The ChallengeNAEP Proficiency Levels

More than 40 percent of children in the U.S. attend high-poverty schools, which lack the resources they need to help their students succeed academically. Early in elementary school, students from low-income families begin falling further and further behind their more affluent peers. 

For example, the National  Assessment of Educational Progress regularly evaluates elementary school children across the country to check for proficiency levels in Reading, Math, and Science.  The most recent tests [1,2,3] for 4th graders indicated that more than 75% of low-income students were NOT proficient in these core subjects, meaning these children could not:

  • Calculate the perimeter of a rectangle (Math)

  • Read a short article on a baby shark in captivity and understand why scientists released her with a tracker (Reading)

  • Recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object (Science) 

Note* -- 4th Grade Math and Reading assessments were most recently conducted in 2013.  4th Grade Science was most recently assessed in 2009.

Without effective and engaging instruction, children from low-income families are less likely to thrive, both academically where early lessons form a critical foundation of knowledge, and professionally, in a job market where science, math, and language arts skills provide a promising career path. 

Girl with GrubThe Research 

Experts agree that hands-on outdoor instruction from effective teachers has the power to help all students get more engaged and learn more during classtime.

According to Wenglinsky et al. (2002)[4] , teachers’ instructional practices can have the same level of impact on student learning as student socioeconomic status, the main statistical predictor of academic achievement. Furthermore, studies such as (Cochran-Smith & Zeichner 2005 [5] ; Shoen, et al. 2003 [6] ; Porter, et al. 2003 [7] ; Borko 2004 [8] ) have shown that educator training which strengthens teachers’ knowledge of the subject matter; offers peer mentoring and modeling; aligns closely with actual classroom conditions; is directly applicable to educators’ practice; and is consistent with curriculum standards leads to improved student achievement. 

So, by applying this research to help teachers become more effective educators, REAL School Gardens has created a specialized training program using the most effective techniques. In addition to training the teachers, we provide a rich and dynamic outdoor learning environment as well as hands-on outdoor lessons, both of which increase student engagement, which research shows is a key factor in advancing student achievement. 

For example, experiential outdoor education is shown to enhance student achievement, particularly in the STEM subjects (Klemmer, et al. 2005 [9] ; Dirks & Orvis 2005 [10] ; Smith & Motsenbocker 2005 [11] ). Going beyond tested objectives, garden-based learning is also shown to foster critical thinking and group problem-solving (Ernst & Monroe 2004) , responding to students’ need for experience that prepares them for higher education and the modern workplace (Pellegrino & Hilton, Eds. 2012 [12] ) .  The type of lessons and project-based learning REAL School Gardens promotes also help students excel.  Cross-curricular learning, which fosters creative, adaptive thinking and deepens comprehension (Barnes 2011 [13]) , comes naturally in school gardens with a diverse array of features and opportunities for real-world experiences. 

One of the critical factors in determining whether or not students succeed academically is whether or not they are engaged in their lessons.  Niemiec and Ryan (2009 [14]) , shows a consistent positive relationship between student engagement and academic performance. Skinner et al. (2011 [15]) go further to demonstrate that the unique environment of a school garden promotes student engagement, and positively impacts student learning.

Our Impact

Using existing research, REAL School Gardens created a school garden program like no other. By creating engaging learning environments in low-income schools, and training teachers to help them become more effective educators, REAL School Gardens works to close the achievement gap between lower and upper income students.  In December of 2013, we received results from a three-year study conducted by PEER Associates and focusing on the REAL School Gardens Program.  The study found that; 

  • The REAL School Gardens Program increases teacher effectiveness.
    • Looking across seven different measures, the REAL School Gardens Program almost doubles teacher effectiveness in partner schools.
  • The REAL School Gardens program increases student engagement. 
    • 94% of teachers surveyed agreed that the REAL School Gardens Program “was a major contributor to increased engagement in learning for my students.” 
  • REAL School Gardens training helps teachers become better prepared to meet their goals. 
    • On surveys administered after each teacher training, over 90% of all educators agreed or strongly agreed that the training “connected directly and explicitly with the state curriculum standards I am accountable to” and that they would “be able to apply the content of this (training) to my regular work right away.” 
  • The REAL School Gardens Program improves teacher job satisfaction. 
    • After three years of the REAL School Gardens Program, teachers were almost twice as likely to say they were satisfied with their jobs.
  • Teachers use REAL school gardens during the school day.
    •  After completing just one year of the REAL School Garden Program, our most recent group of partner schools saw 58% of their teachers using the garden regularly for academic instruction.

And the REAL School Garden Program improves academic performance. 

  • REAL School Gardens partner schools have seen standardized test score pass rates increase between 12% - 15%. Science scores saw the largest increases, placing students on a path for success in a professional job market that increasingly requires STEM skills. 
  • When an independent research team isolated our impact, at least 1/3 of the standardized test score pass rate increases were proven to be a direct result of the REAL School Gardens program. 

By transforming low-income elementary schools’ existing resources, their outdoor spaces and their staff, the REAL School Gardens Program produces long-lasting results.  We're proud to say that 97% of the gardens beyond our 3-year partnership window are still well-used and well-maintained, meaning the first gardens we built 10 years ago are still producing what we call "REAL results."  Perhaps most importantly, we harness children’s inborn fascination with the natural world to get them active and engaged in learning. The REAL School Gardens program immerses children in an exciting learning environment, giving them both the information and the inspiration they need to succeed in school and beyond. 




[1]  National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] (2011).The Nation’s Report Card: Science 2009 (NCES 2011–451). Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.

[2]  National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] (2009). The Nation’s Report Card: Mathematics 2009 (NCES 2010–451). Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.

[3]  National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] (2009).The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2009 (NCES 2010–458). Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.

 [4] Wenglinsky, H. (2002). “How schools matter: The link between teacher classroom practices and student academic performance.” Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(12).

 [5] Cochran-Smith, M. and Zeichner, K. M., Eds. (2005). Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education. Rutledge

 [6] Shoen, H. L., Cebulla, K. J., Fi, C. and Finn, K. F. (2003). “Teacher Variables That Relate to Student Achievement When Using a Standards-Based Curriculum.” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education May 2003, 34(3).

[7] Porter, A. C., Garet, M. S., Desimone, L. M. and Birman, B. F. (2003). “Providing Effective Professional Development: Lessons from the Eisenhower Program.” Science Educator, 12(1), 23-40.

[8] Borko, H. (2004). “Professional Development and Teacher Learning: Mapping the Terrain.” Educational Researcher, 33(8), 3-15.

[9]   Klemmer C. D., Waliczek T. M. & Zajicek, J. M. (2005) “Growing Minds: The Effect of a School Gardening Program on the Science Achievement of Elementary Students.” HortTechnology, 15(3), 448-452.

 [10] Dirks, A. E. and Orvis, K. (2005). “An Evaluation of the Junior Master Gardener Program in Third Grade Classrooms.” HortTechnology, 15(3): 443-447.

 [11]Smith, L. L. and Motsenbocker, C. E. (2005). “Impact of Hands On Science through School Gardening in Louisiana Public Elementary Schools.” HortTechnology 15(3): 439-443.

 [12] Ernst, J. and Monroe, M. (2004). “The Effects of Environment-Based Education on Students’ Critical Thinking Skills and Disposition toward Critical Thinking.” Environmental Education Research, 10(4), 507-522.

 [13] Pellegrino, J. W. and Hilton, M. L., Eds. (2012) Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Center for Education; Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council.

 [14] Barnes, J. (2011). Cross-Curricular Learning 3-14. SAGE Publications Limited.

 [15] Niemiec, C. and R. Ryan (2009). “Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness in the Classroom: Applying Self-Determination Theory to Educational Practice.”  Theory and Research in Education 7(2), 133-144.

 [16] Skinner, E., Chi, U., and the Learning Gardens Educational Assessment Group. (2011). “Intrinsic Motivation and Engagement as “Active Ingredients” in Garden-based Education: Examining Models and Measures derived from Self-determination Theory.” Working paper. Portland State University.