Category: Case Studies

Why We Use Digital Badges at Del Lago Academy

May 3, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on March 23, 2017.

Del Lago Academy in Escondido, California, is a public high school of about 800 students focused on Applied Sciences. Educators here really want students not only to have desirable skills and knowledge for potential employers but to do meaningful work in school that feels relevant and connects to their lives now.

In order to ensure we’re meeting these objectives, we realized we needed a way to assess what students were doing throughout the scientific process and not just by observing the final projects they turn in. Thus our digital badging system, Competency X, was born.

Digital badges fill in the gaps for how we describe what scholars know and can do in the real world. Traditionally, most scholars only have a transcript of coursework to represent what they can do. Digital badges unbundle the competencies within both courses and workforce experiences to help fill in the gaps of larger credentials (e.g., degrees and certifications). This allows them to be more precise about what a learner is capable of accomplishing. (more…)

Encouraging Learning Risks and Growth

May 2, 2017 by

This is the fourth and final post on Student-Focused Learning in Springdale, Arkansas.

We want students to take learning risks and press themselves to learn and achieve beyond the minimums we expect and require. We know that after they leave us, their success will greatly depend on their ability and inclination to take responsibility, make commitments, and push themselves to risk, learn, and grow without always having to be pushed.

Yet, the traditional design of schools is based on assumptions of compliance, responding to the direction of adults and meeting the expectations of others. More than one hundred years ago, when the American public school system was designed, these conditions made sense. Most students would leave school and enter a workforce where compliance, following directions, and meeting external expectation were most of what was required.

The world has changed and will change even more in the decades today’s students will spend in the workforce. In an era of learning and innovation, success will require commitment, curiosity, creativity, and courage to act, even when not all elements and implications of the situation are known. Preparing today’s learners for their future asks more of us and them than the legacy design of schools can deliver. We must create a new set of learning conditions, expectations, and supports if we hope to have our students leave us ready for their futures.

This reality was reinforced for during a recent conversation with students at the Don Tyson School of Innovation (DTSOI) in Springdale, Arkansas. The conversation also gave me hope and confidence that it is possible to create these conditions and position students to take risks, venture beyond their experiences, and engage their world inside and outside of school with courage and commitment. The students were freshmen and sophomores who are learning in a very different environment than most adults experienced.

Interestingly, the students emphasized the importance of having adults around them who care deeply about them and their success, make risk-taking safe, allow mistakes and missteps to be part of learning – not embarrassing or shameful actions – and hold high expectations for their learning success. As one of the students explained, “We know that teachers here are in our corner. They want us to succeed, but don’t expect us to be perfect.” Another noted, “When we try something and it does not work out, or we fail, they are ready to listen, talk, and help us figure out what to do next.” (more…)

Finding Time and Providing Support for Student-Driven Learning

April 26, 2017 by

This is the third post on Student-Focused Learning in Springdale, Arkansas.

If we want students to be prepared to innovate and drive their future learning, they need a set of skills and experiences that prepare them. We cannot expect learners who have grown up on a steady diet of being told what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, and how well to learn to confidently and competently understand and engage in self-initiated learning as adults.

Yet, self-initiated and self-directed learning will likely play a key role in their ability to survive and thrive in an economy that is increasingly driven by learning and innovation. Once they leave us, they will no longer be able to depend on having what they need to know delivered in a professionally prepared, perfectly time, expertly delivered lesson.

What students know when they leave us remains important, but we cannot predict what they will need to know even five years beyond graduation. Many of today’s students will be engaged in work that has yet to be invented, using skills that have yet to be defined. In many cases, they will be asked to create and shape these roles, not just fill them.

This reality presents at least three challenges for us as we think about the allocation of time and our focus on learning priorities for today’s students. First, we must find time for students to engage in this type of learning without sacrificing development of core academic knowledge and skills. Second, we need to engage with students to create authentic, significant, and purposeful learning experiences in which they are active co-creators and shared owners. Third, students need to see learning as having value for them and relevance to their lives now and in the future.

I gained some important insights into how we can meet these challenges during a recent visit to the Don Tyson School of Innovation (DTSOI) in Springdale, Arkansas. The Tyson School of Innovation serves approximately 500 students, 47 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch and more than 50 percent of whom are minorities. Most of the families do not have a history of education beyond high school. DTSOI was created through the imagination, creativity, and leadership of its principal, Joe Rollins. DTSOI has taken on the dual challenge of addressing core academic competencies while preparing students for the workplace of the future, and has some important insights and strategies to share. (more…)

Juarez Community Academy: When Big Schools Become Competency-Based

April 25, 2017 by

Principal Juan Carlos Ocón

This is the seventh post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

There are always exceptions, and Benito Juarez Community Academy (Juarez) in Chicago is one of them. At CompetencyWorks, we tend to advise against using grading as the entry point into competency-based education. It can create confusion and anxiety, especially in high schools, before the full competency-based infrastructure has been put into place. Yet Juarez successfully moved to standards-based grading, having used the practice for the last seven years, and is now ready to move to a fuller competency-based model. Actually, I think they have already taken the substantial steps to restructure their school as competency-based.

When Juan Carlos Ocón became principal, Juarez had been on the list of the forty worst schools in Illinois. In 2010, it jumped off that list. In 2008-2009, principal Ocon and his team began a deliberate and strategic shift from a content-based curriculum to a standards-based curriculum. This was a necessary shift that allowed the school to focus on what students should know and be able to do. In the spring and summer of 2010, Juarez adopted the College Readiness Standards. In 2011, Juarez continued to develop a schoolwide shift from what teachers teach to what students learn. Ocón explained, “After analysis and research on instructional and grading models, we needed to shift our focus from what teachers teach to what students learn. That is how we were going to improve rigor in the classroom. Benchmarking, therefore, is a system of instruction that is focused on student assessment and skills mastery.

At Juarez, we had a lengthy conversation with about fifteen teachers and administrators. I apologize, as I was unable to put everyone’s names with what they said as I normally try to do. Next time I visit Juarez, I’ll do better so that readers can get to know the leaders, administrators, and teachers there.

Background

Serving 1,600 mostly Hispanic students, Juarez is a neighborhood school offering an IB program and 5 CTE programs. There is a strong college counseling program that includes resources for DREAMers. In 2008, they began to introduce standards-based grading (SBG) with school-wide implementation in 2010.

They are now in a process of preparing for the transition to competency-based education or what they referred to as “resetting.” Principal Juan Carlos Ocón explained, “Moving to competency-based education is forcing us to revisit our core values.” The leadership team, including teacher leaders, organized a retreat with Camille Farrington and members of the UC Consortium on School Research to clarify their philosophy about education and equity.

Juarez is part of the high schools organizing the pilot under the state’s Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program. (See CBE in Chicago for more information.) (more…)

Building Learning Momentum at Springdale’s School of Innovation

April 24, 2017 by

This is the second post on Student-Focused Learning in Springdale, Arkansas. Read the first post here.

I find it exhilarating when what I hear from people in the field brings to life what I have read in research and know from experience to be true. This sense is especially powerful when the insights come from learners.

I recently spent some time with a group of high school students at the Don Tyson School of Innovation (DTSOI) in Springdale, Arkansas, querying them about their experiences and what makes their learning lives at DTSOI stand out. I received an earful and it was great. It was especially powerful since so much of what I heard is highly consistent with what research tells us about motivation, the role of purpose in learning, and the importance of taking ownership for the direction of our lives.

As educators, we can spend a good portion of our time looking for ways and trying out strategies to motivate learners. We know that motivation is the entry point to stimulate and support engagement in learning. Without motivation, not much learning happens. Yet, as I listened to what these learners were describing about their learning and the environment at DTSOI, I kept wondering if we too often approach this challenge from the wrong direction. One of the young men captured this insight succinctly, “I now understand that I cannot wait for someone to motivate me. I need to be responsible for motivating myself.” What a powerful understanding about life and success! This student’s observation begs the question of whether we should be spending less of our time trying to motivate students and more time focusing on developing the ability and inclination of students to be the source of their own motivation. We know that the ability to self-motivate is a key life skill, but how can we build this capacity in learners? More about that later.

While I was absorbing the significance of helping learners build the capacity to motivate themselves, another student followed with an equally powerful observation. She noted, “At DTSOI, almost everything we do has a purpose. Whether it is what we are learning in class, participating in an internship, or listening to people talk about the real world, there is a purpose behind it.” Again, a powerful insight about success in life. The more we see the purpose in what we do, the more likely we are to focus on and persist in achieving what we set out to do. If we can help students to seek and see purpose in their learning, their success is likely to grow. If we can help them to transfer a sense of purpose to their lives, we give them a gift that can last a lifetime. Again, more about this later.

