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The Civil Rights Road to Deeper Learning: Five Essentials for Equity

By Kia Darling-Hammond Linda Darling-Hammond
The Civil Rights Road to Deeper Learning book cover art

This concise and compelling book outlines the key civil rights conditions that are essential to deeper learning—the skills and knowledge that students need to succeed in 21st-century jobs and life. It describes schools that enable young people, including those traditionally furthest from opportunity, to develop into caring and critical problem solvers, effective communicators, collaborators, and scholars. The book also describes the community and school inequities that have created persistent obstacles to these goals and the civil rights actions that have been and continue to be needed to remove them. These include policies and practices that ensure safe and healthy communities, equitable investments in public schools, supports for competent teachers, strategies for welcoming and nurturing school climates, and innovative curricula.

The authors examine the civil-rights–based pathways that lead to these goals, highlighting examples of exemplary schools that offer the kind of deeper learning that engages and empowers students. This successor to Linda Darling-Hammond’s Grawemeyer Award–winner, The Flat World and Education, is a big-picture view of what constitutes deeper learning―where it is found and what enables it―and what must be done to address the learning needs of all children.

Students need and deserve to be educated under the conditions that make rich learning possible - at the foundation are safe and healthy communities in which they find well-resourced, inclusive, and affirming schools; competent, caring teachers; and a high-quality curriculum. Access to such opportunities, however, remains inequitable.

From the time Southern states made it illegal to teach enslaved people to read, through the 19th century and into the 21st, racially and ethnically minoritized students have faced both de facto and de jure exclusion from the nation’s public schools.

This book describes key civil rights foundations that have been—and continue to be—essential to paving a path toward possibilities for deeper learning.

The laws that codify racial segregation have been eradicated but the practices continue today, which is why you get refineries, chemical plants and landfills disproportionately in communities of color. There have been four decades of studies documenting that it’s not land values or property values—the most potent variable is race. It’s the driver of who gets pollution and who doesn’t.
Robert Bullard

At the foundation of the civil rights road to deeper learning is a safe and healthy community, both within and beyond school grounds. Simply put, children cannot learn effectively when they are stressed, traumatized, sick, or hungry. Yet environmental inequalities are severe and widespread. People of color, particularly Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities, are disproportionately exposed to toxic stress associated with high rates of poverty, food insecurity, housing insecurity, and proximity to toxic facilities (directly related to higher rates of cancer, asthma, and other physical illnesses). The legacy of redlining and the living conditions of people of color in low-income communities all affect their children’s health and ability to learn.

Healthy Environment

In our current context, so-called “achievement gaps” begin early and widen over time. This is the result of significant opportunity gaps in multiple areas of children’s lives. These gaps begin with unsafe living conditions. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law documented the effects on learning of environmental factors such as lead poisoning, iron-deficiency anemia, asthma, substandard pediatric care, housing instability, and neighborhood dangers—all amplified by the aftereffects of redlining. One major study that documented environmental inequalities, including the siting of toxic facilities in low-income communities of color, estimated that the side effects of these hazards account for as much as half of the performance differential between students living in Los Angeles neighborhoods.

Bethany Dumanois, who has taught in Flint for 25 years, works two jobs to keep teaching because she said she cannot abandon children whose discolored, rash-covered skin and chunks of exposed scalp haunt her. In the earlier days of the crisis, she spent class time addressing questions from her students about whether they would die from the water like their class lizard did.

The Flint, Michigan lead water poisoning scandal, caused by the decision of a state-appointed city manager to save money by changing the city’s water supply, is just one of many examples of how environmental assaults have required legal recourse. Civil rights litigation was needed—first to stop the poisoning of the water in this predominantly Black community, then to require medical redress for the lead poisoning thousands of children experienced, and then to insist on the special education supports more than 1 in 4 children needed. These lawsuits made possible the opening of a center offering neuropsychological screening for all children who had been exposed to lead as well as investments in special education services and preschool. But they could not correct the shortages of teachers caused by the combination of inadequate funding and low salaries in the under-resourced school system.

Safe Community

In addition to direct health threats, redlined communities often lack grocery stores, banks, pharmacies, and nearby employment opportunities. The stresses of high unemployment, underinvestment, abuse, and stigma can lead to crime and violence and compound to become what is referred to as toxic stress. Toxic stress occurs when stress exposure is frequent or prolonged, dysregulating the body’s stress response systems and impacting every other body system. This leads to greater risks of infection and a variety of other health issues, ranging from pulmonary disease to cancer and more. The disruption can also create challenges in brain development, learning, and behavior. As just one example, researchers have found that neighborhood violence is associated with decreases in math and reading achievement, while an increase in perceived safety is associated with corresponding increases in student scores. Trauma and anxiety deflect focus, impeding concentration and the learning process.

