Category: Insights into Implementation

A Close-Up Look at How a Workshop Framework Can Enhance Personalized Learning

January 19, 2017 by

workshopWhen I started teaching first grade over twenty-five years ago, I quickly realized that I was going to need additional strategies and support in order to help each of my students become independent readers and writers. The research and work of Donald Graves had a profound impact on my teaching as a young educator. I can remember reading Writing: Teachers and Children at Work (Graves, 1983) and falling in love with the workshop approach. This was the kind of supportive, communal learning experience I wanted to replicate for my students.

It was this revolutionary research and work of Donald Graves and his colleagues Lucy Calkins (Calkins, 1986) and Mary Ellen Giacobbe (Giacobbe, 2006) that supported my early years of teaching. Donald Graves taught me how to create a safe space for children to use their voices to tell their individual stories through speaking, listening, drawing, and writing. This philosophy of personalization enabled me to really listen to my student writers and allow them to show me what they needed next for instruction.

Fast forward to 2008 when I found myself working as an Instructional Strategist in RSU #57 in southern Maine. Conversations were beginning in Maine about WHY we needed to transform teaching and learning in the twenty-first century. I listened to Tony Wagner, Co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, speak at an ASCD conference about his research. His research findings presented a strong case for reimagining our school systems and teaching the 7 Survival Skills of -21st Century Students to prepare students for college and careers in a new global economy.

My school district embraced this effort and hired coaches from the Reinventing Schools organization to guide us. Staff began to wrap their heads around the concept of “learning is the constant, time is the variable.” We were encouraged to start growing a personalized, proficiency-based learning model in our classrooms. What this would look like in practice became a focus of our collaborative conversations and work. (more…)

Staying the Course

January 18, 2017 by

courseThis is the final article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

Many districts are converting to competency education in states that have not yet begun to take the steps toward creating the vision and policies to support competency education. Even in states that have embraced competency education, leaders may need to respond to policies that have not yet been re-aligned. Thus, leaders must learn to stay true to their vision and purpose in navigating state policy. They may turn mandates into opportunities or actively work in partnership to co-create the new policy infrastructure. Essentially, they operate beyond the boundaries of the policies so that decision-making continues to be student-centered.

One of the leadership functions needed to stay the course is being able to turn top-down compliance requirements into opportunities to reinforce the empowered culture of learning and improvement. Superintendent of Chugach School District Bob Crumley talks about how he manages mandates by stating, “I’ve learned to see mandates from the state as opportunities. We will meet the letter of the law, but we aren’t going to let the tail wag the dog. For example, we have a state mandate about including state assessment scores in teacher evaluations. We have a great teacher evaluation tool developed by teachers and our administrative team. I’m not going to make any changes to the evaluation tool that causes a loss of ownership. Instead, I’m going to tell our teachers that there are state requirements we need to meet, and we’ll take this opportunity to see if we can improve the evaluation tool to help us get better at serving our kids. If we said that we were doing it only because the state required us to, it would send the wrong message to teachers and students. We look to see the value and opportunities that develop when outside forces require us to change and adapt. Continuous improvement is a core value and process at Chugach School District.”

States and districts are also finding ways to work together to advance competency education. For example, four districts in New Hampshire are partnering with the Department of Education to pilot the development of local performance-based assessments that will eventually lead to a state-wide system. These assessments, known as Performance Assessment for Competency Education or PACE, are designed to provide richer feedback to teachers and students in a much more timely fashion than state assessment systems.

Sanborn principal Brian Stack advises school and district leaders that, “Making the transition from traditional to competency-based grading is messy. No matter how much you plan for it, administrators and teachers will feel a sense of building the plane while flying it in those first few years of implementation. Stay the course in the face of adversity. Stay true to yourself and to the model. Trust that your teachers will stand with you, and together you will face the challenges that will lie ahead and find a way to work through them as a school community. Your patience and persistence will be rewarded.”

