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Category: District Redesign

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…)

District-wide Transformation in Harrisburg, South Dakota

May 22, 2019 by

Harrisburg Girls WorkingThis is the first post in a series about the Harrisburg School District. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

The Harrisburg School District has made major shifts toward competency-based education in several schools in recent years. With 2,000 visitors from 10 states over the past two years, it’s clear that their successful implementation has made them a model for districts around the country that want to observe and discuss strong competency-based practices.

The district’s goal is to deepen personalized learning (their name for the initiative) over time across the high school, two middle schools, and six elementary schools in the district, which is located in Sioux Falls and Harrisburg. This article focuses on district-wide implementation; a subsequent post will focus on how personalized learning is carried out within individual schools.

Launching Personalized Learning in Multiple Schools

The transformation to personalized learning was driven by school and district personnel who saw the need for change, but parent choice has also played a key role. Harrisburg’s first elementary school to make the shift, Freedom Elementary, kept one cohort of students in a traditional model while phasing in two personalized cohorts in two years. The district kept a traditional cohort to accommodate parents who didn’t want their children to switch to personalized learning. In the third year, the district surveyed the remaining parents, and 94% wanted their child to join the personalized model, so the school eliminated the traditional cohort. Two other schools in the district, Journey Elementary School and South Middle School, are using a similar approach—starting with both personalized and traditional cohorts.

Harrisburg Work ChartWhen Harrisburg began its transformation, seven years ago, they started with the high school. The district’s Innovative Programs Director, Travis Lape, says “We had a group of educators and building leaders at the high school willing to be bold and think differently. Along their journey, we learned a lot, but we know without them being bold we would not be where we are today.”

One of the lessons they learned in that first year is that “after eight years of being told what to do all the time, the learners needed more scaffolding. They weren’t prepared enough for getting organized and managing their time, and they started falling behind.” In subsequent years, the schools have provided more scaffolding. (more…)

A Decade On: Lindsay Unified’s Personalized Learning Journey

October 17, 2018 by

A young reader at Lindsay Unified’s Kennedy Elementary.

This post originally appeared at Education Week’s Next Gen Learning in Action blog on September 21, 2018. All images are courtesy of Lindsay Unified District. 

When educators tell the story of what galvanized them to embrace next gen learning, they often point to a watershed moment, a realization that so fundamentally shifted their thinking that it divided their career into “before” and “after.” (more…)

A Big District Strategy for Implementing Competency-Based Education

January 17, 2018 by

Commitment counts. It seems to make a difference when school boards and district/school leadership make a commitment to the vision of a more equitable education system where all students are successfully prepared for their next step (i.e., advancing based on mastery) before they begin the process of piloting or implementation.

However, that’s not always going to be possible especially for larger districts. It is much more difficult to engage the broader community and build the consensus needed for the commitment in larger communities. There are just too many people to bring together into one room or around one table. Furthermore, we don’t believe that competency-based education can be effectively implemented as a top-down, memo-driven approach. It requires building trust and engaging in dialogue for everyone to clarify values, understand how the traditional system reproduces inequity and low achievement, and understand the implications of research in the day to day operations of schools. (more…)

Evaluating Your School’s Competency Education Journey and Answering the Question: Are We There Yet?

March 30, 2016 by

Are We There Yet?I’m sure this is a story we can all relate to: Mom and Dad have packed up the gear and the kids into the family minivan (or station wagon, depending on your frame of reference) for a long trip. In less than an hour, one of the kids asks, “Are we there yet?” The trip continues with at least one kid asking this same question every half hour. With five kids under the age of ten and countless road trips, my wife Erica and I know this story all too well. We try to patiently answer them the first time they ask, but as the hours pass and the question keeps coming up, our patience begins to wear thin. We can’t fault them because they don’t know where we are going. This past summer on a ten hour car ride from Boston to Washington DC we finally found out how to appease the oldest of our children and silence the question once and for all – we gave them each a road map so they could chart our journey.

As the principal of a high school that started on a journey to transition from traditional to competency education six years ago, I am often asked if our school is “there” yet. Surprisingly, my response has two parts: It depends on who you ask, and it depends on where we are trying to go. Over time we have found that a competency-based structure has led us to several directions of improvement. For example, we learned that we could be more responsive to our ninth graders by creating accountability of our ninth grade teachers to prepare students for high school rigor. We realized that our assessments and instruction needed to be lifted up to meet the higher depths of knowledge. Now our district is on a new journey to create greater personalization. This is all happening because we started on the journey to competency-based education.

When we started our journey we lacked an important tool: a road map. Six years ago, we were one of the first public schools making the transition. Feeling a little like Lewis and Clark and with no one to help us chart our journey, our first few years felt very much like we were driving without a road map. Our Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Brian Blake, likes to refer to it like we were building a plane and flying it at the same time, and he shows people this video to make light of the situation. Best practice and research was our compass. It navigated us through our early work with assessment, grading, and instruction. As time passed, more and more schools began their own journeys. Researchers began to study this transition and pull together the experiences that schools like us were having with our journeys. Through this work, some of the earliest road maps for schools looking to transition to a competency education model have begun to emerge. (more…)

What We Can Learn from Chugach School District

March 8, 2016 by

AKIt’s kind of amazing, isn’t it? The first district to design a competency-based system was a relatively new one, located in the most northwestern corner of our country and serving remote villages of Native Alaskans. You can read all about it in the new report Chugach School District: A Personalized, Performance-Based System.

