Takeaways and New Questions from EAA School Visits

October 31, 2013 by

Lessons Learned pictureIf ten of us went to visit the same school we would come away with 10 different insights. It’s why I believe so strongly in joint site visits as a method of knowledge transfer – you learn together in a way that taps into previous knowledge as well.  So here are my insights, and you can read what  struck Tom VanderArk about EAA in his Ed Week column.  I encourage you to take the time to put a team together or even a cross-district or cross-state team to go visit Nolan Elementary, Phoenix Multicultural, Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts, and Southeastern Technical High School sooner than later. Michigan and Detroit have a lot of volatile political dynamics (i.e things change), and I’d hate for people to miss the chance to see what can happen when you integrate personalized, mastery-based, and blended into a “student-centered” model of learning.


1) Reaching the Outliers: A teacher at Nolan and a teacher at Brenda Scott told me just about the same thing: I can reach many more kids. Before, I had to teach to the middle, but now I can use blended learning so that outliers are fully supported as well. Without blended learning, I don’t know if this would be as possible. I’ve been wracking my brain, have we ever had a reform that was meaningful for students who are way behind, those chugging along at teacher pace, as well as those that get placed in gifted and talented?  Could this actually be a universal reform that works for all children? Seems too easy – I want to dig harder about what the implications are for the students at the margins.

2) We Can’t Have Student Voice Without Having Teacher Voice: Mary Esselman, Deputy Chancellor of EAA, related one of her lessons learned.  They realized they couldn’t expect teachers to create environments for students to have voice if they didn’t have it themselves.  So professional development became an experiential experience with reflection and presentation. Teachers use Buzz — they don’t just learn about Buzz. After they’ve finished the initial stage of professional development, they prepare three minute videos – Who am I as an EAA educator? (more…)

A Visit to Cornerstone Charter School (Detroit)

October 30, 2013 by

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In the northwest corner of Detroit, Cornerstone Charter Schools opened Health High School in response to the beliefs, challenges, and dreams of the community. HHS is a new school in its second year of implementation and a good example of blended learning.  The elements of the school that are personalized or competency-based, reside in its rapid response to help students stay on track and complete their courses. Below are several of the design elements:

Character Education:  In the halls and classrooms you see reference to the traits that HHS expects the adults and students to demonstrate. Citizenship, patience, kindness, self-control, gentleness, goodness, faith, peace, and love.  The school is rooted in these values, weaving them and life skills across all content areas.

Designed Around Relationships, Relevance and Rigor: Teachers are called Rigor Managers using the face-to-face (F2F) time to supplement and expand on learning. Relationship Managers stay connected to what is happening with students in school and out, providing coaching and advocacy as needed. Students have a daily class called Relevance that is inquiry-based, interdisciplinary, and connected to the real world. The ninth grade this year is looking at how to address vacant land in Detroit, drawing on science, government, and writing. Another way HHS builds relevance is through a broad career theme offering low-income students access to powerful career development opportunities. HHS was developed in partnership with Detroit Medical Center and Beaumont Hospitals.


A Visit to Phoenix Multicultural Academy (Detroit)

October 29, 2013 by

phoenix post pictureI first met Dr. Cintron as he jetted down the hall, waving his iPad, calling, “I’m on my way to do observations!” He took a circular path to becoming principal at Phoenix, starting first as a teacher at Phoenix, then at DPS to manage Title III, and then as principal by the Education Achievement Authority to re-invent the school as a Student-Centered Learning model.  (Please read the post on EAA to understand the SCL model and how mastery-based learning is embedded in the overall approach.)

Phoenix is a K-9 school in the middle of the Hispanic community known as Mexicantown in Detroit.  Its student body is 70% Latino (of which 70% are English language learners), 10% African-American, and the remaining a mix of white and multi-racial students. Phoenix also has a number of students age 13-17 that are refugees from Guatemala and Hungary that high schools wouldn’t accept because the students’ education has been so interrupted.

Phoenix got results even in their first year of operation. They were the fifth most improved of all schools, according to Excellent Schools Detroit. As a result, enrollment is increasing with 100 additional students this year.

Responsiveness Leads to Innovation: One of the key characteristics of Phoenix is its problem-solving mode of operations that generates innovation along the way.  One example is how it morphed into the unusual structure of a K-9 school. Originally it was K-8, and eighth graders, upon graduation, had no choice but to attend a large high school outside of their neighborhood because the local high school had been closed. Knowing that there was going to be a lot of gang conflict, Phoenix added a 9th grade academy to their existing K-8 structure, in which the 9th grade students would spend part of their day at Phoenix, continuing to build up their language skills, and 2/3 at the  Central High School.

