advance from dividing sandwiches to comparing fractions with different denominators, to calculating least common denominators.

In another fifth-grade class, students have spent weeks writing research papers on the Mayans. Students might score higher, Winerip suggests, if they drilled on writing essays for tests: Write a topic sentence, three sentences that support the thesis with examples from literature, current events and personal experience and a concluding sentence.

I spent my entire high school career writing topic sentences supported by subtopic sentences supported by three “concrete and specific” details. And I wrote a report on the Mayans in sixth grade. Writing research papers and learning to support a thesis with examples are not incompatible.

If Winerip is correct about the numbers — if it’s possible for 89 percent of students to score proficient and the teachers to look like losers — then the value-added system is not reliable.

Teaching skills without content

“Emma Bryant” (a pseudonym) teaches at a New Tech public high school — one of 62 in 14 states — devoted to “21st-century skills.” Knowledge? Not so much, she writes on the Common Core blog.

We practice project based learning, utilize the latest technology, and hold to a mission of helping our students acquire “21st century skills.”

Innovation, collaboration and critical thinking are stressed, leaving little time for literature, history, poetry, music or theater.  The theory is that “most content, after all, can be Googled.”

Roughly once a month we present students with a new project which must result in a “product.” According to our model the more “real world” the product, the better. Real world, meaning the product mirrors what could reasonably be demanded in a corporate setting — from a redesigned company logo and slogan to a promotional video or a press release.

Students work in small teams to complete projects, with each team member receiving the same grade at the end. After all, it’s not about what individual students learn but the final product. Students are assessed on a handful of learning outcomes — collaboration, communication, innovation, work ethic, technological literacy, information literacy and content. Content usually makes up between 15 and 30 percent of a student’s grade.

In a 21st century classroom, “content is a shopping list of rubric indicators to be applied to the product.”

For example, students might work a quote from a short story into a reworded company slogan. Or perhaps they might work with Photoshop to create a company logo depicting an event from European history. They might write a press release in the style of a founding American document or create a user’s manual for a product using a particular rhetorical device mentioned in our state’s English Language Arts standards.

Teachers don’t teach content directly. Students are supposed to learn in teams or on their own with little or no direction from the teacher.

Dialogue, questions, critical thinking, and debate surrounding content are low on the list of things you will see in a 21st century classroom. And so students end up with convoluted ideas about history, a cursory understanding of and appreciation for literature, and a shaky foundation in math and science.

Also see Critical Thinking: More Than Words? in Ed Week’s Leader Talk.

School of the Future flounders

Philadelphia’s high-tech School of the Future (SOF), designed with help from Microsoft, was supposed to revolutionize education, writes Meris Stansbury on eSchool News. So far, we’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work very well. (I had doubts when the school opened in 2006.)

It would teach at-risk students critical 21st-century skills needed for college and the work force by emphasizing project-based learning, technology, and community involvement.

. . . From alternative school hours to laptops for every student, from a customizable school portal to campus-wide wireless access, and from a panel to design 21st-century curriculum to a new teacher hiring model, the SOF was thought to be a sure winner.

The school went through four principals in three years. Union contracts made it hard to hire teachers who were a good fit for the school.

Teachers received little training on how to use the technology to foster learning. Students had trouble using the laptops and worried they’d be stolen if they brought them home.

Although the technology itself was not supposed to trump basic classroom practices, Microsoft and the school’s planners had decided not to allow the use of textbooks or printed materials; instead, all resources were located online through a portal designed by Microsoft.

Yet educators frequently encountered problems accessing the internet, because the school’s wireless connection often would not work.

Just like Windows Vista, writes Lorri Giovinco-Harte at NY Education Examiner.

In a panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Drew University Professor Patrick McGuinn found problems at every level.

“There is no clear definition of what project-based learning exactly is and how that can be step-by-step implemented in the classroom. Student remediation also didn’t fit with the project-based collaboration model.”

He added: “These teachers and administrators had to fly a plane while they were building it.”

Over time, the School of the Future adopted the district’s curriculum and assessments; it began to look a lot like schools of the present. However, school leaders are trying to learn from the early mistakes — they hired a tech support person! — and clarify the mission. We’ll have to see what the future holds for the School of the Future.

Update: Thirty-five years ago, Philadelphia’s school of the future was William Penn High, a “showpiece packed with amenities, including a television studio, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and a dance studio,” reports the Inquirer.  Now a wreck operating at less than 20 percent of capacity, the low-scoring school will be closed for two years for rebuilding. And, one hopes, rethinking.