Skip to main content

Student-Centered Schools: Closing the Opportunity Gap

By Diane Friedlaender Dion Burns Heather Lewis-Charp Channa Cook-Harvey Xinhua Zheng Linda Darling-Hammond

Student-centered practices emphasize personalization; high expectations; hands-on and group learning experiences; teaching of 21st-century skills; performance-based assessments; opportunities for educators to reflect on their practice and develop their craft; and shared leadership among teachers, staff, administrators, and parents. These practices are more often found in schools that serve affluent and middle-class students than in schools that primarily serve students from lower-income backgrounds. Schools that incorporate these key features of student-centered practices are more likely to develop students who have transferable academic skills and feel a sense of purpose and connection to school, as well as graduate, attend, and persist in college at rates that exceed their district and state averages.

Utilizing case studies conducted in four schools in Northern California—schools in which traditionally underserved students are achieving above state and district averages—researchers offer a cross-case analysis that provides evidence of the positive impact of student-centered learning.

The following schools were selected for the analysis:

Through interviews, observations, and teacher and student survey data, the study unpacks the components of student-centered practices and their incorporation into schools with students typically underserved by the educational system. Despite their different approaches, the four schools have many characteristics in common. A defining characteristic of each study school is a strong school vision that includes an unrelenting belief that every student has the potential to achieve high academic standards and attend college. To support this vision, each school incorporates positive relationship-building; rigorous, relevant, and engaging instruction and assessment; academic supports; and shared leadership and professional development into their school structure.

The study also addresses the policy changes that are essential to student-centered schools, including those related to funding, human capital, and implementation. Transforming schools requires adequate funding to attract and retain high-quality staff and provide a rich set of curriculum experiences for students inside and beyond the school. It also requires federal and state governments to support innovative schools more and mandate less; transform their assessment systems to support deeper learning; and develop systemic learning opportunities among educators, schools, districts, and other agencies. This is no small task, but the practices of the schools in this study and the contexts surrounding them shed light on the types of teaching and policy support needed to achieve these goals.


Posted with permission, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.