Another example of innovation is the Learning Village, where three teachers have integrated their 1st and 2nd grade classes to better manage the environment in order to support the students.  The majority of the students did not have any pre-K experience and are ELL.  They found that the transition between the stations, from receiving new instruction to practicing or demonstrating, was challenging for many of them.  Using the three classrooms along a dedicated hallway, the teachers use one classroom for new instruction, one for tutoring, and the other for two stations, small teacher-led group and technology-based practice. In this way, they can help the students orient themselves and make the transitions more clear. They also have flexibility to group students along levels so that regardless of age or grade, students at or below Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 all have a chance to work together. (more…)

A Visit to PASE Prep at Southeastern High School (Detroit)

October 27, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 2.41.53 PMAs we all know, competency-based high schools raise two issues you don’t often see in younger ages:

  • Wider differentiation in academic levels, with some students entering with elementary level skills; and,
  • A perceived need to differentiate academically in order to compete for the best colleges. In other words, having a high GPA for college admissions.

What we haven’t talked about much is the opportunities that become available once a school begins to be mastery-based. PASE Prep Academy, a school within Southeastern High School of Technology and Law in Detroit is a good example of what is possible.

After one year of implementing the Education Achievement Authority’s Student-Centered Learning  model at Southeastern High School, a group of teachers started asking questions:

  • What would happen if we moved beyond the bell schedule so that students could vary the time they spent on each topic, rather than spending the standard 50 minutes per day on each course?
  • What does it mean to have student-centered learning and blended learning in high school? Rather than rotations across stations, are there ways we can use blended learning that is more developmentally and academically aligned with where students are? (more…)

What’s the Buzz about Buzz?

October 25, 2013 by

buzz about buzz post pictureBuzz is the teaching and learning platform that Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA) is using to support their Student-Centered Learning model (SCL). It has a lot of functionality, and I’m guessing I only saw about 50% of it – but from what I can tell, its one part student information and three parts content management.  There are still some functions that EAA uses PowerSchool for and there are a bunch of interoperability issues that inhibit it from being all it can be. Nonetheless, Buzz is very impressive. Very.

FYI – You can read about Tom Vander Ark’s comments about Buzz on Getting Smart  or at Ed Week. Or visit Agilix at the iNACOL Symposium exhibit hall.

Organized Around Instructional Cycle: Buzz organizes learning into four phases, Learn, Practice, Apply, and Assess. Each day, students check their emails in Buzz and it directs them to where they left off in their learning.

Choice and Co-Design: In the first three phases, students have choices. EAA has embedded co-design into the system. Learn directs students to options for new instruction. It may be a video, working with their teacher, reading text online or a chapter in a textbook.  Practice usually directs students to units in an adaptive software program such as Compass, ALEKS, Imagine Learning, or content from Net Trekker(more…)

A Visit to Brenda Scott Theatre Arts Academy

October 24, 2013 by

pic for Brenda Scott postThis post is one of several that highlights my incredibly exciting visit to schools in Detroit last month. Now, let me just say: it’s impossible to ignore the juxtaposition of Detroit’s spilling-over-the-top educational entrepreneurialism with the empty homes collapsing under the weight of darkened doors and rotting roofs. It’s impossible not to feel the urgency of getting schooling right any more than in Detroit where an economic hurricane is reshaping the city. You feel this urgency at Brenda Scott Theatre Arts Academy — it is a great example of what is possible when you draw on student-centered learning, blended learning, and mastery-based learning.

Brenda Scott is a K-8 school with a population of about 850 students, of which 75% are one or more years behind grade level when they enter.  Brenda Scott has been re-invented as a student-centered, blended learning, mastery-based school through a partnership of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA) and Matchbook Learning (and about 49 other partners as well). According to Sajan George of Matchbook, “After just one year, Brenda Scott went from having less than 1% of the students proficient in either reading or math to now having 71% and 63% of the students making more than a year’s worth of gain in reading and math.  This represents the fifth highest student gains across all schools in the city of Detroit.”

Kristin Floreno, Matchbook Learning’s blended learning specialist guided me through the design of Brenda Scott. It’s impossible to actually share what you see in a school so take a look at this video highlighting an 11-12th grade social studies course. Ms. Ford has a lot of expertise in blended learning, moving past standard rotation models into a highly personalized classroom.

How are students organized at Brenda Scott?

The EAA has established 18 academic levels, two per grade level. So 1st grade is level 1 and 2, 2nd grade is level 3 and 4, and so on. Students are leveled for reading and math to make sure they are advancing through their learning progression without gaps.  The more modularized levels give students a sense of progress based on their effort not just their next birthday. Imagine…”MOM! DAD! I made it to level 4 today in reading !” (more…)

Worlds Colliding or Aligning: Teacher Preparation During Educational Transformation

October 23, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 4.10.40 PMAre we preparing future teachers for the demands of next generation education?

According to “InTASC: Model Core Teaching Standards and Learning Progressions for Teacher 1.0,” there are 10 learning progressions that are described as “key pedagogical strategies.”  The InTASC standards have 4 broad categories: the learner and the learning, content knowledge, instructional practice, and professional responsibility.  These broad categories are familiar to all educators; however, the application of these ideas will change as our educational system is transformed and requires a new vision of teaching.

