Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Waukesha STEM Academy’s Journey from ABC to the Learner Continuum (Part 4)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Image from the WSA website

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the fourth in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Read the entire series with posts onetwothree, and four.

The transition of Waukesha STEM Academy (WSA) to a personalized, proficiency-based system didn’t happen overnight. Principal James Murray and the team at WSA started down this road in 2010, moving through four stages of implementation.

The first stage was moving toward blended learning and incorporating educational software. Murray explained, “The programs provided a lot of data, especially in math. We had to learn how to use it. We had an innovation dip, and the student data plateaued before finally starting to shoot upward. However, we realized there were problems. We were giving students choices. We thought the gamification would be engaging. But we weren’t teaching students the really important skills of how to collaborate, create, and innovate; we were still somewhat stuck in the consumption game and we wanted to transition to the production side of town.” Murray emphasized, “We started to understand that there was a strong and often overlooked nuance between getting something done compared to mastering concepts and owning the ability to contextualize these skills. We realized that students could never get to mastery solely by using adaptive educational software. You simply can’t do it all online. There are definitely powerful supplemental resources for students, but not the core instructional strategy. We never wanted these programs to supplant great instruction and varied modalities and, more importantly, the application of the skills being developed needed to be the keystone of this process.”

So WSA took a big step back. They began to repurpose. Murray explained, “We started thinking about the endgame. We have to put students on a playing field in life. We wanted our students to know how to learn, make progress, demonstrate their learning, and own their education. We needed to think about how we could prepare our students for that.”

In stage two, or STEM 2.0, WSA focused on what it was going to mean to use STEM to help students build higher order skills. They reorganized the campuses so there was now a K-5 and a 6-8 with 850 students enrolled overall. The next step was moving to 1:1 netbooks, expanding the project-based learning to disband projects tied to grade-levels and add in student-proposal projects, and building a platform to support monitoring students. During this stage, they narrowed grading to A-D with the idea that no student should ever be failing a course.

The third stage, referred to as STEM 3.0, introduced standards-based grading (using standards and committing to every student meeting all the standards). Murray pointed out, “We were focusing on proficiency and mastery. We had an adult mental model in which we kept telling students, “You need to do this or that. You need to reach proficiency. Our feedback on behaviors emphasized compliance.” At this point they started understanding that grade-based standards were adult-driven based on what we expected but not where students really were. The standards were transparent but the expectation was that students were all learning the same standards and at the same pace. They also realized that they needed to shift the orientation to learner-driven so they were helping students begin to own their education and their progression.

In the fourth stage, WSA created their own learner continuums that were informed by standards and learning progressions, organized courses to meet students where they were, increased transparency for students about learning expectations and progress, invested in more coaching and reflection in developing personal habits of success, and created the information system to support it all. The vision was finally staring to take shape and people were beginning to really notice the difference in production, engagement, and excitement for learning. This brand new concept of a school had started to grow its sea legs and was now beginning to transform the educational system as we had always known it into a program model that functioned much like a blend of a start-up company and a think-tank, woven into a technical college type-campus.

Use of Technology to Support Students and Teachers

Murray explained, “In order to make the personalized, proficiency-based system really work for students, teachers, and parents, we needed a really good LMS. It needed to operate as a fully-accessible digital file cabinet so that teachers, students, and parents could have access to real-time data and resources.” As every school shifting to competency-based education knows, that’s not so easy to find. “We didn’t just want to build a system and then let it collect dust, as the teachers were the keepers of knowledge. We wanted our most important customers – our students and parents – to be able to access these tools whenever and wherever they pursued their learning.

It’s difficult to find an information management platform that is student-centered. WSA found, as have many other schools, that Infinite Campus just doesn’t provide the functionality to be able to provide transparent, real-time information about student progress based on their personalized learner continuum. “We were trying to put a round peg into a square hole, and we needed a platform that provided us with much more than check-boxes and fourteen characters to etch in a title for a task. We needed a tool that made sense for our learning model. Since we couldn’t find one that was out there, we just decided one day that we were going to build one. So that’s exactly what we did.”

WSA is drawing on Google Classroom to support the student workflow processes and For All Rubrics to support submission of artifacts of learning and monitoring the learner continuum. (You can see some of the functionality in the first video called For All Rubrics on this page.) As described above, WSA organizes learning into courses with units and assignments that are centered on the learner continuum, where each student performs and focuses on specific areas based on their own progress. Each assignment has a rubric that indicates proficiency across the performance areas.

For All Rubrics helps students stay on top of their workflow and time management. It indicates what work is incomplete, needs revision, is overdue, or has been submitted, as well as whether the work has been reviewed by the teacher or not. Another great component is the reflection component that has students reflect on each piece of work that they are submitting. The growing pains that came with this element were well worth it, as students definitely began to deeply reflect on their work and effort, which made quite a few students step back and ask themselves, “Is this my best work or could I possibly tweak a few things before submitting, to strengthen my work and show off my stuff?”

WSA has reduced its reliance on educational software. It now uses ALEKS for math and No Red Ink for writing as a supplemental support for students to access instruction and opportunity for practice and feedback. IQSWT is used for science, providing both hands-on and online support.

Changing Role of Teachers

Murray explained that the role of the teacher has shifted through this process as well.  They were no longer simply delivering the curriculum in one academic domain. It became a much more multi-faceted role. He explained, “Teachers don’t say I teach sixth grade math anymore. They say I’m on the math team or I’m a science facilitator.” WSA values knowledge about how to teach in the different academic domains, with teachers prepared to teach at any of the performance levels. Outside of working with specific curriculum, there are also many opportunities for team-teaching, and all of the STEaM Projects have multiple content-team members to help provide insight into literacy, mathematics, engineering, music, science, cultures, and business infused into each project. It’s like having seven mentors working with and supporting students on any project that they pick. There is never a shortage of support and ideas for students to check into.

Murray also said that he values the dispositions of teachers over their teacher experience. He now looks for teachers with rich lives who can bring their own passions and experiences into the school. “Before we interview any single teacher, I always walk them through the building so that they can see what they may be getting into. Typically, you can tell in about the first ten seconds of the tour if the building and our mission and vision is going to align to their educational beliefs. I’ve had some teachers say, “There is no way I could teach in a building like this”; and others who have excitedly exclaimed, “I can’t believe I might actually get to work in this amazing building…when can I start!” After the brief tour, then the fun begins and we sit down and have a great conversation with the potential new STEM staff member who wants to come in and flip the education game on its head. That’s our kind of teacher!”

Emphasize the Why

Murray shared a number of insights into the change process. One that stayed with me is about the use of language and branding. He explained, “If you lead with the language – it fails. Introducing a new culture and approach is more than a set of big concepts and words. It’s important to make it concrete. So introduce the new practice and simultaneously brand it. What’s important is to keep explaining the why. Everyone needs to understand the what and the why if they are going to implement things effectively.” He goes on to conclude that, “I’ve been in this game for a while and there are typically four different camps of people.” To confirm this, he drew up a graphic that looks like a playground four-square game. “There is one type of person who doesn’t understand what we are doing and doesn’t support it. There is another with a similar mentality who doesn’t get it, yet supports it (always an interesting conversation on this one). Then, we have those who do get it and don’t support it (fair enough), and then we work with those who get it and totally support what we are doing. That’s our RockStar crew, because they are totally invested and understand what drives a progressive, personalized and innovative system like WSA. That’s why they have enrolled their student there for nine years of the most amazing learning experiences that the educational world offers.”

Read the Entire Series: