Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Starting the Journey to CBE at Otken Elementary School

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

Dr. Cynthia Lamkin, Lead Learner at Otken Elementary

This is the seventh post on a series about McComb School District in McComb, Mississippi. Start here.

Otken Elementary, serving 500 students in grades 1-3, is in the first year of the the transition to personalized learning. They began the roll-up in 2017 with conversion to personalized learning in first grade followed by second year, next year, and so on.

Dr. Cynthia Lamkin, Principal or Lead Learner, described the early steps to implementation. Otken started by organizing a site visit for their first grade teachers to visit Kennedy Early Childhood Center to learn about student-centered learning and the blended learning rotation model. In amazement, they asked their Kennedy colleagues how they were able to get kindergarteners to all be working on task and to take responsibility even when the teacher was out of the line of vision. The teacher practitioners at Kennedy explained that it wasn’t magic. It started with a series of everyday practices such as creating a shared vision, goal-setting, and target trackers. Kennedy is finding that it takes about eleven days to introduce scholars to the routines of student-centered learning and station rotation. They all affirmed, “There is no excuse that first graders can’t learn to do this.”

Reflections of the Lead Learner

Lamkin reflected, “The journey to student-centered learning is not a sprint. It takes time to immerse oneself in the principles of student-centered learning. And we all have to expect that we are going to be operating within a dual system with one foot in student-centered learning and one within the traditional system and the end of year assessments.” As happened throughout the day at McComb, we jumped into a conversation about what it means to be student-centered and stay true to the expectation of the state’s assessment system driven by the accountability policy. Ellis noted, “There is concern that they won’t be able to see the types of results that are possible when we need to cover the curriculum.” Others mentioned that the new teachers being taught by the local teacher colleges are not being prepared with research on the science of learning, shifting an additional burden on the district to re-teach teachers.

Lamkin emphasized, “I’m learning right along with the practitioners. Some practitioners are just rolling along, while others are struggling. And I am constantly learning from all of them. Personalized learning challenges all of us in the way it asks us to give up control and in the way it demands that we meet scholars where they are based on data. We can’t just assume we know what they need; we are expected to look at evidence to identify the next steps in instruction.”

As Lamkin explained the Otken experience, I realized that one of the challenges for shifting to personalized, competency-based education is fully embracing core findings of the learning sciences. Lamkin noted, “One of the biggest changes is from assuming that the stand and deliver approach to learning in which I give it to you and you give it back to me actually works. We are inching along in our understanding that scholars have to be active learners and that we need to build on what they already know. We can’t assume what they know – we need to discover it.” Johnson added, “Without the data, we are at risk of just making up stuff and spinning our wheels. If you are making me learn letters when I already know them, you are not helping me reach my potential. When first graders are ready for second or third grade standards, we need to be able to scaffold up. Practitioners are going to have to know and understand the content and have access above grade level.”

Lamkin believes that the way to help practitioners become more comfortable with personalized learning is personalized learning. She explained, “Teachers are comfortable with the content they’ve been teaching, and now we are asking them to teach standards that might be outside the grade level. We need to help them become comfortable with teaching reading and math at all grade levels. We have to develop personalized approaches to widen their comfort zone that begin with their strengths.” The team at Otken is realizing that it is a lot to expect of elementary practitioners to know every domain in all three grade levels or more. So they are adjusting how the school is organized, with science practitioners now organized as a specialized team for third graders.

What Do You Wish You Knew Then That You Know Now?

