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Aurora Institute

Student-Centered Learning at Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 3.18.26 PMLast month, I had the opportunity to visit three schools in Detroit run by Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA). I’ll be sharing what I saw and learned on CompetencyWorks over the next couple of weeks.

Background:  The EAA is a local education agency with the authority to reinvent Michigan’s Priority Schools, previously called Persistently Lowest Achieving (PLA) schools.  The EAA is charged with transforming the five (5) percent PLA schools across Michigan by providing increased flexibility and autonomy at the local school level and eliminating the barriers that impede student performance. They are getting results — in Detroit, all of the EAA K-8 schools were in the top twenty schools for growth in achievement.

EAA established a specific model to be implemented with 12 schools initiating the turnaround in 2012  with another set starting implementation in 2013.  The model is described as student-centered and is a dynamic integration of mastery-based and blended learning topped off by a no-excuses leadership mentality. In order to implement EAA had to secure a seat-time waiver from the state. EAA is led by John Covington and Mary Esselman. They, their team, and the leadership in the EAA schools are definitely people to watch.

EAA Model: The EAA describes their approach as student-centered (you’ll see and hear SCL referred to throughout the schools) in which “pedagogy, assessments, support systems and culture are refocused to facilitate student progress organized around mastery instead of age and seat time.”   Students learning experiences are personalized through the use of blended learning, and Buzz a powerful teaching and learning platform.

EAA’s model is built upon five pillars:

  • Students are grouped by readiness, not by grade. Teachers and students refer to levels. There are about two levels for each age-grade. Students are assessed using the Scantron Performance Series when they enter school to assign them their levels in each subject area.
  • Students create and assume ownership for their respective personalized learning and success paths and are able to communicate their progress relative to their individualized learning goals. In addition to Buzz that tracks progress, you’ll see several rituals in the classrooms in which students mark their progress as well as let teachers know how they are doing.
  • Students are allowed to work at their own pace, using a blended delivery system, to master rigorous standards to ensure they graduate college, career, and next-generation ready. Buzz is designed for students to manage their learning through four phases for each unit: Learn, Practice, Apply and Assess. There is a lot of online content but teachers may also direct students to do projects or use other materials. One of the best things about Buzz is teachers can individualize options for students instantly based on their progress and needs.
  • Students provide evidence of mastery through relevant performance tasks and common assessments. Assessment is taken seriously with lots of professional development so that teachers have a shared vision of what proficiency looks like for each level. EAA considers three levels of assessment — performance tasks, common assessments and state-level assessments. Students ask for a conference to meet with teachers when they think they are ready for assessment.
  • Continuous feedback is provided to students, teachers, administrators and parents through the teaching and learning and the data warehouse. At the student and teacher level there are already many ways they can monitor progress and pace including horizontally (within a level) and vertically (via a learning map of the PK-14 Common Core progression). EAA is still in the process of creating all the types of reports they need for managing a strong continuous improvement process….and there are limits due to interoperability.

The EAA extended the school day to 7.5 hours for students, 8 hours for teachers and the school year to 210 days for students and 220 days for teachers, the typical academic calendar used by high performing nations globally, as opposed to Michigan’s 170 days (which is one of the lowest).

Competencies Drive Learning: EAA has transformed standards into “I can” statements to empower students and reinforce that their education is for themselves.  However, it is the 12 overall competencies that they expect students to be able to do by the time they graduate, with college readiness being just one of the competencies, that are driving schools to ask “Are we doing all we can to help develop students into young adults?” These competencies demonstrate EAA’s student-centered approach thinking well-beyond academic development.

•    Resilient and Flexible
•    Creative, critical, and analytical thinker
•    Driver of innovation and design
•    Fiercely globally competitive
•    National security minded
•    Collaborative
•    User of data to inform decisions and choice
•    Technologically intuitive and savvy
•    Environmentally cognizant and sensitive
•    College ready without need for remediation
•    Mindful of healthy living
•    Globally competent

I couldn’t help but think the kids are really going to need every one of these skills in the rapidly changing dynamics in Detroit.

Flexibility and Autonomy:  EAA has been given the authority to hire the staff they need to run the schools.  The schools had fallen into such a state of despair and disrepair that in some cases this was bringing in a new team ready to learn, ready to believe in themselves and students, and ready to embrace a no-excuses mentality. The way that EAA has re-designed functions between the LEA and schools is interesting as it firmly sets the direction while allowing for ongoing continuous improvement. For example:

  • EAA supplies the content for Buzz, yet schools can add content to be across the school and teachers can modify the content themselves for their classes or for individual students. This is all done instantly so that students receive personalized content when appropriate. EAA then looks across the content that teachers contribute or that schools select and adding it to Buzz for everyone to use if it strengthens the overall content options.
  • EAA takes very strong role in professional development providing online contents, videos of teachers in action, and support from trainers and coaches as teachers build their own skills.  Teachers make their own videos to demonstrate their skills, thus adding to the pool of resources from teachers to draw from.

All in all, this is creating a culture of innovation in which schools in their 2nd year of implementation are already seeing new innovations in how schooling is organized and resources deployed on behalf of students.

Results:  As we know implementation is challenging.  The first year schools had to clean out junk from the schools, form partnerships, engage community and parents (sometimes this meant getting the city to board up empty homes neighboring the school), re-establish expectations for behavior, and train new teachers in personalized, mastery-based, blended learning .  Even so, six of the schools had at least 70% of their students with one year of growth or more in reading.  That’s impressive after one year of implementation.

Stay tuned on posts about Brenda Scott Theatre Arts Academy, the Buzz learning platform and more.