Does Project Based Learning Improve African American Students’ Performance?

By Danny House


I walked into my English teacher’s 4-period class where students were dressed in bright orange lab coats and heavily tinted pink goggles. The room looked like an operating room where surgery is done. There were bright lamps everywhere, and every student had a stethoscope around their necks with ear flashlights in their lab coat chest pockets. I saw four mannequin legs, three mannequin arms and two mannequin heads are covered. One head was covered with green hair and the other orange hair. There was only one torso. I asked with amazement what literature was the class reading. She told me the class was reading the story of “Frankenstein” but with a modern twist.

Non-traditional classroom such as this one are popping up in urban schools throughout the country, as educators try to grapple with closing the increasing achievement gap between African Americans students and their peers. Can a rigorous and relevant curriculum improve academic performance for African American students in the school classroom? The question is in the community and gaining some concern as the achievement gap continues to widen for African American students. Research has shown that students from urban areas and low socially economic background are not faring well on standardize test. I believe it is due to marginal instruction.

Iowa Core is committee of educators in Iowa who wrote curriculum. They wrote curriculum standards for Iowa school districts, which was adopted by the Iowa state education department. The programs were so impressive that other school districts throughout the country have adopted their concept to address their common core mandate. The Iowa core in their Brief of Characteristic of Effective Instruction stated a rigorous and relevant curriculum is one that is cognitively demanding and challenging to students as they apply the essential concepts and skills to real-world, complex and open-ended situations. Many educators wonder if a rigorous and relevant curriculum can improve academic performance for African American students. So far research has indicated that project-based learning is successful in white rural and white small communities. However, parents in these urban districts would like some kind of program, which would have their children learn the basics so they can move their children to a more challenging and innovated concepts in higher grades.

Projected based learning is not just attractive to students but involves particular intellectual challenges. When students successfully meet these challenges, their new learning will have meaning and value in contexts beyond the curriculum unit or classroom setting. Carol Ascher, in her article, ”Can Performance-Based Assessments Improve Urban Schooling?” , stated that there are urban school districts in effort to enrich their curriculum to the fullest extent possible has replace standardized tests with “performance-based assessments” in some subjects. Such evaluations, it is claimed, stress the higher order skills that schools should be teaching, make useful diagnostic instruments, and are much better at eliciting the potential of disadvantaged students.   And to evaluate students more fairly, 28 states have begun


Anti-public schools critics say that schools today are missing the most fundamental part of education: project-based learning. Project-Based Learning is a potentially powerful means to produce relevant and rigorous learning. There is an importance of having a rigorous and relevant curriculum. In my opinion, rigor and material are characterized by content that’s linked to a core disciplinary concept or skill and requires students to do authentic work. They use methods that are unique to the discipline and applying what they know or what they are learning to solve complex problems. It also involves the use of prior knowledge, the development of in-depth understanding, and the ability to develop and express ideas and findings through elaborated communication. A rigorous and relevant curriculum requires students to use knowledge to create and apply solutions to complex, real-world problems. But does answer to the question – do urban African-American students improve performance when instruction uses this strategy? In the methods of using project-based learning, the implementation of such a program does not have much success because of its design. Urban schools that are mostly overcrowded and service minority and low social, economic students would have a problem in the implement of this strategy. My experience of 23 years in urban schools has regularly shown that over crowdedness in enrollment as well as a large number of students with low readiness skills entering urban district. These two elements are an ingredient for failure. The next paragraph will tell why?

Methods in project-based learning

My research has discovered that project-based learning approach is often used in small school settings, like charter and magnet schools. The reason is that they are affected to a lesser degree by the high-stakes state-mandated testing movement. Although project-based learning can be done in combination with the national standardized testing model, it is often difficult for teachers to interweave these two seemingly different types of instruction effectively.

To create effective project-based learning units, professional development organizers suggest using the following guidelines:

  • Begin with the end in mind and plan for this result.
  • Craft the driving question; select and refine a central question.
  • Plan the assessment and define outcomes and assessment criteria.
  • Map the project: Decide how to structure the project.
  • Manage the process: Find tools and strategies for successful projects.

In my opinion, these are the techniques that could help African American and low socio economic students to improve their learning. My experience of over 20 years has taught me that students in these environments learn best from this type of application. They remember the process and outcomes from the lessons. They pay attention to detail and can recite routines. Iowa Core states a rigorous curriculum, instruction, and assessment the following attributes are demonstrated: Students perform higher order thinking (HOT) during instruction. The instruction and tasks presented to students require them to predict, hypothesize, justify, interpret, synthesize, evaluate, analyze and create new levels of meaning and understanding to be successful.


