Author: Chris Sturgis

Pushing the Envelope with Student Centered Learning at VLACS

April 14, 2015 by
Steve Kossakoski

Steve Kossakoski

There are a handful of schools pushing past the concept of organizing learning based on credits to take advantage of the incredible flexibility that a framework of competencies of standards allows. Virtual Learning Academy Charter School  (VLACS) is one of these innovators, showing us a possible direction for a personalized education system. (Chugach School District and Bronx Arena are other credit-busters.)

I recently spoke with Steve Kossakoski, CEO of VLACS, to learn about how they are working to redefine what it means to learn and go to school in the twenty-first century.

Reflecting on Innovation and the Power of Student-Centered Learning

Kossakoski started off the conversation explaining that by embracing the tenets of student-centered learning (personalized; competency-based; anytime, anywhere; and learners exerting ownership over their learning), they have started to push the envelope of their own thinking.

He remarked, “In my opinion, competency-based learning alone will not significantly change the model or the outcomes of today’s school. There are a lot of schools converting to competency-based frameworks, but without significant structural change, it will be difficult for these schools to take advantage of the opportunities that a student-centered learning model offers. For example, some schools have created broad overarching competencies while curriculum and instruction still looks the same. Other schools are integrating competency-based approaches within the traditional curriculum while continuing to expect that all learners will master the same set of competencies within a 180-day academic year. I’m a bit concerned that schools will only tinker around the edges of possibility and end up reinventing the traditional model but with a new coat of paint.”

“As an online school, we have a great deal of freedom to innovate, so, as we designed our services based on the tenets of student-centered learning, we worked from the perspective of what’s possible when the limitations of a time and place-based system are removed. We realized that until you provide students with the opportunity to design their own learning pathways, they won’t really own their learning. Offering learners a choice of courses and projects provides kids with some ownership. But how much ownership is it, really?”

He explained that they began to examine the continuum from individualization to personalization. He explained the difference, “Schools tend to individualize by providing learners with a limited set of options. However, personalization requires engaging the learners in a conversation and asking, ‘What do you want to do? Where and how do you want to learn?’ Learners may want to learn in a traditional class, online, in the community, through self-study, or by participating in a project. We are trying to dig deeper into what it means to personalize learning and to extend the capability of our school to fully personalize education. We don’t want learning to be bound by the courses we offer.” (more…)

It’s Definitely Warming Up in New England

April 8, 2015 by

NESCCThere is still snow on the ground, but people were on fire at the New England Secondary Schools Coalition High Schools in Action annual gathering. The sessions were relatively quiet, but the hallways were buzzing:

  • It is really hard to put down the red pen and stay focused on the few standards that are the goal of the learning.
  • We were told we were preparing, preparing, preparing…and then suddenly we were there. We were performance-based.
  • We learned that trying to mix grading styles was making students crazy. They were always trying to figure out the algorithms used in the computerized grading system. I could barely get them to talk about the quality of their work and accept that applied learning isn’t something you can always do quickly.
  • One of the hardest things for some of my students to accept is that they are expected to actually work hard in a proficiency-based system. For some, the traditional system was really easy – especially if they excel in short-term memorization. It is a shocker that they are expected to actually show they can use all the information they have memorized. They realize they have gaps, and that is scary.
  • Some teachers are still having difficulty with organizing their classrooms in a proficiency-based structure. It’s not based on age or length of time teaching – there is something about the mindset, the ability to move beyond what you experienced growing up and what you were taught to do as a teacher, that allows teachers to make the adjustment more quickly or need more time. (more…)

Generating Demand

April 6, 2015 by
Chris Sturgis

Chris Sturgis

Every month (if not every week), competency education is being incorporated into other frameworks and organizations. For example, competency-based progressions are included in definitions of personalized learning, student-centered learning, and another version of personalized learning. Organizations continue to include competency education in their national meeting agendas, when launching new initiatives, and for building organizational capacity. There are over forty organizations including, addressing, and/or advancing competency education in their work now. (If your organization isn’t on this list and you want it to be, please email me at chris (at) metisnet (dot) net.)

My concern is that a lot of resources are going toward advancing competency education at the state level when we know that educators need to come to their own conclusions that they can do better by the children in their classrooms and communities. Certainly it is important to help state level leaders understand competency education, begin to build needed alliances, and prioritize a policy agenda. However, I would argue that at this point in our development, it is even more important to begin to generate more demand for competency education from the ground up. (more…)

It Starts with Pedagogy: How Lindsay Unified is Integrating Blended Learning

March 30, 2015 by
Elements of a Blended Learning Environment

Click to Enlarge

This is the fifth post in a series on Lindsay Unified High School. See the firstsecondthird, and fourth posts. 

The first thing you need to know about blended learning at Lindsay Unified School District is that they never use the term blended learning.

Joe Vagt, Director of 21st Century Learning and Technology, explains:

In our process of developing a personalized, performance-based system, we have had rich conversations about pedagogy, instruction, and assessment. We didn’t see blended learning as something new or different – it’s just a way for us to use technology in a way that provides even more opportunities for our learners.

When I went to the pre-conference workshop with Heather Staker at the iNACOL Symposium, it confirmed for me that we had the pedagogical pieces in place. We also already had a strong orientation to learner ownership, offering students choice in how they convey their learning. Essentially, the philosophy of performance-based learning was the same as that of blended learning.

The question we have to ask ourselves now is how to leverage technology to make our philosophy even more viable throughout the district. Technology is another tool to make PBS (performance-based system) a reality.

How is LUSD thinking about using technology to support learning and teaching?  (more…)

An Interview with Brett Grimm: How Lindsay Unified Serves ELL Students

March 25, 2015 by
LUSD

From the LUSD website

This is the fourth post in a series on Lindsay Unified High School. See the first, second, and third posts. 

Tom Rooney, Superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD), tells the story of how a father came to the high school after his son had graduated, demanding to know how it happened that his son couldn’t read. It was one of the turning points for Lindsay Unified School District, sparking the transformation to a performance-based system that wouldn’t allow the situation to develop ever again.

I had the opportunity to interview Brett Grimm, Assistant Principal of Curriculum & Instruction at Lindsay High School, on how the district approaches English language learners. His candidness and willingness to share insights is greatly appreciated. Over 30 percent of students at LHS are English language learners. Of the six K8 schools in LUSD, two are dual language.

What does your ELL program look like in a performance-based district? (more…)

Hear Ye, Hear Ye – All Those Who Live in New England

March 24, 2015 by

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation just opened up a request for proposals for their Amplifying Student Voice and Leadership work. Through this RFP, the Foundation will select up to four new youth organizing groups to build public understanding, support, and demand for student-centered learning. These new grantees will be located in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont, or a combination thereof. Through this work, the Foundation seeks to amplify student voice and leadership across New England.

Below are the links to the materials you will need to apply to this RFP:

Request for Proposals

Nellie Mae Budget Template

Please respond to Delia Arellano-Weddleton, Program Officer, with any questions.

I think this is an incredible opportunity – we need so many more youth organizing groups in our country, no matter if we are designing the purpose or if it is open so that youth organize around the issues that are important to them.

It’s Not Just About Time

March 23, 2015 by

SedonaWhen asked if Arizona is moving to competency education, I’ve never been quite sure how to reply. It’s home to Carpe Diem, one of the earliest models of a school integrating personalized learning, a competency-based structure, and blended learning. In terms of state leadership, it developed the Grand Canyon diploma, a state policy designed for students to advance when they are ready based on passing an examination in secondary school. However, even though the Grand Canyon diploma does create a gateway by using an examination to determine proficiency, there is nothing that assumes that schools will actually be competency-based[1].

Something is brewing in Arizona to take the next step to supporting districts and schools to become competency-based. Although it appears there won’t be any more action by the state legislature this year, it is worth considering the elements of a bill that creates innovation space for schools. The bill requires the Board of Education to create a process to approve of competency-based innovation pilot programs if they have outlined their plans academically and financially to better meet students’ needs. Approved pilot programs are able to operate for an initial five years, after which a review process must occur. (more…)

Colorado Takes Another Step Forward with a New School in Denver

March 19, 2015 by
Happy Haynes

Happy Haynes, DPS Board President

Colorado is an interesting state to watch as it takes steps – both big and little – toward competency education. Home to Adams 50, the courageous district that moved forward because they knew that there had to be something better for their students, it’s one of the only states to have established a policy for a proficiency-based diploma – by the start of the 2015 school year, every district in the state must pass guidelines so that by 2021 students will meet or exceed minimum thresholds for college and career readiness. These guidelines will “signal proof of competency … rather than merely completion of seat‐time requirements.” (Read more about the graduation guidelines here.) To support this ambitious work, the CO Department of Education has a study group on competency education, including a site visit to Lindsay Unified.

