Author: Eliot Levine

Flexible Scheduling, Supports, and Monitoring at Pioneer Ridge Middle School

August 15, 2019 by

This is the fourth post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Pioneer Ridge Student With LaptopPioneer Ridge Middle School demonstrates that it’s possible to start shifting to competency-based education with a small program and limited resources. In 2012, near the beginning of Eastern Carver’s district-wide efforts to increase personalized learning, Pioneer Ridge began researching ways to let students be primary drivers of their own learning.

The district gave permission for a small program with three teachers and 60 students. Students were in the program for four hours per day—one hour each for science and social studies, and two hours for English language arts, per state requirements and to operate within the rest of the school’s bell schedule. (Math has been added since then.) They started with 6th grade and added a grade each year, so the first cohort will be seniors this fall.

The initial cohort had been in a traditional, accelerated track in 5th grade, but the school quickly realized that the personalized approach was appropriate for all students. Subsequent cohorts were open to all students, and the school offered presentations and school visits to help parents understand what personalized learning looked like. In the second year, about half of the 200 students opted into the personalized track. The eventual goal was for all teachers and students to shift to the personalized track, which has now been achieved.

The three teachers who started the program—Carly Bailey, Jen Larson, and Dan Thompson—are still there, thrilled with the results, and continuing to innovate. They recounted their original personalized scheduling system, a white board with 240 magnets, to schedule 60 students for four periods each. Too often the magnets fell, got lost, or were moved by the wrong students. Now they use scheduling software created for them by a local programmer, as well as the Empower learning management system to organize student work. After students learn how to use Empower, they make a presentation about it at home and bring any questions from their parents or guardians back to the school.

Scheduling takes place during a daily morning meeting when teachers describe the seminars and small-group instruction sessions that they will offer throughout the day. Students can schedule themselves for these activities or other types of individual or student group sessions. The figure below shows part of a daily signup that illustrates some of the available session types—focus flex, group flex, fishbowl discussion, coaching workshop, and review/summative assessment.

Pioneer Ridge Part of Daily Signup

Teachers also have the ability to assign students to specific activities in a way that’s either locked in or just suggested. There are ways for teachers to automate aspects of the scheduling, such as locking all students who haven’t taken a particular summative assessment into a block where that material is being addressed. The process of creating these types of efficiencies has been ongoing for seven years, in collaboration with the programmer who developed the scheduling software.

To keep class sizes manageable, teachers often offer the same seminar more than once. One teacher described asking a student why she showed up to the same seminar two days in a row. The student said, “Yesterday I came to take notes. Today I came to listen—to make sure I understand the notes I took yesterday.” Clearly this student is gaining the essential skill of reflecting on her own learning and recognizing when she needed some additional exposure to challenging material.

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It Takes a Village to Personalize Learning to Every Student

August 12, 2019 by

This is the third post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Conversations at many of my school visits come around to how schools are managing accountability to state standards while also personalizing learning for each student. A discussion at the Integrated Arts Academy, an arts-based high school discussed in the previous post, shed valuable light on this topic. The following is part of my conversation with Tera Kaltsas, IAA’s Principal, and Brian Beresford, Eastern Carver’s Leader of Personalized Learning and Innovation. It provides insights into strategies for satisfying diverse stakeholders in the development of a complex, competency-based system. It also illustrates the “tight vs. loose” decisions that are made in evolving CBE systems, and it touches on the state’s role in facilitating innovation.

TK: The district has “power standards” with many learning targets. What we learned was that, for our school, that was too specific. So we spent many years working with teachers to figure out which power standards must be met, and how to make them user-friendly for IAA—so they’re more applicable for life. For example, a physics teacher from another high school helped us figure out how to make the physics standards more applied and less math-focused. Also, students can take classes at the high school if they want; one of our students recently took AP Calculus at the high school.

EL: What do you say to stakeholders who insist that every student needs to meet every standard?

TK: Well, we’ve worked closely with the math specialists in the district to become more project-based, and there are times when students need to do old-school worksheets and “you just need to know this and learn it in a traditional way” kinds of math activities. And let’s not forget that students in conventional schools don’t always finish the textbook; it happens all the time.

