Case Studies: How to Leverage Student Goals

Learn more about how schools have incorporated student goals into their instructional models.

In our research, we found that more than 90 percent of students aspire to attend college, and that most students have career plans that require higher education. But we also found that school isn’t setting up most students to meet their goals—and that different choices at the classroom, school, and system levels can change that. To start, talking to students about their goals can provide invaluable insight into what changes we should make.

This may initially take the form of simply asking students about the goals they already have for themselves in both the short and long term. For example, you might learn that one of your eighth-grade students hopes to get his first-ever A in science class this year (short term) and has plans to become a marine biologist (long term). School staff may also work with students to set academic and character goals for a specific class or school year, and use student goals to inform instructional content and strategies, continually track students’ performance, discuss progress, and celebrate milestones.

The following case studies illustrate what it can look like when student goals are deliberately built into the fabric of a school’s instructional model. While these examples involve school-wide structures that may not be feasible to adopt in all settings, their approaches and resources can inform how you might incorporate student goals in your classroom or school.

Case Study: EL Education

EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) is a network of more than 150 district and charter schools in 30 states. EL Education promotes a service-learning school model focused on academic and character development to prepare students to succeed in school, work, and life, and become contributing citizens that make the world a better place.

As outlined in EL Education’s 2014 book Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment, the EL approach includes key practices for setting goals and measuring progress with students, all with a focus on students taking the responsibility for their own learning and growth.

To learn more about EL Education’s approach, explore this overview of Leaders of Their Own Learning that outlines their key student-centered practices (such as student-led conferences and student portfolios) and review these resources for using data to engage students through goal-setting, tracking, and reflection.

Case Study: The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center / Big Picture Learning

The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (“The Met”) is a public high school comprised of six small schools/campuses in Providence and Newport, Rhode Island. The Met was the first school to be launched by Big Picture Learning, an organization that promotes a student-led and student-directed approach to school design. There are currently more than 60 schools across the country that are part of the BPL network (and another 100+ around the world!).

At the heart of Big Picture Learning’s approach are individualized learning plans for each student based on their interests and goals. Students work with advisors to build a personalized curriculum that includes an internship with an expert in their field of interest (typically twice a week for the entire school day). Students present their learning multiple times a year through public exhibitions in which they discuss their projects and progress toward their goals with their advisor, internship mentor, and peers.

To learn more about the Met’s student-centered approach, watch this video (and explore the links on the right side of the page for details about individualized learning plans, advisory structure, internships, and more). To learn more about Big Picture Learning’s internship-based approach to teaching and learning, please visit this page.

Case Study: Pittsfield, New Hampshire Public School District

Pittsfield School District is a public school district in rural New Hampshire comprised of one elementary and one middle/high school. Faced with low student achievement on standardized tests in the late 2000s, the district adopted a “student-centered learning” model in 2012 to improve education for its students.

The big idea behind Pittsfield’s new model is personalized learning for each student with a stronger connection between school and their real-world interests and goals. Two essential components of the model are extended learning opportunities (ELOs) and student-led conferences. The ELO program is voluntary and participation can take the form of internships, volunteer work, or individualized study in a field of the student’s interest related to their future aspirations. Student-led conferences take place twice a year with each student’s family and advisor, and students are responsible for coordinating the conference from start to finish (including preparing a portfolio of their accomplishments and discussing academic, social, and emotional progress toward short- and long-term goals).

Case Study: Summit Learning

Summit Public Schools is a charter management organization operating 11 schools in California and Washington and supporting more than 330 schools across the country in adopting the Summit Learning Program. Summit’s approach is based on a commitment to personalized learning and one of the key pillars of their program is one-on-one mentoring.

Each student is paired with an adult mentor (teacher, administrator, or other school staff) who provides individualized support and acts as the student’s advocate both inside and outside of the classroom. Mentors work with students to set short- and long-term personal goals (ranging from the grades they want to earn in class to their aspirations for college or careers), and then meet each week for a 10-minute one-on-one check-in to discuss the student’s progress toward those goals.

To learn more about Summit’s mentoring program, read this blog post on why every student should have a mentor and this blog post by a school leader on why mentoring is the best part of her week, or watch this video on integrating supports for students though mentorship. For guidance on implementing mentoring, explore Summit’s mentoring overview and mentoring resources for possible use in your classroom or school.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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