Bottom line, leaders will need to turn to shared leadership strategies to empower educators and engage the community through the ups and downs of the change process, even though there will be pressure to become the sole decision-maker. (more…)

Continuous Improvement: Addressing the Needs of Struggling Students

January 17, 2017 by

foursquareThis is the twenty-sixth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

After the first few years of transition, districts begin to have the bandwidth to look more deeply at where students are not advancing or are at a lower level academically than their age-based grade. Although not necessarily done in a linear fashion, there are three ways that districts and schools begin to respond to struggling students. First, they create strategies and direct more resources to struggling students. This often opens a conversation about how to meet students where they are so they build their pre-requisite skills rather than always depending on scaffolding that makes curriculum accessible but often leaves students in the same situation – taking on higher level courses without a strong foundation. (For more on this topic see Meeting Students Where They Are: Academic Domains and The Accountability Paradox.) Second, they begin to explore more deeply how habits of learning impact student achievement, building out their capacity to nurture students. Third, they seek out ways to improve instruction overall so that more teachers within the school have the disciplinary knowledge to help students advance.

At Sanborn Regional High School, the Freshmen Learning Communities are designed to help ninth graders build the skills they need for success and identify where students need additional support. They are finding that the conversations about students with special education needs are more focused on learning and progress than behaviors. The understanding of standards, differentiated instruction, and accommodations for assessments has become much more clear and intentional.

Pittsfield Middle and High School (PMHS) is exploring different ways to respond to the needs of students who are struggling or enter school more than one year behind in grade level. They’ve developed a strong intervention system, with an emphasis on reaching students in middle school. They have reading and math specialists and are providing double doses of reading and math. They also are reaching into elementary school with a special education teacher at every grade level, working to help students learn foundational skills. Still they aren’t seeing the results that they would like so they are continuing to explore what else they can do to ensure students are successfully learning. (more…)

Continuous Improvement: Improving Performance and Personalization through Powerful Data

January 16, 2017 by

dataThis is the twenty-fifth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

Timely, relevant data plays an important role in the transition to student-centered learning. In the process of the transition to competency education, school leadership, educators, and students will want, or even demand, an integrated information system to take advantage of the increased data on student learning. The drive toward improved student performance will increase the demand for data to guide greater personalization. Teachers who recognize the value of tracking student progress based on standards will not be content with the modifications allowed in most traditional student information systems or learning management platforms organized around semesters and courses. They will want to be able to monitor, support, and credential learning on standards regardless of if students are working below or beyond their grade levels. This requires organizing standards in a learning continuum beyond the course structure and displaying data in a way that gives a picture of the student profile—an entire student’s body of work and mastery, not just grading assignments and assessments within a course.

An integrated learning system to support competency-based environments starts with student profiles and standards-based learning continuums. Indicators of a student’s progress on each standard across content areas are key. Many vendors are offering standards-based or competency-based grading, but don’t provide the student-centered approach to managing progress along a learning continuum in all the significant domains. The student information systems that support traditional time-based schools are organized by courses or classes— not students—thus it is very difficult to generate a picture of how students are advancing across disciplines and over the years.

In early stages of the transition, most districts collect data on how students are progressing within the academic disciplines. As the competency-based system is further implemented, tracking of data on student learning often expands to include habits of learning, the type of learning experiences to ensure students are having adequate opportunities to apply learning in real-world settings or projects, and a broader set of domains. Bob Crumley, Superintendent of Chugach School District, explains, “It’s important to send a message that the state testing indicators aren’t the end all, even if that’s the focus of state legislators. It sends a powerful message when the state only tests reading, writing, and math but not social studies or employability skills. As a district, we had to put into place a system that created a meaningful and balanced way to talk about student progress and our effectiveness in all areas. We believe all content areas are equally important. We dedicate staff development and resources on all ten content areas. We monitor progress and celebrate growth in all ten areas.” (more…)

Developing Self-Directed Learners

December 22, 2016 by

gsmart3This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on December 6, 2016.

“I haven’t met many self-directed teenagers,” said a frustrated high school teacher during a recent presentation.

As we contemplate the vast problem of teenage disengagement and the apparent low level of self-direction, we have to ask, “Is it our kids or our schools?”

