This is the first post in a two-part series from the educators at Eastern Carver County Schools. It was written by Brian Beresford, Clint Christopher, Dana Kauzlarich Miller, and Brenda Vogds. Visit them at www.district112.org.
Eastern Carver County Schools’ plan to personalize learning in every classroom of the 9,500-student school district challenges leaders, students, teachers and the district’s stakeholders. Consider how entrenched the so-called “factory” model is in our educational systems: lesson plans as discrete pieces of information, the organization of students by age, the design of schools and classrooms based on efficiency rather than efficacy. Most importantly, in the traditional model of learning, students have been passive participants, recipients of the teacher’s knowledge instead of having the opportunity to co-create their learning. We have reevaluated the classroom from the student’s perspective and it is driving many changes in order to deliver on the promise of exceptional, personalized learning. Eastern Carver County Schools’ commitment is to full-scale personalization districtwide. It is built on building-level planning and initiatives, moving from great ideas implemented in one classroom to schools where personalized learning is simply how they operate.
For nearly a decade Eastern Carver County Schools, a suburban school district in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of 9,500 students, has been reimagining public education. When voters approved a referendum for a second high school in 2006, it came with a commitment from district leadership to redesign secondary curriculum and better align courses on the 6-12 continuum. The focus was greater rigor, relevance, and preparation the demands of 21st century life and work. Elementary schools followed suit a few years later. Many program improvements were made to grades K-5. The most significant in our personalized learning journey was implementation of a continuous progress model to move students into appropriate math and reading based on learning level, not age or grade. There were two outcomes of this work. One was culture-building. The extensive changes to course sequences, bell schedules, student groupings, grade configurations, and attendance boundaries set the stage for larger systemic changes. This started a cycle of continuous improvement and promotion of a growth mindset among district educators. Second, the continuous progress model created a cohort of elementary students who were challenged based on what they knew, not their age. They would need more in the years to come.
Catalysts for change
What separates the work at Eastern Carver County Schools is a commitment to full-scale personalization. The pivotal year was 2012. Eastern Carver County Schools contracted with a change management consultant to develop a strategic plan. Concurrently, pioneering educators in the district began to pilot personalized learning after seeing examples from educators in Wisconsin. Principals reinforced risk-taking with their pioneers, who began organizing their classrooms and lessons in ways that were new to them and their students. The cliche of trying to build plane while flying the plane was a frequent refrain around these classrooms. The concept of risk-taking — finding out that a lesson did not work as planned or trying a new classroom configuration — does not come naturally in the halls of tradition-laden, highly-structured public schools. At the heart of personalized learning in Eastern Carver County Schools is changing instruction. Jack Hurst, 5th grade teacher at East Union Elementary School recalled when he asked his students to start math lessons based on what they were ready to learn, instead following his daily lessons. He said, “it took me a long time to get the kids to accept that ownership, instead of just doing the assignments to please me. I was not sure if they would to take that baton and run. It still surprises me when they do.” Early communication with families was important. Differences between a personalized environment and the classic model were in structure and delivery. Where pilot programs started, parents needed to hear that the same content would be taught in both models. Students became the strongest ambassadors for personalized learning. As they became active participants in learning, instead of passive receivers of information, they could tell their parents/guardians in detail what and how they were learning. Parents have told us stories of their child who could not wait to start on homework because the child had embraced their learning and knew exactly what they wanted to do, as opposed to reacting to a teacher’s inspiration or demands.
In its “Strategic Plan for Personalized Learning” the district articulated a modern vision for teaching and learning that aligned to the world beyond school walls. The plan provided each school site with “deliverables.” It was classic project management with schools setting goals, milestones, champions, and criteria for measurement and evaluation. Though the strategic plan offered a clear, hopeful destination, the pathways of each school and program felt murky. There were clear discrepancies between schools which led to missing elements that inhibited the rapid progress of some. Embracing the notion that we could accept some stumbles as long as we kept going, the strategic planning process was nevertheless a catalyst in changing the roles of administrator, teacher, and student.
We also realized a need for standards-based instruction which was a step beyond our model of standard-aligned instruction at the time. In tandem with our personalized learning cohorts, the district provided professional development time and supported full teams of grade level or content area teachers to work together to determine course-based competencies. These course level competencies are all academic focused. A separate set of standards has been created (Behaviors for Learning) around behaviors and reported out in a non-evaluative way. A multi-year approach is underway place to accomplish this shift. Again, this move away from the letter grade as the single representation of everything there is to say about a student required additional communication with the School Board and parents.
An early discovery was that the true power in this work was in collaboration with others who shared the same vision for the future of education. We embraced this and dedicated resources to support multiple levels of collaboration with other schools and districts. District staff continued to participate in site visits, collegial conversations and professional development with districts in Wisconsin. These experiences continued to hone strategic plans for the district and schools. We also noticed the increase in the number of requests for tours from districts locally and around the upper Midwest. Just as we sought out educators in Wisconsin, others were now looking to us for ideas and inspiration. In 2014, we formed a partnership with four area districts, Eden Prairie, Edina, Farmington, and Westonka. Recognizing the need to continue to work together, we began the first “Personalized Learning Summit” in our state. This collaborative effort continues today as we have colleagues from other districts visiting, joining our personalized learning cohorts, and using our staff for their district’s professional development.