In a conversation with district leadership, Lamkin, and teacher practitioners at Otken, my question, What do you wish you knew then that you know now? was greeted with one large ooh. And then their insights and recommendations started flowing:

  • There is an impact on student-centered learning for parents. The scholars are becoming independent, flourishing children with opinions. Parents who are used to compliant children or who hovered over their children are finding that their kids are going to have their own opinions.
  • Leaders have to be prepared to be thrown out of their own comfort zone. It’s harder to lead when you don’t know where the trail is going.
  • District teams need to be prepared to give leaders the resources they want when they want it. There needs to be more flexibility, and with that, school leaders take more accountability. And when a school can respond more quickly to students, we anticipate there will be more growth.  
  • There are going to be some schools and some teachers that are ready to fly. It is important to let the early adopters start moving but not get so far ahead that they have to stop or change direction as the school catches up.
  • Make sure it is clear that everyone understands that becoming student-centered is non-negotiable. The pace of change can vary, but we are all going in the same direction. It’s a moving train and you are either on or off.
  • Personalized learning is a culture change. When the majority are all going in the same direction, then peers will come along as well.

Beginning to Think Through the System of Assessments

One of the things McComb is finding that there is much more assessment needed to understand the gaps, respond to them, support students in advancing, and continue to maintain covering the curriculum. Three times a year, all scholars take the universal screener to find out what they actually know. For this, McComb uses the Scantron Performance Series assessment. It is an online adaptive assessment that indicates strengths and weaknesses to provide each child K-12 with an instructional level and prescribes suggested learning objectives (SLOs) to accelerate the company’s goal of one year’s growth. The learning objectives serve as the foundation of the scholar’s personalized learning plan. The instructional level, unlike the traditional grade level, indicates the level of work at which the scholar is working on, feeding into the competency-based aspect. The assessment is aligned to Mississippi College and Career Readiness Standards, so Performance Series highlights which parts of a grade level standard are deficient.

McComb uses these instructional levels as a measure of meeting scholars where they are and to develop intervention and enrichment activities. Performance Series highlights strengths and deficits, showing scholars at, above or below grade level. Subjects include Reading Foundations, Reading, Language Arts, Math and Science.

STAR Early Literacy and STAR Reading are programs supported by Mississippi’s Department of Education in connection to the Grade 3 Summative Literacy Assessment, often referred to as the Third Grade Gate. It serves as a progress monitor and has a direct correlation to the state test. It is administered every four weeks, and every week leading up to the Kindergarten Readiness test and The Gate test. McComb uses it in its K-6 settings and compares the data to the Performance Series data to find trends and patterns.

Nine-Week Assessments are content-based assessments that measures proficiency of the standards over the previous nine weeks. It is based on the standards the state has stated will be assessed each spring. It covers all of the standards taught during the 9-week period. The Bi-weekly assessments gauge the scholars’ proficiency on the grade level content they will see on the 9 weeks test and the state test. Comparing this data to the SLOs will show which parts of the standard the scholar has not mastered. There are times where children will meet all but one of the components in a standard but we often don’t know which component. This triangulation informs the teacher practitioners what scholars need help with to become more successful with the grade level content.

Johnson remarked, “In the future, it is likely we’ll be able to rethink assessment so that it is better integrated and builds the evidence we need to support scholars, improve performance of schools, and contribute to statewide efforts to ensure quality.” As we discussed the future, others described the opportunities that would develop when gaps were minimized and all scholars were familiar with the skills to take ownership over their education. McComb would no longer be operating from a deficit model. They’d be working to help scholars develop their potential.

A Commitment to Never Return a Child to the Traditional System

As we closed the visit, Lamkin took off her hat as a Lead Learner and spoke as a parent, as her son is at Summit. “I’ve had to change my parenting style,” she said. “Empowered scholars are empowered children. They are empowered to learn, and it doesn’t stop in school. My son is learning things and I’m not even sure how he is learning it. When kids have the freedom to explore, they don’t have to wait on someone to tell them how to do it.”

With smiles on their faces, Ellis and Johnson remarked, ”The dilemma we face now is that all of the kindergartners are going to be entering elementary school with expectations that they are scholars. Only half of them can go to Summit, so we need our elementary schools to be ready. And soon after that our middle schools. We can’t send our kindergartners back into the traditional system. So everything is focused on rolling out student-centered learning to the rest of the system.”

Read the Entire Series: