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CurriculumProject-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning Supports Literacy and Social-Emotional Learning

By January 15, 2021April 19th, 2021No Comments

Project-Based Learning in World Studies Positively Supports Literacy Proficiency and Social-Emotional Learning for Middle School Students

STRIVE Prep is a ten-school K–12 network in Colorado which was founded on the belief that every child should have access to a high-quality education in their neighborhood. Over 90% of students at STRIVE Prep identify as Black or Latinx and qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Between the academic school years of 2015–16 and 2016–17, Colorado Measures of Academic Success ELA results for eighth graders at STRIVE Prep dropped in five categories (Literary Text, Informational Text, Vocabulary, Written Expression, and Language and Conventions). Baseline data from sample middle schools indicate a decline in literacy proficiency between the academic school years of 2015–16 and 2016–17 (see the table below). STRIVE Prep leadership reached out to Educurious as a partner organization to help solve this issue.

Educurious’s support included our project-based learning (PBL) curriculum and a combination of meetings with STRIVE Prep’s central office and school leadership; extensive teacher professional development was also provided. Student progress was monitored via weekly meetings to discuss classroom observations and review student performance data. For the pilot year, STRIVE Prep used Educurious’s project-based U.S. History course, Project America, in some of its eighth-grade classrooms.

Project America centers on collaboration, literacy, diverse voices, and perspective-taking. While focusing on the critical contributions from marginalized groups and the impact of policies on each group, students grapple with the question, “What does it mean to me to be an American?” Students analyze and formulate evidence-based positions and present their projects to authentic audiences. They learn about history and each other, and develop relationships using restorative justice and democratic classroom practices. Built into Project America is a standards-aligned literacy framework: Educurious’s Navigating Text process.

All Educurious curriculum prioritizes reading for clear, project-related purposes and helps students think strategically about how to engage with text productively. In other words, readers are positioned to know where they are going and ensure they have a good set of strategies to navigate through challenging texts within the context of a project. For this reason, Educurious’s Navigating Text process is couched in a metaphor of exploration. Just as a traveler prepares to depart with a specific destination in mind, good readers formulate plans to read, purposefully navigate through text, and apply what they have learned.

The Navigating Text process was designed to meet the needs of a range of readers with varied background knowledge, interest levels, and comprehension skills when it comes to complex, historical texts. To support disciplinary engagement, we advocate using real-world texts such as articles, books, websites, and primary sources whenever possible. Real-world texts support the underlying goal of PBL by providing ways for students to engage in meaningful and relevant learning. To support the use of complex texts, we integrated strategies such as schema development, setting clear reading purposes, a conceptual approach to academic vocabulary instruction, and structured reading routines into the curriculum. Students and teachers learn the Navigating Text process together and practice with intention until students can navigate complex texts independently.

Data collected after the pilot indicate that students in Educurious’s Project America classrooms achieved higher grades overall and improved their attendance. Social and emotional learning indicators were stronger and literacy achievement increased. In response to this data, STRIVE Prep leadership decided to scale this project across all middle schools in their network and decided to begin a redesign of its sixth- and seventh-grade World Studies courses modeled after Project America.

Educurious Pilot Year Literacy Results

After the first iteration of Educurious’s PBL social studies curriculum with intentional literacy support, 100% of implementing schools saw improved literacy proficiency (see sections A, B, and C in the chart below).

Educurious Second Year Literacy Results

After the expanded iteration of Educurious’s PBL social studies curriculum with intentional literacy support, 83% of implementing schools (5 out of 6) saw an increase in literacy proficiency (see sections B, C, D, E, and F in the chart below).

After seeing a positive change in literacy proficiency during the Educurious pilot year, School “A” saw a decline during the second year; possible contributing factors were high staff turnover and less teacher involvement in professional development.

Social-Emotional Learning Results (SEL)

Another area of interest was academic performance, as it relates to SEL. Students participated in a survey to gauge their perceived experiences with collaboration, motivation, and engagement. In Educurious pilot year, students in the PBL implementation sample at STRIVE Prep indicated that Project America had a significantly positive impact on students’ civic engagement. Students in Project America classrooms also reported that they perceived collaboration as key to their learning, whereas in the comparison classrooms, students reported that they did not perceive collaboration as key to their learning. After Educurious second year, in which PBL was implemented at scale, there was a positive relationship between academic performance and emotional-engagement indicators where collaboration indicators increased from (x̅ = 1.02) to (x̅ = 4). The SEL and literacy data are both promising and warrant further exploration and support.

Source Data

For the baseline year, Educurious pilot year, and second year of this project, Colorado used the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) as its state standardized exam. The PARCC has been widely adopted as an assessment of student learning by consortium member states across the country as part of the federal Race to the Top program. In the second year (which employed PBL World Studies at all schools in the STRIVE Prep network), Colorado began to implement the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS), a state standards-aligned exam developed by the Colorado Board of Education that integrates items from the PARCC exam with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam. In 2018, the CMAS exam was evaluated by the U.S. Department of Education and determined to be a valid and reliable assessment of reading/language arts and mathematics per the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which governs state assessments.

It is also important to note that three teachers did not participate in the professional development for PBL. Because of this difference in classroom time and additional learning, these teachers’ data were not included in our analysis.


In 2020, motivated by the global health crisis presented by COVID-19 and the groundswell of the Black Lives Matter movement, Educurious made several critical pivots in our work. When COVID-19 shook the global community in March, Educurious pivoted to supporting teachers with the immediate need for remote and hybrid learning models. We developed a framework for adapting Educurious curriculum to the remote learning environment and provided related support to our partners. Shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd launched a surge of support for the Black community and challenged everyone to consider their role in racial justice and equity. In conjunction with our shift to remote learning and commitment to anti-racism, we chose three units from Educurious’s project-based U.S. History course, Project America, to adapt for online instruction. These units were selected to tell the story of Black history in the United States from the transatlantic slave trade through the Civil War and Reconstruction era, and we have formed a consortium of educators investing in the professional development needed to implement them successfully. Once they are completed, Educurious intends make these adapted units available as Open Education Resources.