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Aurora Institute

RSU2: Moving Beyond Grade-Driven Learning

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

This post originally appeared on CompetencyWorks on January 7, 2016, and it is part of the Maine Road Trip series by Chris Sturgis. This is the second post on her conversations at RSU2 in Maine. The first post is on lessons learned and the second is a look at Richmond Middle and High School

Portrait of Young Kids first day of School

One of the topics that came up over and over again during my conversation with the RSU2 team is how to address the needs of students who aren’t at grade level. It’s a huge topic wherever I go because the majority of districts converting to competency education are still trying to teach students grade-level standards even when they know the students don’t have prerequisite knowledge. Yes, there is much more effort to provide additional support, there is lots of scaffolding, and they are working hard to create elective courses in high schools to build foundational knowledge. But the problem seems to be that we can’t shake off the idea that we should be teaching students the standards at their grade level rather than personalizing education so they have the opportunity to build the foundational skills (and fluency) they will need to be successful.

Meeting Students Where They Are

In our conversations, RSU2 leaders described how converting to measurement topics and learning targets has been very effective in helping students who have the prerequisite knowledge to learn the skills. However, in hindsight, they found that it would have been wiser to build the capacity to use the system of topics and targets to support students where they were in their own learning progression. Steve Lavoie, Principal of Richmond Middle and High School, explained, “Ideally, we would have shifted our perspectives to look at the continuum of learning rather than continue to have measurable learning objectives structured within grade bands. Everyone has some holes in their learning, even the valedictorian, but when students do not have prerequisite skills or have significant gaps in their learning, it creates tremendous pressure on the teachers and the students. We need to know where are the kids on our continuum of learning.”

One person used the example of the “fraction chasm” where more than 50 percent of the fourth and fifth grade math standards are about fractions. In sixth grade, working with fractions continues as students learn to apply them. When students start to tackle algebra, they will once again be drawing on their understanding of fractions. If students aren’t fluent in fractions, it is going to impact their learning into secondary school. Yet, the traditional practice of teaching a grade-level curriculum prevails.

This is super important – if we always teach at grade level standards, how do we find out where students really are on their learning progression? If we don’t know what they know and don’t know, how do we help them learn it? Most of the standards-based grading information systems don’t help us with this – they tell us how students are progressing in the standards at the grade level or in the course but not where students are, inform us about what skills they have (and don’t have), and help schools plan how to make sure students have the prerequisite skills. So a question for all districts converting to proficiency-based learning is, “How will you know what skills students have and how will you track their progress?”

John Armentrout, Director of Information Technology, explained, “There are many implications to consider in how a school creates the architecture of the measurement topics and learning targets. One of the things to think about is how it will support students who do not have the foundational knowledge for the age-based curriculum.”

So the question now becomes, What would this look like?

Designing for Deep Holes

I think one thing that we might add on to the Instruction and Assessment infrastructure are the prerequisite skills and background knowledge that are needed. The Matchbook Learning team introduced me to Jeff Baumes’ work on charting the dependencies of mathematical standards, which makes it crystal clear what students need to be able to do in order to learn higher levels of math. I think being really clear about the necessary background knowledge is imperative for ensuring that low-income students can successfully engage in the sciences, social sciences, and ELA. I remember talking to a student at Highland Tech in Anchorage about how the school helps build background knowledge for her history class. Essentially, Level 1 is a very simple research process of looking up all the people and major events through reading or watching videos so that she knew “the facts.” It was essentially a prep for her to be able to dive into the inquiry driving the unit.

There are also implications for instruction. Below are a few that have bubbled up in our conversations:

Are there instructional strategies or ways of organizing curriculum that can better serve students with significant gaps? Superintendent Bill Zima said that he has been thinking more about how to organize curriculum as student-centered hierarchies. He has been drawing ideas from the differentiated instructional model in Dr. Nunley’s Layered Curriculum. I’ve also wondered if the experts in learning progressions might be helpful in thinking through this challenge. They’ve done a lot of work on how to help students learn new concepts in science, math, and writing…when they are learning for the first time. What if the question was, “How do we help students learn the prerequisite skills they need for a standard or unit?” Would the instruction change at all? Could it so that we might be able to expedite learning for older students who have gaps?

When is scaffolding effective and when do we need to personalize teaching at the academic level of the student? One of the other instructional issues is the “size of the holes.” If a student is missing skills that are, as Baumes describes it, “one step away,” will scaffolding be effective? What if they are missing skills that are two, three, or five steps away? If we know how deep the holes are, can teachers draw on different strategies?

How big these holes are might also make a difference. What if a student that is in the foster care system changed schools three times in third grade? What if they didn’t learn any of the math skills that year? Would that impact the instructional strategies? According to Baumes analysis, the focus on measurement would impact many of the standards in later years.

Are we paying enough attention to fluency? As we pursued this topic throughout the day, it also became clear fluency was often the problem. Students might be familiar with the skills, but their fluency is so low that even the most basic problems or assignments became mountain-sized. As I understand it, fluency is not emphasized in the Common Core or other state standards. Thus, we need to build in a way to ensure students are fluent in the foundational skills.

Coverage and Ticking Clocks

The big elephant in the room for RSU2 and for all of the Maine districts is that as currently constructed, the expectation for a proficiency-based diploma assumes that students will get a diploma only if they meet all the standards in all of the eight domains. Yes, we want to make sure that students are learning, not earning meaningless credits. Yes, holding ourselves accountable should create the urgency for more continuous improvement to strengthen instruction and ensure that learning is underway at RSU2. And we need to confront the challenge of providing more instruction and support to students who enter ninth grade with below-grade-level skills. We also need to ask ourselves: Are we really not going to give a diploma to students who have four years of growth, demonstrate strong habits of work, and do their very best work but still don’t reach all the standards? I think not. So we need to find a way to navigate this through transitional policies and enough flexibility to take into account the different principles at work here.

What became clear through the day is that it isn’t just high schools that feel pressure to “cover the standards.” In my visit to Hall-Dale Elementary School, I was a bit surprised to find that teachers felt pressure to “cover the standards” even in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. Mrs. Langmeyer, a first grade teacher at Hall-Dale Elementary School, explained, “Moving to using measurable objectives and learning targets has allowed me to pinpoint my teaching. For the first time I have a structure that helps me know exactly who has what, and I can focus in on where they need help. However, students enter school with a big range of skills as well as in their development. Standards are only focused on academics, while young children in kindergarten and first grade are growing in so many different ways. We need to make sure that our teaching is developmentally appropriate.”

The high schools feel that the clock starts ticking the minute a student enters ninth grade. As Susan Lobel, Principal at Hall-Dale Elementary School, pointed out, “The higher the grade level one teaches, the more gaps kids may have and the less time you have to address the issue.” To date, Maine’s policy has been to only measure, which means the state only recognizes the four-year graduation rate. A student who takes another semester or year to finish is counted as a dropout. Thus, it feels like they are in a Catch-22 – they can teach students in a way that ensures proficiency in the skills, but not get every student to all the standards in all eight domains within four years. This is no different than the situation in traditional high schools; however, a proficiency-based system requires us to look at these situations with honesty and courage.

One of the primary places that this tension between teaching the standards or teaching students pops up is at transition points. The biggest one facing RSU2 is the transition between fifth and sixth grade when students move from the elementary to the secondary school. Teachers at the secondary schools are not familiar with the standards for the earlier grades, and it is always harder to form collaborative relationships between teachers across different buildings. One of the strengths of RSU2’s structure is that their secondary schools are grades sixth through twelfth, allowing teachers to work together over six years to help students build their skills.

Why is it So Hard to Move Away from Teaching to the Grade-Level and Not to the Student?

This tension, of choosing to cover the standards even when you know some students need to be focusing on standards at a lower academic level, is felt throughout RSU2 (and all the other proficiency-based schools I’ve visited). So why is it so hard for us to personalize learning so that students are all learning in their “zone?”

One person pointed out that the shift to the Common Core has required teachers to adjust their work and build capacity – and they have done this by focusing on their grade levels rather than the entire learning progression. Thus, over time, teachers may be able to reverse this by building more capacity to teach the prerequisite skills leading up to their grade levels.

An elementary teacher explained that it is just an issue of professional development. A teacher may know the standards in one grade level really well, and that’s fine up to a point. But within the proficiency-based system, teachers can then draw on each other’s knowledge so they can design instruction that will help students at other academic levels, as well. She believed that over time it would be easier to teach students along a broader continuum rather than within a grade level.

Another person noted that it is a huge change for teachers to shift their mindset from teaching eighth grade math to teaching children to understand math. It’s possible that this tension may in fact be just the buildup to teachers and schools changing practice.

Finally, the pressure to cover standards is reinforced by federal and state policy. Teachers feel it is only “fair” to cover the standards so that students have at least some exposure before they have to take the state accountability tests. The logic of this is always questionable to me – if you have a student who you know doesn’t have the prerequisite skills and one semester to work with them, is it better to work with them in their zone and make sure they gain proficiency in those skills, or to cover the standards even though it is highly unlikely they will become proficient? I always think the first option is better because at least the student has real growth and builds the skills they need for later. In the second option, the student doesn’t gain proficiency in either the grade level standards or the foundational skills.

Courage and Commitment

Until we are able to adjust policy, leaders in proficiency-based schools and districts are going to have to offer courageous leadership so that their teachers can feel authorized to do what is best for kids. And all of us have to stay committed to finding ways to organize the system and build the capacities so that each and every student is always in their “zone” and making progress.

Follow the whole series:

  1. RSU2: Entering a New Stage in Building a High Quality Proficiency-Based District
  2. RSU2: Continuous Improvement at Richmond Middle and High School
  3. RSU2: Moving Beyond Grade-Driven Learning
  4. RSU2: Moving Beyond the Test Score with Hope

See also: