Category: Case Studies

Laying the Foundation with Culture and Climate

February 21, 2017 by

This article is the sixth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Steve Schultz and Rebecca Midles from Getting Smart

The first of District 51’s five phases of implementation is Laying the Foundation. The foundation they are speaking of is the culture and climate in which personalized, performance-based learning can take root. They describe this as “a culture where each student has ownership of his/her academic, social and emotional learning resulting in readiness for success in life.” This description helps you understand their vision for a personalized, performance-based system – the policies, procedures, school design, schedules, learning experiences, supports, and instructional cycle – that is going to help students build the skills they need to become lifelong learners.

D51 has focused most of their attention on creating a robust, empowered culture of learning with the growth mindset, social and emotional learning, and Habits of Mind at its very core. It’s important to remember that the features of their system and their process are also shaping the creation of the culture and climate. (See The Vision of Performance-Based Education at D51.)

There are three things that stood out for me about their efforts that are different than I’ve seen in other districts:

  • Integration of the sixteen Habits of Mind into a Social & Emotional Learning Framework that is organized into developmental bands that will stretch from K-12.
  • Focus on growth mindset that emphasizes helping students learn how to be aware of self-talk and how to create productive self-talk.
  • Growth mindset is also influencing the efforts of designing the elements of the performance-based learning system and personalized support for teachers.

A Culture Rooted in the Growth Mindset

D51 talks about the growth mindset constantly – in professional learning sessions with teachers just becoming familiar with performance-based learning, in meetings with principals to build a culture of reflection as they stretch themselves to strengthen their understanding of their tasks as leaders, and in presentations in the community. It starts at the top – superintendent Steve Schultz models the growth mindset through reflecting on his own learning and a constant fail forward orientation.

Building the Culture and Climate to Support Growth Mindset

D51 has identified five strategies to help people, both students and adults alike, to learn to have a growth mindset. Posters are found all over the district highlighting the five steps: Brain, Mindsets, Self-Talk, Feedback, Goal. I’ve expanded on the third strategy, productive self-talk, as it is the first time I’ve heard a district focus this specifically on it. Click here for the Growth Mindset Learning Continuum.

Growth Mindset

1.Teach About the Brain: Students need to learn about the brain and how it works. Two important points that directly relate to the growth mindset: 1) their intelligence is not fixed and it can change, and 2) their intelligence can get stronger or weaker depending on effort that actually rewires the brain. I heard a facilitator in a professional development session call out with what sounded like true joy, “LET’S REWIRE!” (more…)

Growing into the Framework: D51’s Implementation Strategy

February 15, 2017 by

This article is the fifth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Growing into the Framework

Superintendent Steve Schultz doesn’t ask “How are we going to implement?” Instead he thinks, “We have forty-four schools. How are they each going to grow into the framework?” The job of the district is to help learn, grow, and co-create with schools the new performance-based system (P-BL). The answer is through a more personalized approach that lets schools and educators start where they are in their current learning and move forward from there.

Five Phases of Implementation

Everything is in motion at District 51, and everyone is moving forward with the understanding that the different pieces will eventually need to be aligned. Thus, everything is draft and everything stays open until related work is done. Paul Jebe, Director of Educator Effectiveness, likened it to the whirling tea cups at Disneyland, bringing back that experience of loving every spin while simultaneously praying that it might be over soon.

Still in their first year of implementation, D51 has intensive activity in three of their five phases of work underway – so don’t make the mistake of thinking phase suggests sequence. There is a cohort of seven demonstration schools that are hungry to put the entire model into place as soon as it is ready. (When they sign up to be a demonstration school they are committing to demonstrating to others what performance-based learning looks like – it’s important to understand that they are not pilots.) The trick is that given the simultaneous development of many of the pieces, the demonstration schools might find themselves operating in the third phase even if they are missing some pieces from phases one or two. In a few more years, there will be efforts underway, schools and educators in all five phases as they continue to design, refine, skill-build, and engage.