But part of the idea of being an alternative learning center is that it really is alternative. When we as the district were creating and designing it, I refused to just be a smaller version of the mainstream high school. If kids are coming here because they’re disengaged from the whole learning process, then how are we going to reengage them? If the old system didn’t work in a big high school, why would we think that just making it smaller will make them engage in the same worksheets and sitting in rows and being compliant? That’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a colossal waste of time.

IAA’s Aquaponic System

Our system has some checks and balances. Students need a learning plan that everyone signs off on. We hold to our standards, but we get there by different pathways. I’ll give you an example: We have a student who loved our aquaponic system. She spent hours and hours creating her own aquaponic system, helping create the school’s aquaponic system, getting a grant for the aquaponic system. So in her learning plan, I gave her a biology credit for going that in-depth on a handful of biology standards. She didn’t meet all 10 biology power standards, but she went so far in depth with a couple of them. But then everyone signs off on that. That doesn’t happen often, but it happens.

EL: What is the district’s perspective on that? (more…)

Personalizing Learning in an Alternative Arts High School

August 6, 2019 by

This is the second post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Integrated Arts Academy Student PaintingThe Integrated Arts Academy (IAA) in Chaska, Minnesota brings a deeply personalized approach to embedding visual arts, culinary arts, horticulture, and floral and textile design into core academic subjects. Most of the high school’s 125 students arrive as juniors and seniors who struggled with academic engagement at their previous high school. The school used to be a program for these students in one of the district’s two large, comprehensive high schools.

The leaders wanted to do something different, because the program’s graduation rate was too low. They decided to create a program where arts drove the learning. In 2012 they moved to a different building and began developing studios—one or more classrooms—related to several career paths. Some students come with a specific career in mind and spend much of their time in a single studio. Others want to be in an arts setting but don’t have a particular career in mind, and they divide their time across multiple studios.

Integrated Arts Academy Gala Display 01My visit was the day before the school’s Annual Gala, where students display and sell products from their projects. The halls were covered with displays of visual arts and flowers, the hydroponic gardens were in full bloom, and culinary students were preparing food for the event.

Principal Tera Kaltsas and a senior who had focused on culinary arts spoke with me and led my tour of the school. The student had earned a 3.7 GPA at their previous high school but seldom went to class. “I would do my work and then go take a nap. I literally napped in school daily. I was just there to get the grades, and that’s it. Then I went to the IAA gala at a friend’s invitation and was like ‘Oh my gosh, you like going to school and get to learn about things you want to learn about?’ I was a good student, but I wasn’t learning anything important. I was just doing worksheets and turning them in and then doing nothing. Then I came here and ran a coffee shop and became part of a great community. At my old school there were 3,000 kids. That’s too big for a school, and I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t part of it. Here I know everyone and they all talk to me. It’s a community.”

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District-wide Transformation to Personalized Learning in Eastern Carver County, Minnesota

August 1, 2019 by

This is the first post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

The Eastern Carver County district in Minnesota has worked intensively since 2011 to transition to more personalized, competency-based learning. Located about 25 miles southwest of Minneapolis, the district has 16 schools and almost 10,000 students in four communities that span a region of 88 square miles.

During a recent visit to two Eastern Carver schools, I spoke with students, school staff, and district officials. Superintendent Clint Christopher, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Amy LaDue, and Leader of Personalized Learning and Innovation Brian Beresford provided valuable reflections on the strategies, challenges, and rewards of district-wide transformation.

A key strategy has been creating a district-wide definition of personalized learning but then allowing it to take shape differently in different schools.  Personalized learning can take many forms, so the district strives to be clear about what they mean. The focal point of their definition is “the Star,” illustrated in the graphic above, which provides a compelling way to communicate the district’s approach to learning. The star is accompanied by powerful language on the district’s website, explaining the rationale for personalized learning. Some samples include:

