Marie Watson, principal at Red Bank Elementary School, SC and recently profiled on CompetencyWorks, shared her reflections after visiting Lindsay Unified School District, CA with a team of her educators. I thought this would be interesting to share for a number of reasons, including taking a deeper look at what other educators note and see as important when visiting other schools. – Chris
Why Competency-Based Education is Important?
Dr. Tom Rooney, superintendent, was inspirational as he spoke about why Lindsay Unified moved to a performance-based system of learning (PBS). They call their system performance-based while others may refer to a competency-based system or a personal mastery system. To argue the difference with regard to implementation would be splitting hairs. Sometimes we spend too much time splitting hairs and arguing the points that, in the long run, don’t do anything except expend energy where it could be put to a measurable outcome.
Dr. Rooney described the experience of a new principal at Lindsay High School who was settling into his office space a few days after the high school graduation. As he was unpacking and deciding where to put his personal belongings in his new office, the secretary came in and said a parent was there to see him. Being new to the school, he couldn’t imagine why a parent wanted to see him, but with some apprehension, he told the secretary to bring him in. A father and his son walked into the principal’s office and the principal greeted them warmly and asked what he might do for them. The father put his son’s diploma on the desk and said, “This is what I want to talk about.” The principal saw the diploma, congratulated the young man, and asked what he planned to do next. His father, with a grave look of concern, replied, “That is precisely the problem. Will you please get that newspaper off your shelf?” The principal got the newspaper down and put it on the desk between them. The father said to the son, “Now, read that, son.” The graduate looked at the paper with his head hung ashamedly and there was an uncomfortable and tense silence. Then he replied, “Dad, you know I can’t read that.”
This father then relayed to the principal that his son had been cheated in “the system.” He had been put through the system and now had no hopes for any future because he could not read.
This riveting moment left the new principal with unrest. This father was right. Students had been pushed through the “system” of education and many had been robbed of their futures. At this time, about twelve years ago, the last ten years of valedictorians had attended college and had to take remedial courses. The system needed to be fixed.
Lindsay Unified started a proficiency-based system in 2009 with the ninth grade class. They met with all rising ninth grade students and held meetings with of their parents. They let them know that their students would be required to learn and that it may take less than four years or it may take more than four years…who said high school had to be four years anyway?
The district has been implementing this system of education for six years. They had been doing the work for well over ten years and they are still working out the details.
What We Saw
We visited three of the six K-8 schools in the district. Each school has between 600-700 students. We visited Kennedy, Lincoln, and Washington schools. There were similar structures in place in each of the three schools. We were led on our tours by enthusiastic students (learners), called “Empower Teams.”
We saw many of the things we see in our most advanced classrooms at RBE. We saw a shared vision, code of cooperation, SOPs, and standards posted on walls. What we noticed, that is not as typical at RBE, is student work posted in the classrooms. In most cases, the older work simply had the most recent work clipped on top. At RBE, we keep that evidence of the progression of learning in a data notebook.
Students were knowledgeable of the standards on which they were working. They knew both the letter and number of the standard and were able to precisely define what the standard meant they needed to know.
Education Technology and Digital Platform
Lindsay learners in grades 3-8 have Chrome books as their device. Either iPads or Kindles were in K-2 classrooms.
Lindsay Unified uses Educate as the digital platform. They have worked for a number of years to build out the program and when students wanted to show what they were working on, they would pull up Educate on the computer and show the standard(s) and the link to their assignments and/or formative assessments. Lindsay Assistant Superintendent for Instruction said that they had just rolled out Empower 2.0 and so far it has been working well for them. They had to struggle through some tough times but they have been pleased with the progress and realize that nothing else aligns with a proficiency-based system.
Lindsay has worked to gain free Internet access in the communities so that students have access to learning 24/7. Students in grades 3-12 take their devices home and can work and learn anytime. They are continuing to work on helping their parents understand that they can see the students’ work anytime and know exactly where they are in the learning. They have asked parents to allow their homes to be “hot spots” for hosting the wireless access in the communities. There are filtering blocks built into the system so that inappropriate content cannot be accessed from home or school. As soon as they feel they have given parents opportunities to learn about Empower, they will no longer generate a “report card.” They know that once the wireless capability is in all the homes, the students will be able to show the parents how to access Empower.
Dual Immersion School – Similarities and Differences
One of the schools we visited, Washington, was a dual immersion school but the implementation was very different from what we have at RBE. The teachers in the program are all bi-lingual and alternate teaching the content areas in Spanish. They do this because they know the students will be tested in English and they want them to have the language in order to have “equal” opportunity for doing well on the state test. They do not have the textbook resources in the Spanish language.
The students have access to some of the same online learning resources that our students have. We noticed students on Raz Kids and on Lexia. All students have access to Lexia in levels K-4, not just special education or “RTI” students. Students are also instructed with Reading Mastery in grades K-4. Grades 5-8 utilize an online resource called Reading Plus. The above is the case for all six of the K-8 schools.
Other online resources that we noticed were Read 180 and a Scholastic group of apps for reading.
At Kennedy Elementary School
The first school we visited was Kennedy where the principal is Nick Namba. Nick was a kindergarten teacher when I and several other RBE teachers first met him and collaborated as we started to learn about proficiency-based learning. He was working in Adams 50 School District outside of Denver, Colorado.
The teachers, or learning facilitators they call them (LFs), teach self-contained classes through grade three. Grades three and above are compartmentalized. Though the teachers have a level K, 1, 2, etc. class, they must know the standards above and below because they will have learners working at those various levels.
They have worked hard to integrate social studies into the content area so that they can focus on math and ELA in the morning. They have one hour of PLT (personalized learning time) when students are grouped together for very specific skills that they need to work on. This can be as specific as expressions and equations in math. They stay for about six weeks in these focused instructional groups. The teachers think they can reduce this to 45 minutes next school year because they are able to be so specific in this learning time that less time is needed.
The students do not have related arts classes such as we have in Lexington One. They have PE for one hour, one time per week. They have music, one time per week. There are no art classes or world language classes. All students are dismissed at 1:00 every Wednesday to provide collaboration and professional learning for teachers. It appeared that teachers had no break in the day except for 15 minutes, twice per day, when students went to recess. Employees who were hired for that specific purpose supervised recess.
In all of the schools, we saw flow charts that explained what students were to do whenever they needed help or completed work. We saw references to Learn Zillion, Khan Academy, and other web sites that we have utilized at RBE. They were very pleased with DreamBox, especially in the early childhood levels.
At Kennedy, we learned about “short cycles” of assessing that level teams used to know exactly what their students know and what they need to know. The teams developed formative assessments aligned to the standards and used the same assessment as a pre-and post-test. The teachers worked together, with the summative assessment in mind (their backwards design) and created two-week cycles. They gave the pre-assessment, taught the students, gave the post-assessment, and looked at how the kids had done. Then, they could analyze the results and learn from each other, as well as know what the kids still needed to work on. These “short cycles” are proving very helpful to know where the students are in the learning at all times. The teachers are collaborating regularly and using this data to determine their instruction.
The district has “verification” summative assessments that all students must take to verify proficiency. We heard the learners reference them as 3Vs, meaning level 3 verification. The district worked to provide high quality, vetted assessments, at the appropriate DOK levels for measuring the student’s proficiency. We saw evidence in some classrooms where teachers had charts for students to sign up whenever they were ready to take a quiz, which was the pre-test to show a level of proficiency, and they could also sign up for a 3V summative assessment.
The district is working on opportunities for students to extend their learning to a level 4. At one of the schools we visited, this opportunity took place in a Maker’s Space.
