Our Research Base

Evidence for the Effectiveness of Our Approach

The Science of Motivation and Self-Determination

Decades of research have created a solid body of evidence about the nature of motivation and the conditions that support or damage motivation.  This well-known illustrated TED Talk by Drive author Daniel Pink beautifully summarizes research on the components of human motivation – autonomy (self-determination and the freedom to find unique paths and solutions to problems), mastery (the satisfaction of seeing one’s own growth toward expertise), and purpose (having the sense than one’s work matters in a larger sense, either in service of one’s own goals, or as a contribution to others). In addition to these three powerful forces, a fourth factor in student motivation and engagement has emerged in recent research, including Camille Farrington’s well-known BEL Study.  A sense of belonging is also essential to the healthy development of student motivation to learn.


There is significant research to document the adverse effects of the absence of these four factors.  It is little wonder that some students lose motivation in school, where autonomy is limited, mastery seems arbitrarily determined, and purpose feels elusive.  Some students find a sense of mastery through good grades and teacher praise in the classroom.  Some find a sense of belonging on sports teams or in a strong group of friends.  And some feel driven by the purpose of graduating and getting into a good college. But for many students, high school feels antithetical to autonomy, mastery, purpose, and belonging.  They feel imprisoned, disempowered, criticized, and excluded.  Carrots and sticks will force not these students into using high school to prepare for a constructive, satisfying adult life. 

Resources to Learn More about Self-Determination Theory

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. New York: Guildford Press.

Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson, D.W., & Beechum, N.O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. https://consortium.uchicago.edu/publications/teaching-adolescents-become-learners-role-noncognitive-factors-shaping-school

Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive. Prestonpans, Scotland: Canongate Books.

Career Education and Internships

While the research base on Career and Technical Education is scattered, recent studies have begun to establish a consistent pattern of positive outcomes for students enrolled in “Career Academies” and Vocational Programs that rely extensively on real-world learning in internships.  Both types of career education show little change in the academic outcomes that traditional schools value – neither a loss or a gain in standardized test scores or college admissions – but do show increased graduation rates and wage gains in future careers across all students with the most pronounced gains for males, low-income students, and previously low-performing students. Internships, in particular, are known to provide students with a more complex, realistic view of careers there are interested in. Even individuals who report less favorable feelings about internship experiences describe gains in motivation and confidence.

Resources to Learn More about Career Education and Internship Research

Kemple, J & Willner, C.J. (2008). Career academies: Long-term impacts on labor market outcomes, educational attainment, and transitions to adulthood. Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation  https://www.mdrc.org/publication/career-academies-long-term-impacts-work-education-and-transitions-adulthood


Dougherty, S.M. (2018). “The Effect of Career and Technical Education on Human Capital Accumulation: Causal Evidence from Massachusetts.” Education Finance and Policy 13 (2): 119–148. https://direct.mit.edu/edfp/article/13/2/119/10291/The-Effect-of-Career-and-Technical-Education-on


Kreisman D. and S. Stange (2020). "Vocational and Career Tech Education in American High Schools: The Value of Depth Over Breadth," Education Finance and Policy 15(1), 11-44. https://direct.mit.edu/edfp/article-abstract/15/1/11/10314/Vocational-and-Career-Tech-Education-in-American?redirectedFrom=fulltext


Roth, W.M., Eijck, M.V., Hsu, P.L., Marshall, A., & Mazumder, A. (2009). What high school students learn during internships in biology laboratories? The American Biology Teacher, 71(8), 492-496.


Stake, J.E. & Mares, K.R. (2005). Evaluating the impact of science-enrichment programs on adolescents’ science motivation and confidence: The splashdown effect. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(4), 359-375.

Big Picture Learning Model

Research shows that the Big Picture Learning model is highly effective at fostering positive relationships, helping students discover and pursue their interests, and raising high school graduation and college entrance rates. Results are mixed in the areas of science and mathematics college readiness and in six-year college persistence rates. According to the Big Picture Learning Longitudinal Study, 78% of BPL students concurrently enrolled in college classes while in high school. 97% of BPL students were admitted into two-year or four-year colleges. 96% of BPL alumni reported they were in touch with their high school advisors ≥2 years after graduation. 74% of the BPL alumni who are working, and not enrolled in post-high-school education, report securing a job through a contact made through one of their high school internships. External studies have corroborated many of these results.  For instance, researchers with the American Institutes of Research (AIR) conducted a series of studies on deeper learning and its outcomes, which included Big Picture Learning as one of 10 deeper learning networks in their sample. Researchers compared performance outcomes for students in deeper learning networks with those of students in matched schools, controlling for student background, and found that students in deeper learning schools such as Big Picture Learning scored higher on state literacy, numeracy, and science tests. Students attending schools such as Big Picture Learning report greater collaboration skills, self-efficacy, and academic engagement.

