December 18, 2023
Spotlight: Our Education Program
Helping Principals and Teachers Connect Academic Rigor and Learning Conditions
The Fry Foundation Education program invests in efforts that help Chicago Public Schools’ principals and teachers improve academic achievement for all students. Foundation staff stays current on education research and policy as well as the innovative and promising work of educators in the field. We monitor the alignment between research, policy opportunities, and educational practice. And we stay up-to-date on the education opportunities and challenges in Chicago – the nation’s third largest school district. Most recently, we are looking closely at the promising connections between classroom learning conditions, rigorous learning, and improving academic outcomes.
Chicago Public Schools is well into the school year and it seems that its pandemic recovery efforts have led to some positive academic outcomes.
CPS has made the most growth in students meeting or exceeding expectations on state assessments for grades 3-8 since 2016.
Further, Grade 3-8 performance in English Language Arts (ELA) is nearly on par with pre-pandemic levels, with 26% of students achieving proficiency. The CPS graduation rate reached a new historic high of 84%, and CPS enrollment has stabilized at 323,300. This is all very good news.
However, math scores have not returned to pre-pandemic levels and CPS still faces significant racial disparities. For example, more than 50% of White and Asian students in grades 3-8 were proficient on the state exam, compared to only 15% of Black and Latinx students. While CPS data illustrates some promise, it is far from satisfactory, particularly for students of color.
Improving student achievement and closing racial opportunity gaps have been major priorities for schools in Chicago and nationwide. To achieve this, schools have focused on increasing student access to rigorous learning. Over the last twenty years, Chicago Public Schools has adopted Common Core State Standards, trained principals to recognize high-rigor tasks versus low-rigor tasks, implemented teacher evaluation protocols that consider the rigor of tasks, and invested in a universal curriculum called Skyline aimed at ensuring that all students have access to rigorous learning tasks. Despite these efforts, most students are still not performing at grade-level standards, and racial disparities persist.
New research is providing important clues into why increasing rigor has not resulted in the expected improvements in academic performance. While increasing access to rigorous content and instruction is essential, students also must be supported in order to ensure strong engagement with their learning to see positive outcomes. A rigorous curriculum, standards, and tests are not enough if students are not participating in class and being supported to engage in the learning opportunities that teachers prepare. In fact, as coursework becomes more rigorous, it demands more effort and investment from students if they are to be successful. But academic rigor without appropriate support can lead to students feeling frustrated and disengaged – having the opposite effect than intended. Studies have consistently found that about half of the students in high school are bored and disengaged. The challenge for schools is to increase academic rigor while building higher levels of student engagement.
Promising strategies for increasing student engagement in rigorous tasks are emerging. In the past, it was often assumed that students brought their motivation and engagement to class and that teachers and classrooms did not have a significant role in shaping students’ motivation and engagement. However, mounting evidence has shown that specific learning conditions can significantly impact students' experience in their classrooms in ways that positively shape their well-being, performance in school, and longer-run outcomes. Through a synthesis of research, scholars at Stanford University and the University of Chicago have identified six primary and three supplemental classroom learning conditions that are most closely tied to student engagement and positive academic outcomes:
- Affirming Identities: students feel more connected to and motivated in classes that recognize and affirm their backgrounds and identities.
- Classroom Community: Students feel safe to engage when the classroom environment encourages a sense of belonging and community.
- Feedback for Growth: Students learn more effectively when teachers communicate high expectations, recognize progress, and offer supportive feedback.
- Meaningful Work: Students are more motivated to learn when the work in class feels interesting and relevant to them.
- Student Voice: Students take ownership of their learning when they have choices, share their ideas, and feel heard.
- Teacher Caring: Students engage more deeply in their work when they feel their teacher likes and cares about them.
- Learning Goals: Students learn more effectively when it is clear to them what they are supposed to be learning and how it fits into the big ideas of that subject area.
- Supportive Teaching: Students learn more effectively and are more likely to feel valued when their teachers provide them with the instructional support to be successful.
- Well-Organized Class: Students learn more effectively and are more motivated when the teacher develops routines and systems that contribute to the smooth functioning of the classroom.
These learning conditions are not groundbreaking or surprising. Educators have been talking about these conditions for decades. Many educators nurture these conditions in their classrooms already. However, what this new research suggests is that these conditions are not just nice to have; these learning conditions actually increase student academic success by improving their experiences in school and increasing their engagement with rigorous learning. A 2019 study found that, looking at students across two of their core classes, students reported more motivation and earned higher semester grades in the classrooms with stronger learning conditions.
And principals and teachers now have access to student surveys that reliably measure the presence of these nine learning conditions. Recent studies based on these surveys offer compelling evidence that positive learning conditions can increase student engagement with rigorous learning and improve academic outcomes. A 2019 study found that students who experienced positive learning conditions were 30% more likely to earn an A or B in that class, and the benefits were even more pronounced for students of color. A 2022 study found that students who rated learning conditions most positively were more than two times as likely to earn a B or better in math.
With a clearer understanding of the learning conditions that support academic engagement and new tools to measure these conditions, there are now new opportunities to help more educators better engage students in rigorous learning. By implementing student experience surveys, educators can gain valuable insights into how students perceive their classroom experiences, which can help identify areas that need improvement and enable them to take action to improve the student experience. And, educators can actually collaborate with students to improve the learning experience. This is especially important because research shows that there is often a significant gap between educators' intentions and students' experiences. Educators may not realize their students have negative or inequitable experiences.
CPS is paying close attention to this emerging research. CPS’s leadership has stated that it prioritizes both student access to rigorous learning and positive learning conditions in schools and classrooms. CPS considers this dual focus a natural progression of its recent efforts to enhance the rigor of student learning. To that end, CPS adopted the Cultivate Survey, a student experience survey that reliably measures learning conditions based on student experience. CPS began administering the survey to grades 5 to 12 last year. Principals and teacher leaders have received initial reports about learning conditions in their schools. They also received professional learning that provided an initial introduction to the concepts behind learning conditions and how to read and interpret survey results. Professional Learning around Cultivate continues this year with a focus on understanding survey data and how this data can be used to improve the student learning experience.
While CPS's initial steps seem promising, for CPS's focus on learning conditions to have a meaningful impact on student learning, much work is required. Principals and teachers will need support as they learn more about how to identify and develop positive classroom learning conditions and improve engagement in rigorous learning. Fry Foundation grantee partners such as the Network for College Success and the National Equity Project, are already helping some CPS schools use student experience data to improve learning conditions and instructional practices.
The Fry Foundation will continue to be a curious partner in Chicago’s education community. We will look to support and test new ideas and approaches – like connecting classroom learning conditions to rigorous learning – that have the potential to improve the learning experience for all CPS students.
For more reading on this topic please refer to the following sources:
Do classroom environments matter for noncognitive aspects of student performance and students’ course grades? Farrington, C. & Porter, S. C., Klugman, J. (2019). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
Investing in adolescents: High school climate and organizational context shape student development and educational attainment. Porter, S. C., Jackson, C. K., Easton, J., & Kiguel, S. (2023). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
How can schools support academic success while fostering healthy social and emotional development? Gripshover, S. & Paunesku, D. (2019). PERTS, Stanford University
School effects on socio-emotional development, school-based arrests, and educational attainment. Jackson, C.K., Porter, S.C., & Easton, J., Blanchard, A., & Kiguel, S. (2020). American Economic Review: Insights, 2: 491 - 508.
Supporting social, emotional, & academic development: Research implications for educators. Allensworth, E.M., Farrington, C.A., Gordon, M.F., Johnson, D.W., Klein, K., McDaniel, B., & Nagaoka, J. (2018). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. The
Who benefits from attending effective schools? Examining heterogeneity in high school impacts. Jackson, C.K., Porter, S.C., Easton, J., & Kiguel, S. (forthcoming 2023). Journal for Labor Economics.