Although trauma occurs in every community, poverty and racism, both together and separately, make the experience of chronic stress and adversity more likely. Furthermore, in schools where students encounter punitive discipline tactics rather than support for handling adversity, their stress is magnified. Research on human development shows that the effects of such trauma can be mitigated when students learn in a positive school climate that offers long-term, secure relationships that support academic, physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development—an approach known as “whole child” education.

Housing and Food Security

In addition to direct health threats, previously redlined communities often lack essential services and employment opportunities. The fallout from living in these marginalized communities can be psychological and physical trauma—a growing risk as childhood poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity in the United States have continued to rise to the highest rates of any industrialized country in the world, affecting approximately 1 in 5 children. In addition, 34 million children (46% of those under 18) endure adverse childhood experiences each year, as they are exposed to violence, crime, abuse, homelessness, hunger, or loss of family members.

These experiences can create toxic stress that affects children’s attention, learning, and behavior.

During the No Child Left Behind Era, from 2002 until 2015, these extensive health risks and other harms to children were unacknowledged by a federal policy system whose only answer to evidence of struggling learners was a set of punitive accountability sanctions that blamed educators for low performance and responded to low test scores by firing teachers and closing public schools in high-need neighborhoods.

Social safety net benefits that should mitigate issues such as unstable housing, hunger, neighborhood violence, and additional challenges associated with precarity are frequently under attack. The fight to secure, protect, and advance these services is not new.

During the 1960s, Johnson era policies cut the child poverty rate in half. Together with major investments in education for low-income children through the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act and large allocations of aid during the 1970s for school desegregation, teacher recruitment, curriculum improvement, summer programs, and more, the achievement gap between White and Black students was decreased by more than half by the 1980s.

However, nearly all these programs were eliminated or sharply reduced during the Reagan administration, and the federal education budget was cut in half. The administration cut housing subsidies, food stamps, Pell Grants, student loans, and unemployment compensation. Children were cut off from food benefits, including three million who lost school lunch, one million who lost food stamps, and 500,000 who were cut from school breakfast programs. Approximately 750,000 children lost Medicaid benefits, and more than 300,000 families lost access to public housing. Hunger and homelessness rose dramatically. Achievement for Black and Hispanic students declined, and the achievement gap grew as childhood poverty increased and educational investments shrank. The gap remains now, over 30 years later, 30% greater than it was in 1988.

In 1965, Arthur Wise published an article challenging the constitutionality of school finance schemes that produce radically disparate per-pupil expenditures within states. Arguing that such unequal spending leads to unequal educational opportunities, he suggested that this might constitute a denial by the state of equal protection under the law. A number of lawsuits were filed on these grounds, and the first major success occurred in 1973…
The Civil Rights Road to Deeper Learning, p33-34

Adequate and Equitable School Funding

Public schools in the United States are among the most inequitably funded of any in the industrialized world, and since the nation’s beginning, racial disparities and unequal access have gone hand in hand. 

Because education is a state responsibility outlined in each state constitution, litigation to address inequalities has occurred in virtually every state at some time over the past 50 years. Following litigation, those states that have substantially equalized their funding systems have seen dramatic improvements in learning and achievement. For example, Massachusetts climbed to the number 1 rank in student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the 1990s after it enacted school funding reforms that added money for students in poverty, English learners, and those identified for special education—coupled with investments in new standards, assessments, extensive teacher training, and preschool for students from low-income families.

Many of the cases leading up to the famous desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, focused on these gaping inequalities in funding, but ultimately, it was the decision to focus on the harms of segregation that helped move the Brown case to victory. Despite Brown, both unequal resources and high levels of racial and economic segregation persist. According to the Education Law Center’s most recent analysis, the highest-spending state funds its schools at three times the rate of the bottom-spending state, and inequalities within states are widespread. Only nine states have “progressive” funding systems that allocate at least 10% more per- pupil funding to high-poverty districts than to low-poverty districts. Others offer little support to meet students’ needs, and at least 20 states spend less on high-poverty districts than on low-poverty districts.

Funding disparities are not limited to state spending: Within districts, schools serving children from low-income families and students of color often get fewer resources than those serving more affluent students. This is particularly true of the growing number of intensely segregated schools—those serving more than 90% students of color who are also from low-income families—which are often severely under-resourced and struggling to close academic gaps while underwriting the additional services needed to address hunger, homelessness, and other traumas experienced by children and families in chronically underserved communities. With larger class sizes and fewer counselors, nurses, and support providers, these schools also feature a revolving door of underprepared teachers whose lack of training and high attrition rates depress students’ achievement levels further.

Racially and Economically Integrated Schools

Segregation and poverty go hand in hand, with a growing number of schools serving concentrations of low-income students, more that 90% of whom are students of color (“apartheid schools”). In most states, these schools receive less funding than those serving more advantaged students. According to the Education Law Center’s most recent analysis, only nine states have “progressive” funding systems that allocate at least 10% more per-pupil funding to high-poverty districts than to low-poverty districts. Others offer little support to meet these students’ needs, and at least 20 states spend between 3% and 32% less on high-poverty districts.

Apartheid schools simultaneously labor to close academic gaps while underwriting the additional costs of chronic underinvestment: hunger, homelessness, and other traumas experienced by children and families. With larger class sizes and fewer counselors, nurses, and support providers, these schools also feature a revolving door of underprepared teachers whose lack of training and high attrition rates depress students’ achievement levels further.

Research has shown significant benefits from court-ordered desegregation. Over a 40-year span, the most comprehensive national study to date found that students of color achieved more and graduated at higher rates when they learned in desegregated schools; and the longer they were in these schools, the greater the associated gains. Desegregated settings have also been found to promote critical elements of deeper learning. A synthesis of 4 decades of research found that the academic benefits of attending diverse schools include not only higher achievement in math, science, language, and reading and higher graduation and college-going rates, but also enhanced social and historical thinking, critical problem-solving skills, collaboration, and intergroup relationships. 

I dropped out of school—actually they kicked me out because I didn’t want to give them my hat. It was real zero tolerance! I was expelled for defiance for putting a hat in my backpack instead of giving it to them. And I had had bad experiences since preschool so it was easy for me to be like '[Forget] this.' As a teenager, I was thinking, 'You don’t care about us anyway. You just get paid checks per student in a seat.'
Darius Robinson (pseudonym)

Inclusive Classrooms

Children learn best when they feel safe and supported, and their learning is impaired when they are fearful, anxious, or traumatized. The ability to take intellectual risks and experience struggle in the process of deeper learning is built on a foundation of affirmation, mastery experiences, psychological safety, and a sense of belonging. From the community to the classroom, children’s developmental contexts matter a great deal.

Cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development are intertwined, which means that threats to one threaten the others. A synthesis of research on the educational implications of the science of learning and development confirms that:

  • Learning is social, emotional, and academic. Relationships and environments matter profoundly. When they are positive and trusting, they open the mind to learning. When they are negative and threatening, they dampen the brain’s processing power. A child’s best performance occurs under conditions of high support and low threat.
  • Adversity affects learning—and the way schools respond matters. A child suffering from excess stress may experience anxiety, depression, lack of focus, and difficulty with memory and executive functioning. Schools can help to relieve these challenges or may reinforce them. Implicit bias, stereotyping, punitive discipline, and exclusion, all of which disproportionately affect marginalized students, become additional sources of trauma for children who are already suffering. On the other hand, caring adults and wraparound supports can be sources of resilience and healing. Warm, consistent, and attuned adults support positive brain development, even buffering children against other sources of adversity.

Wraparound Supports

In a school designed for whole child equity, such as a full-service community school, students have access to nutritious food, health care, and social supports; strong relationships; educative and restorative disciplinary practices; and deeper learning opportunities that are designed to activate and engage them while supporting their motivation and self-confidence to persevere and succeed. Such resources are especially important when students are grappling with poverty and toxic stress.

Designing for overall well-being makes it possible for children to learn in deep, meaningful, and lasting ways. Community schools offer a purposeful design and an evidence-based approach to advance whole-child education by offering integrated supports for physical and mental health, as well as social services of many kinds; expanded and enriched learning time before and after school and in the summer, as well as community connections to project-based work in the classroom; family and community engagement through home visits, parent–student–teacher conferencing, and regular communication with classroom teachers or advisors; and collaborative leadership and practices that engage staff, families, and community organizations in a common understanding of child development that guides joint efforts. Together, these features have been found to support stronger attendance, achievement, and attainment in high need communities.

Restorative Practices

One particularly problematic practice is the use of exclusionary discipline that removes students from the classroom through punishments such as suspensions and expulsions. This practice increased dramatically in the United States as a result of zero-tolerance policies that use such approaches even for the most minor offenses, including nonviolent “misbehavior,” such as tardiness, talking, texting, sleeping in class, or failing to follow instructions, with little consideration of the context and underlying causes of these behaviors. Research has found that suspensions—which are significantly higher for students of color and students with disabilities—lead to disengagement, academic losses, higher dropout rates, and a school-to-prison pipeline.

Restorative practices have proved successful in making schools safer without suspensions, reaping benefits for student achievement and graduation rates in the process. Urged by the Office for Civil Rights as an alternative to school exclusions, these practices “proactively build healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing. ”Restorative practices create caring school relationships by infusing SEL and community-building activities into the school day through community circles and other processes for sharing events and feelings and by enabling access to supports when they are needed. In addition, they allow students to reflect on their behavior and make amends when needed to preserve the health of the community, drawing them closer rather than pushing them away.

Restorative Practices at Bronxdale High School

Bronxdale High School is an inclusion high school serving 445 students, about one quarter of whom are students with disabilities, in a low-income community of color in New York City. The once chaotic site is now a safe, caring, and collaborative community in which staff, students, and families have voice, agency, and responsibility and from which students are graduating and going on to college at rates higher than their peers across the city. At Bronxdale, community building—accomplished through SEL work in advisories, student-designed classroom constitutions, and affirmative supports in all classrooms—is integral to the school’s successful restorative approach.

Rather than using a behavior management system to keep the school and students under control, Bronxdale’s approach creates a safe, respectful environment through a youth development strategy that helps students develop pro-social ways of responding to the stresses and tensions that affect them in their daily lives—skills that will serve them well in forging successful, productive, and satisfying lives going forward. The approach is both educative (creating positive norms and teaching useful strategies) and restorative (able to repair harms).

As Principal Carolyne Quintana noted, restorative practices have value only when there is something to restore, and that something is “the community, relationships, and harmony.” As one student commented, “We’re connected. Students and teachers care about you.” Still another stated, “Every student in this school has at least one relationship with a teacher.” Much of the foundational work is done in advisory classes, which are led by teachers and other professional staff and supported by student leaders in the school, who receive training to do so. By creating spaces for students to share feelings and make their coping strategies explicit, advisories allow community members to share knowledge and skills to support each other.

The approach includes teaching social-emotional and conflict resolution skills, enabling responsibility, and implementing restorative and empowering practices such as peer mediation, circles, and youth court. A student explained that at Bronxdale, “You get a chance to fix what you did. They don’t suspend you.” Another remarked, “Here we learn about consequences. In other schools, we would get punished for everything.” At the core of Bronxdale’s conception of the restorative approach are the staff’s positive beliefs about and their faith in the fundamental worthiness of students.

School leaders note that, although kids sometimes have problems, they are not themselves the problem. The principal’s goal is to help staff shift to the idea that “kids do what they can. If they can’t, it’s because they don’t know how.” By helping students understand that they can choose their responses and can think in new ways, which gives them more choices, the staff support students in imagining, learning, and adopting pro-social behaviors. The outcome is a school in which students take care of each other and are prepared to handle difficulties, both by using the strategies they have learned and by seeking out assistance from others.

Source: Adapted from Ancess, J., Rogers, B., Duncan Grand, D., & Darling- Hammond, L. (2019). Teaching the way students learn best: Lessons from Bronxdale High School. Learning Policy Institute.

As this example from Bronxdale High School illustrates, restorative practices also support deeper learning as students learn to reflect on their feelings and actions, develop empathy and interpersonal skills, and engage in increasingly sophisticated problem-solving within their school community. Such environments can motivate students to come to school. Once they get there, it is critically important that they experience thoughtful and effective teaching in every classroom, another challenge in many schools.

The experience of [high-performing] school systems suggests that three things matter most: 1) getting the right people to become teachers; 2) developing them into effective instructors; and 3) ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.
Michael Barber and Mona Mourshed

In classrooms in which deeper learning is the goal, meaningful academic content is paired with engaging, experiential, and collaborative learning experiences. Such teaching requires a much more extensive repertoire of skills and practices than teaching for superficial coverage of content. In addition, teaching complex skills to students with diverse learning needs requires well-informed judgments about what and how different students are learning, how gaps in their understanding can be addressed, what experiences will allow them to connect what they know to what they need to know, and what instructional adaptations will be needed to ensure that they can reach common goals.

These sophisticated pedagogies are typically the product of high-quality teacher preparation rooted in knowledge about child development and learning as they unfold in cultural contexts. But teachers who have been prepared to teach in these ways—demonstrated by Ted Pollen at Midtown West—are both scarce and inequitably distributed, limiting these kinds of deeper learning experiences largely to students in affluent communities that can pay higher salaries while providing smaller classes and better working conditions. Indeed, the ability of under-resourced schools to attract and retain teachers like Ted has relied, in substantial part, on civil rights litigation over a number of years.

Competent Educators

Across the country, in nearly every state, teachers in schools serving large concentrations of students of color and students from low-income families are typically less qualified, and in times of recurring teacher shortages, large numbers of individuals are allowed to enter these schools on emergency permits without the necessary training to provide quality instruction. Data from the most recent Civil Rights Data Collection show that schools serving the largest number of students of color employ four times as many uncertified teachers and nearly twice as many inexperienced teachers as those serving the fewest. These data are used to inform both federal investigations of equitable access and state actions.

In addition, the “comparability” provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) are aimed at ensuring that students from low-income families are not taught by more inexperienced, out-of-field, or ineffective teachers than those in more affluent schools within the same district. ESSA also requires each state to develop an Equity Plan explaining how it will create more equitable access to teachers who are fully prepared and credentialed. However, these provisions are rarely enforced, and more leverage is needed to ensure that all students experience teachers who are prepared to teach equitably and effectively.

Culturally Responsive Instruction

To create equity within schools, even when they have been adequately resourced, students of color must be treated with the respect and care that support positive whole-child development. Even with a Supreme Court mandate, desegregation has not been without costs. As Khiara Bridges notes:

"For Black children, desegregation meant being plucked out of all-Black environments that, while underfunded relative to their counterparts, were supportive and nurturing. Instead of learning in friendly and warm Black schools, Black children were being placed into unfriendly and unwelcoming White spaces [and] when Black students were sent to White schools, the predominantly Black schools that they previously had attended usually were closed. Black teachers, administrators, and principals—folks who had dedicated their lives to educating black children—lost their jobs and their livelihoods."

The imbalance created by losing so many Black educators supporting Black students in safe spaces has often undermined learning for children who need culturally sustaining experiences. In today’s context, efforts to improve schools that students of color attend must include the equalization of resources, the humanization of the school environment, and a robustly culturally competent and sustaining teacher workforce.

When students can engage in culturally relevant learning that allows them to critically examine their experiences and cultural histories, meaningful benefits accrue. Studies in California have found significant academic gains for White, Black, Latinx, and Asian students taking ethnic studies courses, including large gains in attendance, grades, credits earned, graduation rates, and college enrollment. A study of participation in Mexican American studies courses in Arizona found similarly positive outcomes for achievement and graduation.

Stable Workforce

The ability to develop teachers like Ted Pollen also depends on high-quality and affordable preparation programs that enable teachers to learn the sophisticated skills of teaching challenging content to students who learn in different ways and come from different contexts.

In high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore, a coherent set of policies supporting teacher recruitment, preparation, compensation, and ongoing development creates an infrastructure that enables teaching in support of deeper learning and equity to become the norm.Most now provide high-quality, graduate-level teacher education designed to ensure that teachers can effectively educate all of their students. Preparation is free for entrants, often with a salary or living stipend, and includes a year of practice teaching in a clinical school connected to the university, much like a teaching hospital. Schools are designed and funded to provide coaching and joint planning time for beginners as well as veterans. Salaries are competitive with other professions and are higher in hard-to-staff locations. Similar policies are needed in the United States, where progress could be modeled on the federal government’s long-standing support in medicine, which includes subsidies for medical training to fill shortages and to build teaching hospitals and training programs in high- need areas.

Deeper learning has historically been the province of the advantaged—those who could afford to send their children to the best private schools and to live in the most desirable school districts. Research on both inequality across schools and tracking within schools has suggested that students in more affluent schools and top tracks are given the kind of problem-solving education that befits the future managerial class, whereas students in lower tracks and higher-poverty schools are given the kind of rule-following tasks that mirror much of factory and other working-class work. To the degree that race mirrors class, these inequalities in access to deeper learning are shortchanging Black and Latino/a students.
Jal Mehta

Deeper Learning

To successfully navigate the global and technologically mediated world in which we now live, young people need to be prepared to engage intellectually, in addition to developing interpersonal and technical skills. They need deeper learning competencies, which The Hewlett Foundation outlines as:

  1. mastering core academic content,
  2. thinking critically and solving complex problems,
  3. communicating effectively,
  4. working collaboratively,
  5. learning how to learn, and
  6. developing academic mindsets.

In the United States, the inquiry-based “thinking curriculum” that supports deeper learning has been rationed to relatively few students and made especially inaccessible to students of color, who are often segregated in schools and tracks that offer a lower-level curriculum and are underrepresented in Gifted and Talented programs and advanced courses in which deeper learning practices are more likely to be found. And with accountability systems organized around low-level, multiple-choice tests that strongly influence curriculum, far fewer U.S. students ever encounter the kinds of deeper learning opportunities students in high-achieving countries typically experience.

Access to a deeper learning curriculum should begin with access to quality preschool when children are developing their initial brain architectures as they explore, inquire, communicate, and play. High-quality preschool teaching cultivates these deeper learning abilities, along with social-emotional skills, so that they transfer into approaches to learning in later schooling and life, securing substantial academic and life benefits. However, fewer than half of children from low-income families have access to this kind of early learning experience, and even fewer have access to a deeper learning curriculum when they reach school age.

Building on these early experiences, research has found that elementary and secondary schools that successfully support deeper learning for students of color and those from low-income communities engage in a number of common practices, including authentic instruction and assessment (e.g., project-based and collaborative learning, performance-based assessment, and connections to relevant topics related to student identities and the world beyond school); personalized supports (e.g., advisory systems, differentiated instruction, and social and emotional learning and skill building); and ongoing educator learning through collaboration, shared leadership, and regular professional development.

Authentic Assessment

The American Institutes for Research found that across a set of 13 deeper learning–focused schools, students achieved higher scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test and were more likely to graduate high school in 4 years, to enroll in 4-year colleges, and to attend more selective colleges. Importantly, the accomplishments were achieved regardless of whether participating students entered high school with low or high levels of prior achievement.

The study documented that in settings where students succeed, they engage in mastery learning experiences through which they:

  • explore meaningful questions,
  • conduct inquiries together,
  • present and vet their answers to one another, and;
  • continue to revise their findings and products until they deeply understand the concepts.

By revising their work, students learn that they can become competent by applying purposeful effort, and they develop cognitive strategies that they can transfer to future work. As students take agency in the learning process, they come to understand both how they learn and what they care about. They develop a growth mindset and the motivation to continue to identify questions and pursue deeper learning about matters they care about, including pathways to college and careers.

The following example of Life Academy, one of more than 600 Linked Learning Academies in California, illustrates how rigorous academics can be combined with career-based learning and real-world workplace experiences in ways that eliminate the often raced and classed divide between academic and vocational tracks. All students are prepared for both college and careers. The schools are connected to industry partners and have relationships with organizations that provide internships and other learning opportunities to students, while also participating in the evaluation of authentic student work.

Linked Learning in Action

Life Academy of Health and Bioscience is a small public high school in Oakland Unified School District that prepares its students to become future professionals within the biological sciences. The school offers all students college and career preparation coursework through inquiry-based pedagogy, health and science career internships, a 4-year advisory program, multiple performance-based exhibitions that include an interdisciplinary senior exhibition, and a wide array of “post-session” classes driven by students’ interests at the end of the year.

Opened in 2001, Life Academy was designed based on research about effective, small learning communities. Explicitly focused on disrupting patterns of inequality that affect its students, the school serves students from diverse backgrounds. Ninety-nine percent of its families qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 30% are English learners, and about half of students’ parents did not complete high school.

All students select one of the school’s three career pathways—medicine, health, or biotechnology—and take college preparatory courses and complete an internship aligned with that pathway. To support these internships, the school has developed relationships with partners, including several local hospitals. Hallmark instructional elements of the school include an emphasis on cross-disciplinary projects and public demonstration of mastery. The culminating work for students is the senior research paper, a yearlong and multistage assignment. Each student researches a question that emerges out of an internship experience. To answer the question, each student conducts a literature review, interviews an expert, writes a paper, and presents and defends findings to a panel that includes faculty, students, and family or community members.

The school had a 100% graduation rate in 2020–21 and has had the highest acceptance rate into the state university system of any high school in Oakland, with students going to schools like the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles as well as Stanford and Smith College. When asked what high school experiences have contributed to their college readiness, more than 90% of Life Academy students list relationships with teachers and advisors, workplace internships, and aspects of the way they are encouraged to work on their projects and demonstrate mastery, such as “explaining my thinking,” “testing or trying out my ideas to see if they worked,” “evaluating myself on my class work,” “participating in peer review of work,” and “having to revise my work until it meets standards of proficiency.” These practices are part of a performance-based, mastery-oriented, relationship-supported approach to learning that can create success for all students.

Sources: Darling-Hammond, L., Friedlaender, D., & Snyder, J. (2014). Student-centered schools: Policy supports for closing the opportunity gap. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education; Richardson, N., & Feldman, J. (2014). Student-centered learning: Life Academy of Health and Bioscience. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education; Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. (2014). Student-centered learning: How four schools are closing the opportunity gap. Printed with permission:

Group of students collaborating on a project.
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

In Ted Pollen’s 4th-grade classroom at Midtown West School in New York City, a racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse group of 27 students is deeply engaged in a mathematics inquiry focused on understanding the concepts of range, mean, median, and mode. Some are seated around tables, while others are in pairs or trios on the rug in the classroom meeting area. While some teachers might introduce the terms with definitions and rules for calculating them and give students a worksheet of problems to fill out, Ted’s class has been conducting a study that provides them with the data they are now analyzing. Earlier in the week, they measured and recorded the height of everyone in their classroom and all the children in one of the kindergarten classrooms who are their “reading buddies.” Each then figured out how to display the data distributions with bar graphs they constructed individually so as to be able to figure out the range, mean, median, and mode for each class and compare them. Working in teams, they use manipulatives and calculators as they advise one another about what to do.

Ted—an African American teacher who is a graduate of and now mentor teacher for Bank Street College—moves unobtrusively among groups, occasionally asking questions to help move students (and his two student teachers) to the next level of understanding. He chooses questions carefully to extend students’ thinking at the edge of their zones of proximal development. Ted says to one group, “Think about your design. What’s the best way of displaying the data so you can make an actual comparison?” To another, he says, “Can someone give me the range for kindergarten? Our range? Are there any outliers?” This led the group to realize that despite little overlap between the two groups, there were a few relatively short 4th-graders and one very tall kindergartner. A student said proudly, pointing to that data point, “That’s my reading buddy!”

In yet another group, Ted observes to one of the boys, “You’re having the same problem that she’s having,” pointing to a tablemate to encourage the two of them to work together. They begin counting and calculating to solve the problem jointly. Ted never gives away the answer, but he assists the problem-solving process with questions that carefully scaffold student understanding. In their groups, students engage in vigorous debates about the answers, explaining their reasoning to one another, re-counting their data, marshaling evidence, and demonstrating their solutions in different ways. Ted does not attempt to adjudicate the disputes. He allows the groups to work through their problems until they reach the answer.

Ted watches over an autistic student working with a one-on-one aide. The student sings to herself while she progresses through her work. In the hubbub of the classroom, her singing is not a distraction to the others, as they all focus intently on finding solutions to this highly motivating puzzle. Every student has made significant progress in developing a deep understanding of these key statistical concepts that often elude students much older than them.

After about 45 minutes of in-depth mathematics work, Ted asks the students to “keep all of your data together in your math folder” to come back to tomorrow. As everyone cleans up their work and puts their folders away, Ted quietly sings an African song while he sets up snacks. Ted’s singing shifts to English: “In everything we do and everything we say, you and I are making history today.” This signals to students that what they do matters and is important. It is also a reminder of the historical references Ted has placed all around the students, with a timeline hanging from a line across the ceiling holding cards that record events in chronological order.

Around the hardworking groups of children, student work covers the walls: A classroom constitution that was collectively developed and signed by each student and teacher is displayed, along with a “Problem Parking Lot” with stickies listing various problems and questions the class has agreed to return to. On the back shelves, one set of tubs offers manipulatives for mathematics. Another set of tubs includes books labeled by type, all connected to current topics of study: authors who have been studied by the class each merit a tub, as do African American biographies, other biographies, books about slavery, Ted’s favorite books, and more. Handmade globes hang from the ceiling, and the rug in front of the whiteboard is a frequently consulted map of the world.

Also on the walls are many posters with tips about areas of the students’ work. One summarizes the rules for “Book Club.” Another asks, “What is figurative language?” The poster defines what most would think of as high school terms: simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification, alliteration, onomatopoeia, idiom, allusion, and oxymoron, offering concrete examples of each.

School Supports Make It Possible

Invisible in this moment are the school supports that make this productive hubbub possible: free breakfasts for all children; free transportation for children who live in temporary housing; a Family Center that offers workshops, cultural connections, and family support services; extended after-school time and services; biannual student–family– teacher conferences; and a set of children’s rights that includes the following: “I have a right to be happy and to be treated with compassion in this school.” “I have a right to be myself in this school. This means that no one will treat me unfairly.” And “I have the right to be safe in this school.” Community building and conflict resolution are explicit schoolwide efforts. Although the school is overcrowded, it is welcoming in every respect.

Source: Adapted from Darling-Hammond, L., & Oakes, J., with Wojcikiewicz, S. K., Hyler, M. E., Guha, R., Podolsky, A., Kini, T., Cook-Harvey, C. M., Mercer, C. J., & Harrell, A. (2019). Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning. Harvard Education Press.

Two high school students working on a science project.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Across the country from Midtown West Elementary School, a 9th- and 10th-grade biology class at San Francisco International High School (SFIHS) focuses on a central question: “Should soda have a tax?” The group of 25 students, roughly divided between 9th- and 10th-graders, includes several students who have been in the United States for 6 months or less. In this high school designed for newcomers, even the class veterans have been in the United States for less than two years.

SFIHS is one of 30 U.S. schools in the Internationals Network for Public Schools, an organization that designs and runs public school programs for refugee and immigrant multilingual learners in collaboration with school districts across the county.

As in other project-based learning environments, instruction for this heterogeneous class connects learning principles (here, in biology) to real-world issues (nutrition and policy). The veteran teacher, Patricia, has built into her lesson extensive scaffolds designed to meet students at their English language acquisition, content knowledge, and skill development levels. She moves through the classroom engaging individual students, small groups of students, and the whole class.

She intentionally leverages the assets that her students have brought to the classroom, particularly their native language fluency. The core question is written in English and the five other languages spoken by students in the class to give them an immediate starting point for engaging with the content questions. She also employs other techniques that allow students to use their native languages to support themselves and one another in engaging with the rigorous content. For example, throughout the classroom, students use Google Translate to translate words from Spanish, Arabic, and other languages. In contrast to classrooms in which students’ native languages are minimized or seen through a deficit lens, students leverage their home languages to make meaning of complex grade-level academic content. With students from multiple linguistic backgrounds, English is the common language and the language of formal academic discourse, yet English is not positioned as the only valuable language. The assets-based classroom environment makes students comfortable taking risks to speak, read, and write in English, but they also use their native languages as a valuable tool to be harnessed and developed.

Patricia also takes steps to make instruction and content accessible and to further students’ vocabulary and writing development. For example, she prominently displays visuals from earlier lessons that students have labeled, and she has research articles and documents readily available so that students can access them throughout the inquiry process. In addition, each portion of the lesson is carefully chunked into discrete sections to allow students to understand the content and to apply their emerging English skills. For instance, students examine pictures relevant to the soda tax debate and connect those pictures with academic English words they have learned in previous lessons (e.g., “glucose”). One chunked exercise includes the following stages:

Each student chooses one picture and labels it in English with scientific terms that have previously been taught.

In small groups, students discuss the pictures using English:

  • What did other people write?
  • What did it make you think?

Next, using the labeled pictures from their groups, students individually write “a complex sentence” in English that can be used in their final essays. In doing so, students need to use the English words “but,” “because,” or “so,” e.g., “When you don’t eat, the glucose decreases because your body uses the energy.”

During the lesson, the teacher moves throughout the room meeting individually with students to make sure can successfully engage with the language and content. She also draws on the board, points to visual scaffolds arrayed on the walls, and gestures as if playing charades, all to make her meaning clearer. She has developed a series of sounds that the students associate with an action (e.g., an action that encourages students to look at their peers who are speaking or an action that encourages students to use sentence starters that are on the walls). This simple yet effective method for providing reminders and tools seems to help ease the cognitive load for her students, who are doing far more than the typical native English speaker would be doing in such a class. She repeatedly reminds her students of her expectations for participation and reinforces participation and structural routines to keep students engaged.

Eventually, students build from these smaller tasks to craft thesis statements and ultimately write persuasive essays in English that support their position on the value of soda taxes. While the development of academic English related to the content is clearly scaffolded through these steps, Patricia also focuses on science, engaging the students on both the biology and chemistry around sugary drinks’ effect on humans and the social science behind their impact on communities. Over the course of multiple weeks, students develop the content knowledge and the English literacy skills needed to engage orally and in writing on the topic in sophisticated ways.

This instructional approach does not occur by happenstance; it is an intentional approach supported by a web of mutually reinforcing school design features.

For instance, the Internationals Network deliberately uses mixed-age, heterogeneous classes to support students’ language, academic, and sociocultural development. Mixed-age grouping, which pairs 9th- and 10th-graders or 11th- and 12th-graders, recognizes that students are multidimensional and are not at the same level for all areas of knowledge, including life experience, content knowledge, and different language modalities. In addition, this heterogeneous structure allows students with more developed language and academic skills to support novice peers. This practice is particularly valuable for new students who are recent arrivals to the United States. In the 9th- and 10th-grade class described earlier, two 9th-graders had arrived in the United States and at the school just a few days before that observation. The teacher had intentionally grouped those students with 10th-graders who spoke their native languages (in this case, Spanish and Arabic) and who could act as mentors and provide academic, language, sociocultural, and emotional support to the newcomers.

In the 9th and 10th grades, these mixed-age classes also loop, or stay with the same set of interdisciplinary teachers, for 2 years, enabling the development of strong relationships between students and teachers. This continuity also generates academic benefits, as teachers can use their knowledge of students’ strengths and struggles to meet their academic and linguistic needs over a longer period of time. Each student is also part of an advisory group that loops for 2 years, meeting several times a week; the advisor is the point person and advocate for the student and family, operating advisory classes that provide a family environment for academic, social, and emotional learning and support. Overall, the structures of mixed-age grouping and looping allow Internationals to support students in deeper learning while scaffolding their academic and linguistic development.

In addition to advisories, SFIHS provides extensive supports for students. Internationals have dedicated staff (e.g., social workers, counselors) who work closely with teachers and students to provide academic and social–emotional supports. School staff also provide access to services and programs as part of typical day-to-day school operations. For instance, schools have devised age-appropriate approaches to providing students with meals so that little public attention is called to their needs. At SFIHS, there are before- and after-school clubs where full meals are included, as a significant number of students eat all of their meals at school. The schools also have strategies to address a number of other issues that immigrant youth face, including tackling mental health challenges, providing education and support regarding immigration rights, and offering assistance to access food stamps, health care, and other social services; housing; part-time employment; and college. Taken together, each of the design features articulated above combine to create a strong web of support so students can learn and grow.

Source: Adapted from Roc, M., Ross, P., & Hernández, L. E. (2019). Internationals Network for Public Schools: A deeper learning approach to supporting English learners (pp. 1–2, 11–12, 23). Learning Policy Institute.