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Remember, D51 describes the journey to transformation described in the previous article separately from the implementation strategy. Both are important – the journey captures the new conditions (strong learning culture, shared vision, collective ownership, personalized, transparency, and data-driven) that will shape the system (i.e., the paradigm shift), and the phases are how the work is being organized. Below is a quick scan of the phases and the different sets of work underway. (more…)

Put Us In the Room Where It Happens: Teacher-Driven Shifts To Mastery

February 13, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education blog on January 4, 2017. 

I wanna be in the room where it happens.

This line from the Broadway hit Hamilton is one I refer to often when thinking about how we can effectively bring students and teachers in to create honest and equitable systems of assessment.

Our little school in Queens, New York, has worked tirelessly to create and maintain a teacher-created system of mastery-based grading. I’m thirteen years into my middle and high school English teaching career, but the school I have had the privilege of being a part of for the past six years is The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria. Our school is grades 6-12, public, all-girls, and Title I.  On average, 98% of our graduates are accepted to and attend college, and we have been a mastery-based school for the past seven years.

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Christy conducting a coaching session.

Our mastery work began when our founding principal shared a paper with her then-staff, “Removing Structural Barriers to Academic Achievement in High Schools: An Innovative Model” by Camille A. Farrington and Margaret H. Small.  The gist of the paper addressed the dropout rate as a “structural problem” connected to traditional systems of determining final grades and course credit. It was a call to action honoring “differential learning rates”. For our founding teachers, this was an issue of social justice-being able to provide multiple opportunities for students to achieve mastery of skills over time was simply more equitable. Our through line was, and remains, educational equity.

(more…)

Holacracy: Organizing for Change at D51

February 8, 2017 by

Holacracy1This article is the fourth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Posted inside the conference space where many of the district-level meetings and gatherings of principals are held is a Managing Complex Change chart that describes the conditions for successful implementation. It identifies five elements to think about (vision, skills, incentives, resources, action plan) with five likely issues that might develop if any are not well-managed (confusion, anxiety, resistance, frustration, and false starts). Although the chart is very simple, it does provide language and concepts to jump start conversations to identify indicators that something isn’t working well. For example, in one meeting, I heard someone say, “I don’t want to false start them by putting them in a meeting that is too deep in the weeds,” to refer to not having a formal plan to introduce new ideas. In many meetings, attention was given to possible anxiety and angst if teachers don’t have the chance to access supports based on where they are in their own learning.

But how do you make sure that vision + skills + incentives + resources + action plan are all in place and all aligned to bring change? D51 knows, as pretty much any district leadership involved in the conversion to competency education knows, that top-down hierarchical structures aren’t helpful. They force decisions to the top when what we want is to create empowering, flexible organizational structures.

So what’s a district to do? D51 is testing out if holacracy will do the trick. (more…)

The Vision of Performance-Based Education at D51

February 6, 2017 by

This article is the third in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Starting with the Four Questions

Guiding QuestionsIt’s feels a bit like a riddle. You see the four Guiding Questions in different places throughout Colorado’s District 51. Everyone knows the district isn’t anywhere close to being able to ensure that students can answer all four questions, but they remind you that this is what they are striving for. This technique sparks reflection and opens up minds to P-BL and the ultimate goal of personalized learning.

These questions go to the heart of what it means to have a transparent system that engages, motivates, and enables students to build lifelong learning skills. Yet, they start with the important question, Do our students feel valued, safe and supported? If that isn’t in place, students won’t take risks, they won’t ask for the help they need, and they won’t strive to do reach their personal best every day.

The Values Leading to the Vision

Transformation MapD51 thinks about their efforts toward building a personalized, performance-based system as a transformational journey – transformational in that it is being grounded in a set of very different values, understanding of learning, and capacity than the traditional education system. (If you are new to competency education and need more information on this topic, see What is Competency Education?) Let’s call these the features of the system they are building.They are also the features of the process by which the district is going to transform their system. In other words, D51 is walking the talk.