Image: Big Picture Learning

Resources to Learn More about the research supporting Big Picture Learning

Arnold, K., Mihut, G. (2020). Postsecondary Outcomes of Innovative High Schools: The Big Picture Longitudinal Study. Teachers College Record. 122(8):1-42. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/016146812012200803 


Bradley, K. and Hernandez, L. (2019). Big Picture Learning: Spreading Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor One Student at a Time. Learning Policy Institute. https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/deeper-learning-networks-cs-big-picture-learning-report


Huberman, M. et al, (2014). The Shape of Deeper Learning: Strategies, Structures, and Cultures in Deeper Learning Network High Schools. American Institute for Research. https://www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/Report%201%20The%20Shape%20of%20Deeper%20Learning_9-23-14v2.pdf 


The non-cognitive factors in adolescent school success are well documented. Camille Farrington’s Research on Academic Mindsets describes four components needed for adolescents to find success in school – self-efficacy (“I can succeed”), belonging (“I belong here”), purpose (“This work has value for me”) and growth (“My competence grows with effort”).  The purpose of Crew is to build all four, but especially the sense of belonging to the community and being supported both by an important adult and by a group of fellow students. Since Crew is difficult to separate out from other components of EL Education’s school model, and Advisory programs vary tremendously across high schools, conclusive research is challenging to identify, but key components of a successful advisory program have been identified in several studies: increasing levels of trust through progressive team-building, student reflection and academic goal setting, a strong, long term relationship with a trusted advisor, and advisor-parent relationships all play a critical role. 

Resources to Learn More about the Impact of Crew/Advisory

Berger, R.  Vilen, A, and Woodfin, L. (2020). We Are Crew: A Teamwork Approach to School Culture. EL Education Publications. https://eleducation.org/resources/pd-packs/we-are-crew?gclid=CjwKCAiAqaWdBhAvEiwAGAQltgdfiKYDgf46wbSK8vczxtgCaws4oZJPYxwJwnRH2u5RGnniQ3jG7hoCPiMQAvD_BwE 

Farrington, C.A., et al (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. https://www.kipp.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Teaching_Adolescents_to_Become_Learners.pdf


Shipp, S. (2021). A Program Evaluation of A High School Student Advisory Program, Dissertation William & Mary - School of Education. https://scholarworks.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7149&context=etd


Strauch, Barbara. (2003). The Primal Teen: what the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us about our Kids. New York: Anchor Books. 

Competency-Based Assessment

Competency-Based Assessment is necessarily grounded in an educational structure that allowed students to personalize their learning to meet their needs, in what is often described as Competency-Based Education (CBE).  Proficiency or mastery-based assessment are other terms used for similar and overlapping approaches to assessment.  CBE allows students to master skills at different paces and in different ways, and focused assessment on mastery of skills and concepts instead of a confusing blend of effort, good behavior, test scores, and worksheet completion.  

Research on these approaches to assessment is difficult because isolating the specific assessment practice and controlling for other variables is almost impossible.  However, research has documented that CBE is just as rigorous and effective at preparing high school students for the ACT as more traditional academic approaches. CBE proficiency is also twice as effective at predicting college persistence as the SAT/ACT or state competency tests.  Studies also demonstrate a link between CBE and equity, demonstrating that it meets the needs of diverse learners more effectively than seat-time-based assessment systems.  

Resources to Learn More about Competency-Based Assessment

Evans, C., Landl, E., and Thompson, J. (2020). Making sense of K-12 competency-based education: A systematic literature review of implementation and outcomes research from 2000 to 2019, Journal of Competency-Based Education, 5:4. https://doi.org/10.1002/cbe2.1228

Everett, D ( 2019). Competency-Based Education Systems: Are They Effective?,Pepperdine University ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. 27549324. https://search.proquest.com/openview/0e865e455ae74d732adf869dc0ff49ab/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

Marion, S., Worthen, M., & Evans, C. (2020). How systems of assessments aligned with competency-based education can support equity. Aurora Institute and Center for Assessment. Vienna, VA and Dover, NH  https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED603989.pdf

Moumoutjis, S. (2022). Using Competency Performance Levels as Predictors of College Persistence in Competency-Based Schools, Aurora Institute and Center for Assessment. Vienna, VA and Dover, NH  https://aurora-institute.org/cw_post/using-competency-performance-levels-as-predictors-of-college-persistence-in-competency-based-schools/  

Restorative Justice in Education (RJE)

Restorative Justice in Education, also called Restorative Practices, has its origins in an indigenous worldview that prioritizes relationships, shared decision-making, and healing. RJE also directly addresses the historical marginalization and inequitable punishment of students of color.  

RJE, when implemented effectively, has been conclusively shown to reduce suspension rates and racial disparities in suspension and to foster positive student development, less bullying, and stronger social-emotional skills.  Restorative practices has reduced suspensions in some school districts by more than half in a single year.  

Resources to Learn More about Restorative Justice

Acosta, J., Chinman, M., Ebener, P., Malone, P. S., Phillips, A., & Wilks, A. (2019). Evaluation of a whole-school change intervention: findings from a two-year cluster-randomized trial of the restorative practices intervention. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 48, 876–890. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-019-01013-2.


Cavanagh, T., Vigil, P., & Garcia, E. (2014). A story legitimating the voices of Latino/Hispanic students and their parents: creating a restorative justice response to wrongdoing and conflict in schools. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47(4), 565–579. https://doi.org/10.1080/10665684.2014.958966.


Gregory, A. and Evans, K. The Starts and Stumbles of Restorative Justice in Education: Where Do We Go from Here?, National Education Policy Center. https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/restorative-justice


González, T. (2015). Socializing schools: addressing racial disparities in discipline through restorative justice. In D. Losen (Ed.), Closing the school discipline gap: equitable remedies for excessive exclusion (pp. 151–165). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313429714_Socializing_schools_Addressing_racial_disparities_in_discipline_through_restorative_justice