Yet another student observed that what makes learning at DTSOI unique is that students actively participate in planning their own learning paths. He noted that students, with their parents, have planning conferences with school staff. They set goals, decide the direction they want to pursue, and then select and create options and opportunities to form the learning path. Once the path has been created, learners still have regular opportunities to make adjustments and add experiences and elements that combine formal learning in school and community college with less formal, application-based learning in the community. It was clear from the discussion that students found this aspect of their learning very powerful.

So, what do we know from research about learning that parallels and reinforces the experiences these students shared? It turns out there is plenty. (more…)

Servant to Two Masters: Balancing Skills and Content at Lindblom

April 20, 2017 by

This is the sixth post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

I met with several teachers at Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy (Lindblom) to discuss their experience in PBL. Three years into implementation, they estimate that about 90 percent of the teachers believe in the principles of PBL and about 50 percent have implemented strategies to match those principles.

Changing Practice

Casey Fuess, high school choir and teacher representative on the local school council, said, “Without clear learning objectives, teacherspurposefully or not—focus on engaging students for the sake of order and discipline. Instead, PBL leads teachers to plan the instructional environment to meet specific learning goals. PBL pushes teachers to think about how to intrinsically engage students with relevant material and the opportunity to see themselves getting better over time. Our students know that success is possible. PBL shifts teachers practices – we are always asking, ‘What do you want students to know, where is each student in their learning, and how can we create engaging projects that will help them get to the next step?’”

Nell Kemp, biology and biotech, explained, “Teachers need to have confidence in their practice and in themselves as learners. PBL can be difficult if teachers haven’t embraced the philosophy or don’t have a love of their content.” In hindsight, Kemp wished she had been able to take a full year to think about what proficiency-based learning looks like in the classroom.  

Supporting New Teachers

Everyone agreed that new teachers need support on classroom management – no matter what kind of classroom management. Schools need to build in support for teachers to use the classroom management practices designed around student agency and personalization. Molly Myers, AP geography, explained that professional development from Doug Finn of Marzano Research Labs was instrumental in learning how to organize classroom structures and procedures to support greater agency and personalization. The teachers are also exploring how to have more metacognitive reflection so students can better manage their learning processes. Myers emphasized, “Just let the experienced teachers who love their content go. They will create wonderful learning opportunities for students.”

“Teachers need to be reflective,” added Myers. “We have to own our failure as educators. We have to use them as an opportunity for learning to improve our skills.” (more…)

Springdale, Arkansas: A Tradition of Innovation and Future of Opportunity

April 19, 2017 by

James Rickabaugh

CompetencyWorks is delighted to share with you a special four-part series based on James Rickabaugh’s Student Focused Learning tour in Springdale, Arkansas. Rickabaugh is the senior advisor at Wisconsin’s Institute for Personalized Learning and the author of Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders.

I love visiting schools, talking with students and educators and seeing the power of learning. That’s why a recent visit to the Springdale School District in Springdale, Arkansas, was a special treat. I met wonderful educators and enthusiastic and motivated learners and encountered some innovative, promising ideas and practices worth sharing.

Arkansas has recently taken some important and promising steps forward with the creation of a state Office of Innovation. In 2013, the Office of Innovation for Education was opened to support local education innovation through designation as Districts of Innovation. The Office of Innovation is located at the University of Arkansas, led by Denise Tobin Airola and her team. Springdale was one of the original school districts to apply for and be selected as Districts of Innovation by then Commissioner of Education Tom Kimbrell. In addition, Springdale was awarded a Federal Race to the Top District Grant in 2014 to accelerate its efforts to rethink and redesign learning that is “student focused.” The focus of the grant included beginning to move beyond seat time and traditional credits as measures of learning to focus on competency and supporting students to become more actively engaged in and take greater ownership for their learning, including the launch of student-led conferences.

Springdale has long enjoyed a reputation for excellence and innovation within Arkansas. However, as I learned more about Springdale’s recent history, this culture of innovation became even more obvious and seemed like a model from which others could learn. Just a few decades ago, Springdale was largely a Caucasian community enrolling around 5,000 students. Today, Springdale serves 21,500 students in PK-12. Meanwhile, the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of the learner population has become much more diverse. The school district has a majority-minority student enrollment, including 31 percent Caucasian students, 47 percent English Language Learners, 46 languages spoken, and 63 percent free and reduced lunch eligibility. Included among the diverse learners is a comparatively large Marshallese population. (Native to the Marshall Islands, the Marshallese historically were a fishing-based culture until a portion of their country became the site of U.S. nuclear testing in the 1950s. A subsequent agreement with the U.S. government allows the Marshallese to travel freely between their country and the United States.) (more…)

Getting Results at Lindblom

April 18, 2017 by

This is the fifth post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy (Lindblom) is relatively new to proficiency-based learning. They are in the third year of implementation; year one was spent introducing new practices, which were then introduced school-wide in the second year. The structures they have put into place include vertically aligning a transparent set of academic standards, introducing habits of learning, developing strong flex schedules, and implementing four-year looped advisories, universal revision policies, and standards-based grading. They are a school that is constantly trying to figure out what works best for students and is sustainable for teachers.

