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Aurora Institute

A Visit to Brenda Scott Theatre Arts Academy

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

pic for Brenda Scott postThis post is one of several that highlights my incredibly exciting visit to schools in Detroit last month. Now, let me just say: it’s impossible to ignore the juxtaposition of Detroit’s spilling-over-the-top educational entrepreneurialism with the empty homes collapsing under the weight of darkened doors and rotting roofs. It’s impossible not to feel the urgency of getting schooling right any more than in Detroit where an economic hurricane is reshaping the city. You feel this urgency at Brenda Scott Theatre Arts Academy — it is a great example of what is possible when you draw on student-centered learning, blended learning, and mastery-based learning.

Brenda Scott is a K-8 school with a population of about 850 students, of which 75% are one or more years behind grade level when they enter.  Brenda Scott has been re-invented as a student-centered, blended learning, mastery-based school through a partnership of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA) and Matchbook Learning (and about 49 other partners as well). According to Sajan George of Matchbook, “After just one year, Brenda Scott went from having less than 1% of the students proficient in either reading or math to now having 71% and 63% of the students making more than a year’s worth of gain in reading and math.  This represents the fifth highest student gains across all schools in the city of Detroit.”

Kristin Floreno, Matchbook Learning’s blended learning specialist guided me through the design of Brenda Scott. It’s impossible to actually share what you see in a school so take a look at this video highlighting an 11-12th grade social studies course. Ms. Ford has a lot of expertise in blended learning, moving past standard rotation models into a highly personalized classroom.

How are students organized at Brenda Scott?

The EAA has established 18 academic levels, two per grade level. So 1st grade is level 1 and 2, 2nd grade is level 3 and 4, and so on. Students are leveled for reading and math to make sure they are advancing through their learning progression without gaps.  The more modularized levels give students a sense of progress based on their effort not just their next birthday. Imagine…”MOM! DAD! I made it to level 4 today in reading !”

The schedule at Brenda Scott is organized around grade level bands with students in grades 1-2, 3-5 and 6-8.  This responds to developmental stages of students as well as clustering students in bands so that teachers have greater flexibility to respond to the wide range of levels in any class. There may be 4-5 levels in one grade (and we all know that this range gets bigger in high schools). It’s very draining for students and teachers alike to have to move through one curriculum when they are at such different places.  Teachers work together to make sure that students are getting instructional support from the teachers that are familiar with the content and skills at their level.

The team at Brenda Scott thinks about how to best serve outliers on both ends. They want to make sure students at the lowest levels are getting lots and lots of help. They keep their eye on how they are using the adaptive software to see how much effort is being put in as well as where they are getting stuck.  The outliers on the high end are grouped together so that they keep advancing. Thus you may have a few 3rd graders advancing quickly in math, working in groups with 4th graders and 5th graders on level 8.

How do teachers know where students are on their learning progression?

The first thing that happens for students is leveling.  Students are assessed using the Scantron Performance Series to get a sense of what kids can do and where there are gaps. Students are leveled only on math and reading, but language arts and science are included in the 4 times a year assessments to monitor growth. Even the students in kindergarten participate in the assessment. After being familiarized to the computer, they listen to something being read and then answer a set of questions.   Other assessments are used as needed to best understand the level that students are at currently.

EAA has developed a teaching and learning platform called Buzz that tracks how students are progressing. (Tom Vander Ark wrote about Buzz and I’ll be sharing what I learned in the next post) The report from the Scantron Performance Series is then entered (manually) into Buzz. As students provide evidence of skill attainment, teachers mark in Buzz that they are proficient and the student can move on to the next unit.

How do teachers know a student has mastered the skills?

The EAA has organized the instructional cycle into four phases – Learn, Practice, Apply, and Assess. (When asked which was his favorite, one student broke into a face-splitting smile and responded, “Apply.”) During Learn and Practice, students are directed to units in adaptive software or other resources, receiving instructional support during small group time and asking for help when they need it. As much of the practice is done in adaptive software, teachers can keep an eye on how students are progressing and where they are getting stuck. They are not graded or scored during the first two phases either.

The phases of Apply and Assess are closely intertwined.  After students demonstrate that they are becoming proficient in one of the adaptive software systems (or through another activity) they are ready to apply their skills through a variety of ways that have been developed by the teacher (perhaps a project, diorama, essay, or multimedia presentation on the topic).  As they apply their skills, they can ask for a conference with the teacher to show their evidence and explain what they learned. At that point, if the teacher sees that the student isn’t fully proficient, they may add more content to Buzz for the student for further practice or work with them individually until they are sure they are proficient.

EAA also uses Scantron Performance Series four times a year to assess how students are advancing. This meets two functions – it’s a consistent way to measure learning growth, as well as a quality control check that teachers are operating with a similar idea of what proficiency means. If a teacher says a student is proficient and then they aren’t on Scantron it opens a conversation where together administration and teachers can look at student work.

Students also indicate where they are on Target Trackers in the classroom.  This is public information that shows their progress, helps motivate students as it is fun to put up the sticker that shows you are moving ahead, and of course can come in handy for the teacher to glance at who needs extra help.

