Evidence of Success: What the Research Shows

Introduction: Is Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound effective?

Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound is a model for comprehensive school improvement for elementary, middle and high schools and an intensive, all-faculty program of professional development to effectuate the intended improvements. Independent evaluations by respected organizations and independent researchers indicate that Expeditionary Learning delivers very highly effective professional development to its partner schools, and that when the design is implemented:

  • it brings about significantimprovements in student achievement as measured by standardized tests and portfolios of student work;
  • it changes instructional practices and school culture for the better;
  • it improves student attendance and parent participation; and
  • it reduces the need for disciplinary actions.

In this report we summarize the research literature on Expeditionary Learning by third-party researchers, including the organizations and independent researchers listed below. We hope that readers who wish to explore further the research concerning Expeditionary Learning's effectiveness will consult the independent evaluations themselves. When available, we have provided links to researchers' web sites where further information can be obtained, and in some cases we provide copies of original documents in PDF format.

Although this report focuses on research containing substantive information about the Expeditionary Learning design, other studies have included this design in more general evaluations of comprehensive school reform. A complete bibliography of these studies, including books and articles about Expeditionary Learning can accessed from the link at the bottom of this page.

Center for Research on the Education of Students at Risk (CRESPAR)
Comprehensive School Reform and Student Achievement: a Meta-Analysis, 2002
Report Summary
Web site: http://www.csos.jhu.edu
Link to Full report (PDF)

In "Comprehensive School Reform and Student Achievement: A Meta-Analysis," researchers from the University of Wisconsin, John Hopkins University, and the University of North Carolina looked at twenty-nine Comprehensive School Reform models including Expeditionary Learning. The study looked at the research base, design characteristics, and student achievement results for each of the models. The report's conclusions were, among others, that "the overall effects of CSR are statistically significant, meaningful, and appear to be greater than the effects of other interventions that have been designed to serve similar purposes and student and school populations," (p.34) and that model effects were strongest for schools in their fifth year of implementation. The report characterized Expeditionary Learning's research base as showing "highly promising evidence of effectiveness." Only three of the twenty-nine other CRS models received higher ratings.

National Staff Development Council (NSDC)
What Works: Results-Based Staff Development, 2002 and 1999
Report Summary, 1999

(Web site: http://www.nsdc.org)
Link to Full 1999 report (What Works in the Middle)

A series of NSCD reports entitled "What Works: Results-Based Staff Development" have featured Expeditionary Learning as a leading professional development organization. The 2002 report on high school professional development mentions EL's "heavy emphasis on teacher content development and the rigorous expectation of adult learning and collaboration for all teachers." The 1999 middle school report concluded that EL was the only program of 26 studied to meet all 27 standards for high quality professional development.

Center for Research in Educational Policy
Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning Evaluation Report, 2002
Full Report (PDF)

(Web site: http://www.people.memphis.edu/~coe_crep)

This study of the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning (RMSEL) in Denver compared teacher practice and the school's student achievement data to those of the four Denver-area districts from which the student population is drawn. In comparison to a group of schools with similar demographics, teachers at RMSEL used significantly more coaching and project-based learning and significantly less direct instruction and independent seatwork. The study found that RMSEL students consistently outscored the weighted average of students from its four feeder districts across all grade levels for each year of the five-year study period on the Colorado State Assessment Program. RMSEL students scored on average 11.9 percentage points in reading than those of the comparison group.

American Youth Policy Forum, 2001
Finding Common Ground: Service Learning and Educational Reform
Full Report

Finding common ground between service learning and comprehensive school reform was the theme of the American Youth Policy Forum's (AYPF) survey of twenty-eight leading school reform models. The AYPF gave Expeditionary Learning a five-star rating for being "highly compatible" in linking community service to academics and building "an ethos or characteristic spirit and belief of service to others."

American Institutes for Research
An Educators' Guide to Schoolwide Reform, 1999
Report Summary
(Web site: http://www.air.org)

The American Institute for Research's 1999 report evaluated the effectiveness of 24 models for comprehensive school reform including EL. The report concluded that "Expeditionary Learning has already amassed a promising research base on student achievement" and that the professional development provided by EL was a particular strength of the design.

Academy for Educational Development
Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound Project, 1995
Report Summary
(Web site: http://www.aed.org)

The Academy for Educational Development (AED) in 1995 found that nine of the ten original demonstration site EL schools showed significant improvement in student achievement on the standardized tests mandated by their districts. Teachers reported that their classroom practices changed markedly, including collaborating with other teachers, systematically addressing content and skill learning in designing expeditions, and developing clear criteria for assessing student work. The report found that students produced high quality work, often higher than they had ever attained in the past. AED also found a strong level of student engagement.

National Staff Development Council (NSDC)
What Works in the Middle: Results-Based Staff Development, 1999
Report Summary
(Web site: http://www.nsdc.org)

The National Staff Development Council (NSDC) in 1999 concluded that "students' academic achievement on standardized, norm-referenced reading and math tests increased significantly as a result of their participation in Expeditionary Learning compared to other schools in their states and/or districts. In addition, students' attendance, parent involvement, enjoyment of school, and active engagement in learning increased." Of the 26 programs studied, Expeditionary Learning is the only one that was found to meet all 27 NSDC standards for high quality professional development. EL was also rated as exemplary in a 2002 NSCD report on staff development in elementary and high schools.

Polly Ulichny, Ed.D., Brown University (PDF)
Academic Achievement in Two Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound Demonstration Schools, 2000
Report Summary

Polly Ulichny, Ed.D., an independent researcher at Brown University, studied two New England Expeditionary Learning schools. King Middle School in Portland, Maine serves 700 primarily low-income students, 22 percent of whom are English Language Learners. Before the implementation of the Expeditionary Learning design, King scored lower than its district and state on the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA). In 1998-1999, however, King students outscored the state average in six of seven disciplines and scored the same as the state average in the seventh area.

The Rafael Hernandez School is a K-8 two-way Spanish bilingual school in Boston. When Massachusetts introduced the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, a standards-based criterion-referenced test, in 1998, Hernandez performed better than a district school with a demographically similar population. Ulichney concludes: "Expeditionary Learning implementation appears to be providing a strong academic curriculum that allows students from typically disadvantaged backgrounds to thrive."

RAND Corporation
Lessons from New American Schools' Scale-up Phase, 1998
Report Summary
(Web site: http://www.rand.org)

The RAND Corporation prepared this study for New American Schools (NAS) assessing the ability of each of the design teams to implement its design from 1995 to 1997. The report, based on case studies of 33 schools in seven different districts, found that Expeditionary Learning was one of two designs that "show significantly higher levels of implementation than the other teams." Expeditionary Learning was successfully implemented in five out of six schools, the second highest rate of successful implementation among the seven designs studied, and Expeditionary Learning was one of only two designs with schools that had reached an exemplary level of implementation.

Center for Research in Educational Policy and the University of Memphis
Evaluation of Implementation of Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound at Middle College High School, Springdale Elementary School, and Macon Elementary School, 1997
Report Summary
(Web site: http://www.people.memphis.edu/~coe_crep/)

In November, 1997 the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis published an evaluation for the Memphis City Schools of the implementation of New American School designs in 34 Memphis schools. Three Expeditionary Learning schools were included in the study: Middle College High School, Springdale Elementary School, and Macon Elementary School. These evaluations represent a snapshot of the progress that schools had made toward the end of their second year of implementation.

University of Colorado School of Education
An Assessment of Outward Bound USA's Urban/Education Initiative, 1994
Report Summary
(Web site: http://education.colorado.edu)

This study investigates the effects of Outward Bound's Urban Education Initiative, the early work of Expeditionary learning Outward Bound, on schools' students, staff, programs, partnerships, and practices. According to the report, early Expeditionary Learning implementation seemed to have noticeable effects on a variety of areas within schools.

Center for Research in Educational Policy and the University of Memphis Fourth-Year Achievement Results on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System for Restructuring Schools in Memphis, 2000
Report Summary
(Web site: http://www.people.memphis.edu/~coe_crep/)

This study evaluated student achievement gains that have resulted since the 1995 implementation of school reform designs, including Expeditionary Learning, in the Memphis City Schools. In general, the findings indicated that those schools implementing reform designs such as Expeditionary Learning have demonstrated noticeable gains in academic achievement since the adoption of these designs.

RAND Corporation
Implementation and Performance in New American Schools: Three Years into Scale-up, 2000
Report Summary
(Web site: http://www.rand.org)

This study evaluated the implementation and performance trends of 104 New American Schools (NAS), including 16 Expeditionary Learning schools, nationwide. The report suggests that while overall performance results were mixed due to the wide variety of designs and cities included in the evaluation, the cities including Expeditionary Learning schools demonstrated promising results, considering the relatively short period of time the schools had been implementing the design.

Other Reports and Standards

Expeditionary Learning meets the standards for comprehensive school reform models as determined by the federal government and national organizations.

The National Clearinghouse of Comprehensive School Reform
(Web site: http://www.goodschools.gwu.edu)

The National Clearinghouse of Comprehensive School Reform is a partnership of the United States Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement and George Washington University. Expeditionary Learning meets the nine criteria set forth in the federal Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Project legislation and is one of the few school reform designs specifically mentioned in this legislation.

Northwest Regional Education Lab
(Web site: http://www.nwrel.org/scpd/catalog/)

The Catalog of School Reform Models Web site was developed to support schools, districts, states, and others as they proceed with their work under the Obey-Porter Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration program (CSRD) passed by the U.S. Congress in 1997. It contains descriptions of 64 models, including Expeditionary Learning. Criteria for selecting models included evidence of effectiveness in improving student academic achievement, extent of replication, implementation assistance provided to schools, and comprehensiveness.

Consumer's Guide to Schoolwide Reform by the Fordham Foundation
Link to Full Report
(Web site: http://www.edexcellence.net)

This guide, published by the Fordham Foundation, is designed as a "layman's guide to ten of today's best-known school designs," including Expeditionary Learning, Authored by James Traub, the guide's intended audience is parents, teachers, school board members, philanthropists, civic leaders.

New American Schools
(Web site: http://www.newamericanschools.org)

New American Schools (NAS) is a non-partisan, business-led nonprofit organization supporting nine comprehensive school reform designs, including Expeditionary Learning. All New American designs adhere to rigorous requirements of excellence intended to help the nation's schools significantly raise achievement for all students through design-based assistance. NAS has recently drafted "The Guidelines for Ensuring the Quality for National Design-Based Assistance Providers" which help schools, parents, teachers, superintendents, school boards, and others in the education community select quality providers of comprehensive school reform services.