This post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the third post on my conversations at RSU2 in Maine. The first post is on lessons learned and the second is a look at Richmond Middle and High School.
One of the topics that came up over and over again during my conversation with the RSU2 team is how to address the needs of students who aren’t at grade level. It’s a huge topic wherever I go because the majority of districts converting to competency education are still trying to teach students grade-level standards even when they know the students don’t have prerequisite knowledge. Yes, there is much more effort to provide additional support, there is lots of scaffolding, and they are working hard to create elective courses in high schools to build foundational knowledge. But the problem seems to be that we can’t shake off the idea that we should be teaching students the standards at their grade level rather than personalizing education so they have the opportunity to build the foundational skills (and fluency) they will need to be successful.
Meeting Students Where They Are
In our conversations, RSU2 leaders described how converting to measurement topics and learning targets has been very effective in helping students who have the prerequisite knowledge to learn the skills. However, in hindsight, they found that it would have been wiser to build the capacity to use the system of topics and targets to support students where they were in their own learning progression. Steve Lavoie, Principal of Richmond Middle and High School, explained, “Ideally, we would have shifted our perspectives to look at the continuum of learning rather than continue to have measurable learning objectives structured within grade bands. Everyone has some holes in their learning, even the valedictorian, but when students do not have prerequisite skills or have significant gaps in their learning, it creates tremendous pressure on the teachers and the students. We need to know where are the kids on our continuum of learning.”
One person used the example of the “fraction chasm” where more than 50 percent of the fourth and fifth grade math standards are about fractions. In sixth grade, working with fractions continues as students learn to apply them. When students start to tackle algebra, they will once again be drawing on their understanding of fractions. If students aren’t fluent in fractions, it is going to impact their learning into secondary school. Yet, the traditional practice of teaching a grade-level curriculum prevails.
This is super important – if we always teach at grade level standards, how do we find out where students really are on their learning progression? If we don’t know what they know and don’t know, how do we help them learn it? Most of the standards-based grading information systems don’t help us with this – they tell us how students are progressing in the standards at the grade level or in the course but not where students are, inform us about what skills they have (and don’t have), and help schools plan how to make sure students have the prerequisite skills. So a question for all districts converting to proficiency-based learning is, “How will you know what skills students have and how will you track their progress?”
John Armentrout, Director of Information Technology, explained, “There are many implications to consider in how a school creates the architecture of the measurement topics and learning targets. One of the things to think about is how it will support students who do not have the foundational knowledge for the age-based curriculum.”
So the question now becomes, What would this look like? (more…)