These features of the system and the process include a culture rooted in a growth mindset; a shared vision; transparency and alignment; data driven processes; personalized learning, and collective ownership. As you read this series about D51’s journey to date, consider how each of these features may be shaping their strategies and driving their decisions.

Observation and Insight: I came to believe during my site visit that safety, trust, and respect are also a feature of D51’s work and the design of the system. It comes up in conversations along the way, but in general I think it is an operating value (although not one that is explicit as the features listed here). Given that many districts have to overcome years and years of mistrust, specifically rooted in the institutional patterns that have resulted in much lower quality of education in communities of color, I recommend that safety, trust, and respect be considered as explicit features that drive design and implementation.

What Does it Mean to Be Performance-Based?

(more…)

Building Consensus for Change at D51

February 2, 2017 by
d51 school board for post about building consensus for change

D51 School Board

This article, the second in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series, is about how the district has built the consensus for change and is engaging their community. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

One of the more challenging processes for medium to larger districts (as compared to the small ones that have led the way to competency-based education) is engaging the broader community in building the consensus for change. In general, when it comes to shifting course or introducing new reforms in larger districts, buy-in tends to be the most common strategy used; there is a single or big meeting with community members, presentation of the new idea, opportunity to react – and then it moves quickly into implementation. Engagement means that there are continued opportunities for community members to shape the “what” of competency education and that there are ongoing structures and processes for two-way dialogue. D51’s Superintendent Steve Schultz explains, “We want to move from a ‘decide and defend’ mentality to one in which we gather information to inform a decision before it is made.”

Below are highlights (and we know there is much more to the story than recounted here) of how D51 is building consensus and shaping community engagement.

A Bit of Background

Schultz had been guiding D51 toward personalization since 2006, when the school established three diploma pathways (normal, distinction, and individualized) with the district expanding the number of options and instructional pathways (IB, concurrent enrollment, STEM, Key Performance Program to demonstrate learning through capstones and presentations, and four alternative education programs). The emphasis was on helping students excel just as much as it was on increasing pathways for students who were having problems earning credits, were confronted with challenging life experiences, or had left school for a period of time to complete their diploma.

In 2013, when Schultz began to engage his team in learning about competency education, the communities within the Grand Valley were still challenged by the Great Recession. A region shaped by the boom and bust cycles of the oil industry, Grand Junction and the surrounding towns were having difficulty climbing out of the bust. Vast ideological differences had led to relationships becoming increasingly strained between the teachers’ association, administration, and the school board. Schultz remembers, “It became clear to us that we needed to focus on building relationships and finding common ground in order to move the district forward.”

Then two things happened. (more…)

Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51

January 26, 2017 by

national monumentThis is the first in a series on District 51’s transition to competency education. D51 uses the language of performance-based learning and uses PBL as an acronym. However, knowing that our readers are likely to read that as project-based learning, we are using P-BL to indicate performance-based learning.

D51, tucked away on the Western Slope in Colorado, is fashioning a new implementation roll-out strategy for performance-based learning. I spent a week in the fall visiting District 51 with school visits, meetings, interviews, and in-depth conversations with district leaders. The insights are plentiful but it should be understood that they were collected in the midst of the change process. Thus, there is less discussion in this series about the structure of their performance-based system and much more about the conditions that are needed to support it.

Highlights of D51’s Conversion to Performance-Based Learning

There is so much to be learned from the educators at D51. They are all at that stage of expert-novice – they can tell you about what they are learning, as it hasn’t become fully embedded as routine thinking or practices yet, and they can tell you about their areas of inquiry because they are becoming clear about what they don’t know…yet. Harvesting their bountiful insights was a delight. You can get a taste for their commitment and creativity by listening to Getting Smart’s interview with Superintendent Steve Shultz and Rebecca Midles, Director of Performance-Based Learning. Below are just a few of the highlights from this series:

  • D51’s story of deciding to move to P-BL and building the consensus for change is a fascinating one, as it emphasizes the critical role of school boards and how individual leaders can help move a district forward by engaging in dialogue and joint site visits.
  • D51’s roll-out strategies offer a new way of thinking about implementation. We have documented the implementation strategies used by many of the early innovators in Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders and strategies used by larger school districts such as Henry County, Lake County, and Charleston that have created scaling strategies. However, the early innovators were all very small and their approaches limited for medium-sized districts. And the larger school districts we have highlighted have often had funding through federal or large foundations to support their efforts. D51, with few additional funds, has developed a simultaneous and iterative approach based on carefully managing strands of work, including engaging the community in shaping a shared vision and graduate profile; designing a teaching and learning framework that defines the performance-based learning system; providing intensive capacity building for the first wave of demonstration schools; and re-designing professional development to support any teacher wanting to build their professional skills. They talk about phases of implementation but it doesn’t mean everyone will be in the same phase at the same time.

(more…)

Leveling the Playing Field

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Asynchronous Learning in High-Poverty, Competency-Based Urban High Schools

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At the U School we are big believers in the notion that skillful, independent learning is central to leading a meaningful and productive life…But what happens if students enter high school with minimal experience of this level of ownership? Over the past two and a half years, our faculty and leadership has used our design process– with Users at the center (inset, 2015)–to explore answers to this question. What we’ve come up with is still a work in progress, but we are excited by significant early indicators that students are truly becoming self-directed learners as they immerse themselves in the school community.

How do we know? We organized all coursework and student groupings around our 4-stage developmental framework.

The 4 Stages of the U School Learner

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At the U School, students learn about these 4 stages, undertake a self-assessment that helps them identify their specific stage in each content area, and then work with the adults in the building to put together a program that encourages growth towards increasing independence, using their identified level of autonomy as the starting point. Every 10 weeks students and adults come back together to reassess where students are on the continuum to ensure that programs reflect ongoing student growth and development: sometimes students realize they need more support, other times they are ready to move into more autonomous learning experiences. (more…)

Who’s Leading the Way?

January 12, 2017 by

A Promising Competency-Based Model for Historically Marginalized Students

who-is-leading-the-way-in-cbeCompetency-based education models are complicated organisms, and staging their development and growth is generally a multi-year task, whether one is a launching a new school or re-envisioning an existing program. As the world of CBE picks up momentum our team at reDesign is continually asking ourselves, “Who’s Leading the Way in Serving Historically Marginalized Young People?” In preparation for #iNACOL16 we documented some of our learning in a Prezi (pictured above). We will continue to add to it over the course of this year, so please let us know about the models you think of when you ask yourself the same question. (more…)

Mastery Motivates Students: “No Way” vs. “Not Yet”

December 15, 2016 by
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FIHS Science Teacher Jordan Wolf with Students

This post originally appeared at Mastery Collaborative on October 21, 2016.

Can a mastery-based school culture give students a useful way to track their own progress and achievements? A visit to Flushing International High School (FIHS), one of eight Mastery Collaborative Living Lab schools, provided some insight into this issue.

During the visit, school leadership, faculty, and students discussed with guests how a focus on mastery has changed the outlook of school departments, individual teachers, and especially students. Rather than looking at grades only as a final score, students now track their progress toward mastery throughout the year, on a group of subject-specific goals. Goals are assessed multiple times over the year, allowing students to see which specific goals they need to focus on to improve their mastery of key skills and knowledge.

Switching to a Mastery-Based Model

This method of grading is of recent vintage at FIHS. Five years ago, the leadership and staff began to discuss concerns about the role of assessments. “We were not communicating our grading and assessment policies clearly enough,” explained Principal Lara Evangelista.

To address the problem, teachers began creating homemade report cards with many personalized comments to indicate how well students were meeting specific standards. At the end of marking periods, students were able to see how they could improve in specific terms. Then, the staff came up with an even better idea, said Evangelista: “Why don’t we tell [students] at the beginning what we are looking for?”

Over the course of the next four years, school leadership, faculty and students integrated clearly stated learning goals into everything from lesson plans, to the online grading system, to teacher-student advisories. (more…)

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