The other advantage of using a project-based curriculum with rigor and relevance give a Deep Understanding of the concepts learned. Project-based learning refers to any programmatic or instructional approach that utilizes multifaceted projects as a central organizing strategy for educating students. When engaged in project-based learning, students will typically be assigned a project or series of projects that require them to use diverse skills such as researching, writing, interviewing, collaborating, or public speaking to produce various work products, such as research papers, scientific studies, public-policy proposals, multimedia presentations, video documentaries, art installations, or musical and theatrical performances, for example. This is what we saw in the 4th grade English class where students enacted the literature they were reading. The teacher gave the students a clear understanding of how Dr. Frankenstein might have created a person. Vocabulary, spelling, science and other disciplines were incorporated in the lesson.

Unlike many tests, homework assignments, and other more traditional forms of academic course work, the execution and completion of a project may take several weeks or months, or it may even unfold over the course of a semester or year.

Authentic Learning

Another component of closely related to projected base learning is the concept of authentic learning. That is to say, project-based-learning experiences are often designed to address real-world problems and issues, which requires students to investigate and analyze their complexities, interconnections, and ambiguities (i.e., there may be no “right” or “wrong” answers in a project-based- learning assignment). For this reason, project-based learning may be called inquiry-based learning or learning by doing since the learning process is integral to the knowledge and skills students acquire. As stated in my introduction, the English lesson about Frankenstein is considered as tough reading by some readers, but the enactment of the primary theme of the literature helps to engage students, therefore creating deeper understanding of the author’s message.

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“I want you to get excited about who you are, what you have, and what can still be for you. I want to inspire you to see that you can go far beyond where you are right now.” -Virginia Satir

The fourth-period class mentioned in the introduction got a feel of enacting as a mad scientist. The students got a feel of being a doctor and what a surgery is operating feels like to a patient. Multi-disciplines was present as well. Thought this was an English lesson, there were science, history and math taught in the lesson. Iowa Core states that deep understanding and mastery of critical disciplinary concepts and skills demonstrated. The instruction aims at students developing an integrated, holistic understanding of important concepts. I believed that students can articulate issues, problems, nuances, and different applications of significant disciplinary content, rather than only fragmented pieces of information. Though most districts use the Tyler’s Rationale in developing their curriculum and plan instruction. They answer these four questions: What educational purposes should the school seek to attain? What educational experiences can be provided that is likely to achieve these goals? How can these educational experiences be effectively organized? How can we determine whether these purposes are being achieved? The district does not have to answer to these questions and those communities that do it will vary to some extent from one level of education to another and from one school to another.

Beacon Everywhere Any Time has given examples of a rigorous question:

Lastly, the way I feel rigor and relevance work in some districts is that they want their students to ask the question “why?” to their teacher. They are encouraged and to their peers on the concepts and skills are applied to situations, issues, and problems in the world beyond school. Students are asked to use discipline-specific processes to address a real world problem or complete an authentic task. In doing so, student learning is deeper and more likely to carry over to new learning. Instruction reflects an understanding— both by teachers and students of the value of applying concepts and skills to influence an audience beyond school.



“I want you to get excited about who you are, what you have, and what can still be for you. I want to inspire you to see that you can go far beyond where you are right now.”     Virginia Satir


The quote by Virginia Satir is a wish for every African American student that teachers have this disposition for their well-being. There is no data out there where rigorous, and relevant project-based learning has happened for the African American child. I have watched children in Westchester County New York at both the elementary and secondary schools and I can say as an educator with many years of experience, feel it offers a lot of promise for students who may otherwise not receive this kind of instruction. Raymond McNulty, President of the International Center for Leadership in Education in Vermont, stated that rigor, relevance, and relationships were three elements that provide the hallmark of education today.

The students in my 4-period English teacher’s class received a lesson that was up and beyond the traditional teaching. We need more teachers to think “outside the box” to make learning unique and fun. The relevance of this topic to the course is that rigorous and relevant curriculum is one concept that is available to districts to improve instruction in the classroom. The research conducted to the success of the concept has only been adopted in small rural or small suburban setting with a little population of minority students. There is little to no data available that indicates that this concept work if implemented in a low social, economic environment. However, if implemented correctly the results could be impressive.


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