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Aurora Institute

Performance-Based Home Schooling

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

7 alaskaThis is the seventh post in the Chugach School District series. Read the firstsecondthirdfourthfifth, and sixth posts here.

Why do parents choose the Chugach homeschool program? Parents want a clear roadmap of what their children need to accomplish, ways to determine if they are learning, and indicators that help them understand how they are doing. Parents want to make sure their kids are learning everything they need to without any gaps or holes in their learning.  – Annie Dougherty, head homeschool teacher

One of the eye-openers for me during my visit to Chugach School District was the conversation with CSD’s FOCUS homeschool teachers. It had never crossed my mind that homeschooling programs could be performance-based, or that they play a powerful role in education throughout Alaska and for families with high mobility (parents of course enrolling students for a whole host of reasons). CSD serves 230 students all across the state, from both rural and urban areas. The teachers, living all over the state, work with between forty to sixty students at a time. I could try to summarize our discussion, but I think you’ll appreciate hearing it directly from them.

The Benefits of Taking Time Out of the Equation

Janet Reed started off the conversation with, “The performance-based system takes time out of the equation. Parents really like it that kids can spend more time where they need it. They also really appreciate knowing their kids aren’t just being shuffled forward.”

Shannon O’Brien expanded on this point, “Parents are looking for accelerated programs for their students. They have often decided to homeschool because they felt their students were being held back in the classroom, or perhaps their students were struggling and not getting the help they needed. Performance-based systems are a comfort to parents because they know their kids can take the time they need to succeed. I’ve had parents say they always wanted a performance-based school without knowing it existed.”

“Performance-based systems are great for kids who are accelerating, those who are behind, and everyone in between,” added Tanya Wimer. “We know the brain research tells us that children’s brains develop differently and at different times. It’s very helpful when students can work through levels at their own pace.”

Another teacher emphasized that the CSD focus on the whole child is also compelling. “Parents are paying attention to the development of their children beyond reading and math scores. The comprehensive content areas allow parents to instill their values into their learning experiences.”

Unleashing Creativity

O’Brien, who also taught in Chugach’s Chenega Bay and Whittier schools explained, “The homeschool program is even more individualized and flexible than the performance-based classrooms tend to be. What I’ve learned is that in the classroom, we still brought assumptions about teaching, about standards and assessments. It was more black and white than it needs to be. With the performance-based system, you can say yes more. You can be really creative about what learning experiences look like. I’m constantly asking ‘What about… Could the kids do it this way? What if we do… Could they meet the standards?’ Learning happens in so many way. There isn’t one way to do it. There isn’t one script that we have to follow.”

It All Starts with a Conversation

Dougherty described how the homeschool teachers engage parents and students when they first enter the district’s program. “It all starts with a conversation. We want to get the best sense we can of the students in terms of their learning, learning style, and feelings about learning. We look at the previous school transcripts and we may give assessments to be able to ‘level’ students. Our content levels are not aligned with grade levels, so we don’t have too much difficulty when students are academically behind their grade levels. Most importantly, the conversations with the students and parents give us a good sense about how to support them.”

“Sometimes, parents and kids found the assessments too laborious, and it became a problem in helping them make the transition into the homeschool program,” Reed adds. “We now have greater flexibility in the leveling process to make sure that it is developmentally appropriate. We can often get the information we need through dialogue, probing questions, and looking at past schoolwork. The schoolwork usually tells us a lot more than the transcripts do.”

Wimer emphasized, “The initial conversations are where we begin to build trust. Many students have had difficult relationships with teachers, where they didn’t feel heard or supported. The initial conversations are also where we establish a shared purpose that creates a partnership between families, teachers, and the student.”

The performance-based system creates a common language and structure to support the partnership between parents, students, and teachers. As Reed put it, “It is so helpful to have the backbone of standards and rubrics in every content area. Given that everyone has all these very different styles of learning and communicating, it makes everything easier when there is a clear focus for learning. It’s also very powerful that we have process skills in every content area to help parents and students learn the language of learning.”

Empowering Students (and Families)

Over a phone conversation, Wimer explained that parents value how learning to learn is embedded in the Chugach approach. “Performance-based learning allows students to focus on goal setting. They know exactly what it is they are trying to learn. For example, one of my elementary school students had a disability that caused him to struggle with his writing skills. He created a goal of finding other ways to express his ideas in his social studies. He began to create scenes with Legos, and then developed his oral communication skills to demonstrate his learning. In third grade, he was already learning to manage his education and developing accommodations for his disability.”

Chugach also uses Individual Learning Plans for students to co-design a project based on high interest. The ILPs are designed so that students learn the process of goal setting as well as the process of organizing projects. O’Brien explained how one of her students created an ILP centered on the theme My Life in Alaska. With developing his writing skills and using technology as the primary goals, he created a blog where he included descriptions about how to get wood ready for the winter, how he built a model airplane, and descriptions of other parts of his life.

Dougherty pointed out, “We empower families as well as students. Parents know their kids best. They have the greatest opportunity to identify where kids are interested, where they are excelling, where they are struggling. Many of our parents do the assessments within the levels. However, as teachers, we always manage the cumulative assessments that are used to determine when students are ready to move to the next level of standards.”

Going Beyond

One of the issues that CSD is beginning to address is how to build the capacity within their district to better serve the students who want to pursue learning beyond the content standards. Annie explained, “Our philosophy is to empower kids by setting clear goals and targets. However, some of our kids want to go well beyond the targets. We are trying to figure out how we can make sure they can do it within CSD. This is particularly important for students who excel in one area but are still working towards meeting the high school graduation requirements.” Currently, CSD is in conversation with Copper River School District to build an online learning capacity to increase course (or standards) access.

Wimer continued with, “Whenever we encounter something that isn’t working right for students or teachers, we try to find a long-term solution. Our standards are a living document. We are constantly upgrading them to be better for kids. Another issue we have been thinking about is the concept of electives. We have broad standards that encompass electives, but may not require them specifically. For example, we have students learning foreign languages, but we don’t require it for graduation. We need to make sure they can get recognition for it without requiring it for every student. “

On Learning

As the teachers talked, there were many reflections on their own learning through working at Chugach School District, as well as how they want to improve:

  • “I learned how to use big, thematic ideas to construct projects and engage students.”
  • “I want us to use essential questions more to create inquiry-based learning.”
  • “I had an idea about how things should work. Now I think we should do what works for kids, not fit kids into our ideas.”

They also shared advice to teachers who are going to teach in a performance-based school:

  • “Get up to speed on the brain-based research.”
  • “Develop your skills in all types of assessments: formative, skills-based, process skills, performance-based, based on projects or real-world experiences.”
  • “Understand learning progressions, understand how students move from one concept to the next and where they are likely to get into trouble.”
  • “Become familiar with learning styles, educational psychology, motivational research, and multiple intelligences.”

While there was plenty more information flying, it was all nicely summed up by Shannon O’Brien. “Have fun. If you aren’t having fun, then a performance-based system probably isn’t the right place for you.”