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Critical Issue:
Creating High-Achieving Learning Environments

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ISSUE: School leaders need to help teachers create high-achieving learning environments for all students, where the most advanced curriculum and instruction techniques combine to support learning. In a high-achieving learning environment, teachers engage students in complex problem solving and exploring ideas and issues, and classroom activities draw on students' culture, experiences, and knowledge. At-risk students, in particular, need environments that engage them in authentic tasks and offer them significant opportunities to develop knowledge.

Samuel Betances' PictureSamuel Betances, professor of education, Northeastern Illinois University, emphasizes the importance of knowing and building upon students' culture, experiences, and knowledge. Excerpted from a presentation at NCREL's 1992 Academy for Urban School Leaders, in Lisle, Illinois. (Audio file, 172k) A text transcript is available.

OVERVIEW: Many students are trying to learn in traditional learning environments that emphasize fragmented knowledge and basic skills separated from higher-order thinking skills. Their teachers do not believe that all students can learn, do not have high expectations for all students, or do not understand the culture and needs of diverse students.

James Banks' PictureJames Banks, professor in the School of Education, University of Washington-Seattle, talks about the importance of culturally responsive education. Excerpted from NCREL's video, Many Voices, Many Dreams (1995) (Audio comment, 222k). A text transcript is available.

In high-achieving environments, teachers have high expectations for all students and provide an enriched curriculum.

Maria Patterson's PictureMaria Patterson, principal of Hollinger Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, discusses the importance of high teacher expectations.Filmed in 1992 for NCREL's urban school leadership case studies (QuickTime slide show, 537k). A text transcript is available.

High-achieving learning environments involve students in a variety of learning activities that are challenging and aligned with learning goals, promote engaged learning, and draw on the culture, life experiences, and knowledge of all students. They allow students to discuss, argue, and analyze issues and concepts. Students explore, solve problems, and construct knowledge rather than just memorizing it. Their work is authentic, engaging, and important, and it builds understanding from in-depth investigation.

Henry Gradillas' PictureHenry Gradillas, principal of Garfield High School in Los Angeles, California, describes the effects of a challenging curriculum at his school. Excerpted from a presentation at NCREL's 1992 Academy for Urban School Leaders. (Audio comment, 129k) A text transcript is available.




DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Some writers still believe that curriculum should focus on the dominant Western European culture. They contend that factual knowledge should be a core element of classroom work and that students should be organized according to ability.

The early effective schools programs and some state efforts emphasized basic skills learning. Many of these early initiatives are being redesigned to focus on higher-order thinking, problem solving, and an indepth curriculum. Some groups worry that basic factual knowledge will not be addressed or learned through these newer instructional approaches.


Hollibrook Elementary School, Houston, Texas

Central Park East High School, New York, New York

Audubon Elementary School, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), Aurora, Illinois


The Accelerated Schools Project, CERAS 109, School of Education, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-3084, (415) 725-1676. Contact: Beth Keller, assistant director of communications, e-mail:

Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST), UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, 405 Hilgard Ave., 1320 Moore Hall, Mailbox 951522, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1522, 310- 206-1532, Fax: 310-825-3883, Contact: Ron Dietel, e-mail:

Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning (two locations)

Institute for Responsive Education, 605 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA 02215, 617-353-3309, Fax: 617-353-8444, Contact: Don Davies, e-mail:


Johns Hopkins University, 3505 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218, 410-516-8800, Fax: 410-516-8890, Contact: Joyce L. Epstein (e-mail: or Dianne Diggs

Coalition for Essential Schools, Dr. Ted Sizer, Director, Box 1938, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, 401-863-2847.

School Development Program, Yale Child Study Center, 230 South Frontage Rd., Box 3333, New Haven, CT 06510, 203-785-2548 Contact: Cynthia Savo.
WWW Site:

National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, Center for Applied Linguistics, 1118 22nd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037, 202-429-9292, e-mail:, WWW Site:

National Research Center on Student Learning (NRCSL), Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, 3939 O'Hara Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, 412-624-7020, Fax: 412-624-9149, Contact: Kate Maloy, e-mail:
WWW Site:

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1120 Diehl Road, Suite 200, Naperville, IL 60563-1486, (800) 356-2735 or (630) 649-6500, fax (630) 649-7600.

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Centre for Leadership Development, 252 Bloor Street W., Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S IV6, 416-923-6641, Contact: K. Leithwood, e-mail:


This Critical Issue summary was researched and written by Kent Peterson, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Date posted: 1995
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