Student Achievement

How One City Is Working to Make Learning Count Outside of School

By Marva Hinton — June 17, 2016 4 min read
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What can be done to help students receive academic credit for learning that takes place primarily outside of the classroom?

That was the question researchers at the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy sought to answer through a study of organizations providing expanded learning opportunities in the Boston area.

They defined expanded learning opportunities as those that “complement and/or expand upon traditional classroom instruction and may occur during or after the school day,” and also noted that these programs tend to, “involve adults other than the primary teachers of record, such as community partners.”

In a policy brief published last month called, “Beyond School Walls: Earning Credit for Expanded Learning Opportunities,” the researchers examined the work of Boston After School & Beyond, a nonprofit that links public and private partners in the Boston area to provide students with opportunities to learn outside of the traditional classroom setting. Boston After School and Beyond provided financial support for their work. The researchers specifically were interested in the group’s efforts to support the creation of a formal system for students to receive academic credit for this type of learning.

“What we’ve seen is that students tend to work really hard in these expanded learning opportunities because this is something that they are deeply invested in, and it’s something that’s very personal for them,” said Nina Culbertson, the Rennie Center’s senior research associate. “When they earn credit for that, they are much more engaged in learning in general.”

She says these programs can also lead students to a career path they hadn’t considered previously. As an example, she cited Harvard Medical School’s MEDscience program, which provides students with academic credit.

“That program has done an evaluation of their work, and they have found that many of the students who engage in this expanded learning opportunity end up going on to science with college degrees or careers,” said Culbertson. “That is something that we were not expecting. We were not expecting that this one semester-long experience could really change their path.”

Culbertson and her team studied 12 organizations that partnered with Boston After School & Beyond in 2014-15 as part of the group’s Expanded Learning Opportunities for Teens initiative.

They found that the size of the Boston school district made it more difficult for these organizations to get systems in place that would support students earning academic credit.

“The biggest barrier was actually getting course codes from the central office to receive credit,” said Culbertson. “Schools were on board, working with their partners awarding credit for whatever programs their students were in, but then they didn’t have a course code that aligned with the work the student was doing.”

In some cases, that resulted in students being awarded credit in an unrelated subject area. Culbertson said this would be an easier process in a smaller district, but in a large district such as Boston, more centralized leadership is required.

“There needs to be clear communication that this is important and with that developing a streamlined process for aligning the work with academic frameworks, developing the course codes, and then having the school leaders understand what it takes to implement,” said Culbertson.

She added that this is not something that can happen overnight because there are so many moving parts and recommends that community-based organizations and schools need to give each other time to work out a process.

The study also found that some organizations ended up deciding not to offer academic credit. In some cases, it was due to problems identifying the appropriate course code, but in others, organizations simply decided to take another path.

For example, the PENSOLE-LEAD Leaders Emerge After Direction program was one of the 12 that decided not to offer academic credit. The two-week summer program is directed by a former NIKE executive and allows students to design a sneaker and then develop plans to produce and market it. The program culminates with the students presenting their plans to potential employers.

“The program knows that it’s really engaging students, but it ultimately decided that it wasn’t right for it to offer credit,” said Culbertson. “That’s an example of a really great program that just couldn’t lend its own capacity to working with the school district.”

Culbertson said that’s a significant barrier to these organizations working with schools to offer credit. Some programs simply don’t have the resources needed to coordinate with the district on such a big endeavor.

The policy brief recommends more cooperation from the state level down to individual schools and community-based groups providing expanded learning opportunities in order to support this effort.

Photo: Students examine a “patient” as part of Harvard Medical School’s MEDscience program. (Courtesy Harvard Medical School MEDscience)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.