ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Five Levers to Improve Student Learning

Educators constantly look for new tools and programs to stimulate and motivate learners, enhance student performance, or change the role of the teacher. Recent trends include flipped teaching, red-shirting (postponing kindergarten entrance so that a child is one year older than his peers), merit pay, year-round school, and a longer school day.

Which strategies or innovations are likely to have the greatest effect on student learning? According to Tony Frontier, assistant professor of doctoral leadership studies at Cardinal Stritch University, most education innovations and policies can be placed in one of five categories, some of which provide more powerful leverage than others. Frontier presented these ideas during his ASCD 2012 Conference on Teaching and Learning session, "Five Levers to Improve Student Learning."

The categories, or levers, are

  • Sample
  • Strategy
  • Standard
  • Structure
  • Self

Sample changes include identifying students who need additional rigor, additional support, or to be grouped with students who have similar academic needs. Unfortunately, Frontier says that research tells us that "placing students with similar profiles in the same place does not lead to improved learning."

Strategies are the plans or methods used to help students learn. To understand strategy, Frontier suggests educators think about how teachers are similar to doctors. Doctors assess one's current health problem, and then, using their wealth of medical knowledge, they choose the best medicine, procedure, or treatment for each patient. Teachers also assess students to determine their education needs. Goals are set for the student (ideally, teachers and students work together to plan and record goals). Just as the doctor draws on a wealth of medical knowledge, the teacher draws on training and education, including a broad range of instructional strategies, teaching methods, and tools. From these, they choose the most effective strategy to improve student learning.

A large part of strategy includes assessments to determine the child's specific strengths and weaknesses. According to Frontier, "A balance of assessment tools gives teachers the greatest leverage for improving student performance." Frontier cautions educators to understand that using a greater number of strategies does not mean increased or enhanced learning.

Standards are the expectation levels we have for students. Sometimes schools or teachers struggle to meet the standards that were set for them. Student learning does not improve, or there's little or no improvement in student achievement. In this case, it is tempting to lower the standard to achieve success. Instead, Frontier suggests breaking the standards into "manageable chunks for teaching and learning."

Structural changes include things like creating a new report card, changing the calendar to year-round school, or charter schools. But changing the structure does not always lead to improved learning for students.

Self is the set of beliefs that teachers and students have about their capacity to learn or be effective. It is important that teachers maintain high levels of optimism and expectations. Studies show that students perform better when they believe in themselves, and when they believe that their teachers believe in them. Teachers should use a developmental approach to create a positive, "you can do it" classroom atmosphere. Developmental thinking includes believing that

  • All students are capable of high achievement.
  • With consistent effort, you will be successful.
  • Mistakes are opportunities to learn.

Students who believe that teachers are on their side and want to help them will perform better in the classroom.

The most popular types of changes policymakers offer are structural: class size, revised report cards, block scheduling, or small schools. But remodeling the kitchen does not make food taste better. Structural changes will lead to success only if reform includes building in capacity for standards, strategies, and self.

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