Now Denver Public Schools is taking a step forward with a new competency-based high school. (more…)

An Interview with Principal Jaime Robles, Lindsay High School

March 18, 2015 by
Jaime Robles

Jaime Robles

This is the third post in a series on Lindsay Unified High School. See the first and second posts. 

“I could have used the personalized, performance-based system growing up.”

Jaime Robles, Principal of Lindsay High School, understands why we need to transform our schools. He grew up just a bit south of Lindsay in an agricultural community, a first-generation resident and the first in his family to go to college. He saw many of his high school friends disengage from school.

Here are a few of the highlights of our conversation. You can also hear from Robles directly on this video.

What does it mean to be a principal in a performance-based system?

As an instructional leader, I focus my job on three goals. First, my job is to keep the compelling purpose of supporting our learners alive. It’s easy to slip back into doing things just because that’s the way we’ve always done them. Second, my job is to empower our staff. They need to have the freedom to do their jobs in supporting our learners. Third, I operate from a position of service and collaboration. This is very important because if I used top-down leadership, I wouldn’t be able to empower staff. These three elements go hand in hand.  (more…)

Maximizing Competency Education and Blended Learning

March 17, 2015 by

Insights from Experts Paper

Today, CompetencyWorks released a new paper, Maximizing Competency Education and Blended Learning: Insights from Experts. The paper is based on a two-day conversation with twenty-three incredibly insightful people who work in competency education, personalized learning, and blended learning – and the paper only captures a small portion of the rich conversation. (See A Mountain of Knowledge to Climb for more background) There are several parts to the paper, including:

  1. an exploration of the relationship between personalized learning, competency education, and blended learning and the concerns about equity that arise in each;
  2. issues that district leadership will want to consider in managing change, such as providing greater autonomy to schools;
  3. guidance for competency-based schools to enhance their instruction through blended learning; and
  4. how districts that have integrated blended learning can take the next step towards becoming competency-based.

Blended learning can help in competency-based schools in so many ways – sometimes with a tidbit of risk we need to guard against. We all know that high quality adaptive software can be helpful for students to develop their foundational skills.  Blended learning can also help to offer  students the opportunity to take what they are learning and go deeper, or begin to use what they are learning in knowledge creation. These aren’t discrete activities such as extra credit or helping peers. This is the opportunity for students to be highly challenged. Blended learning can be used to offer additional challenging projects that students can take on (call them honor projects, if need be) to strengthen their learning by asking them to further apply their skills to new situations (Level 4 Depth of Knowledge). Students will be able to access the challenges or problem-based learning independently so teachers can stay focused on supporting students who are still struggling to reach proficiency. The risk here is that schools only offer deeper learning to the high-achieving students, which is totally unacceptable. So we need to create both/and – embedding Level 4 work for all students into the school design at some point in the schedule and curriculum, and offering Level 4 work for students who have advanced to proficiency in the unit or course.

Another way blended learning can be helpful is to allow students to advance to the next level of learning once they have reached proficiency on a unit or course.  This requires us to strip the ceiling off the education system by offering units online so students can advance. The risk is that that this will turn into a dynamic that so-called faster students are considered the better students. I’ve already visited schools where students talk about faster and slower students – it was done respectfully but was definitely a way for some students to differentiate themselves from their peers.

There are also challenges in using certain types of online learning in competency-based schools. These are raised in the paper and hopefully vendors will take these into consideration as they further develop their products.

We’d like to hear from you — How is your district/school using blended learning? What are the lessons learned and insights? What would your advise be to districts/schools about how to best implement blended learning to support students build and apply their skills?

 

 

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