Getting Results

Lindblom is seeing results with the introduction of proficiency-based learning structures and practices. These results include higher on-track indicators, increased GPA, more scholarships being awarded, and an increase of selective college admissions. Scholarships have increased from $15 million to $55.5 million. The rate of students going to highly selective colleges increased from 15 to 30 percent, including two students going to West Point and one to Stanford. As Principal Wayne Bevis explained, “These are life-changing colleges for minority and low-income students.”

Lindblom Before & After PBL Implementation
Data Point Before PBL Today with PBL
Freshmen On-Track 83% 99.3%
Unweighted GPAs 2.4 3.0
Highly Selective Colleges Acceptance     17% 31%
Scholarships $15,000,000     $55,500,000


It’s important to understand the context of these results. A recent report from the 
University of Chicago looked at the question of whether selective schools benefit low-income kids. Their finding was that neighborhood schools were a better choice for highly skilled kids because they were able to generate higher GPAs that led to more selective colleges. Lindblom challenged that finding by putting into place proficiency-based learning structures that led to students building their skills and earning higher GPAs. (more…)

Personalizing Learning at West Belden

April 13, 2017 by

This is the fourth post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

After the visit to Lovett Elementary School, our tour (sponsored by LEAP) headed over to CICS West Belden (K-8), a Distinctive Schools campus, for a quick visit. Ninety-five percent of students are low-income and more than 90 percent are Hispanic.

West Belden was an early adopter of personalized learning in Chicago, and the school is quickly becoming a national exemplar in the space with about seventy-five tours per year. Using a personalized approach supported by blended learning, they’re seeing substantial growth results.

To jumpstart their journey to personalized learning, West Belden competed and was selected for LEAP Innovations’ Breakthrough Schools program, which provides design support, access to national experts and innovative school models, and grant funding to school teams as they implement personalized learning school-wide. West Belden turned to personalization for three reasons: stagnation of student growth, desire for increased student engagement, and teacher readiness. West Belden is organizing their school around co-teaching, multi-age learning environments. They have two teams for first through third graders and two teams for fourth and fifth graders. Kindergarten and middle school all operate with single grade levels (with multi-age electives for middle school). Their definition of personalized learning includes: (more…)

Loving Learning at Lovett Elementary

April 11, 2017 by

Dr. Haney from Chicago Public Education Fund

This is the third post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

During my visit to Chicago, I joined a tour hosted by LEAP to Lovett Elementary School. It was a group tour, so I didn’t have the opportunity to dig in as deeply as I do with other school visits. Lovett is starting with personalized learning as their entry point. They have some of the things one would expect to see in a competency-based school but not all.

These are just a few highlights:

Lovett Elementary School vibrates with energy. Dr. LeViis Haney, principal of Lovett, explained, “A few years back, we came up with the tagline, ‘Love it at Lovett.’ The problem was the kids didn’t really love it at Lovett. So we asked ourselves, ‘How can we transform the environment so that kids really would love learning?’”

At the time, the school was very traditional, with thirty students “jammed” into classrooms with one teacher. Many of our students come “from down the hill,” referring to the income levels of the community. Nearly all students are on Free or Reduced Lunch. Many of our parents didn’t do well in school themselves and their opinions of schools and teachers were informed by their own less-than-positive experiences.

Haney described their previous top-down, compliance based-culture: “Everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing. Teachers were teaching the curriculum and kids were listening and receiving knowledge. Students went from one worksheet or workbook to the next. The problem was that all the instruction was just one-way without consideration of students’ needs.” The results were manifold: a high percentage of disciplinary office referrals and high suspension rates; teachers were isolated and only felt responsibility for their classrooms; technology integration was almost nonexistent and didn’t come with teacher training; and there were low rates of parent satisfaction and high rates of student apathy. (more…)

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