Growth Mindset

Student Ownership, Responsibility Are Keys to Success

Why are some high schools better than others at boosting achievement among traditionally underserved students? A new report from the National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools (NCSU), based at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development, finds that student ownership and responsibility for academic success are key factors.

“The idea is to develop the mindset that students are willing to take on challenges and persevere and to provide a set of skills to focus that effort toward achievement,” explains NCSU Associate Director Marisa Cannata, who led the research team at Peabody. Teachers and administrators have a role in “scaffolding” that process, she says, by “creating a set of norms and school-wide practices that nurture a culture of learning and engagement around students.”

Y.Q. Knight / Illustration Source

The report, Reaching for Rigor: Identifying Practices of Effective High Schools, focused on two “high value-added” and two “low value-added” schools in the Fort Worth, Texas, Independent School District.

It is the second research report from NCSU, a national research and development center focused on creating effective high schools. A collaborative partnership among research universities, developers, and two large urban school districts, NCSU is a five-year project funded by the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education.

The findings from this report were used to develop and implement prototypes that encourage and promote practices that help high schools with lower-performing students “beat the odds.” The prototype, which involved teams of district leaders, school leaders and teachers, is being tested in a select set of schools now.

Data collection for this study focused primarily on ninth- and 10th-grade students and teachers in English, mathematics and science in Fort Worth schools. The research team found that “higher value-added” high schools were able to raise student achievement among traditionally underserved students primarily by providing structures that enabled students to start taking initiative and ownership while still in a relatively safe environment.

“As one of the principals pointed out, high school is really a student’s last chance to practice being an adult before becoming an adult,” says Cannata. While it’s important to provide plentiful opportunities to master a skill or subject, the researchers also note that offering too many chances after repeated failures or disciplinary problems actually decreases expectations and negatively impacts performance.

While “lower value-added” schools did employ some promising practices, Cannata says, they weren’t consistent. “This gets to our work related to scaling up. We are trying to identify not just isolated practices but things schools are doing to make good practices systemic.”

Cannata says the findings were consistent with current research around development of what are called “growth mindsets” in students and giving them skills to bring focus to their efforts. “Broadly speaking, the ideas are very similar. This [latest research] gets to how it is operationalized with context.”

The report’s co-authors were Katherine Taylor Haynes, PhD’06, research associate in the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations (LPO), and Thomas M. Smith, associate professor of public policy and education, director of LPO graduate studies, and NCSU director.


Learn more about the report on effective high-school practices.