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Aurora Institute

Addressing Root Causes at Memorial Elementary School

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Writing Continuum, 2012-2013-Tri. 1
The Wall at Memorial Elementary School

This is the second of three blogs about Sanborn Regional School District. See Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

Sanborn Regional School District had already embraced standards in their elementary, middle and high schools before the state policies calling for competency-based high school credits were introduced. Now that Sanborn Regional High School is well on its way to converting to competency education, other schools in SRSD are exploring what it means to take the step from standards-referenced to competency-based.

Creating a competency-based culture has already brought about changes, Memorial Elementary School Principal Jon Vander Els said, including ensuring that teachers have adequate time together for planning, a greater emphasis on differentiation in all grades, and the introduction of the concept of re-teaching when students don’t master the material in the first learning cycle.

Charting Student Progress on ‘The Wall’

If schools are going to ensure that all students become proficient in the standards, teachers have to share an understanding of what proficiency looks like. This is often referred to as calibration or tuning. Memorial has created two techniques to support this in writing. First is the Writing Continuum, which breaks down by developmental level the expectations for the types of texts, content and traits, process, mechanics and conventions, and attitudes.

The second technique, “The Wall,” focuses attention of the entire school on writing. In a hallway, an entire wall is used to show the students what proficient writing looks like at each academic level. The academic levels stretch horizontally with an example of proficient student work. The vertical axis shows the grade levels with gold stars indicating how many students in each grade are writing at each level.

“The Wall has helped teachers become better at assessing what quality writing looks like and differentiating between the levels,” Vander Els said.

Curriculum Director Ellen Hume-Howard emphasized, “We are seeing advanced teachership in which some teachers know everything about literacy.” It’s a great technique to use when you don’t have a learning platform that can allow you to chart student progression – and even when you do.

Responding to Students Who Aren’t Progressing as Expected

As Memorial staff made the commitment to get every student to proficiency, they had to face up to the data about students who were “not yet proficient.” First, teachers found that they had to build greater flexibility into their lessons and units, as they can’t assume that all students will reach proficiency within the given timeframe. Second, the school created LEAP (Learning for Each And every Person), a time scheduled each day for students to get help through re-teaching, reinforcement, or enrichment.

Third, they began to use student data as a starting point and searched out root causes. For example, Memorial teachers realized that there needed to be a greater emphasis on word study in the fourth grade as the range of skills between students was growing. They realized that they had a curriculum problem. They began to ask each other the question, “What do you when students aren’t reading well?” and through collaborative efforts began to enhance word work in classes and regrouping students as needed to help with phonics.

In math they began to use OGAP (Ongoing Assessment Project), which emphasizes formative assessment. Teachers began to work together to clarify the reasoning behind major concepts, such as multiplicative reasoning, and breaking them down for understanding. Students also were expected to explain their reasoning and unpack how they were solving problems. Teachers began to build up item banks that together provided substantial information on how students approach math problems. They also used additional assessments of major concepts to ensure students understand the fundamentals they will need for later courses.

These discussions enhanced Memorial teachers’ professional development. Soon, they began to talk about curriculum progressions that include the steps in student reasoning that are used as they move through the curriculum. Vander Els explained that a key skill is for teachers to be very intentional about their instruction, because students’ reasoning develops as they work through the curriculum.

As the skill expectations for teachers increased, support for new teachers also increased through strong PLCs. In addition, Vander Els said, “PLCs are where the professional development happens. PLCs have the trust among colleagues that is needed for learning.”

The PLC: The Engine of Competency Education

Currently, PLCs meet by grade level. Each team has a common prep once a day for four days and a double-prep on the fifth day. This sixth prep is a data meeting (to review student assessment data as a PLC). Memorial hopes to expand the use of vertical PLCs to other content areas, as well, to ensure vertical alignment on the understanding of proficiency and build teachers’ skills in supporting students who are behind or ready to advance to higher level curriculum.

Vander Els emphasized that one of the most important leadership functions is to support PLCs, making sure they have the time to meet and are staying true to the norms that allow them to be a source of collaborative, professional development. “Principals and district leaders have the power to make sure there is freedom to have hard conversations in safety,” he said. “It starts with distributed leadership models that understand and value teacher leadership in creating a dynamic learning culture within the school.”

The other responsibility Vander Els takes seriously is ensuring that the school is using data to identify gaps where students aren’t progressing as they expected, and seeking the root causes. Hume-Howard admitted, “Sometimes I feel like we are stalking Bob Marzano, as we are always on the lookout to learn more from his work on how to use feedback and formative assessment to improve achievement.”


Pinnacle’s Limitations on Reaching the Pinnacle of Student Achievement

“With standards-referenced grading, we know our students inside and out,” Vander Els said during our conversation about grading. “One population that we have struggled to adequately report progress for is our most significantly disabled population. The gradebooks have standards that are aligned with competencies, but Memorial teachers have to report out on the standards that are available by grade level through Pinnacle, the SIS system currently used by SRSD.”

Memorial is continuing on a learning curve with their grading system. One of the lessons learned through this process had to do with the difference between reporting progress on an end-of-year standard and reporting it by trimester. Teachers had to become comfortable with building performance indicators/benchmarks by trimester to demonstrate where students should be at each point in the year (trimester) to meet an end-of-year standard. This could mean that a student could achieve an M (meeting expectations) in the first trimester, but as the expectations progressed throughout the year, the student may struggle and achieve an IP (in progress).

Memorial is off to a great start with its grounding in standards and a strong culture of learning through PLCs. I’ll look forward to going back in another year or two to see what else they have discovered as they dig out root causes that are undermining student achievement.