Staying the course for over twenty years, Chugach has developed a personalized, performance-based system that places students at the center and deeply values teaching and teachers. As we know, competency-based education starts with the idea that we can actually design for success and eliminate the traditional practices that lead to sorting and inequity. It also positions districts to manage continuous improvement processes that are constantly helping to build the organizational and instructional capacity of schools.

What Chugach helped me to understand is how profoundly competency-based education positions teachers to be able to use (and develop) their instructional expertise, their assessment literacy, their creativity, and their relational skills in helping students become independent learners.

Although I think this report will be helpful to anyone interested in competency-based education, it will be particularly useful to those interested in teaching and learning within competency-based schools, those working in rural communities, those thinking about how to create the competency-based infrastructure, and those working with Native American, Native Alaskan, and Native Hawaiian communities.

If you want to learn more about Chugach, we highly recommend Delivering on the Promise. It’s a great read for anyone who is trying to understand what competency-based education is really about.

How is Personalized Learning Changing Lives? Ask Thomas Rooney.

January 16, 2016 by

This post originally appeared on the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Ed Fly Blog on December 9, 2015.

Nestled in Central California, Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) is meeting and exceeding expectations. And part of the district’s winning formula includes competency-based learning.

The Lindsay community certainly faces challenges. One hundred percent of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. More than 90 percent of students are Hispanic or Latino, 50 percent are English Language Learners and 13 percent meet federal standards for homelessness.

Despite these incredibly difficult circumstances, LUSD is transforming education to a personalized system where all learners are met at their own level. These students are guaranteed success, challenged, and are pushed to leave LUSD ready to choose college or their career. (more…)

Kids in the Pipeline During Transition to Proficiency-Based Systems

January 12, 2016 by

PipelineI have made the case for “turning the switch” to a proficiency-based model versus “phasing in” a new approach to educating our youth. I have discussed the preparations that I believe are necessary to successfully implement a proficiency-based system. How could I have missed this!? I expected our proficiency-based model to be so much better for our students than the traditional approach, yet many of our learners are struggling. What’s going on and why? What can be done? With hindsight being 20/20, what should we have done differently with our implementation?

What’s Going On and Why?

The jump to expecting students to demonstrate proficiency on clearly identified targets based on national standards is a step up for all, perhaps a bigger step for others. The expectation that students demonstrate proficiency on all standards assigned to a course is a significant change from a traditional system where a student need only score 70 percent (or less) to achieve credit and move on. Of course, we can look at this issue from a different view and state that students have been allowed to move on without 30 to 40 percent of the knowledge, concepts, and skills necessary for success at the next level. Many of us refer to this as the “Swiss Cheese Effect” of what our traditional high school model has allowed for…generations.

Now that we have made the transition to our proficiency-based model, we have students in high school whose clock is ticking toward graduating with their class. They are the kids in the pipeline without the foundational skills required to be able to demonstrate proficiency in required topics. We need to remember that students come to the system with eight to eleven years of “Swiss cheese.” The pressure on learners and our learning facilitators to fill holes in learning and complete graduation requirements is extraordinary. This, to use Chris Sturgis’ analogy, is one of the “elephants in the room” that needs our attention…in a hurry.

What Can be Done?

(more…)

Milestones and Benchmarks On the Way to a Proficiency-Based System

December 3, 2015 by

RSU2On numerous occasions, I have been asked, “On your journey to a proficiency-based system, what were the milestones and benchmarks that were critical to a successful transition?” In taking the time to reflect over the past few years, there are certainly points along the way that have proven to be vital as we’ve moved forward toward a solid proficiency-based learning system. (more…)

Preparing to “Turn the Switch” to a Proficiency-Based Learning System

November 3, 2015 by

SwitchIn an earlier blog, I discussed the implementation of a Proficiency Based Learning System via a “phase in” approach and the unintended consequences of such a plan. Although I referred to the alternative approach as “overnight,” clearly much work happens prior to turning the switch from a traditional to a proficiency-based system. However, it does avoid the pitfalls of a phasing in approach. When you turn the switch:

  • There are no guinea pigs. All stakeholders transition at the same time; no one group is left facing change year after year.
  • The this will go away syndrome disappears because the change is here, now. It’s not going away. Our work then turns to a cycle of continuous improvement of the system.
  • The pilot doesn’t exist. By making the change across the board, the message is sent that “we are confident this is the direction to take” and it will succeed.
  • Apples to oranges, the comparing of proficiency-based and traditional grades, is a natural part of the transition. However, it does not happen via the structure of the implementation.

Preparing to ‘Turn the Switch”

So what are steps that experience teaches us need to be taken prior to making such a significant change? Make no mistake about it, this is second order change. It is not the “band aid” approach to school reform that has been happening for decades. Well-meaning tweaks to a failed system can only take us so far. This change goes well beyond what has been happening within our schools. (more…)

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