One of the emerging issues that is arising at Brenda Scott is how to compare proficiency when students are co-designing their education.  How do you use a rubric to assess learning demonstrated through a multimedia presentation as compared to a written essay?

What does the classroom look like at Brenda Scott (and other EAA schools)?

First of all, you see students on task. It may be quiet or it may be noisy, but in general students are working on something.

There are a lot of computers with most but not all of the classes using a rotation method (small groups working with the teacher, students working independently on adaptive software, or involved in some type of project or hands-on learning). Teachers are often changing the groupings of students to allow them to work with the students that either need new instruction or because they need some extra help to master the skill. But that doesn’t mean the struggling students are always grouped together – there may be times that a mix of students working on a project allows for the students to bring together different skills.

There are a number of classroom rituals that are part of managing a personalized classroom. Interestingly, these classrooms look much like those in Maine, even though EAA and the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning have not worked with the same TA providers.

1) Classroom Culture: There is some type of code of conduct that the students created themselves to establish the culture of the classroom.

2) Getting Help: There are Where Am I boards in which students indicate to their teacher if they are on their way toward mastery, need help, or ready to conference to demonstrate their learning.

3) Showing Progress: Target Trackers allow students to proudly show that they are progressing in their learning.

What type of content is provided on Buzz and who decides?

At Brenda Scott, teachers prepare units rather than daily lesson plans.  Buzz organizes activities into four stages of learning – Learn, Practice, Apply, and Assess.

The EEA guards against “worksheeting” students to death and they want to make sure everyone has a chance for deeper learning. So Apply is a critical step with a general 4-point rubric (just getting started, almost there, I understand, and above and beyond) built into Buzz that teachers can modify for specific performance tasks. As teachers organize units, they have to think through the content, activities, and assessment for each unit.  Preparing a unit means offering students options at each step for how they learn, practice, and apply learning. They also need to think about what is needed if students don’t reach proficiency. As they get to know their students this becomes more individualized.

The EAA initially identifies a core set of content for Buzz which includes online content or suggested published materials, types of projects and activities for students to demonstrate learning, and general rubrics to be used for application.  A school can add content across the school or in a specific grade or a teacher can author and edit content for their classroom or for a student.  The EAA reviews the content added by a school and teacher and, if appropriate, add it to their core set of content. It’s continuous improvement in action that cycles from district to school to teacher and back around again.

Online content includes Compass, ALEKS, ST Math, Imagine Learning, and Net Trekker. In addition there are virtual field trips and project-based learning to increase relevance as students apply their learning.

What type of support do teachers receive at Brenda Scott?

Kristin provided her insight into this question as Matchbook Learning’s blended learning coach. EAA also provides lots of support to teachers as well using School Improvement Network and offers a large library of videos so they can see the SCL methods in action.

Kristin pointed out that the teacher role is fundamentally different in a student-centered, blended learning mastery-based environment.  The focus is on monitoring progress, working in small groups, organizing units, and knowing when to bring in math and reading specialists to help students that are really struggling. They have to understand the instructional cycle and be very skilled in providing feedback to students so that it produces learning.

The blended learning coach designs professional development based on how experienced each teacher is with a student-centered continuum. She tends to organize professional development at three different levels of expertise – Emerging, Getting Started, and On My Way.  The skills teachers need to develop include knowing how to level students appropriately (or what proficiency looks like at each level including above and below the grades you are teaching), using data to group and regroup students, and how to plan units using online content. Kristin emphasized that based on their experience along the SCL continuum, teachers are learning different techniques in managing personalized, blended classrooms.

Kristin pointed out that using data doesn’t mean it tells you exactly what to do. It opens a dialogue for further investigation, collaboration, and problem-solving. For example, four times a year, after the Scantron Performance Series, teachers do a data consult where they present to the administrative team how they are doing in helping their students progress and where there are areas that they can address in the coming quarter.

What are some of the tough issues Brenda Scott is facing?

  • Getting the technology to speak with each other:  It’s great to have the technology but there could be so much more value if Imagine Learning, ALEKS, Scantron, and Powerschool had a common language.
  • Shared understanding of proficiency: This is a problem that challenges conventional education schools as well as competency-based ones. However, it becomes a very explicit focus in competency-based schools. Schools have to structure time for teachers to have a chance to look at student work together, and the chance to talk about why it is or isn’t reaching a level of proficiency at different grade levels.
  • A long road:  Kristin explained that the transparency that comes with mastery-based approaches means that teachers can’t turn a blind eye to how far students have to go to get back on track. And teachers get bummed, really bummed. Again, it’s no different than in conventional schools, but in competency-based schools everyone has to have the courage to face up to the fact that 2/3 of their class might be two years behind in academic skills.  It also means providing hope, encouragement and diving into instructional challenges with teachers is an important part of the principal’s job.

It all comes down to creating common language and courage.

FYI – Secretary Duncan wrote about his site visit to Brenda Scott in Scientific American.