E3agle and PACT: Insights from Two New Competency-Based Schools

July 17, 2017 by

This is the fourth of a five-part series on competency-based schools in Cleveland Metropolitan Schools.

John F. Kennedy High School in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) has been reorganized as two small schools: PACT Problem-Based Academy of Critical Thinking and E3agle Academy. These two schools were part of the effort to develop competency-based schools through the Opportunity by Design Initiative (funded by Carnegie Corporation and supported by Springpoint Schools). Positioned one above the other, PACT and E3agle offer a helpful perspective of how a common infrastructure of transparent competencies and standards provides different designs and mix of pedagogical strategies.

For example, they have different design themes. PACT is organized around developing critical thinking skills using the practice of problem-based learning. Real-world problems are used to engage students to develop and apply skills in ways that connect to their lives. E3agle Academy is organized around a theme of social justice. Principal Lennox Thompson pointed out that current events have proven to be an effective way to personalize the learning experience by connecting student concerns with justice issues in their community and the broader world. Students often feel passionately about the topics, and ELA teachers are using a number of ways to build skills and connections such as organizing debates, research, surveys, and inviting people from the community to speak on topics. Students are learning their rights as well as the laws that might land them in front of a judge.

Highlights

Here are a few of the highlights from our conversations with Lennox Thompson, principal at E3agle; Richard Reynolds, principal at PACT; Darcel Williams, Program Manager for New School Model; Kristen Kelly, Mastery Learning Specialist; and students and teachers from both schools.

Start with Pedagogy Before Introducing Technology-Enabled Learning

When E3agle and PACT first started, they relied heavily on Edgenuity as the primary way to deliver instruction and for students to demonstrate their learning. They immediately realized this was a mistake – it wasn’t engaging for students, it didn’t help establish relationships for students, and it didn’t create opportunities for deeper learning. They did a mid-course correction and since then have been building out the range of learning experiences for students, although Edgenuity remains as an option. Edgenuity continues to play a role when students need more instruction and for addressing incompletes. The lesson learned is that it is important to clarify the pedagogical philosophy first. Then it becomes clear when and where technology-enabled products can be beneficial.

Reynolds, principal and founding member of PACT, explained, “When we began the design process, the concept was around blended learning and mastery-based learning. The ten principles were aspirational. But when the kids walked in the door, suddenly the rubber meets the road. We learned quickly what wasn’t working. There was a lot that didn’t work the way we had imagined it.” What they learned was that a 50/50 mix of online and face-to-face instruction didn’t work well. “We needed to invest in relationships,” Reynolds said. “The students wanted engaged teachers. We needed to develop an approach to instruction that emphasized and nurtured relationships.”

Once they introduced problem-based learning that emphasized critical thinking, everything started to work better. Through discussion, students and teachers began listening to each other and getting to know each other better. Reynolds continued, “When done right, problem-based learning can engage students and develop their critical thinking skills. They turn on to learning. The key to doing it right is planning – you have to be clear on what you want kids to know and be able to do. It is often much more than you expected. We’ve developed our ability to do backward design, starting with the targeted competencies and content and then building problems around it.” For example, an ELA teacher used the Sandra Bland case for students to build their argumentative writing skills. They brought in a lawyer to talk about what makes an effective opening statement and then they each wrote an opening argument. They learned about pathos, ethos, and logos and then demonstrated each in their arguments.

As always, students open doors to better understanding how schools operate and how they are changing. In speaking with students from PACT and E3agle, they raised up many of the issues related to the original focus on using computers to deliver instruction to the much more blended approach being used now. There was a strong feeling that the school gets better and better the less they have to use Edgenuity.

The Importance of Relationships and Youth Development

The Opportunity by Design principles begin with the understanding that youth development needs to be taken into account in everything a school does. The schools invest in building relationship with students and support their development in a number of ways, including morning meetings, Rites of Passage programming, and girls’ empowerment classes.

Students we spoke with talked about their own growth. One student, Otis, explained how PACT is helping him grow up. “I’m learning a lot at school. I used to be a goofball. In eighth grade I feared high school. I didn’t want to get any older. Now I’m more concerned about my learning.  When we take responsibility it helps us to see our weaknesses and fix them. Everyone is family, and if there are problems we talk about it.” Destiny agreed, “I’ve learned how to depend on myself to learn and complete the work.” Aaliyah chimed in, “I’ve learned how to manage time and make adjustments.”

The theme of how much students have grown in terms of managing their learning was a steady stream throughout the visit. Tyler explained, “Since ninth grade, I have come out of my shell. Before, everything was handed to us. Slowly, the teachers are pulling us away from our pacifiers. I’ve learned how to handle more independent projects.”

It was easy to see the principles of youth development and how they shaped the instructional environment in the classrooms we visited. For example, in an algebra class it was clear that students had deep respect and fondness for the teacher. The teacher was engaged in conversation with students about a math problem, encouraging them to think about it and not just guess. He encouraged the students to think about algebra as a way to develop their brain by developing their analytic muscle.

This classroom was a good example of seeing the difference in learning that was taking place when students were doing the talking rather than the teacher. When the teacher was able to get the students talking about the math problems and how they were solving it, other students listened deeply and added insights, and the teacher was quick to identify where the misconceptions were tripping students up.

Previous Performance Needs to Be Taken into Consideration but Not Allowed to Constrain a Student’s Pathway

The new competency-based schools have a very strong orientation toward ensuring all students are well-served regardless of the skills or educational experiences they have had. It’s the job of the schools to create the approaches that help to build foundational skills as well as provide strategies to students as they overcome a fixed mindset, negative school experiences, and a distrust of educators. Kelly, clearly a major force in developing the competency-based school models, noted, “Not every student is going to have intrinsic motivation. It is something we help develop over time. Thus, the role adults play is very important in helping students to understand that it is never too late to learn, never to late to go back and learn what was supposed to be learned in elementary school. Adults play a critical role in providing hope for students that they can succeed and that they can graduate. We don’t allow previous performance from keeping students getting back on track to graduation.”  

Students noted a number of ways in which the competency-based model and the overall designs of PACT and E3agle were valuable. Otis explained, “Class doesn’t hold you back, and it doesn’t leave anyone behind. I really like how hands-on our learning is here. I have a wavy attention span. I’m going to get distracted reading a textbook. When we do hands-on, I don’t get bored and distracted at all. I’m a slow learner with textbooks, a fast learner with hands-on.”

Tyler agreed, “I like the hands-on learning because it’s more related to real life. We all have a voice here and we can move at our own pace. If you understand it and mastered it, you can help another person. Mastery is about knowing something like the back of your hand. You can use it again and again.” Students all agreed that they like the performance tasks, as they allowed them to use their creativity and to pick a way of demonstrating learning that was meaningful to them.

Multiple Graduation Expectations for Students

The competency-based high schools in Cleveland are operating within the Ohio graduation expectations, including both meeting the required number of credits and completing an array of Ohio State Tests (i.e., end-of-course exams). Like the NY Regents, some of the Ohio State Tests emphasize content over skills, thus holding depth of knowledge to lower levels.

In addition, the competency-based model that has been developed in Cleveland outlines two types of learning targets – content and competency – with different expectations. For example, at PACT, students must meet 80 percent of content learning targets to meet course requirements, while all the competency targets must be met. The content and competency learning targets also use different performance scales.

What this means is that the systems that track progress (what we used to call grading in the traditional system) are relatively complex. For example, PACT has created an approach to planning and monitoring progress (grading) that reflects the realities of multiple expectations for students while also seeming very complex (at least to this visitor). Students are expected to learn all the grade-level content and skills – a core idea behind competency-based grading. They will also have plans for Ohio graduation course credits, a plan for earning eighteen points on the Ohio state tests, and individual learning plans that reflect their needs for additional support and interest.

In Search of a Helpful Student Information System to Track Progress

Interestingly, the schools started by selecting different information systems based on the culture and theme of their schools. For example, E3agle used Power School Learning (previously known as Haiku), as it was important to them to be able to have any teacher credential proficiency on any standard in any class. PACT used Project Foundry, as it is designed to support project-based learning. However, next year they are all switching to PowerSchool Learning except for one school that is using Summit’s information system.

PACT tried to use Canvas its first year but couldn’t find a way to use it within a standards-based grading system for students learning over a wide range of grade levels. Other competency-based schools in Cleveland are using other systems: School of Global Studies is using PowerSchool Learning. It’s understandable that schools are selecting systems that work for them. Yet, it does raise a challenge of being able to tap into data on student growth and progress that could be helpful in understanding the dynamics and achievement in competency-based schools.