  • Purposeful Learning – “In the past, teachers stood in front of the class for each lesson, expecting all students to learn in the same way and at the same pace. This is becoming a thing of the past. Teachers in Eastern Carver County Schools not only lead instruction but also facilitate learning for each student. They teach by guiding students toward mastery of content and instilling 21st century skills. Students have access to a variety of resources and tools, and teachers connect students to learning beyond the classroom.”
  • Collaborative Environment – “Design of spaces and their furnishings reflect purpose: how we live, how we work, and how we learn. We are redefining learning spaces with a variety of furniture, layouts, and technology that facilitate collaboration, creativity, comfort, and safety. They also convey a sense of belonging and purpose. School should be a place where students feel welcomed and empowered to learn.”
  • Learner Voice and Choice – “Students have the freedom to design the way they showcase their learning based on individual styles, experiences, passions, and needs…Treated as co-designers, students take greater pride in their success and ultimately find meaning in their work.”
  • Purposeful Instruction, Assessment, and Feedback – “Learning is continuous in our schools. This means that students are not limited by their age or grade. They are able to work at the level that is right for them. Students are consistently challenged…With teachers as facilitators, students effectively communicate their learning journey and progress. They then work with their teacher to determine their next steps for learning.”

Christopher is clear that they plan to transform the entire district, but says “it’s not going to happen overnight. We know it’s a long journey.” He emphasizes that Eastern Carver has 16 buildings with 16 leaders, faculties, student groups, cultures, and parent communities. The district has a document for each building that identifies where it is with personalized learning and the next steps to move forward.

Three Elementary Students from Eastern Carver“We need gentle pressure, relentlessly applied,” he said. “We need that constant focus on this, moving forward, adjusting, identifying what’s working. And what our board pushes back on, rightly so, is that we have pockets of excellence throughout the district, so how do we identify that and bring it to scale? This is also an equity measure, so the experience you’ll get in this district doesn’t depend on where you live. It may look different in different schools, but student outcomes need to be the same. We allow buildings to have some flexibility in that journey but are clear on what the parameters are around that.” (more…)

Promoting Lifelong Learning Skills in the Classroom: New Hampshire’s Work Study Practices

July 25, 2019 by

Terry BolducAt the recent New Hampshire Learning Initiative conference, long-time teacher Terry Bolduc led a session about powerful strategies to help students develop lifelong learning skills and dispositions. This work is central to competency-based education. Bolduc’s presentation focused on New Hampshire’s Work Study Practices (WSPs), the state’s term for “behavioral qualities or habits of mind that students need to be successful in college, career, and life.” (Other common terms are personal success skills, 21st century skills, transferable skills, building blocks of learning, and non-cognitive skills.)

The four WSPs are collaboration, communication, creativity, and self-direction. Bolduc has developed strategies for promoting and assessing the WSPs in two New Hampshire elementary schools in the Sanborn and Timberlane regional school districts. She and other staff from Sanborn shared their WSP strategies in a series of CompetencyWorks posts in 2015. One insight was that students needed more help understanding what the WSPs looked like in practice. The 2015 posts describe a series of strategies to accomplish this, such as relating the WSPs to characters in books they were reading.

Bolduc uses graphic organizers that allow students to set goals for each WSP and then reflect on their progress at the end of each week. Over time, with input from her students, she has elaborated these organizers to include separate reflections for each academic subject, as shown in the figure below. In addition to academic subjects, she has used a similar organizer that includes recess, cafeteria, bus, classroom, and specials.

Terry Bolduc Graphic Organizer

The acronym “CARES” in the figure stands for Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-Regulation/Control. Sanborn was already using the CARES framework from the Responsive Classroom when the New Hampshire WSPs were rolled out, so they created a crosswalk between the two frameworks and kept using CARES. For each academic subject, students select one of the five elements of CARES and use it as their goal for that academic subject for the week. During morning meetings, students tell each other their goal, and at the end of the week they reflect on their progress out loud and written on the graphic organizers. (more…)

The New Hampshire Learning Initiative: A Model for Catalyzing State-Wide Transformation

July 18, 2019 by

First NHLI Promotional PosterThe New Hampshire Learning Initiative serves as a catalyst to oversee and support scaling of New Hampshire’s work toward an integrated, competency-based education system. I recently attended their annual Powerful Learning Conference, where hundreds of school and district personnel attended keynotes, sessions, workshops, and daily “team time” (with school teams or groups of individual attendees) to advance their practices related to competency-based education.

The annual conference is one of many initiatives that NHLI provides throughout the year to support transformation at the school, district, and state levels. Their work is closely tied to New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) Pathways Network. PACE provides an opportunity for districts to administer locally developed performance assessments that support deeper learning. These assessments are designed to be a meaningful and positive learning experience for students—a key component of competency-based education. The PACE system is approved by the U.S. Department of Education through its Innovative Assessment Pilot program, section 1204 of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

NHLI is explicit that both their work and PACE are not just about assessment and accountability, however. As shown in the figure below, PACE also emphasizes project-based learning, teacher leadership, competency design, student agency, student exhibitions, extended learning opportunities (NH’s term for out-of-school learning activities), and work study practices (NH’s term for lifelong learning skills such as collaboration and self-direction).

