Category: Reflection

On Perseverance in the Classroom

January 22, 2015 by
Eric Toshalis

Eric Toshalis

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center: Teaching and Learning in the Era of the Common Core

Have you ever sat through a difficult or dry lesson and were told by your teacher when you began to struggle that if you simply tried harder, you would succeed? If so, didn’t it sound like your teacher was saying, “If you just banged your head harder against this brick wall, you could break through!” You likely realized then what researchers have known for decades: that simply isn’t true. While effort is important when attempting work of any kind, perseverance in school is frequently depicted as a quality either a kid has or doesn’t have, as if the circumstances surrounding that student’s struggles were irrelevant. And far too often, teachers and others use concepts like perseverance to blame students from disadvantaged backgrounds for “lacking motivation,” when it is the learning environment itself that is largely to blame.

I’ve been thinking about this concept of perseverance because I recently had the opportunity to review the report, Equity in Competency Education: Realizing the Potential, Overcoming the Obstacles, by RAND authors and commissioned by Jobs for the Future’s Students at the Center initiative. I applaud the authors for tackling a tricky subject often glossed over and under-researched in the rush to advocate for competency education. Their treatment presents a broad and well-organized array of scholarship that highlights the enormous potential of competency-based reforms to elevate achievement and enhance equity. However, the paper raises a lingering concern: discussions of the concept of perseverance can easily devolve into a blame-the-victim ideology rather than an improve-the-context search for solutions.

Perseverance can be a seductive explanation of student failure due to the way it shifts attention away from pedagogical factors that may hinder students’ achievement and instead draws attention toward perceived deficits in students’ motivation. This effectively absolves adults of responsibility for students’ struggles. Given the culture of blame that surrounds the profession of teaching these days, it’s not surprising that some would seek shelter in explanations that deny culpability in student failures. I would argue, however, that to overcome academic struggles, it is the educator’s responsibility to teach the skills necessary for success and to present material using techniques that motivate students to engage. In this way, perseverance is less a prerequisite of learning and more a product of good teaching. (more…)

Ownership, Not Buy-In: An Interview with Bob Crumley, Superintendent Chugach School District

January 20, 2015 by
Bob Crumley

Bob Crumley

This is the fourth post in the Chugach School District series. Read the firstsecond, and third posts here.

In October, I had the chance to meet with Bob Crumley, Superintendent of the Chugach School District. He’s worked his way up, starting as a teacher in the village of Whittier, becoming the assistant superintendent in 1999 and superintendent in 2005. Crumley has a powerful story to share, as he’s been part of the team that transformed Chugach into a performance-based system and sustained it for twenty years.

Crumley has tremendous insights into every aspect of creating and managing a personalized, performance-based system. The emphasis on empowerment, situational leadership-management styles, and courage reminded me of my conversation with Virgel Hammonds, Superintendent of RSU2 in Maine. Below, Crumley addresses several key elements of managing a performance-based system:

Personalized is Community-Based: On the Importance of Community Engagement

Creating a personalized, performance-based system starts with engaging the community in an authentic way. Our entire transformation started with the communities and school board challenging us – they wanted to know why their children were not reading at grade level. Our communities were not sure they trusted the schools and teachers. This was partially based on the history of Alaska and how Native Alaskan communities were treated. However, it was also based on the fact that we were not currently effective in helping our children to learn the basics or preparing them for success in their lives. We had to find a way to overcome that.

The superintendent at the time, Roger Sampson, was committed to responding to the community and implemented a top-down reading program. Reading skills did improve, but it also raised questions for all of us about what we needed to do to respond to students to help them learn. With the leadership of Sampson and Richard DeLorenzo, Assistant Superintendent, we took a step back in order to redesign our system. (more…)

Chugach Teachers Talk About Teaching

January 13, 2015 by
3flying to tatitlek

Flying to Tatitlek

This is the third post in the Chugach School District series. Read the first and second posts here.

Chugach School District is a teacher’s district. Bob Crumley, Superintendent, started as a teacher in Whittier Community School (WCS). (There is a story about his coming face to face with a bear that had wandered into the school in search of sausage.) Debbie Treece, Director of Special Education, signed up to teach at Whittier before realizing that the only way to get there at the time was to travel through a tunnel sitting in absolute darkness…and this after driving one’s car onto the back of a railway flat. Doug Penn, District Principal, has worked in the communities of Chenega Bay and Whittier.

It’s also a learner’s district, because everyone at CSD is willing to learn in order to do better by their students and their families.

Not every person is cut out to teach at CSD. You’ve got to want a bit of adventure. You’ve got to have a love for the incredible mountain-meets-sea landscape. You’ve got to be willing to live in small communities that have limited access. And you’ve got to love kids.

There were incredibly rich conversations with teachers throughout my three days at CSD. Here are a few of the highlights:

On Being a Generalist or Not-Yet-Specialists (more…)

Chugach School District’s Performance-Based Infrastructure

January 7, 2015 by
2 hydroponics class

Students in Chugach School District

This is the second post in the Chugach School District series. Read the first post here.

