Amidst Opioid Addiction, Plummeting Morale, One Elementary School Reinvents Itself

July 6, 2017 by

This post and all photos originally appeared at EdSurge on June 19, 2017.

When you enter Parker-Varney Elementary School, you are immediately struck by the relaxed atmosphere. Make your way to the office to check in, and you’ll see students walking by and waving, moving in and out of community spaces with confidence and ease. There’ll be a buzz of excitement in the air, the mark of students highly engaged and doing work that is important and relevant to their lives.

It wasn’t always this way. Four years ago, in 2013, Parker-Varney was listed as a “School in Need of Improvement.” The school had seen five principals in six years and achievement scores, morale and attendance were sinking. Local families were struggling economically, with 72 percent of students qualifying for Free and Reduced Lunch, and across the district, we were battling an opioid crisis (a problem that continues today, with six parental overdoses at Parker-Varney this year alone).

Rather than crumble, however, we chose to embrace change and focus on what mattered most: whole child development. We honored student needs with multi-age classrooms and competency-based projects. As principal, I encouraged the staff to take risks and to rekindle their passion for teaching and learning. Teachers identified problems of practice and prototyped solutions, and focused on what could be done rather than what couldn’t.

At Parker-Varney, we have a saying: “Learning can be messy, and we must work through the mess.” Today, although the walls of the building are the same, the “spirit” and sense of collaboration have transformed.

Here are a few key ingredients to our success. (more…)

Adult Learning: Creating Buy-in

June 27, 2017 by

This post and graphics originally appeared at 2Revolutions on May 17, 2017.

Designing and facilitating high-quality professional learning experiences is such important and challenging work. I must admit that in my first year of formally leading professional development, I cried a few times in school bathrooms during session breaks — not so dissimilar to swallowing back tears in the teacher’s lounge during my first few months of teaching in the Bronx. I remembered (and often forgot) lots of mediocre professional development experiences as a teacher. How could I avoid repeating this pattern and actually make a difference with the little precious time I had with busy educators? On a larger scale, this question weighs upon the United States educational system, with much research pointing to huge wastes of time and money poured into largely ineffective efforts to develop teachers. (See TNTP’s The Mirage and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development.)

As the director of learning transformation at 2Rev, I am lucky to be able to pursue my obsession with designing and facilitating effective adult learning as a core part of my role, which has, not surprisingly, helped me learn a lot about what works and what’s most important when it comes to educator professional learning. In my next few blog posts, I’ll share several key principles that we’re arriving upon as we continue to experiment with different approaches to adult learning. Some of these are likely unsurprising and clearly backed by research, yet worth being reminded of. Others are intuitive but much easier said than done. I’ll share these principles with some broad rationale and then drill down into some specific practices and tools that we’ve found to be effective in living out these principles.

Today I’ll focus on a first, and maybe one of the most important, principles: creating buy-in.

(more…)

Goodbye ABCs: How One State is Moving Beyond Grade Levels and Graded Assessments

June 6, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at EdSurge on May 16, 2017.

The term “grades” has become almost taboo among some educators in New Hampshire, where seven elementary schools are slowly ditching the word altogether through a program known as NG2. The program—short for “no grades, no grades”—is hallmarked by the schools shifting to a more competency-based assessment structure and removal of grade levels.

Mary Earick, project director for NG2, says the purpose of the program is to create more flexible learning pathways for students through “competency-based multiage schooling,” which allows students to move on to new objectives only after mastering others.

“[NG2] tackles long-standing educational barriers to personalized learning . . . that of ‘Grades,’” Earick writes in an upcoming report on the project. Those barriers include “(1) student assessments that don’t accurately reflect students’ true understandings and skills and (2) methods for grouping students (by age) that often poorly align to their true needs as learners.”

The program follows six key tenets: project-based learning, learner agency, whole person development, blended learning and competency-based assessment. New Hampshire schools participating in NG2 represent urban, suburban and rural parts of the state. While the elementary schools are alike in piloting a “no grades, no grades” structure, each was given flexibility for how it would implement the program specifically.

“We don’t talk about that [grades] anymore,” says Amy Allen, principal at Parker Varney Elementary, a NG2 school. For Allen, moving away from just using the word “grades” has been an important piece of keeping students motivated in the program. So if a first-grade student is attending a kindergarten intervention group, he is not told he is going to a kindergarten class. Instead, he might be going to see “team cooperation.”

Allen says that about 80 percent of the school is participating in the pilot. There are two separate K-2 groupings, one second/third grade group, and a fourth/fifth group. (The other 20 percent of the school, including a standalone kindergarten and third-grade class, are sticking to the status quo.) (more…)

New Hampshire Innovation Studios

June 5, 2017 by

This post and all pictures originally appeared at 2Revolutions.

Depending on the goals of our partners, Discover and Learn Days can take many formats. Innovation Studios are one example. Launched in partnership with the New Hampshire Department of Education and the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, Innovation Studios are half-day workshops at New Hampshire schools that focus on exposing educators and school leaders to innovation happening in their own backyard. Participants explore cutting-edge learning environments that foster personalization, competency-based learning, and student agency and then go on to design prototypes to bring these innovations back to their schools.

Public Will Through Community Engagement

The genesis of Innovation Studios came from New Hampshire’s state educational vision, called NH Vision 2.0, which laid out the foundational goals for the state in 2016 and beyond. One main goal of the vision, is to engage New Hampshire communities in transforming schools in ways that make sense for the kids and families attending them. The NH 2.0 visioning team of state officials, educators, district leaders, business and non-profit organizations, 2Rev, and others, realized that it’s more powerful to help communities create solutions that fit their distinct needs rather than coming to them with an answer. These studios are one mode for how this is unfolding—sparking and encouraging innovation by sharing ideas and approaches that are working in real schools with real kids.

 

Space for Exploration

Sessions begin with a range of design and learning activities, like this one, which is a play on the periodic table and helps participants identify the skills and dispositions where they shine and those areas where they need support. Creating transformative schools that go beyond academic competencies requires the educators in them to have experiences that tap into these essential skills and dispositions; activities like these are one way into that. After warming up, participants hear from the visiting school about the work they have been doing. Each studio has focused in on a different entry point to innovation: competency-based learning and assessments at Pittsfield Schools, project-based learning at Parker-Varney Elementary School, and student agency at Souhegan High School and Maple Street Magnet School. (more…)

Connecting the Dots: Aligning Efforts to Support Teachers and Students in New Hampshire

May 8, 2017 by

Making the shift to a competency-based and personalized model of education is a process that can be daunting to educators, especially those who work in a very traditional system. Last July I made the move from being the principal of a nationally recognized Professional Learning Community at Work school and competency-based learning environment to the executive director of the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to seeding and supporting innovative efforts in New Hampshire schools. I had been fortunate to be engaged in a number of the innovative efforts in New Hampshire while I was a principal, and I understood all too well that many educators did not see how the work that we were doing was connected. Anytime a school or district’s next steps are seen as “another initiative” the work is doomed to fail. I set out to connect the dots for as many as I could in my new role.

New Hampshire is quite well-known for an innovative assessment effort called PACE, but it is truly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the greater ecosystem of personalized learning in New Hampshire. The Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) is the only assessment and accountability waiver approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The results from PACE continue to surprise national experts in assessment, but not the educators directly involved. The results, when compared with SBAC, demonstrate high levels of inter-rater reliability, as well as growth for students in various cohorts, suggesting that opportunities for deeper learning are having a positive impact regardless of where a student is on his/her learning progression. This has been due to a number of factors, but what it comes down to is this: Our teachers, when provided the opportunity to learn deeply, reflect, and collaborate, really know their stuff, and when students are truly given the opportunity for deeper learning, they rise to that level of rigor.

But there was, and is, a piece of our balanced system of assessments that we continue to work on developing. The integration of skills and dispositions into curriculum, instruction, and assessment is an integral component of a competency-based system. There is a growing body of research supporting the absolute necessity of these non-curricular cognitive competencies to success in careers. Employers are identifying these skills as the ones critical to success in the workplace. In New Hampshire, these skills and dispositions are referred to as Work Study Practices (WSP). Our teachers, starting in the PACE schools, took on this challenge over the past two years, and the learning has been monumental. Through the facilitated and guided practice through modules created by 2Revolutions and support through MyWays tools, New Hampshire educators have the opportunity to delve into their own learning, then develop and implement tools and resources within their own classroom environments to integrate these all-important competencies into learning opportunities for students. Teachers from across the State of New Hampshire are then brought together for a facilitated opportunity to share their learning and resources with each other. The number of teachers involved in this effort has doubled over the past two years as educators recognize the importance of these competencies to preparing our students to be successful in today’s world. (more…)

New Hampshire: Building an Integrated Competency-Based System

February 22, 2017 by

This is the fourteenth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

All children deserve and are capable of a rigorous learning environment where they demonstrate competence and confidence to move on when ready.
– NEW HAMPSHIRE’S STORY OF TRANSFORMATION

 

new_hampshireNew Hampshire’s move toward competency education started with the pilot of competency assessments in 1997, expanding from the original four high schools to nearly thirty by 2003. The pilots sparked conversation about the importance of measuring what students can do, not just what they know.