NH PACE Pathways GraphicNHLI leads a diverse set of initiatives that provide a series of “on-ramps” to deeper implementation of each of these elements of quality competency-based education. Just as CBE promotes meeting students where they are, NHLI’s on-ramps meet educators and administrators where they are. And sometimes “where they are” includes being unclear on what performance assessments are, fearful of starting because of obstacles to full implementation, or concerned that not all teachers or school committee members are on-board.

The different on-ramps enable any school to become part of the PACE network regardless of where they are. This fits well with New Hampshire’s status as a national leader and innovator in competency-based education. Three of NHLI’s many initiatives are described below, and could inform efforts in other states seeking to deepen their competency-based practices. (more…)

Recognizing Outstanding Student Achievement in Competency-Based Schools

July 8, 2019 by

Student in CornfieldCompetencyWorks recently received this inquiry from an administrator of a school that was working to deepen its competency-based learning practices:

One question we are thinking about is how to honor academic achievement and progress in proficiency-based grading/reporting. We are finding, for instance, that naming students to an “honor roll” for Quarter 1 is a difficult fit for a system that intentionally honors growth over time. Are there new or different ways of honoring academic achievement and progress that are emerging as schools transition to proficiency-based systems?

This is an important question that many people in the field are grappling with. The challenge is in part because “honor roll” feels like a vestige of the ranking and sorting mechanisms of traditional grading systems. At the same time, competency-based systems are developing ways for students to achieve and demonstrate deeper learning, as well as ways to recognize these achievements. The field doesn’t have a single way of approaching this, but there are some emerging strategies and ways of thinking about it.

The following quotation from Steve Lavoie, written while he was principal at Richmond Middle/High School in RSU2 in Maine, recognizes the tensions in transforming between traditional and competency-based practices. He wrote on CompetencyWorks,“Decide what issues are critical and that you’ll ‘go to the wall for.’ You will be faced with questions that tie to the traditional system. Expect them and decide ahead of time whether or not you are willing to ‘die on that hill’ prior to the question being asked. Questions relating to GPA, class rank, Top Ten, and honor roll should be anticipated. Your stakeholders may believe they are important components that should be retained. Issues like these feel like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, but they are not critical issues that should interfere with the implementation of the big picture. They can be made to fit your program. Be prepared to give in on some issues but stand firm on the critical ones like your core belief that all students need to demonstrate proficiency on all standards required for graduation. That would be the hill to die on.”

In the CompetencyWorks Issue Brief, Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education, Chris Sturgis wrote, “It’s unlikely that the need for ranking will ever be absolutely obsolete.
Highly selective colleges and those who want to attend them are going to want to be able to identify the ‘best students’ through some mechanism that recognizes distinction.” In the same issue brief, Brian Stack, principal at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire, asks, “Why not instead set a bar that you will use to distinguish an ‘honor graduate,’ and any student who is able to reach (or exceed) that bar gets the distinction at graduation. From year to year, the number of honor graduates will change, but the standard never would. Every student would have the opportunity to be considered an honor graduate, provided they meet the requirements.”

Here are a few examples of schools that use honor rolls within CBE systems: (more…)

Innovative Scheduling: Digital e-Learning Days and Academic Support Periods

July 1, 2019 by

This is the fifth and final post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Farmington Tigers MascotInnovations in school scheduling are key elements in shifting to competency-based education. They can enable “anytime, anywhere” learning, ensure that students receive frequent personalized support, and support deeper learning such as high-quality, project-based work. Innovative scheduling is an essential component of increasing organizational flexibility, one of the competency-based education quality principles. Two scheduling innovations in the Farmington school district are Flexible Learning Days and Academic Support Periods.

Working from Anywhere But the School Building

Farmington implemented flexible learning days or “flex days” several years ago. On these days, students don’t come to school but are expected to work via the school’s digital platform. Teachers are available and provide online “office hours.”

