Category: District Exemplars

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…)

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…)

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…)

CBE in Chicago

April 4, 2017 by

This is the first post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago.

Chicago perseveres. And it is paying off in education – most trend lines are going in the right direction. I started visiting Chicago to learn about their efforts to improve education over twenty years ago. It’s a huge city (the district has 516 district-run schools and 125 charters serving a student population with over 80 percent at an economical disadvantage) working within the context of historical racism that created rigid segregation. (Please put The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration on your reading list.) It’s obvious that these dynamics are still at play, limiting opportunity and sometimes breaking the social contract. Yet, there are hundreds of organizations and thousands upon thousands of educators who, day in and day out, are working to improve educational opportunity in Chicago.

In terms of competency-based education, there aren’t 1,000 CBE flowers blooming in Chicago…yet. There are shoots popping up in the city, school by school. I visited four schools on the move. Thanks to Amy Huang at LEAP and Alan Mather and Dakota Pawlicki from CPS’s Office of College and Career Success, I was able to visit Lovett Elementary, CISCS West Belden, Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy (Lindblom), and Benito Juarez Community Academy.

State Policy Context

In 2016, Illinois state legislature passed the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act, which included a competency-based pilot as well as an effort to begin the calibration process between graduation expectations in mathematics and freshman-year mathematics in higher education.

The IL Department of Education has launched the Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program for twelve districts to “replace high school graduation course requirements with a competency-based learning system.” The pilot only focuses on grades 9-12, although districts will quickly learn that they are going to want a full district system – otherwise there is a constant flow of students with big gaps in their learning, as students in the earlier years are passed on without ensuring they are mastering the fundamentals.

See articles on IL for more information: (more…)

Transparency and Trust

March 14, 2017 by

Transparency1

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

Opportunity to Learn

Like most districts, transparency hasn’t been a strong point at D51 in the past. Thus, with transparency being a core value of performance-based education, there are trust issues that will have to be worked through. D51 knows it is important to provide teachers with the chance to understand and learn how to use the T&L Framework and effective practices. Any tools being developed are being designed to support growth – not evaluation. Rebecca Midles, Director of Performance-Based Learning (P-BL), noted that, “We are moving step by step and need to constantly communicate about our timelines and sequencing. Understandably, educators are wondering how the performance-based system will impact them. We are trying to be very clear about whether something is going to be evaluative or not. Eventually the T&L Framework will help us create the foundation for strengthening our human resource processes. But only when we are ready and only after teachers have had the opportunity to learn.” Opportunity to learn standards: an important piece of competency-based education for students and adults.

Preparing for Angst

Bil Pfaffendorf, a professional learning facilitator, mentioned the double edges of transparency. “The sense of trust is changing in D51,” he said. “There is more dialogue, people are sharing their opinions, and they are starting to feel confident that those at the district level are listening. We are all trying to be transparent, which is difficult in the midst of so much change. Transparency is important in building trust. It can also lead to anxiety. If teachers understand the expectations but don’t have the skills yet to do it, anxiety and angst are totally understandable feelings. So we are thinking about the the social and emotional learning of our teachers as we design the labs.”

Angst and anxiety came up several times during my visit. In a discussion, one teacher emphasized, “The level of professional engagement of our teachers is very high. Some are anxious because they recognize they have a lot to learn. Some may even be in cognitive overload as they wrap their heads around what it means to personalize their classrooms. Their can-do attitude is a beacon. It’s inspirational.”

Midles explained to me later that when educators start to feel anxious, it is often for one of two reasons. First, they may feel the expectations of their job are changing or they may not have the skills to excel. Thus, the trust-building response needs to be an assurance that there will be supports provided and that adults will not be evaluated until expectations are clear and they have had an opportunity to learn. Please note, this is the same principle used for students.

Second, anxiety and angst may build up when teachers feel out of control or that new expectations of compliance and control are being layered on top of their jobs. Midles referred to the Csikszentmihalyi model of flow in thinking about the mix of challenge and ability to strengthen educators’ and students’ relationships to learning. A middle school teacher, Darren Cook, explained to me that teachers have endured at least a decade of sweeping new reforms only to be replaced by the newest sweeping reform. With the introduction of the state-teacher evaluation policies that are not rooted in the culture or strategies of the district or their schools, teachers have become even more suspicious of changes. The trust-building response here is to make sure that teachers understand that as the district creates a more intentional common Teaching and Learning Framework, teachers will actually have more autonomy and opportunity for creativity in the strategies and learning experiences they use to help students learn. The other response is to offer opportunity to learn about performance-based learning not through memo or lecture, but through engaged reflective learning as well as opportunity to participate in creating the new system. (more…)

Creating a Transparent Performance-Based System at D51

March 1, 2017 by
D51 SEL

This is what co-design looks like.

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

Grand Junction feels like a rugged western city, bordered as it is by towering mesas and the Colorado River. That’s why the sculptures that spring up at almost every downtown corner let you know that something else is happening here. Creativity runs through the city just as it runs through the school district. You can see it and feel it in the tremendous process of design that is taking place as D51 as it outlines the architecture of the performance-based system.

They are also in an intensive process of aligning these elements to offer a transparent and coherent system of learning:

  • Graduate profile: Will inform graduate competencies, school design, and learning experiences.
  • Shared vision, mission, and guiding principles: Used to make decisions and allocate resources from school board to classroom.
  • Competency Framework: Graduate competencies, standards, and rubrics create transparency for what students should know and be able to do at each performance level. This serves as the structure by which teachers can calibrate proficiency and ensure alignment of instruction as assessment to levels of rigor.
  • Teaching & Learning Framework: Guides policies, professional learning, and feedback loops to teachers, and adds new capacities and functionality in the system. Defines the instructional practices needed for personalized learning in all classrooms regardless of content or grade level
  • Effective Practices: The core set of practices that enable students to take ownership and teachers to create the capacity for personalization in their classrooms.
  • Foundation of Growth Mindset, Social & Emotional Learning and Habits of Mind: Standards and continuua that are used to help students build the skills of being a lifelong learner.

As described in the article on D51’s Implementation Strategies, the district is using a simultaneous roll out of strands of work, thus requiring them to intentionally loop back for further aligning before they complete this phase of work.

Much of their work is similar to the efforts that have been described in articles about Henry County, Lake County, Charleston, and the report Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. However, the features of D51’s transformational process (a culture rooted in a growth mindset; a shared vision; transparency and alignment; data-driven processes; personalized learning; and collective ownership) are shaping the processes and emphases in ways that give them depth. Their Teaching & Learning (T&L) Framework stands out as an important step that I haven’t seen before in other districts. (more…)

Supporting Teachers at D51: A Conversation with the Professional Learning Facilitators

February 23, 2017 by

#7 supporting teachersThis article is the seventh in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Leigh Grasso, Director of Academic Achievement & Growth at D51, emphasizes, “We are shifting from a focus on professional development to professional learning.” And there are a lot of people focusing on helping the adults in the system learn. In the district decision-making/communication structure, there is the Learning System Support Team (LSST) that includes Content Facilitators (CFs). There is also the team of Professional Learning Facilitators (PLFs) who are organizing Design Labs for teachers.

I had the opportunity to speak with some of the PLFs, Amy Shephard-Fowler, Heather Flick, and Bil Pfaffendorf. As part of the Learning System Support Team, they are charged with creating and managing the overall the overall design for the structure of professional learning opportunities such as design hubs but work collaboratively with other LSST members, teachers, and administration in the design of the content to support the implementation of the performance-based system.

Background

As explained to me, D51 didn’t have a lot of systematic professional development in previous years. Four days a year were dedicated to event professional development with little choice available to teachers. In 2009 -2010, D51 completed the Comprehensive Appraisal for District Improvement (CADI) process and, in so doing, the emphasis on pedagogy went to an extreme emphasis on regimented delivery of curriculum and direct instruction. This left some teachers feeling like they had little autonomy and as if they had limited flexibility to meet the needs of their students. Flick explained, “We have the perfect storm to bring performance-based learning to the Grand Valley. They are ready for a system that is focused on our students.”

Feedback: The Key to Continuous Improvement for Designing Professional Learning

(more…)

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.

D51 1

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…)

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…)

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