Even as one of the top performers in education in the country, New Hampshire knew they needed to do better to stay economically competitive. In 2005, they decided to redefine the Carnegie unit credit based on seat-time and replace it with a competency-based credit. Districts were charged with creating competencies and awarding high school credit based on those competencies by the 2008-09 school year. New Hampshire wanted credits to mean something.

In 2013, they took another step forward, revising the Minimum Standards for School Approval so that the structures of schools within the K-12 system would be designed for students to reach proficiency rather than allowing them to be passed on without addressing their gaps and weaknesses. The updated minimum standards made the expectations explicit that students should be able to access educational opportunities customized to their individualized needs and circumstances. Their boldest move of all was to believe so deeply in their teachers and their ability to create a system of calibrated, performance-based assessments that it opened the door to a new method of accountability.

New Hampshire’s Theory of Action

New Hampshire’s theory of action is two-fold. First, it seeks to create a culture of improvement based on support and incentives rather than blame and punitive techniques. Second, it assumes that state policy and local control must be balanced with formal processes for input or, whenever possible, co-designing. Even

though the Department Education has substantial administrative authority, it consistently uses collaborative processes to create a shared vision, reach consensus on major systems changes, and build capacity within districts and schools. The state consults with education associations and creates formal processes to enable those districts that want to roll up their sleeves to participate. (more…)

On Scaling Competency Education: Equity, Quality, and Sustainability

February 1, 2017 by

This is the tenth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

The early lesson from New England is that the scaling strategies for competency-based education require a combination of schools and districts that have the courageous leadership to convert to competency education and state leadership willing to commit to goal-oriented policies supported by long-term capacity-building strategies. Again, over time and as more states move forward, we are likely to learn about where there might be additional issues that need to be addressed. In particular, districts and states need to consider equity, quality, and sustainability.

Equity

amy-allen-quoteEven though equity resides at the very heart of competency-based education, it still requires an unrelenting commitment to challenge institutional patterns, individual bias that creates lower expectations, and strong management practices that can lead to much greater responsiveness. The focus on equity should be found in the accountability designs within school, district, and state systems and processes as well as the schoolwide instructional philosophies and strategies.

Although states are trying to increase responsiveness through embedding expectations that schools and educators respond to student needs, conversations with educators across New England suggest that courageous leadership is still needed. Under the pressure of the end-of-year accountability exams, too many schools and educators, even in the most developed competency-based districts, are still providing grade-level curriculum to students even if they have already learned the content or are lacking the prerequisite skills. In addition to leadership, we will need to engage a broad range of expertise, both practitioner and leadership, to identify the best ways to help students fill skill gaps without falling back into the trap of tracking.

Quality

The field is currently challenged by not having enough research and evaluation on the quality indicators for competency-based districts and schools to determine the elements that will lead to a high-quality model or effective implementation. This task is further complicated by what might be called waves of innovation that take place once districts become competency-based: As educators and schools become more intentional about what they want students to know and be able to do, there are efforts to build assessment literacy; build the capacity for performance assessments to support the development of higher order skills; develop stronger instructional strategies based on learning progressions; introduce practices that support student agency, voice, and choice; integrate more personalized learning practices; and introduce digital tools and online learning. Thus, schools and districts are taking different paths with different sequencing as they build the full range of capacities needed to operate a high-quality competency-based system. (more…)

We Have a Proficiency-Based Diploma. Now What?

January 27, 2017 by

This is the ninth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

rihs-diplomaThe trust in the conventional education system has been undermined by the tradition of awarding diplomas to students who do not possess the skills needed for college and careers. It has been possible in many districts to receive a diploma even though students are still reading at the elementary school level. In order to eliminate this practice of passing students on without the necessary skills, states are introducing policies that set the expectation that students will demonstrate proficiency at an agreed upon performance level in order to receive a diploma (i.e., a proficiency-based diploma).

