Monday, February 6, 2012

New Hampshire: Making high school learning more meaningful via Expanded Learning Opportunities

President Obama's recent State of the Union address has unleashed a Pandora's box of questions related to the proposal for all states to raise their upper compulsory school age to 18. Many ask: Will simply requiring students to be in school have a meaningful effect? While there is some research suggesting that requiring students to stay in school until they are older has positive impacts, common sense also cries out that students need to feel that what they are learning in school has real implications for their post-high school educational and career directions.

An evaluation published last year suggests that a pilot New Hampshire voluntary program may be a template for other states to consider if they want more students to stay in high school AND feel their high school experience is preparing them for the world after graduation. Conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts' Donahue Institute, the study (executive summary here) found that while challenges existed, there were numerous positive outcomes for students participating in Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO), which allows students to earn high school credit via a variety of out-of-school learning experiences. (And perhaps it should be stated first that more than 1 in 3 of ELO participants "met one or more of the criteria for an underserved learner".)

While ELOs held students to rigorous expectations:
  • Most students believed they learned more from their ELO than they would have through a traditional classroom experience. Faculty surveys also indicated that ELOs sparked students' academic interests.
  • ELOs positively impacted "students’ awareness of skills they will need for the future, self-confidence, work readiness, and clarity about interests and goals"
  • Students and teachers concurred that students in ELOs "became deeply knowledgeable about a specific topic area and learned new skills through their ELO, and that students were able to explain what they learned through the experience"
  • Community partners (for example, a business at which a student completed an apprenticeship) were highly pleased with the ELO experience, with virtually all (98%) "indicating that their organization would consider leading another ELO."

However, the evaluation was of just four pilot high schools in the state. Meanwhile, some have pointed out that New Hampshire is not like many places in the U.S. Could ELOs work in a large urban district? In a larger state? What else (if anything) needs to be in place to transfer New Hampshire's success to jurisdictions serving larger numbers of English language learners, or low-income students?

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