I’ve noticed that in the first year of transitioning to a competency-based system, schools often dive headfirst into creating the competencies and rubrics without thinking about the pedagogical platform upon which the entire infrastructure is going to rest. What could be a powerful discussion among educators about what we want students to learn and be able to do can quickly become a bureaucratic process eating up reams of paper.

Not so at Chugach. The spirit of empowerment, student ownership of their learning, and a shared understanding that the schools are preparing students for life, not just graduation, permeated every conversation. Absolutely every conversation.

This post, although long, will cover four elements of the Chugach performance-based system: student empowerment, a system of assessments, the domains of learning (content areas), and preparing students for life.  (more…)

Driven by Student Empowerment: Chugach School District

January 6, 2015 by
Debbie Treece

Debbie Treece

This is the first post in the Chugach School District series.

I’ve never been to Alaska before. All I can say is that it was beyond any and all expectations – as was my visit to Chugach School District (CSD).

I’m sure you’ve heard about Chugach. It’s the first district to transform itself into a competency-based model (or what they refer to as performance-based). It’s the basis of the must-read Delivering the Promise. CSD has stayed the course for twenty years, developing a sophisticated system that provides flexibility to their schools while keeping a firm eye on student achievement and progress. And they aren’t done – they are continually exploring ways to increase access to knowledge, expand hands-on and college/career readiness opportunities, and more.

It’s not easy to see the CSD performance-based system in practice. Seventy-seven percent of their students are homeschoolers, the schools in the Alutiiq communities of Tatitlek and Chenega Bay require boarding a charter flight, and the road to Whittier…well, it goes through a one-lane tunnel where you have to decide whether you want the wheels of your car to fit on top of the railroad track or to the sides, and where you have to be prepared to share the road with moose if the snow gets too deep! (There is also the Voyage to Excellence, a statewide variable-term residential program to expand learning opportunities, which I’ll talk about in future posts.)

I spent three days with the CSD team in order to fully understand their approach – and I am forever grateful for their willingness to share their knowledge and their love of Alaska. I learned so much about performance-based education: how it looks in tiny, rural schools; how it can be structured for Native education; how it supports special education students; and how the infrastructure can be intentionally designed to capture all aspects of learning and student development.

A special thanks to Debbie Treece, Director of Special Education, who organized the tour, answered a thousand questions, and drove me through a wintery-white landscape to Whittier. (more…)

Explorations in Competency Education

January 5, 2015 by
0 me in alaska

In Tatitlek

This post introduces the upcoming series on Chugach School District.

I learned a lot during my trip to Alaska to visit Chugach School District and Highland Tech Charter School. If a moose licks his lips at you, it’s time to back away carefully. Slowly wave your arms if a black bear comes your way. Get on your belly and cover your neck if a brown bear shows more than a passing interest in you. However, there is no advice if you encounter a grizzly! (I did encounter a moose in Anchorage’s Kincaid Park, including a bull, who did, in fact, a bit of lip-licking.)

It makes sense that one of the places that competency education developed is in the Alaskan landscape. Alaska is about the essentials. Alaska requires adaptability. And with the incredible mountains all around, peeking out here and there from the clouds, one cannot be anything other than humble. Humility is the breeding ground for competency education. It is humility that allows all of the adults to become learners rather than decision-makers, experts, and teachers. It is humility that creates school cultures that embrace the concept of ‘not yet.’ Students may not yet be proficient. More importantly, educators may not yet know what students are capable of or how to best support their learning.

It’s this combination of the essentials, adaptability, and humility that is required to go forth to redesign our education system without knowing exactly how the pieces fit together, let alone which pieces are required in the first place. We just know it’s important to do better than we are doing now for the sake of our children.

This is the beginning of a series of posts on my trip to Alaska to visit Highland Tech Charter School (HTC) and Chugach School District (CSD). In this post, I share a bit about my trip and a few of my big takeaways. In future posts, I’m going deep into CSD, as there is so much to learn from them. CSD has been staying the course for nearly twenty years, and we’ll look at how they began the process of transformation; the structure of their performance-based system; the experience of teachers; how they structure their district so that it works for all students and cultures, including the important influence of the Alaska Native culture upon the education system’s development; lessons learned for small, rural schools; and implications for homeschooling.

Three Big Leaps (more…)

Competency Education Can Address Readiness Gaps—But Not Alone

December 19, 2014 by
Equity in Competency Education

Equity in Competency Education: Realizing the Potential, Overcoming the Obstacles

This post originally appeared at Jobs for the Future on December 4, 2014.

My youngest brother’s senior year of high school—in a public school in New Jersey—was also my first year running a competency-based high school for over-age and under-credited youth in St. Louis. It is hard to describe just how different his experience was compared to my students’.

My brother attended one of the best public high schools in a state known for its high marks in public education and student achievement. In his final year of high school, he took a handful of Advanced Placement courses, served as student body president, played drums in the school band, wrestled, and still found time to work at the local pizza shop and connect with family and friends. He was accepted into Harvard University and decided to go.

By contrast, most of my students came from schools known as “dropout factories.” These students had significant academic catching-up to do. We did not have demand for AP courses, nor did we have time for robust extracurricular activities.

The starting point of my brother’s and my students’ senior years paints a stark picture of deep and persistent inequities that many young people in under-resourced communities face. In my brother’s case, his age and stage of learning matched. My students, all of whom had transcripts that said they were juniors and seniors, rarely had the full scope of academic, social and emotional skills they needed.

I was reminded of these glaring oppositions when I read Jobs for the Future’s Equity in Education: Realizing the Potential, Overcoming the Obstacles, part of a competency-based education research series produced by its Students at the Center initiative. (more…)

The Courage to Confront Equity Issues in Competency Education

December 17, 2014 by
EPIC Schools NY

From the EPIC Schools NYC Website

Innovators and early adapters of competency education want to do right by kids. The vision of personalized education is that every student will be able to engage in meaningful and highly engaging learning experiences – with the right mix of instructional supports when they need it – so that everyone is successful. Failure is not an option; it’s just part of the learning process.

However, my stomach turns when I hear these very same incredible education leaders dismiss equity because “every student is getting what they need.” In the same ways the police and criminal justice systems have betrayed African-Americans for decades, so too have our schools betrayed low-income communities, African-American communities, Hispanic communities and Native American communities. People may not be in the streets because of their schools, but the distrust is there.

So here are five equity issues I think we are going to need to tackle. They aren’t new or created by competency education. They just get raised in competency education because of the transparency system and our need to constantly nurture respect and trust so that educators can partners with students, families, and communities to resolve issues as they develop.

Keeping Students in School: Policies regarding the graduation crisis have improved greatly over the past decade. Uniform ways of measuring graduation and dropout rates are helping us to be more honest. There have been investments in credit recovery to try and find a way to improve the probability of kids who get off to a rough start in high school still reaching graduation. As a result, graduation rates are increasing…except when they aren’t. Our African-American students, specifically young men, and Native American/Alaskan Native students aren’t seeing much of an increase. Students in ELL and special education hover around 61 percent.

There have been efforts to re-engage students into school (some call it multiple pathways to graduation; some refer to it as serving over-age, undercredited students; others use the terms re-engagement or recuperation). No matter what you call it, these are all efforts designed to help students get back into school and stay there. Competency education must take into account the structures needed to make sure students can climb back on board the college/career track, picking up where they left off.

The Christensen Institute highlights areas of non-consumption as a place to derive the benefits of disruptive innovation. Indeed, online learning can be beneficial, but only in the context of high-quality blended learning that draws on the best of face-to-face instruction for older youth who may have experienced substantial challenges and trauma in their lives. Too many districts are focusing solely on online credit recovery when they should be developing schools such Apex, Schools for the Future, Our Piece of the Pie, and Bronx Arena.

Addressing Inequity in Educational/Social Capital: How much of a child’s learning takes place in school compared to that of their community and family? What type of learning is happening in families and communities, and how does it impact students’ abilities to succeed in school? (more…)

Tackling Work Study Practices in a Competency-Based Educational System

December 9, 2014 by
Sun

Responsive Classroom

Last year, teams of teachers within our district, the Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire, became deeply involved in building Quality Performance Assessments. These assessments are designed to truly assess a student’s competency, or transfer of learning. Our teachers have worked incredibly hard at building high-quality, engaging assessments. Their overall assessment literacy, and the learning that has occurred throughout these processes, has been significant. However, it has also raised additional questions.

The most recent questions have had to do with Work Study Practices (also referred to as work study habits or dispositions/behaviors). The State of New Hampshire defines the four work study practices in New Hampshire as Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, and Self-Direction. For the past six years, our district elementary schools have identified the Responsive Classroom CARES (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-regulation) as the behaviors we will assess in each student. These fit in well with the work study practices the State has identified. Within each performance assessment, teachers have been identifying a specific behavior as the one that will be assessed within the performance assessment itself. For example, a performance assessment may lend itself to having cooperation/collaboration of students assessed, so teachers are including this to be assessed, complete with its own indicators within a rubric as part of the scoring within the assessment (separate from the assessment of academic competencies). (more…)

The Case for Performance Assessments in a Standards-Based Grading System

December 5, 2014 by
DeLoreto

Louis F. DeLoreto

If only measuring students meeting academic standards in the classroom was as easy as it is in the performing arts or athletics. Concerts and games are authentic performance assessments. They provide the opportunity for students to demonstrate their skill levels and grasp of the concepts before an audience. Observers can see and hear the results and make judgments on the level of performance using their knowledge of the criteria commonly used to determine proficiency levels. If only we, the audience, could see how well a student is performing on authentic challenges in the classroom like we do at an orchestra concert or a basketball game.

The principle of demonstrating performance on an academic standard is the same as in the performing arts and athletic arenas. The “audience” wants to see what the student is being asked to do and to be able to understand how they did. However, the traditional classroom performance assessment is not as readily identifiable as the complexity of a musical piece or the competitive level of an opposing team. Therefore, the degree to which the student grasps an academic standard in a classroom is difficult for counselors, administrators, and parents to see and understand in today’s traditional high school assessment systems. (more…)

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