We’ve seen enough high engagement schools where most teens were self-directed to suggest that it may be the design of American secondary schools that’s the problem—not the kids.

For a century, the primary design meme of American schools has been compliant consumption. Students read, practice and regurgitate in small chunks in siloed classes in regimented environments. Low levels of self-direction shouldn’t be surprising—it is inherent in the traditional secondary school design.

High engagement schools start from a different conception—knowledge co-creation and active production. They design a very different learner experience and support it with a student-centered culture and opportunities to improve self-regulation, initiative and persistence—all key to self-directed learning.

Why Does Self-Direction Matter?

Growth of the freelance- and gig-economy makes self-direction an imperative, but it’s also increasingly important inside organizations. David Rattray of the LA Chamber said, “Employees need to change their disposition toward employers away from work for someone else to an attitude of working for myself—agency, self-discipline, initiative and risk-taking are all important on the job.” (more…)

Continuous Improvement and Innovation

December 20, 2016 by

old-ladyThis is the twenty-fourth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

It is no surprise that Chugach School District received the Malcom Baldridge National Quality Award in its seventh year after creating a performance-based system. Competency education creates the conditions for continuous improvement and mutual accountability in managing school operations. When the only data is attendance and A-F grading scales, districts do not have access to data that allows them to track student progress in learning. With the rich data produced in competency education, schools can drive towards what Marzano Research refers as “high reliability” schools—schools that are able to continue to reflect upon their own performance and adjust to better meet the needs of students.

There is a tremendous shift for leaders to move from compliance to continuous improvement. Compliance has an inherent element of fulfilling specific requirements where continuous improvement reaches for the stars. Oliver Grenham explained that at Adams 50, they discovered there was no middle ground. They were “all-in or nothing” because the shift to competency education requires a totally different paradigm. He compared it to that visual game in which you can see an old woman or you can see a young woman, but you can’t see both at the same time. For district and school leaders, this means having to learn about continuous improvement management techniques early in the transition, even before the data may be fully available. There is simply no way to revert back to compliance management strategies after a second order change. The culture of learning expands to become a culture of continuous improvement with a focus on results.

Continuous improvement in this context is a formal methodology or a system to improve performance through reflecting upon data, engaging stakeholders in discussions about variation or low performance, planning for targeted improvements, and then repeating the cycle. Many districts use an easy to use process of Plan-Check- Act-Do to manage improvements. There are other techniques, as well, such as implementing quality controls or benchmarking against other organizations to seek out and adopt best practices. (more…)

Three Ways Districts Stumble in Implementation

December 19, 2016 by

growthThis is the twenty-third article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

How are you preparing for the implementation dip?

There is likely to be an implementation dip during transition years. After the initial work is done, confusion tends to rise and achievement scores may go down. The question is, how fast can districts get beyond the dip and embrace the new practices?

Pittsfield invested heavily in preparation and engaging the community, and then implemented the redesign in one year. It was a challenging year of “ripping off the Band-Aid.” But when they came back in September of the next school year, they were all going in the same direction and were ready to begin refining and enhancing their student-centered approach. Building in a late start Wednesday for teachers to meet made the implementation year manageable.

Chugach solidified the school board and district leadership commitment to a long-term strategy and created an intentional communication strategy that reinforced the idea that the system transformation will take several years. They also used data to intensify the sense of urgency by reminding people of the poor results in the traditional system as well as celebrating small steps of progress. Most importantly, they kept their community engaged so members could continue to deepen their understanding and celebrate alongside the students who were beginning to thrive and enjoy coming to school.

In interviews, district and school leadership have shared the ways they learned from their mistakes when they stumbled or the ways their neighboring districts have encountered troubles. (more…)

Refining the Instructional Model and Enhancing the Instructional Cycle

December 13, 2016 by

plannerThis is the twenty-second article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

The instructional infrastructure and its focused attention on student learning, the instructional cycle, and teacher skill-building will be a work in progress for several years. The first year, teachers will offer a flurry of ideas about problems, refinements, and innovations. It is important to create a strategy for managing the revision process. Summit Public Schools has a lean start-up model that quickly tests out ideas to see if they are valuable before implementing them school-wide. Many districts engage educators in dialogue to determine which items are critical to change and which can be addressed later on, which helps to prevent the new system from imploding under the weight of its own potential.

