Category: District Redesign

Biddeford School District: Never Unpack Alone

October 27, 2015 by

Maine Road TripThis post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine.

Dan Joseph, Reinventing Schools Coalition/Marzano Research Lab, suggested I visit with Jeremy Ray, Superintendent of Biddeford School Department, to learn about how they were progressing toward proficiency-based diplomas. The conversation included Margaret Pitts, Principal, Biddeford Primary School; Lindsey Nadeau, Early Childhood Coordinator, JFK Memorial School (kindergarten); Kyle Keenan, Principal, Biddeford Middle School; Mary Bellavance, Instructional Coach at the Middle School and a contributor to CompetencyWorks; Deb Kenney, Principal, Biddeford Intermediate School ; and Paulette Bonneau, Principal, Biddeford Regional Center of Technology. Thanks so much to all of you!

Biddeford is a small district serving a town of 21,000. The student enrollment is approximately 2,600 with about 60 percent FRL. Ray described that although they aspire to higher student achievement, “those kids who go to college tend to stay.” Thus, driving their focus is a strong emphasis on improving achievement and expanding the numbers of students going to college. Already there are signs they are moving in the right direction – Pitts mentioned that the proficiency-based instruction along with strong RTI has resulted in a decrease of third graders who will need intervention next year. Biddeford is already seeing signs of an upward trajectory.

Ramping Up

Ray explained they didn’t jump to the RISC model. He believes that change starts with people. He wanted to make sure that principals would trust the RISC staff. Dan Joseph joined two leadership team meetings before a contract with RISC was established and he began working with teachers.

Biddeford made a decision to focus the community engagement at the school level rather than district. It was a strategic choice for Biddeford. The state policy requires districts to create proficiency-based diplomas, so there is less demand for community-wide engagement to move forward. Yet, community engagement is important for building a shared vision and embracing the new values. Given that Maine takes local control very seriously, it made sense to use an even more decentralized strategy. Keenan explained that they started with having schools engage their parent communities about what is best for our kids.

Ray also believes that “the quickest thing to get a thing killed is to name it.” With the support of the Biddeford School Board, he made sure the message was clear that proficiency-based learning is not an initiative or a fad. This is based on what is best for children.

Starting with K-8

It made sense for Biddeford to start with K-8, as it was already comfortable with standards-based education. Furthermore, high schools add a layer of complexity to change: Maine state policy starts the clock ticking when a student enters ninth grade by only calculating a four-year graduation cohort and counting students who need a fifth year as a drop-out. Thus, they are often the most intransigent to change. (more…)

Phase In or Overnight Your Implementation?

October 20, 2015 by

Guinea Pig Reading a BookWhen implementing a Proficiency Based Learning system, many schools need to choose between a “phased in” approach or an “overnight” approach. Typically, a phased in approach identifies a specific group of students for which change happens over a prolonged period of time. Conversely, an overnight approach involves developing a program from philosophy through logistics (such as scheduling, assessments, reporting, transcripts, etc.) and making the transition for an entire school or district to happen at the same time.

Having experienced both, I offer a discussion of unintended consequences to one of these choices. In one school, implementation was scheduled for a freshman class with a four-year phase in process through which the entire school would transition to a new system. In another, a decision was made to transition an entire school together at one time, given the thinking that ultimately “we’re going that way” anyway, why not do it together approach.

We’re the Guinea Pigs

Stakeholders may or may not embrace a change to a proficiency-based system. When deciding to implement this change, a single group of students (in this case, a freshman class) and their families experience the change over a period of multiple years. While it is a fact of life that schools are “building the plane while flying it,” it has a dramatic effect upon the “guinea pig” class. Not having answers is natural when transitioning to a whole new philosophy and approach to educating our youth. It is natural not to anticipate some of the issues that arise within transition; however, the guinea pig class certainly had their fill of “I don’t know” responses from teachers and administrators. (more…)

Innovation Springing Up in Springdale

September 28, 2015 by
Dr-Megan-Witonski

Dr. Megan Witonski

When you talk to Dr. Megan Witonski, Associate Superintendent in Springdale School District (AR), it feels like she is just about to jump out of the phone, she is that full of passion, insightfulness, and the all-important we-are-going-to-make-this-happen-ness. I couldn’t but help imagine her with a superhero cloak.

Springdale, based in Northwest Arkansas, has 23,000 students, half of whom are English Language Learners. The district is entering their second year of implementation of a new 8-12 School of Innovation. The strategy doesn’t end with a new school – Springdale is personalizing their school district by having six of their schools approved (and the waivers that come with it) under the Arkansas Department of Education School of Innovation initiative. These six schools all provide students to the School of Innovation, led by principal Joe Rollins.

We’ve all seen districts start up new innovative schools but leave the others to stagnate. Not so at Springdale. For example, they found that advisories have been instrumental in the new School for Innovation in lifting up student voice, ensuring strong relationships are built with students, and helping to personalize instruction and support so they can be confident students are learning. As a result, they’ve already introduced advisories into the other middle and high schools.

What Inspired Springdale to Personalize: Witonski explained that there were several forces at work leading them to personalization. First, they wanted to make sure they were fully preparing their students for life after high school. They wanted to reach beyond the basic requirements for graduation. Second, with half of their student body learning English and needing help to fully build up their strength in the academic use of English, they needed a model that would ensure every student was fully engaged and able to get the support he or she needed.

Witonski said, “We were doing a great job for most students, but there is a population we need to seek out new approaches to reach and help build a wider set of skills. We began by looking at the most important ingredients for what students needed to be ready for college and careers. We wanted to make sure they had all the tools in their toolbelt to be successful. From there, we looked at what a structure could look like that would help them build those skills.” (more…)

A Conversation with Buddy Berry in Eminence Kentucky

September 21, 2015 by

eminenceI had a chance to visit Kentucky last month when I participated in a meeting of the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative/University of Kentucky Next Generation Leaders Academy. Before I headed south to Hazard, I veered north to visit Eminence School District, one of the ten innovation districts.

Eminence is a small, rural district of about 850 students located forty miles east of Louisville. Superintendent Buddy Berry is a fourth generation alumni of Eminence. Five years ago, Eminence was facing declining enrollment and funding. Since they have started down this path to personalization, the tide has turned and enrollment has nearly doubled.

Eminence is taking a different path toward competency education than other districts I have visited, so for us to have a meaningful conversation, Berry and I first had to spend a bit of time unpacking the language of personalization, standards-based, competency-based, mastery, and proficiency, as they can easily become buzz words that lose their distinct meaning. Once we got ourselves comfortable with the language each of us was using, we had a tremendous conversation. Here are a few of the highlights.

Starting with Students: Berry explained that to launch their effort, they wanted to create a culture where staff listened to students and students had a sense of agency that they could shape the world around them. They organized focus groups of fifteen students and interviewed every student in the district, asking them to share what they didn’t like about school and what they wanted it to be. Based on the specific feedback they received—such as limited choice, no opportunity to feel really challenged, and lack of technology—the district made a number of changes: expanded electives, additional AP and honors courses, and laptops students could check out in the library.

Berry identified two important lessons learned through this process. First, student agency isn’t just about listening to students. After students realized they were being given a voice, they brought out every complaint, expecting the adults in the system to fix it. Thus they jumped from empowerment to entitlement. Eminence took a step back and set the expectation that everyone is part of the solution. Students could still bring forth problems, but they also had to bring ideas for how to solve them. (more…)

Keeping the Why

July 8, 2015 by

TeacherRecently, I found myself at a conference sponsored by the Maine Curriculum Leaders’ Association. The purpose: to discuss where we are as a state in our ability to award diplomas based on proficiency of concepts and skills. Since each district is tasked with defining their own plan, it was a welcomed opportunity to hear the challenges and successes other districts have been encountering. It was a wonderful day of professional collaboration minus the single moment someone shared that they were excited about the move to proficiency since “students will now be ready when they get to me.” The grade level of the teacher who spoke is not relevant because I saw nodding heads of agreement from teachers of all levels. Is this really why we are doing this? So we know that students are ready for us? My mind took off.

I have heard this phrase uttered before. And, in full disclosure, I would be untruthful if I said those simple words never passed over my lips nor that I gave a head gesture in an attempt to emphasize my point that competency-based learning is worth making a reality. That was before I realized the importance of starting with WHY (thanks Simon Sinek). What was the reason we want this shift in education? In my more recent history of the competency-based movement, I have solidified my deeper understanding of why I want to shift from a system that awards Carnegie Units based on seat time and subject grades to one that asks students to demonstrate competency of skills and knowledge. The truth is, competency-based in not about making sure kids are ready for the next level’s teacher. Maybe that is a good why if you think only of how skills are to be taught. But, by simply adding the words “learner-centered” in front of proficiency-based, we make the reforms in the systems of schooling about what the student needs. In other words, we tag a student’s proficiency not because we want to know they are ready for us. We tag so we know what to prepare so we are ready for them. The difference between the two phrases might seem subtle, and at first glance may even be synonymous, but the effects on the system are not the same. The Why and how we teach and assess shifts when we begin with the learner.