Nick Namba, principal at Kennedy, visits every classroom every two weeks and gives teachers feedback about what is going well and what can be done next to take it to “the next level.” I aspire to be more like him. He and I both work with a wonderful group of teachers and we agreed about that!
Transparency, Culture of Learning, Growth Mindset, and Goal Setting
Everywhere, we saw transparency of what the students needed to now and transparency of where every learner was on the mastery of standards. This was on the walls in a variety of ways, just as we’ve seen at RBE. Some teachers had charts with students’ names down one axis and the standards at the top at the other axis. Other teachers had half sheets of paper with the standard at the top and all the students’ names in blocks that were highlighted as they mastered a standard. Again, mastery was not recorded until the student had taken the 3V (level 3 verification) assessment.
As we learned in the past, it is important to create a culture that says, “It’s ok. We all learn at different rates and all have different strengths.” We noticed that the students were willing to help each other and thought nothing of the fact that some were ahead of others. What was obvious was that no time could be wasted and no one could opt out of working hard.
Everywhere in the district that we visited, we saw references to Growth Mindset. We also heard students talk about sticking with the hard work and not giving up. Growth Mindset had been taught and you could hear teachers referencing the growth mindset characteristics as they were giving instruction. One teacher of a second grade class was introducing a new concept in math and she stopped the class and asked them to stop and think. “Are you going to show a growth mindset and keep working with me on this, or are you going to just sit there, ignore this opportunity and give up? I know you’re going to show your growth mindset because I’ve seen you learn more than you thought you could through sticking with it. Let’s look at this again.”
Growth mindset and Educate were making a noticeable difference in the ways students were working. Another HUGE take-away was the importance of goal setting. Every student sets a weekly SMART goal and is able to articulate the goal. They were very specific, as the term implies, and students could say what they set their goal to learn that week (specific to the learning standard/target), and how they were progressing toward the goal. One student told me he set his goal to work on a specific measurement topic and take the quiz by Friday. He was getting ready to take the quiz as I spoke to him.
Another familiar conversation was around capacity matrices. Students had capacity matrices in Educate and could talk about what they had to know to demonstrate mastery.
We inquired of one principal about how they provided the necessary professional learning for new teachers in a transformed system. He responded that they partner the teacher with a mentor teacher who can teach them day by day as they work together.
In a final visit with district and school leaders at the end of the day, we were provided a Q&A session. We knew the answers to most of the questions other visitors were asking because we have lived through this process ourselves.
As I listened to them talk, throughout the day, I noticed their convictions about the process. They, too, believed that in the beginning stages, teachers needed freedom to take risks because the change is hard. They knew they couldn’t be standing over them and berate them and expect the change to happen. However, there were some things that were non-negotiable. How they began implementation was up to the teacher, but the pieces needed to be in place…transparency of standards, assessing as students were ready, goal setting, shared vision, and collaboration.
I asked about their loose to tight changes and Dr. Rooney interjected as I was asking the question. He said, “Yes, we went from loose to tight. Pause. And the tight is about results.”
Going forward, we are tightening up together…on results…and I know that together WE CAN!
This summarizes our school visits, but there is one more story I’d like to share. I had the most interesting conversation with a gentleman working in the Hudson News store at the Seattle Airport. Sixty-five years old and so curious about CBE. In short, almost with tears in his eyes, he encouraged us because, “I was one of those who could not read and I felt so beat down and defeated. I would have loved to have had an opportunity like this.” When we finished talking, I was in tears, too. I know we are going in the right direction.
- Red Bank Elementary: Five Big Takeaways
- Red Bank Elementary School: Teaching Students, Not Standards
- Red Bank Elementary School: Starting with the Pedagogy
- Red Bank Elementary: What Students Have to Say about Personalized Learning
- Red Bank Elementary: The Parent Perspective
Marie Watson has served as principal at Red Bank Elementary for twelve years, as assistant principal for four years, and as an art teacher for ten years.