One of the most mocked terms the education reform movement has come up with is “deeper learning.” It reminds me of my high school days, when we would sarcastically fill a silence with, “Whoa, that’s deep,” after a classmate’s incomprehensible statement. When you ask a proponent of “deeper learning” what it means, you get a jargon-filled earful about collaboration, project-based learning, self-directed learning, problem solving, critical thinking and communication. At high schools that are practicing it, you hear about small classes, caring advisers, student work that can be shown off in a portfolio and the opportunity for students to do internships in the real world. To the lay person, it seems like a kitchen sink of good educational practices. Many high schools in America claim to do these same things.
So it caught my attention when a reputable research outfit, the American Institutes for Research (AIR), published a follow-up study in March 2016, finding for a second time that students who attend high schools that have adopted the “deeper learning” label are far more likely to graduate in four years than students who attend traditional high schools.
“We were very surprised that we were having significant findings, because a lot of things that deeper learning is founded upon are really common,” said Kristina Zeiser, lead researcher of the study. “What makes it so special? There has to be something, because it’s consistently showing these positive results.”
There are 10 networks of “deeper learning” high schools across the country, with more than 500 high schools participating in these support groups. Some are charter schools. Others are regular public high schools. Their curricula vary a lot. Some cater to immigrants, some use a lot of technology and still others emphasize getting out of the classroom. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation finances these “deeper learning” networks, and also funds the AIR studies, to see if their high school experiment is working. (The Hewlett Foundation and AIR are among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.)
In the study, Zeiser and her colleagues focused on 14 high schools in California and New York City, singled out by network leaders for being good implementers of “deeper learning” practices. Instead of making a simple comparison of graduation rates at schools that practice and don’t practice “deeper learning,” the researchers attempted to figure out how each student would have fared if he hadn’t gone to the “deeper learning” school, but to an otherwise similar school nearby. So each “deeper learning” student was matched on paper with another high school student with similar ethnicity, family income, educational background and middle school grades. The “doppelganger” student attended a nearby high school with similar demographic and income characteristics. Finally, they compared the high school graduation rates of the two matched students. They did this for every student from the class of 2011 through the class of 2014.
The researchers found that the “deeper learning” students, on average, were considerably more likely to graduate from high school in four years, by 8 percentage points. That was only slightly less than the 9 percentage point advantage for “deeper learning” schools found in the original study, published in 2014, that calculated four-year graduation rates through the class of 2013.
But, in a disappointment, the researchers also found that “deeper learning” is working much better for higher-income students than for lower-income students. Low-income students, defined as those who qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, had only a 5 percentage-point increase in graduation rates from attending a “deeper learning” school. Higher income students, who don’t qualify for the lunch program, experienced a 13 percentage-point advantage with “deeper learning”.
“That was the finding I almost lost sleep over,” said Zeiser. “The more disadvantaged kids are not being helped as much, but at least we’re still seeing positive effects. They’re not being harmed.”
The detrimental effects of poverty are stubborn. Similar rich-poor divides commonly crop up in educational research.*
Some researchers may also take issue with the entire study’s design. Since students actively signed up for “deeper learning” schools and weren’t randomly assigned to them, it’s possible that better students who were more motivated chose to go to these schools, and they would have graduated in higher numbers even if they had attended regular high schools. The researchers had hoped to minimize this problem by controlling for prior academic achievement, and only comparing students with the same middle school records, but it’s not perfect.
And one could argue that high school graduation rates are the wrong thing to study. What we really want to know is whether students who graduate from a “deeper learning” school learned more, and succeeded in college and their future careers. Are they doing better in college, taking fewer remedial courses, and eventually earning college degrees in higher numbers? Unfortunately researchers may never get access to these students’ college transcripts, but they do plan to study college graduation rates in future years.
In the meantime, if the high school graduation rates impress you, it’s hard to say exactly which of the many and varied “deeper learning” teaching practices are driving them. Zeiser is scheduled to present her findings to teachers this week and said she doesn’t have concrete advice to share with them. “More research is needed on what is going on in the classrooms in these schools that are creating great student outcomes,” she said.
In other words, our understanding of deeper learning remains quite shallow.
*An earlier version of this article mischaracterized research on Gates Foundation-funded early college high schools. They were found to be more effective for low-income students, the opposite of what AIR found for “deeper learning” schools.