One advantage is that school days that in the past would have been cancelled due to inclement weather can now be productive learning days that don’t result in disrupted schedules and extended school years. The district also believes that it’s a great way to learn. Executive Director of Educational Services Jason Berg explained, “Students need to learn how to manage their own time, so we have to set up some experiences to let them learn that—to see that they don’t have to be in school to do learning.”

Flex days aren’t just to prevent school cancellations, however. The district also has two scheduled flex days each year with activities that teachers set up and post online for students to complete on their own schedule. Students can reach teachers digitally during school hours, although they’re also free to complete the work on their own schedules. Some students do group work electronically, and some classes that require out-of-school work, such as a photography class, schedule special activities on flex days. If students have several different activities that they need to get done that day, it is up to them to develop a plan to get it done, with teacher support as needed.

To help caregivers plan for the two pre-scheduled annual flex days, the district announces the dates at the beginning of the school year. The community has also set up some child care opportunities for those days for families who need it, and some of the older students go to the community centers and serve as tutors. Students are not permitted to go to the elementary or middle schools on the planned flex days, but high school students who have work that they can only do in the building are permitted to come if they have their own transporation. (Buses are cancelled on flex days.) The Farmington website provides more information about their flexible learning days. (more…)

Interstellar Time at Boeckman Middle School

June 24, 2019 by

This is the fourth post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Eliot and Students at BoeckmanFarmington’s emphasis on teacher agency means that competency-based education is evolving in many different forms across the district. Boeckman Middle School has developed Interstellar Time, which brings a competency-based approach to selected subjects and grade levels.

During the 2018-19 school year, Interstellar Time served 90 7th-graders during a four-and-a-half hour period every other day focused on language arts, math, and social studies. During the 2019–20 school year, the initiative will expand to include 8th-graders in language arts, social studies, and art classes. These academic subjects reflect the teachers who wanted to participate. The expansion to 8th grade will mean that students in the 7th-grade Interstellar cohort will be able to continue their involvement in this approach to learning for a second year.

Boeckman Principal Megan Blazek explained, “Our mission is to provide an environment where learners become owners of their learning, informed problem solvers, and reflective goal setters.” The Interstellar Time website explains that the personalized learning innovation “allows learners to schedule time to work on their specific learning needs at any time, any place, any path, any pace. Our goal is to develop strong learners and leaders—learners who are able to think flexibly, critically, and creatively as well as communicate and collaborate with others.”

Every student has an iPad, and teachers build playlists of learning activities and assessments aligned to competencies that students need to demonstrate. These playlists are provided via the Schoology learning management system, and students’ progress on demonstrating evidence of competencies is tracked with an individualized Google sheet. Next year they will move away from the Google sheet and use Campus Learning, which is an add-on to Infinite Campus. Some learning activities are carried out on iPads, but others take place on paper or through group activities.

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Shifting the English Department to Competency-Based Assessment

June 20, 2019 by

This is the third post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Beginning Approaching Competent ExtendingThe English department at Farmington High School has made major shifts toward competency-based curriculum and instruction, as described in the previous post. This has required parallel shifts in assessment, with greater use of formative assessment and competency-based grading.

“Much of the assessment we do is formative, and we treat that more like practice and skill development,” explained one of the four English teachers who have been making this shift. “So what I’ve found in my classroom is that the kids who might not love English class, or might struggle with it—now instead of seeing a 3 out of 10 on a writing assignment, they see on their rubric that they’re ‘approaching’ the competent level. That has allowed us to have those authentic conversations when we’re doing our conferencing, like ‘Hey, if you just fix these one or two things on the rubric, you can move up into that competent level.’”

“It causes a complete mind-shift, where students don’t just shut down after a couple weeks. Now they understand, ‘there’s no tricks to this—at first we’ll be practicing new skills, and then we’ll assess where you are at the end of the unit.’ And that’s really freeing for a lot of kids. It has kept them in the game. They keep getting a little bit better, and then they’re ready to show how they’ve improved.”

Another teacher said that shifting to formative assessment and competency-based grading is great for the teachers too. “It’s awesome, because you see the lightbulb go off the first time the kid comes up and they think they’re going to get yelled at or told that they’re doomed—and instead they’re amazed that they have the opportunity to improve a few things we discussed and then move up to the next level on the rubric. That’s been pretty awesome.” (more…)

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