Re-Thinking Time

Reynolds emphasized, “Mastery blew our minds. It forces you to think about how you use time. In fact there is no such thing as time, only the intentional way we can can help students learn and get ready for graduation. Our job is to think about the ways we can create additional opportunities for students. For those who need more help or have lots of gaps to fill, how do we provide more instructional support? For those who are ready to move ahead, how do we make sure they always have that opportunity? Mastery has totally opened up our thinking about how to support students.” He then proceeded to describe the things they have put into place to help students, including using goal-setting and checkpoints; expectations that students cannot advance if they are performing lower than what would be considered a “C”; the development of a twice weekly 90-minute class called Impact for students who have incompletes from the year before; and time for students to engage in projects. (Dear readers: The C indicates approaching proficiency, the B is proficient or meeting expectations, and an A is exceeding expectations. Anything less than a C, in either competencies or content, is considered incomplete. For schools still making the transition to competency education, this is one technique that schools use to be clear about expectations and clear about what students have learned while still using the practice of students advancing without fully mastering the skills and content.)

Darcel Williams, a long-standing leader in the Cleveland Metropolitan schools, noted, “Educators in the mastery-based school encounter the challenge of determining how long a student can have an incomplete before they call it.” Given that CMSD are operating within credit-based graduation requirements, there is a point that the schools will simply have to say that the student did not complete the credit. The trick is to figure out how to turn that into an opportunity to engage the student in reflection that will lead to greater engagement.

The issues of creating much more flexible schedules has raised issues with the union. For example, after some discussion, the Impact classes were deemed not to require an additional prep, as the teachers had worked with the students already and the learning targets continued to be the same ones.

Characteristics of Teachers and Teaching in a Competency-Based School

In a conversation with Lennox Thompson and Rick Reynolds, principals of E3agle and PACT respectively, we dipped into a conversation about the implications for teachers and teaching within a competency-based school.

Teachers must:

  • Be comfortable with flexibility
  • Understand how to wear several hats
  • Have a big heart
  • Deeply know their domain and instructional strategies related to the domain
  • Have classroom management practices designed around personalized differentiated classrooms
  • Have a growth mindset themselves and how to nurture it in students
  • Value collaborating with their peers

Thompson noted, “It becomes very clear in the interviewing process of new hires what their views about pedagogy are and what they believe the role of teachers is based on their questions and what they raise as important.” He also asks teachers to talk about their experiences with students, listening for what they think is important to do to reach each student. He listens for whether they focus more on instruction or on curriculum; examples of when they have gone over and above to help a student; and their feelings and skills in collaboration with other teachers. He emphasized, “The most important thing I listen for is how far someone will go to ensure students have learned. I want to know that a teacher understands that their job is to do everything they can so students learn.”

Reynolds explained that he is looking for someone who is entrepreneurial. “I want to hear whether they have a hustle state of mind,” he said. “Do they make things happen? I value teachers who have their hands in a lot of things and bring their interests and skills into the classroom. My best teachers are writing for magazines, running their own businesses, DJ for local parties. They are go-getting types of people, and they bring that sense of go-getting to their commitment to our kids.”

Challenges

Any new school faces a number of challenges in working through design issues, execution, and preparing for the next grade level to be added. A few of the challenges that were raised at E3agle and PACT include:

  • Does AP Make Sense in a Competency-Based Model? PACT has had difficulties fitting AP into the competency-based model. The preparation for the test does develop skills, yet it ends up forcing teachers to cover a curriculum rather than have the flexibility to be more responsive to students’ different learning needs.
  • Do Some Students Need More Intensive Supports and Structure? Attendance has dipped from time to time. This has raised questions about how to provide more structure for students, how to increase reasons for coming to school, and whether there is a need for a competency-based alternative schools for students who need more intensive staff support and social/emotional supports.
  • Would Habits of Work Help Build Student Agency? Students talk about their growth, and the teachers are constantly coaching and providing feedback. However, the leadership teams wonder if more formal approaches to building up habits of work and learning might accelerate students becoming more mature and more able to put forth the effort needed to be prepared at graduation for college.

Read the Entire Series:

Post #1 – Cleveland: Where Pedagogy Comes First

Post #2 – Starting with Design Principles in Cleveland

Post #3 – Getting to Know Students’ Business: A Conversation at Lincoln-West’s Schools of Global Studies and Science & Health

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