In one of my roles as a consultant for the Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC), I am aware of these transformative ideas and practices and their impact on teacher training.  Practices that have been in place for many years are now being reviewed and evaluated.  The idea of relearning, unlearning, and reinventing your practice requires a significant investment in time, energy, and culture.  The ideas of personalized learning, unpacking standards, alternative applications of knowledge and skill, as well as building a collaborative culture, are germane to the concept of transformation within our schools. This transformation is from a factory model to a model of student learning that is personalized, with students as engaged thinkers and leaders of their own learning.  Teacher’s roles, as well as the role of the students, curriculum, and assessment are in a state of transformation.  These changes will stretch our thinking and evaluate our instructional practices based on student outcomes and data.  (more…)

Student-Centered Learning at Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority

October 22, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 3.18.26 PMLast month, I had the opportunity to visit three schools in Detroit run by Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA). I’ll be sharing what I saw and learned on CompetencyWorks over the next couple of weeks.

Background:  The EAA is a local education agency with the authority to reinvent Michigan’s Priority Schools, previously called Persistently Lowest Achieving (PLA) schools.  The EAA is charged with transforming the five (5) percent PLA schools across Michigan by providing increased flexibility and autonomy at the local school level and eliminating the barriers that impede student performance. They are getting results — in Detroit, all of the EAA K-8 schools were in the top twenty schools for growth in achievement.

EAA established a specific model to be implemented with 12 schools initiating the turnaround in 2012  with another set starting implementation in 2013.  The model is described as student-centered and is a dynamic integration of mastery-based and blended learning topped off by a no-excuses leadership mentality. In order to implement EAA had to secure a seat-time waiver from the state. EAA is led by John Covington and Mary Esselman. They, their team, and the leadership in the EAA schools are definitely people to watch.

EAA Model: The EAA describes their approach as student-centered (you’ll see and hear SCL referred to throughout the schools) in which “pedagogy, assessments, support systems and culture are refocused to facilitate student progress organized around mastery instead of age and seat time.”   Students learning experiences are personalized through the use of blended learning, and Buzz a powerful teaching and learning platform.

EAA’s model is built upon five pillars:

  • Students are grouped by readiness, not by grade. Teachers and students refer to levels. There are about two levels for each age-grade. Students are assessed using the Scantron Performance Series when they enter school to assign them their levels in each subject area.
  • Students create and assume ownership for their respective personalized learning and success paths and are able to communicate their progress relative to their individualized learning goals. In addition to Buzz that tracks progress, you’ll see several rituals in the classrooms in which students mark their progress as well as let teachers know how they are doing. (more…)

Reassessments and Retakes: A Necessary Part of a School-Wide Grading Policy

October 21, 2013 by

“Lawyers who finally pass the bar exam on their second or third attempt are not limited to practicing law only on Tuesdays” – Wormeli, 2011

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Rick Wormeli

We allow people to retake their driver’s license exam as many times as they need to in order to demonstrate competency. The same is true of other professionals such as teachers, lawyers, doctors, and electricians who are required to pass a certification/licensure exam. Reassessment is a part of our real world. I find it ironic, then, that, as educators, we cringe at the thought of allowing reassessments in the classroom in an effort to “prepare kids for the real world!” I held this belief until a few years ago when O’Connor and Stiggins (2009) and Wormeli (2011) helped set me straight. Reflecting back, I now cringe at the harsh reality that, from 2001 to 2006, I sent hundreds and hundreds of students into the real world without the opportunity to reassess to solidify their learning.

At my school, Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire, we believe in the concept of reassessments so much that we actually have a school-wide common procedure that supports its use in all classes. In fact, we have a number of school-wide common grading procedures that are designed to support our competency-based grading and reporting system, one that is now in its third year of implementation K-12 in our district.

In a competency-based system, reassessments are a necessary part of the learning process. “True competence that stands the test of time comes with reiterative learning. We carry forward concepts and skills we encounter repeatedly, and we get better at retrieving them the more we experience them.” (Wormeli, 2011). Making reassessments a school-wide practice changes the learning culture for students from one where they are trying to earn enough points to pass to one in which they are held accountable for everything they need to know and be able to do. Reeves (2000) describes the cultural shift that will happen over time as schools implement such a policy. “The consequence for a student who fails to meet a standard is not a low grade, but rather an opportunity – indeed, the requirement – to resubmit his or her work.” Indeed, that cultural shift is happening today at my school. (more…)

Framing the Learning in the Blended Learning Environment

October 17, 2013 by

ColbyAs more models for blended and online learning emerge into the mainstream of educational design, there is still some undercurrent of thought that these models have emerged because students are not successful in the traditional classroom-learning environment.  In addressing recovery for such lack of success, it may happen that students are more successful in a blended or online learning opportunity.

This has given rise to the misconception that both blended and online learning may in fact not have the degree of rigor that is thought to be present in the traditional classroom environment.

Let’s be clear about the framework for a high quality competency-based learning environment, be it in the brick and mortar classroom environment, blended or online learning opportunity, or the community based extended learning opportunity.  (more…)

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