Could PBL Level the Playing Field for Disadvantaged Students?
Updated: Jan 11
Project-based learning (PBL or PjBL) is a student-centered, inquiry-based approach to instruction where students engage in authentic learning through problem-based projects.
The benefits of PBL are numerous: Students are building essential 21st century skills like leadership, communication, and critical thinking as they collaborate to construct their own conclusions about the world around them.
But these benefits are often only limited to affluent areas that are able to invest in the preparation and professional development necessary for properly implementing PBL.
Nonetheless, emerging evidence supports the efficacy of PBL in low-income settings, and researchers are now placing the ball in the court of policymakers and schools to implement the practice.
Supporting students of low socioeconomic status has immense benefits beyond the students themselves, like ultimately reducing taxpayer spending and boosting the economy. As educators, it’s imperative we prepare students of all income levels for a successful future.
Defining Disadvantaged Students
Many studies determine if students are disadvantaged by their eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch. To receive free or reduced lunch, students must be either below or between 130 and 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL). For reference, the 2021 FPL for a four person household is an annual income of $26,500.
In 2019, one in five students in the US lived below the poverty line, and over 30 million students qualified for free and reduced lunches under the National School Lunch Program.
PBL Improves Attendance Rates Crucial to Later-Life Success
Chronic absenteeism, which occurs in high rates and large numbers in low-income schools, is a strong indicator of whether or not a student will drop out of school. Students from low socioeconomic status (SES) are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school than higher SES students, resulting in poor employment prospects and even incarceration.
Over half of high school dropouts are on public assistance and nearly 83 percent of incarcerated persons are high school dropouts, costing taxpayers an excess of $300,000 over the course of their lifetime. The decreased earnings of dropouts may amount to a loss of as much as $2 billion in tax revenue annually.
A multi-year study published in 2015 sought to uncover if PBL was capable of improving attendance in low-income schools. The study examined attendance rates of 130 economically disadvantaged students from two Texas high schools from 2009-2012
The Alpha school followed the traditional teaching method found in the majority of US high schools, where instruction is teacher-centered and subjects are taught in isolation. The Beta school, on the other hand, was built on the principles of PBL, and delivered instruction in a PBL saturated environment.
When compared, the result was clear: “Utilizing the instructional methodology of PjBL positively impacted the study school, Beta, in the area of attendance of economically disadvantaged students.” Researchers theorize the reason for the increase lies in the fundamental principles of PBL. Since learning is engaging and its relevancy is readily apparent, students see its value and actually want to go to school: “Due to the very nature of PjBL principles of collaboration, hands-on inquiry, and relevance to students’ lives, an effectively implemented PjBl environment may, based on study results, meet the personal interests and relevancy needs of the economically disadvantaged population, therefore leading to increased attendance.”
PBL Closes Achievement Gaps from Ineffective Instruction
In 2014, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the data collecting arm of the US Department of Education, published an evaluation brief describing the disparities between students of different income levels.
In the brief, the NCES concludes “disadvantaged students received less-effective teaching on average” compared to their more privileged peers, resulting in an overall achievement gap of 24 months in reading and 18 months in math for students in grades four through eight.
A 2020 study that explored the impact of PBL on social studies and literacy learning in low-income schools proved PBL can lead to significant gains in multiple subject areas.
Researchers began by providing in-depth professional PBL development to 48 teachers across 20 schools and 11 districts where more than 65% of participating students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Students participated in four PBL social studies or literacy units, including developing a proposal for a local park and creating postcards about their community’s past.
The PBL students had a 63 percent gain in social studies, which equates to five to six additional months of learning. Similarly, students who participated in PBL for informational reading had a 23 percent gain, equal to around two additional months of learning.
Researchers noted “an important contribution of this study is what it reveals about the benefits of PBL in high-poverty schools,” which often participate in less inquiry-based and student-led activities than their wealthier counterparts. “Policy makers and school-system leaders should consider PBL as a lever for increasing and improving student learning and equity outcomes.”
PBL Helps All Students Perform at the AP Level
Advanced Placement (AP) classes offer high school students an excellent opportunity to engage with rigorous course content, adorn their college applications, and earn transferrable college credits. However, these opportunities often evade low-income students; in Connecticut, for instance, only one in 10 students from low-income families will take an AP course, compared to 1 in 4 from middle- or high-income homes.
A new two-year study on the efficacy of PBL instruction for AP classes published in February of 2021 revealed rigorous PBL is beneficial for students of all income levels.
The study followed 3,645 students across 68 schools, 43% of which were from lower-income households, through an academic year of AP Environmental Studies and U.S. Government and Politics courses. Students completed five project-based units, with activities ranging from reenacting historic Supreme Court cases in mock trials to visiting a local strawberry farm to learn about the many challenges farmers face today.
Nearly half of all students in PBL classrooms passed their AP test, performing 8 percentage points higher than those who received traditional instruction. Those gains were consistent across demographics, “making a strong case that well-structured PBL can be a more equitable approach than teacher-centered ones,” says educational resource Edutopia. In the second year of the study, the PBL students scored 10 percentage points higher than their traditional peers, suggesting a "significant and durable" boost in teacher efficacy.
Lead USC researcher Anna Saavedra hopes the results of the study challenge the belief held by some educators and policymakers that underserved students aren’t prepared for student-driven PBL.
Compounding research creates a compelling case for implementing PBL as a way to level the field for disadvantaged students. PBL addresses important issues central to low-SES struggles, like ineffective instruction and chronic absenteeism. Research proves PBL is capable of closing achievement gaps between income levels, igniting student interest, and providing low-income students with more prosperous opportunities later in life.