The proficiency-based graduation policies developed in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont appear to be high-leverage in terms of engaging districts; however, the diploma policy cannot stand alone. It is one thing to say that a diploma must be proficiency-based and an entirely different thing to create a system that will ensure students are making progress toward a diploma throughout each year of school. Even with proficiency-based diploma policies, states will find that they need to take additional steps to fully engage and support districts in ensuring that students can actually reach graduation-level proficiency.

First, there must be a strategy to engage all the districts beyond the coalition of the willing. For example, until Maine engaged districts through a self-assessment of their progress in implementation and offered flexibility in setting their own deadlines within state guidelines, there were many that had not yet demonstrated a commitment to change. Second, states may want to expedite the process by helping districts understand the elements of personalized, competency-based systems and/or the implementation process. Maine provided training opportunities early on and Vermont has complemented their policy with training for supervisory unions. Rhode Island used a more prescriptive approach in requiring secondary schools to implement a set of practices. (more…)

Putting the Pieces Together to Build a Competency-Based Statewide System

January 25, 2017 by

This is the eighth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

New England states have a variety of reasons for turning to competency-based education: higher expectations than ever before, the demand for skills that prepare students for an ever-changing world, and an understanding that the traditional system has become a stumbling block to the future of their children and the strength of their communities.

Below are a few highlights of the statewide system-building efforts that are taking place in New England.

  1. Proficiency-Based Diplomas

cross-curricular-skillsThe proficiency-based diploma policies developed in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont appear to be high-leverage in terms of engaging 100 percent of districts; however, the diploma policies cannot stand alone.

One of the variations across states is the number and types of domains that are included in the diploma policy. Maine has specified that students must demonstrate proficiency within eight domains, while Vermont and Rhode Island only require six. All states have included set state-level cross-curricular skills and offered resources to districts to help them develop a structure and build capacity. (For more on proficiency-based diplomas, stay tuned for the next blog in this series.)

  1. Calibration

How can parents be confident that their children are making progress and becoming proficient in all the skills they will need to graduate ready for college and careers?

What needs to be in place within the system itself so that students, parents, college admissions, and employers can have full confidence in the diploma?

These are the types of questions that must be addressed in redesigning the education system. As discussed previously, one of the most important elements needed to create a competency-based system is to create mechanisms that can calibrate (also referred to as moderation or tuning) what it means to be proficient for specific standards and competencies and at specific performance levels. If teachers, schools, districts, and states do not have a shared understanding of what it means to be proficient, then variability and inconsistency will continue to corrode the reliability of schools and undermine efforts to eliminate the achievement gap. (more…)

Seven Key Questions for States Looking to Transition to Competency Education

January 20, 2017 by

This is the seventh post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

Competency-based education is expanding across the country under a variety of different terms, including mastery-based, proficiency-based, and performance-based. Educators turn to competency-based education when they realize the traditional system isn’t working for many students – and is never going to work for all students. Teachers are frustrated by a system that expects them to teach students grade-level standards even if they are missing years of prerequisite skills. Students are frustrated by a system in which some of them are passed along with Cs and Ds, unable to engage in grade-level curriculum, while others endure the boredom of doing seat-time because they already know the content.

For district leaders and policymakers seeking to introduce K-12 competency-based education within their states, there are key questions to consider when looking to begin this transition. Early on in the process, states need to make a few important decisions that will lay the foundation for the rest of their efforts. These decisions make a difference.

  1. michael-martin-quoteHow will the vision and direction be described/defined?

States vary in how they describe their vision. Vermont focused on a triad of personalization, proficiency-based learning, and flexible pathways. New Hampshire has stayed focused primarily on a competency-based system with a strong emphasis on creating a balanced assessment system. Maine’s vision was outlined in the strategic education plan and has been communicated as a proficiency-based diploma supported by a standards-based system.

  1. What is the theory of change?

What is the underlying theory of change of the state policy? As has been discussed in the earlier section on policy features, states will need to think beyond the specific authorizing policies to consider how to engage districts, schools, and educators in understanding the underlying values, building expertise in personalization and competency-based education, and initiating implementation.

  1. What is the implication of the strategy for engaging communities?

Community engagement—not simply marketing an idea and buy-in, but authentic and respectful community engagement—is an essential ingredient for effective implementation. It establishes dialogue and demonstrates respect, which are both important first steps in transitioning from the traditional values to the new values and assumptions that create the necessary culture for competency-based education. When done well, it can catalyze trust-building and create opportunities to experience the new values. It also lays the groundwork to help parents and the community understand why the transition to competency education is important so they are not taken by surprise when policies that are visible to them, such as grading policies, eventually change. (more…)

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