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Excellence & Equity

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Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. Excellence & Equity. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Summer 2010. www.KaganOnline.com

The United States, like most countries in the world, faces two challenges with regard to academic achievement: 1) fostering among all students a high level of knowledge and skills necessary for success in the 21st Century, and 2) reducing the discrepancy in educational outcomes between low-income versus high-income students and minority versus majority students. The first crisis is a crisis in excellence; the second crisis is a crisis in equity. These two challenges have reached crisis proportions because of the growing demands of a 21st Century education and the increasing numbers of minority and low-income students failing to receive an adequate education. Inability to address the first challenge will result in our failure to prosper; inability to successfully meet the second challenge will increasingly polarize our society and ultimately lead to a failure in democracy. Not only do an increasing proportion of students leave school without the knowledge and skills necessary to compete well in the global economy, each school year, minority and low-income students fall farther behind majority and high-income students. Lack of educational equity violates a basic tenet of a true democracy. The health of a democracy depends on its ability to fully develop the potential of all students. We need wise decisions made not by some voters, but by all voters. Failure to meet these two challenges — creating schools of excellence and schools of equity — undermines our ability to realize our core values, our ability to prosper economically, and our ability to meet the needs of our present students as well as their children.


A more complete documentation and examination of the challenges in excellence and equity is provided in the book, Kagan Cooperative Learning.1 In a nutshell:

Challenge 1: Excellence
The United States educational system has "been committing an act of unthinking unilateral educational disarmament."2 Compared to our international peers, our students score near the bottom in math and problem solving, and have performed at a mediocre level in reading and science.3

Challenge 2: Equity
Black, Hispanic, and Native American students score substantially below Euro-American and Asian-American students in all academic content areas and at all grades.4 This lack of equity, commonly known as the Achievement Gap, contributes to but does not fully account for the crisis in excellence.

We have within our grasp, however, the ability to meet both challenges: Scientific educational research reveals we have at hand proven methods to dramatically increase both educational excellence and educational equity. We do not lack the tools; we need only provide those tools to all teachers and fully support their use. The researchers have done their part; it is now up to us as educators to implement what we know promotes both excellence and equity.

The Cooperative Learning Antidote

Based on an enormous body of research, we can say with great confidence, cooperative learning is a powerful antidote to lagging achievement and the achievement gap. Cooperative learning is not new. Decades of research, over 1,000 studies, have tested the effectiveness of cooperative learning methods. The research consistently finds cooperative learning dramatically improves student achievement in all subject areas, at all grades, and, most importantly, for all groups of students. In an extensive review of empirical research on educational innovations, Ellis and Fouts concluded: "Of all the educational innovations we have reviewed for this book, cooperative learning has the best, largest empirical base."5 In a more recent review summarizing research-based strategies for increasing student achievement, noted educational research team, Marzano et al. found: "Of all classroom grouping strategies, cooperative learning may be the most flexible and powerful."6

Of all classroom grouping strategies, cooperative learning may be the most flexible and powerful.

Cooperative Learning Meta-Analyses

In their examination of educational practices that work, Marzano and his co-workers relied on meta-analyses as opposed to presenting the results of individual research studies. Meta-analysis uses average effect size to show the pattern of results across studies. Because meta-analyses are based on a large number of research studies, results are far more reliable than conclusions based on single studies. Figure 1 illustrates the results of the five meta-analyses presented by Marzano and associates.

Figure 1. Meta-Analysis: Cooperative v. Traditional Instruction
Focus No. of Effects Sizes (ESs) Ave. ES Percentile Gain
Cooperative Learning v. Traditional1 182 .78 28
Cooperative Learning v. Traditional2 414 .63 23
Cooperative Learning v. Traditional3 122 .73 27
Cooperative Learning v. Traditional4 104 .78 28
Cooperative Learning v.
Individual Competition5
70 .78 28
Source: Marzano, R.J., Pickering, D.J., Pollock, J.E., Classroom Instruction that Works,
Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Alexandria, VA;ASCD, 2001.
1 Walberg, 1999; 2 Lipsey & Wilson, 1993; 3 Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson, & Skon, 1981;
4 Johnson & Johnson; 5 Johnson & Johnson.

What is notable across these meta-analyses is both the size and consistency of outcomes. Cooperative learning consistently outperforms traditional instructional strategies with an average overall effect size of .74 which equates to an overall percentile gain of 26.8. In concrete terms, that means if we had placed students from a traditional classroom in a cooperative learning classroom, instead of scoring an average of 50%, the same students in the same time period would have scored an average of 76.8%! Some students would do even better and some worse, but the average gain would be 26.8%!

Although the results of these meta-analyses indicate cooperative learning is a powerful tool to address the crisis in excellence, they do not inform us about how well cooperative learning produces equity. For example, if high and low achieving groups of students both increase their achievement in equal amounts, the size of the achievement gap would remain constant. To determine if cooperative learning is a solution to the equity problem, we have to look at different data — we have to ask, How much do different groups gain? Do low achieving groups catch up? Does cooperative learning reduce the achievement gap?

Cooperative Learning Reduces the Gap

For illustrative purposes, let's look first at graphs that illustrate the pattern of achievement across studies for different groups. After that, we will turn to actual achievement data. Examine Figure 2. The first pair of bars in the graph contrasts the pretest scores of two groups of students: low achievers and high achievers. In any classroom, school, district, or country, if we test students at any point, some are higher and some are lower. Now look at the second pair of bars. If we teach those students with traditional instructional strategies (call on one student at a time to respond to teacher questions, tell students to work alone on their worksheets) and test the students later, say after six weeks, a school term, or a whole school year, everyone gains. The high achievers are higher than they were, and the low achievers are higher than they were. But notice what the second pair of bars in the graph illustrates: If we use traditional instructional strategies, the gap between the high and low achievers increases!


Figure 2. Traditional Instruction Increases the Achievement Gap

The high achieving students are learning at a higher rate. Each school year the high achievers pull farther ahead of the their lower achieving counterparts. We have a progressive school achievement gap. The longer our students are in school, the greater the gap between our high achievers and our low achievers; between our low-income and high-income students; between our majority and minority students. In fact, by high school the size of the actual gap is impossible to measure because minority and low achieving students drop out of school at alarming rates.


Figure 2. Traditional Instruction Increases the Achievement Gap

That the high achievers learn more in traditional instruction is not a mystery. We will examine the causes of the progressive school achievement gap toward the end of this paper. For now, let's examine what happens if instead of traditional instructional practices, for the same amount of time we use cooperative learning. In Figure 3, next to the results from classrooms using traditional instructional strategies, find two additional bars in the graph. These bars illustrate what happens when cooperative instructional strategies are used. The meta-analyses indicate there is approximately a 26% gain for students in the cooperative learning classroom over the traditional classroom. But where is the gain coming from? Our high achievers are going up. But the most dramatic gains, by far, are from the low achievers. When cooperative learning is used, there is a dramatic acceleration in achievement among the lower achieving students — an effect that drastically reduces the achievement gap! In cooperative learning classrooms, students who were not "playing the game," who were allowing the high achievers to do all the work, turn on. As we would expect, we see the largest gains for unmotivated students who become motivated. Students who were hiding in the traditional classroom begin participating, and their achievement skyrockets. This pattern of data — dramatic increases among lowest achieving students — is consistently found in studies that compare the achievement levels of majority and minority students in cooperative and traditional classrooms.

Consistency Across Studies: Cooperative Learning Increases Equity

One of the most remarkable results in the study of educational equity is that cooperative learning consistently reduces the achievement gap among different populations, regardless of grade level and academic content, and even across different cooperative learning methods. Let's examine five studies:

Study 1: STAD. Student Teams Achievement Divisions (STAD) is a cooperative learning method that has students practice in teams to master academic content. They earn points for their team by improving their achievement compared to their usual level of achievement. In a controlled research study that compared STAD to the traditional instruction, there was an overall increase in achievement for both Black and Anglo American students (increased excellence), but "the treatment effect on achievement was largely due to a Race X Treatment interaction. Black students did much better in STAD than in control" (p. 57).7 All students did better when cooperative learning was used, but the lower achieving minority students did dramatically better, closing the achievement gap!

Study 2. Jigsaw. An entirely different cooperative learning method, Jigsaw, demonstrated the power of cooperative learning to address the equity challenge. The study was conducted among students of a different grade level and a different academic content, but the results indicated a similar increase in equity. In Jigsaw, each student on the team masters a different part of the lesson. Each teammate leaves the team, and works with like-topic members from other teams. Students then return to teach their teammates their portion of the content. The results of the study:

Specifically, the data show that in integrated schools Anglos learned equally well in both Jigsaw and competitive classes, but Blacks and Mexican Americans learned much more in Jigsaw than in competitive classes (p. 117).8