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Tips for Using Rigor, Relevance and Relationships to Improve Student Achievement (page 2)

By — American Association of School Administrators
Updated on Feb 17, 2011

Vital Relationships

While we have heard for some time the call for rigor and relevance, now education leaders are adding the third R for relationships. Schools across the country are realizing that rigor and relevance develop most naturally when they are cultivated on firm grounding in relationships.

Creating an appropriate environment for learning begins with establishing ground rules that include many of the aspects of quality teaching, such as respect, responsibility, honesty, civility and tolerance. Only after these values are established with students in the classroom can real learning based on the other two essential R’s, rigor and relevance, begin to accelerate.

Relationships do not become a new standard or replace rigor and relevance. They are a way to improve learning. The recent work of the International Center has examined some of the most successful high schools in the country — schools that have the challenges of poverty, mobility and diversity but still have high rates of student success.

In these schools, relationships among students and staff are deliberately nurtured and a key reason for student success. Students believe the staff genuinely cares about them and encourages them to achieve at high levels. If there is not a high level of positive relationships, students will not respond to higher expectations.

In business magazines’ published lists of the “best companies to work for,” the recognized businesses usually offer something beyond financial stability to employees — a pleasing and compelling environment and a supportive atmosphere. Employees generally are encouraged to be innovative and feel connected to the goals, mission and values of the organization. These are important factors to consider as we work to close the academic achievement gap.

Many school improvement agendas focus on a new instructional strategy or curriculum, but the work to bring all students to high achievement levels is more complex than that. It involves establishing the right culture to grow the minds of students and to enrich the involvement and innovation of school leaders and staff.

Reaching out to one student at a time is the underlying principle at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence, R.I. Every student’s individual learning plan is a personal and academic summary of interests, strengths and needs. This personalized curriculum, along with a strong coaching model, provides the impetus for high engagement and achievement.

There are no teachers at The Met, only “advisers” who meet with students daily and follow their assigned cohorts over four years of high school. The adviser redefines the role of teacher into something much closer to a personal trainer or mentor. A personal learning plan for each student is developed by a learning team, which consists of the student, adviser, parent/guardian and internship mentor. Student work is in the form of individual projects, which grow out of personal interests and the needs of mentors and internship sites. Unlike traditional schoolwork, the work done by Met students results in real products or consequences that matter to a larger audience in the Providence community.

We must not underestimate the sheer power of relationships in making our schools more effective. Do the students consider school to be a good place to be? Do they have a sense of belonging? Do they feel at least a few adults are interested in their success and well-being? Do they feel safe? Do they feel recognized as individuals?

Student Perspectives

The Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations has focused on many relationship-based questions in its extensive My Voice© Student Aspirations Survey. The survey helps educators determine objectively the level of student engagement in their schools.

The International Center has incorporated the administration of the survey in its ongoing high school initiative to identify and analyze the nation’s most successful practices and policies. During 2005-06, more than 65,500 students in the initiative completed the survey, along with more than 100,000 other students representing 329 schools and 18 states. The students were asked to respond to questions about the conditions that affect their aspirations.

The good news is that most students indicated they want to get good grades, and they understand what schools expect of them in terms of academic achievement and the significance of testing. Yet while most of the students surveyed want to do well, many do not put forth the effort needed to achieve to their fullest potential. Close to 20 percent of those surveyed give up when they encounter difficult schoolwork. Only 60 percent reported they try their best in school, and the same percentage said teachers recognize them when they try their best. The gap between wanting to achieve and persevering to meet that goal must be examined, as must the role teachers play in recognizing effort and perseverance.

The data clearly show a general lack of student self-worth, limited engagement in the learning process and an absence of personal purpose. It seems clear, if we intend to close the achievement gap by concentrating solely on academic coursework, only short-term success will likely result because students aren’t engaged.

Thus there are really two gaps in our education system. In addition to the achievement gap, there is a participation gap, which is characterized by students who feel unwelcome, disconnected and lost in our schools.

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