Many issues are likely to emerge at this time: how to improve consistency on assessing student work, how to lift up both assessment and instruction to higher levels of learning, how to better support students who have difficulties with subject matter, how to provide more opportunities for students to personalize their learning experiences, and more. It is likely that the misalignment between the desired depth of knowledge, assessment, and instruction will emerge as a healthy tension as educators recognize that it is an obstacle to ensuring students are attaining higher levels of learning. Based on the feedback from educators, principals can co-design a strategy to strengthen assessment literacy, deepening their knowledge of teaching disciplines through the work on learning trajectories (now referred to as learning progressions), and building performance assessment capacity. It’s not all going to happen in the first year. (more…)

Making Mid-Course Corrections and Refinements

December 12, 2016 by

dandelionThis is the twenty-first article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

Bob Crumley explained that in the early years of the transition at Chugach School District, he felt like he was “pulling weeds.” As the team implemented the new instructional models, they kept stumbling over practices and operational issues that were rooted in the traditional, time-based system. For example, students were learning through extra-curricular activities, but CSD wasn’t including that performance data within their system. They turned extra-curricular activities into co-curricular activities by building in processes, students, and stakeholders until they began to see that learning occurs anywhere and at any time. Expanding the walls of the classroom to include athletics, student government, field trips, the arts, and career development created opportunities for students to pursue high interest learning opportunities.

Both Brian Stack, Principal at Sanborn Regional High school, and Jonathan Vander Els, Principal at Memorial Elementary, have described having to refine their grading and scoring systems after the first year of implementation. Stack pointed out, “As a leader, what stood out for me as an example of resolute leadership was when my fellow administrators and I had the courage to recognize that a decision we made was not working, and we were able to make a change mid-year. It would have been very easy to use that mistake as an excuse to go back to our old system, but we managed to stay true to our vision for competency education and find a way to overcome the hurdles and roadblocks that were put before us.”

Keeping the community engaged throughout implementation is critical. As Pittsfield School District began implementation, they alerted their Community Advisory Council (now called the Good to Great Team) as they hit implementation issues to engage them in problem solving around mid-course corrections. Rick Schreiber of the Reinventing Schools Coalition cautions, “Often a district will establish a strong shared vision but fails to implement regular communication with stakeholders to seek out further input. In the beginning, stakeholders are building trust, and there is excitement about the upcoming changes. The second and third years are critical for leaders to continue the shared vision process to address the social, emotional, and logistical issues that arise from second order change.” (more…)

Leveling and Parent Conversations

December 6, 2016 by

notebooksThis is the twentieth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

As described previously, schools will need to determine students’ academic levels as distinct from their grade levels (often referred to as leveling). It will be important to help teachers prepare for engaging parents in the initial conversation about where students are on their learning progression. Anticipate questions such as, “Why is my child not at grade level? Why are you starting him on an academic performance level rather than on grade level? Why is my child’s target for growth an academic level or two rather than their grade level?” (Listen between the lines, as what they are really asking is, “Will my child ever catch up?”)

According to Copper Stoll, formerly Chief Academic Officer at Adams 50, the district dedicated a day to meet with every parent to inform them of their child’s placement in ELA and math the spring before they began their K-8 competency-based system. Teachers had talking points to help create a consistent message. They personalized the conversation by providing folders that included information on the standards their child would be learning based on the student’s academic placement as well as brochures that explained the personalized mastery system. This laid the groundwork so parents wouldn’t be surprised if their child was placed in an academic performance level below their chronological grade level in the coming year. They continued to use a quarterly reporting system that parents were used to while introducing the standards-based progress reports. They also offered parents access to the electronic information system so they could monitor progress independently. According to Stoll, “Parents didn’t express any concerns, as they knew their kids were behind and they were grateful that we were finally doing something to address it!” (more…)

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