Beyond Academic Achievement

Joe Brooks
Jan 4 · 10 min read


One of the problems with most federal education legislation is that it sets our sights too low, as if the primary goal of schools is to produce higher test scores. And further, that higher test scores somehow translate into greater equity of opportunity and a higher quality of life for American students. We don’t think so. As Marty Neill of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing says, “education will be seriously damaged, especially in schools with a large share of low-income and minority children, as students are coached to pass tests rather than to learn a rich curriculum that prepares them for life in the 21st century.”

For example, consider my 17-year-old daughter’s first round of SAT test scores: 710 Verbal, 550 Math. Obviously we were pleased with the verbal, and a bit disappointed in her math score. But would you know from this score that she’s a whiz at balancing the books and cashing out the register when she closes up the coffee shop by herself two nights a week? That she won the Freshman math/physics award? That she’s the only student member of the mayor’s Cities for Climate Control committee where she’s involved in figuring out how to reduce the carbon dioxide output of city vehicles and businesses? Do we get an understanding of how her math skills and her civic participation have an impact on the community by glancing at her SAT score?

Schools aren’t just about test scores, and schools don’t exist separate and apart from the communities they serve. In truth, schools can and should serve as the focal point, the source of renewal in their neighborhoods and communities. From this perspective, we should expect schools to:

*engage students in rigorous work that develops academic skills

*ensure the development of civic engagement skills in students and teachers

*engage parents, community members and businesses in the life of the school

*design programs that engage students in solving community problems and contribute to the quality of life and the environment.

Marty Neil advocates that, “Opponents should not oppose all forms of accountability. Instead, they must press to develop genuine accountability that supports improved student learning and better schools and that provides rich information to parents and communities. Federal law should be transformed from one based on threats and punishment to one that supports teachers, students, parents and communities in their efforts to improve schools.” Place-based education, a reform effort underway in schools across the United States, provides this kind of healthy alternative pathway to school and community improvement. The national Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT) programs and the Community-based School Environmental Education (CO-SEED) program of Antioch New England are two of many organizations helping schools and communities work together to improve each other. We believe that if we just focus on test scores, we ignore the deeper mission of schools as laboratories for democracy.

Place-based education is rooted in what is local — the unique history, culture, environment and economy of a particular place. The community provides a context for learning, student work focuses on community needs and interests, and community members serve as resources and partners in many aspects of teaching and learning. In reform efforts based on place-based education, students do sustained academic work that leads to schools and communities getting better together. In this way, the benefits of place-based education show up not just in students’ academic performance, but also in increased community vitality, greater parent engagement in school and community events, and in the improved quality of the economy and environment in the local area. We contend that we can raise test scores, cultivate the civic responsibilities of students, and improve the quality of life in the community simultaneously. In fact, it’s the school–community synergy that makes learning compelling.

To assess and understand the critical features of place-based education efforts, the Rural School and Community Trust developed a Portfolio-based Assessment System. This system integrates a number of separate goals and processes not currently addressed in state and national standardized assessments but critical for improving teaching and learning. These include connecting schools and communities, pairing intellectual content knowledge with real world applications, measuring the full impact of learning inside and outside the school, and using the evidence these strategies yield for program improvement. The Learning Portfolio is designed around three complementary themes and related aspects with corresponding rubrics to assess the work of students, teachers and community members:

I. Student Learning and Contributions prizes student learning that is rigorous, connected to the community and reflective of student voice and leadership.

II. Community Learning and Empowerment focuses on what the community has gained and how it has changed as a result of place-based learning.

III. Deepening and Spreading Place-based Learning examines whether place-based approaches have become sustainable in the school and sustaining to the community.

To better understand the three strands of this Portfolio-based assessment system, we’d like to share two school–community projects, one in Louisiana and the other in Massachusetts, and invite you to consider how these goals apply to both.

East Feliciana Parish School District, East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana
Located in southeastern Louisiana, East Feliciana Parish School District serves approximately 3,000 students, 2,400 of them in grades K-8. In a parish where African Americans comprise only 47.1% of the population, they represent more than 80% of the public school students; most, 84.8%, qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Only 31.8% of the parish’s adult population had completed high school and fewer than 5% were college graduates. At the dawn of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 55.8% percent of the district’s K-8 teachers were not fully certified to teach and 80% of its students were performing below average in at least one core subject.

Although most East Feliciana Parish children live in poverty (26% of the parish’s children live below the poverty level), they are surrounded by a landscape with tall forests, streams and rivers, rolling hills, and diverse wildlife. It is in this environment that an initiative dubbed Project Connect was launched in 1999, to address the parish’s historically low test scores in science and math. Before Project Connect, science at the elementary and middle level was taught on a very limited basis. Teachers worked in self-contained classrooms and had little direct guidance in how to impart scientific concepts. Student learning was entirely classroom centered.

Project Connect initially focused on improving K-8 science instruction by using the environment as context for place-based learning. Students studied local soil, rocks and minerals, ecology, topography, weather, biodiversity, and water quality. Nature trails and butterfly gardens were built. Over time, place-based work has expanded to include other disciplines — local geography, history, mathematics, and language arts. Teachers, who had never used the outdoor environment as classroom, participated in three consecutive summer trainings focused on content knowledge and place-based learning. A number of local community partners from a wide range of organizations and agencies, including the Watershed Alliance, the Extension Service, and area universities, stepped forward to support Project Connect.

Science classes at Clinton Middle School can now walk from their building to nearby Pretty Creek, part of a regional watershed that eventually flows into Lake Ponchartrain. During the last two years, supplementary trails have been built for Clinton students to study the creek from at least three access points. They measure and analyze water samples, net insects, larvae, and minnows, and assess the impact of seasonal and environmental changes on the stream and its surroundings. A group of eighth graders, presenting their water-related research at the Lake Ponchartrain “Water Watch” Symposium, have discovered what it takes to convince others that their findings are meaningful and valid. With the help of the Lake Ponchartrain Basin Foundation, the students conducted monthly tests on Pretty Creek’s water, studied its ecosystem, learned to read topographical maps, and identified human and natural factors affecting water quality of both the creek and the larger Lake Ponchartrain Basin watershed.

Since implementing Project Connect, East Feliciana’s test scores have shown dramatic improvement. In science, the district’s fourth grade passage rate increased by 13% in one year. By 2001, the passing average of the three elementary schools’ fourth graders was the same as the state’s: 85% (an increase of 25% in two years). Increases were equally dramatic in English Language Arts. When the district introduced place-based learning in 1999, 32.6% of students were scoring at the unsatisfactory level. By 2002–2003, student scores surpassed the state benchmarks for proficiency.

While standardized test scores have increased dramatically, place-based learning has had an equally important impact on getting students excited about learning and the environment outside the school walls. Nan Goodreau, who has taught math in the East Feliciana schools for 21 years, welcomes the move to more hands-on, outdoor learning. She says it motivates some of the lowest scoring students and shows them how to learn with all their senses. “They use a lot of math skills in their projects too,” she adds, “…measuring, making plots, and mapping.” Project Connect is also developing lasting school–community partnerships in a region that historically has been divided over racial issues.

The Beebe Environmental and Health Science Magnet School in Malden, Massachusetts
The CO-SEED project has been working with the 900 student K-8 Beebe School in Malden, Massachusetts for the past five years. Beebe is one of five K-8 magnet schools in the city of Malden. Malden is a city of about 65,000 just north of Boston with a culturally diverse population. There are approximately 30 different language groups represented in the the school. The community learning center partner is the Stone Zoo. Other partners have included the Malden Historical Society, the Mayor’s Office, a brownfields redevelopment project, Tufts Engineering Department, Stop and Shop and the local waste hauling company.

Over the past five years teachers have implemented a variety of school–community projects including the installation of a butterfly garden on the school grounds, the creation of a school newspaper, translation of parent newsletters and school letters into multiple languages, creation of a field guide to a neighborhood park managed by the Metropolitan District Commission, a schoolwide recycling program, the creation of a schoolyard ice skating rink to support neighborhood recreation, and program development for children and parents at the Stone Zoo. Evaluation of student performance on the state administered MCAS has indicated that Beebe students either outperform or perform at a comparable level with students at all other Malden schools. Test scores have improved over each of the last three years. Requests for kindergarten placements at Beebe have become the highest amongst the five schools in the city. We are pleased that Beebe students are both performing academically and are contributing to the betterment of community.

In 2003, the EPA determined that Malden’s storm water runoff did not meet federal water quality standards. The EPA ordered the city to develop a plan for remediating this situation and a Storm Water Management Committee was created by the mayor’s office. One of the EPA-required components of the plan was a public information initiative to educate citizens about storm water run off and how they could contribute to decreasing contaminants in run off.

Due to previous collaborations between the city and the school, committee members recruited seventh grade teachers to help them with the educational component of the plan. The teachers implemented a curriculum project that required students to develop public education brochures. In science, teachers and students learned about storm water collection and outflow in the city, the range and sources of contaminants, the impact on water quality in the Malden and Mystic Rivers, and possible solutions. Students mapped storm water pipes in social studies; met English standards by writing persuasive essays; calculated surface runoff in math; took photographs; interviewed city officials; and used graphic design software in computer class to complete the assignment. The project requirements dovetailed with curriculum frameworks in science, language arts and technology. All kids created brochures and five were selected to be distributed in the city water bill, when citizens register their pets, and at City Hall.

The city now has the Beebe school officially written into its storm water management plan and the school is planning strategies to involve the other four K-8 schools in the city next year. If and when storm water quality has improved within five years, Malden teachers and students will be able to claim some of the responsibility for improving environmental quality. Wouldn’t it be good to include charts of storm water quality improvement in the local newspaper along with the measurements of Annual Yearly Progress in the school? Projects such as this exemplify the community learning and empowerment aspects of Rural School and Community Trust.

Both Project Connect and the CO-SEED project example describe rich learning experiences that not only represent student comprehension of basic reading, writing and math concepts but more importantly, demonstrate student ability to apply academic concepts to complex community issues that are relevant to their lives. The expanded assessment strategies of the Rural Trust measure students’ ability to obtain information, weigh evidence, think critically about issues, welcome diverse opinions, and act purposely as responsible citizens — the real indicators of a well-educated student.

Shared, public accountability is inherent in place-based education. This kind of accountability makes the celebration of accomplishments, the cataloguing of lessons learned, and the analysis of both what students are learning and what the community is gaining a school–community exchange. It reflects a commitment to standards and measures that are expansive and supportive, not limiting and punitive.

© copyright 1995–2019, Community Works Institute (CWI)
All rights reserved. CWI is a non-profit educational organization dedicated
to engaging students and teachers with their local communities through integrated learning projects. We work with educators and schools across the U.S. and internationally. email us to bring a CWI event to your school or organization.

CONTENT USE POLICY All materials contained in this web site remain the sole and exclusive property of CWI, or the author as designated by arrangement. We strongly encourage re-publication, but we do ask that you properly credit, and then share your re-publication link with us directly. contact us

Community Works Journal: Digital Magazine for Educators

place as the context, service-learning as the strategy, sustainable communities as the goal

Joe Brooks

Written by

Founder of Community Works Institute (CWI), leader, and advocate for a community focused approach to education.

Community Works Journal: Digital Magazine for Educators

place as the context, service-learning as the strategy, sustainable communities as the goal