Doug Finn, an educational coach for ReInventing Schools Coalition (RISC), has offered a great explanation of the differences. He shared that the teacher-centered structure, common in most schools, starts with a teacher and then assigns age-appropriate students to build the teacher’s schedule of classes. In contrast, a learner-centered approach starts with identifying what the students’ current needs are, grouping them, and then finding an adult to guide them to the next level of the learning progression. (more…)

Fulton County Schools Completes “Back Room” Infrastructure to Enhance Technology in Classrooms

June 17, 2015 by
Fulton County Schools

From the Fulton County Schools Website

Leading with learning instead of technology is a recipe for success, as exemplified by metro Atlanta district Fulton County Schools. With 99 schools and 95,000 students, the district has made a point of starting with infrastructure and following with the right technology to support its goal of personalized learning. “We always want to use tried and true technology in innovative ways,” says Serena Sacks, Chief Information Officer. “We don’t want to worry about whether the technology works– we just want to use it better.” Investing in a bunch of iPads can be exciting, but Fulton had the foresight to first ask what infrastructure is required for devices to work properly, and instead invest in that process. “We started with the classroom first, asking, ‘What type of experience do we want to create for students?’” says Dr. Scott Muri, Head of Academics. Fulton envisioned a personalized learning environment where students could access multiple types of media and multiple devices simultaneously, which would require a very robust network and the implementation of many new wireless access points. After speaking with technology consultants about the realistic requirements of building such a system, the district formulated a ‘backwards design’ plan, which included laying new overhead cables and upgrading the hardware closets in schools with new switches.

With the help of Layer 3 Communications, an Atlanta-based company that designs network infrastructures for schools and offices, Fulton began building a complex infrastructure in 2003 that was recently overhauled. Now, the network can support two devices per student accessing a network simultaneously. In addition to strengthening networks, Fulton’s schools doubled the number of Aruba access points to almost two per classroom, and added much denser wireless coverage in common areas such as media centers and cafeterias. They also increased bandwidth from 1GB to 2GB, and installed new Brocade network cables and switches in the computer room with the capacity to expand bandwidth to 10GB in the future. These infrastructure upgrades cost about $18 million, part of Fulton Schools’ $189 million technology upgrade budget funded by Fulton County’s SPLOST 1% tax. (more…)

June 25: Chugach, RSU2, and Pittsfield

June 16, 2015 by

Stages of ImplementationWe are pleased to tell you that the CompetencyWorks webinar on Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders will feature Robert Crumley, Superintendent, Chugach School District, Alaska; Virgel Hammonds, Superintendent RSU2 Maine (and soon to be joining KnowledgeWorks); and Derek Hamilton, Dean of Operations, Pittsfield School District, New Hampshire.

Each one of these districts could do a three-day training on their implementation strategies, there is so much to learn from each of them. As always, we’ll be discussing key issues and answering questions in the chat room as well as directly with the presenters.

The webinar is June 25, 2-3 ET.  Register here. See you there.

Making Sense (or Trying to) of Competencies, Standards and the Structures of Learning

June 9, 2015 by
math comps

From Building 21 (Click to Enlarge)

States, districts, and schools are developing a range of different ways to structure their Instruction and Assessment system (the set of learning goals of what schools want students to know and be able to do; the way they can identify if students have learned them; and, if not, how they can provide feedback to help them learn it). I’m having difficulty being able to describe the differences as well as the implications. The issue of the importance of the design of how we describe what students should and/or have learned has come up in meetings about assessment, about learning progressions (instructional strategies that are based on how students learn and are designed to help them move from one concept to the next), and with the NCAA over the past month.

So I’m doing the only thing I know how to do—which is to try to identify the different issues or characteristics that are raised to see if I can make some sense of it. For example, here are a number of questions that help me understand the qualities of any set of standards and competencies:

Is it designed to reach deeper levels of learning?

Some structures clearly integrate deeper learning and higher order skills, whereas others seem to depend solely on the level of knowledge based on how the standard is written. We could just use standards and forgo an overarching set of competencies. However, the competencies ask us to ensure that students can transfer their learning to new situations. It drives us toward deeper learning.

Is it meaningful for teachers for teaching and for students for learning?

As I understand it, much of the Common Core State Standards was developed by backward planning, or backing out of what we wanted kids to know and be able to do upon graduation and then figuring out what it would look like at younger ages. Much less attention was spent on structuring the standards based on how students learn and meaningful ways to get them there. The learning progression experts are emphatic that it is important to organize the units of learning in a way that is rooted in the discipline and helps teachers to recognize where students’ understanding is and how they can help them tackle the next concept. That means the structures are going to be different in different disciplines. Thus, we need to understand how helpful the structures of the standards, competencies, and assessments are to actually help students learn. (more…)

What’s Your Dream Grading Tool? NYC Educators State Their Must-Haves

May 20, 2015 by

Must-HavesWhat is your dream mastery-based grading tool?

This design challenge drew a roomful of educators from twenty mastery/competency-based schools around New York City—and reps from seven educational technology companies that offer mastery/competency-based grading platforms.

The aim was to create a city-wide list of ‘must have’ and ‘nice-to-have’ features and functions of a dream mastery-based grading system—and to foster an unprecedented level of information-sharing and intense collaboration between mastery-based schools and the companies that provide the grading platforms, tools, and trackers they use.

Mastery Grading Must-Haves:

  • User-friendly, intuitive design
  • Parent login, student login (separate)
  • Bulk upload of custom standards and skills
  • Ability to edit and copy outcomes during the school year
  • Ability to share competencies across different courses
  • Ability to customize competencies/outcomes by class
  • Ability to track assignments across years and across courses
  • Centralized by student for all classes (a student can see all his/her present/past classes in one place)
  • Multiple modes of viewing student progress (by course or competency)
  • Progress Reporting (24/7 student views, parent views)
  • Excel reporting (ability to import/export students scores and data)
  • Ability to create/upload rubrics that link to competencies/outcomes
  • Ability to link assessments and grades to rubrics
  • Communication feature for students, parents, teachers, and administrators
  • Compatible with STARS (citywide grading tool for NYC schools)
  • Visual signal or alert pushed to users upon outcome/comp being met
  • Reliable tech support and PD

Source: Mastery Collaborative from www.digitalready.net

(more…)

Setting the PACE: Teacher Assessment Practices in a Competency-Based Education System

May 18, 2015 by
Wordle

Wordle created by Ellen Hume-Howard

I continue to be amazed and impressed by our staff’s progress over the past five years related to our implementation of a competency-based education system. Our grading, assessment, and instructional practices have changed significantly during this time, as our teachers have continued to push forward in their quest to impact student learning.

Over the past two years, our focus has been on assessment. Our staff’s knowledge and growth related specifically to the assessment of students’ competency has grown significantly. Memorial School, an elementary school in Newton, NH, is part of the Sanborn Regional School District. Sanborn was one of four districts (Sanborn, Epping, Rochester, and Souhegan) to participate in a first-in-the-nation accountability strategy called PACE (Performance Assessment for Competency Education), which was recently approved by the US DOE. This joint venture between the NH DOE, the Center for Collaborative Education, the Center for Assessment, and the four participating school districts entails a reduced level of standardized testing (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in NH) and involves the creation of locally developed, rigorous, comprehensive performance assessments by teams of teachers. These high quality performance assessments are designed to support deeper learning, and will be integrated within the units of study that students are currently engaged in, thereby creating no disruption to the learning process.

The benefits of this work are numerous. First and foremost, this effort is reflective of educators at literally every level within the State of New Hampshire working in unison to better educational experiences for our students—from teachers in the classroom to Commissioner Virginia Barry and Deputy Commissioner Paul Leather. Everyone involved truly felt that a single standardized assessment should not be the only factor determining a school’s and its students’ success. In the PACE model, the standardized assessment for reading and mathematics would be taken once at each level (elementary, middle, and high school), with complex, multi-part performance assessments administered to allow students to demonstrate and apply their knowledge in quite sophisticated ways. The performance assessments were created by teams of teachers, and were developed as part of the units of study that students would be engaged in during the mid-March to May timeframe, thereby allowing the assessments to be integrated within the daily activities that students and teachers were engaged in. Additionally, the assessments have been vetted by local, state, and national assessment experts and have provided teachers with the opportunity to look at their assessments through a critical lens of their own, something they are doing now on a consistent basis. (more…)

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