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Aurora Institute

Windsor Locks: Starting with Pedagogy

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Susan Bell
Susan Bell

This is part of a series on mastery-based learning in Connecticut. See posts on New Haven Public Schools,Windsor Locks Public Schools, Naugatuck Public SchoolsSuperintendents Leading the Way in Connecticut, and New Haven Academy. Connecticut uses the term mastery-based learning, so that will be used instead of competency education within the series.

“The real shift is in what is happening with our kids. ” – Susan Bell

Windsor Locks, located a bit outside of Hartford, Connecticut, didn’t have to make the move to mastery-based learning. As Superintendent of Windsor Locks Public Schools Susan Bell put it, “We did it because it makes sense to us. A D-minus and twenty-four credits is just not good enough. We drew the line in the sand. We are done working in ways that don’t make sense for our students.” (See Windsor Locks’ description of their mastery-based learning system.)

Why Mastery-Based Learning?

Connecticut has created innovation space for high schools to move to mastery-based learning. Windsor Locks decided it was an idea that is good for all students. In 2013, they set a deadline to have the fifth graders in that year graduate with a mastery-based diploma in 2020.

Bell explained, “We are focused on improving the quality of instruction by building a common belief system of what is good instruction and creating the instructional culture to support collaborative dialogue. The structure of mastery-based learning allows us to focus more closely on how students are progressing, allowing us to use instructional models that will work for students and provide more opportunity for them to be active learners.”

We all know there isn’t one perfect system of mastery-based learning…yet. Bell pointed out, “It seems we’re all waiting for the first successful model to be developed. But waiting meant we were delaying what we knew was good for students. So we took the bull by the horns and began the transition ourselves.”

The Path to Mastery-Based Learning

In 2011, the Windsor Locks School Board hired Wayne Sweeney as Superintendent, who Bell described as “a visionary leader who got us focused on the right things.” With Bell as Assistant Superintendent, the district began the journey with an extensive process engaging 400 stakeholders to create a vision of the system. They developed a long-range plan built upon the Nine Characteristics of High Performing Schools.

Windsor Locks Vision of the System that will Grow Our Graduates

Our education system/structures will be flexible and adaptable to fit what students and teachers need to fulfill our mission.

All students’ learning will be personalized – and these individual plans will be tailored to meet student academic, social/emotional and career-interest needs.

All teachers will use their well-developed instructional skills to engage students at the highest levels to master and exceed both cross-curricular and content-based standards.

All students will be leaders of their own learning as they Design, Apply, Document and Defend their learning in active and visible ways.

All students will ALWAYS know where they stand in terms of meeting district-wide standards.

Parents and community members will be strong partners in this work in a variety of ways.

Reflecting on their journey, David Prinstein, Principal at Windsor Locks Middle School, said, “I would love to push the restart button and do it all again. The road to mastery-based learning is full of hiccups and pitfalls that just come from trying, learning, and revising. The most important thing is to keep the focus on solutions and to make sure that those who are going to implement, the educators, are part of the solution. We got some things wrong and learned from them. We have also gotten things right – especially staying focused on providing instruction and support that students need to reach mastery.”

Clarifying the Pedagogical Philosophy

The next step was to refine the instructional strategies used within the district. Prinstein explained, “Our instructional shift was from teacher-centered delivery of curriculum to personalized, student-centered, active learning. Student-centered doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t managing and teaching. There are many times that teachers will be in front of the classroom and many times that direct instruction will be the best way to help students. Our teachers are focused more on the different types of instructional strategies they might use to help students learn. What we seek is for our students to value learning and be active in their learning in the classroom.”

Efforts included engaging teachers in developing a common instructional vocabulary and reflecting on their philosophies of what made the best instructional approaches. An example is the clarity of the learning cycle in four steps of Design, Apply, Document and Defend (which sounds similar to Merit Prep’s four-step Learn and Practice, Conference, Apply, and Assess). The district focused on improving the capacity of schools to provide effective formative assessments. Principals began to spend ten hours or more per week in the classrooms.

One source of assistance was training sixteen teachers (whose classrooms now serve as peer learning labs) in the practices of Assessment in Daily Instruction offered by Expeditionary Learning to build up student-directed learning practices. Windsor Locks Middle School has incorporated many of these practices, including student-engaged assessment, checking for understanding strategies, and helping students lead their learning by “owning” their learning targets. (FYI, WLPS is not an Expeditionary Learning school. EL has made many incredibly powerful resources available so we can all learn how to create more active, student-directed learning practices.)

As we walked through a few classrooms, Prinstein noted, “Every single student is engaged in what they are doing. No one is off in la-la land. Every single kid can answer what they are doing, why they are doing it, and where it is leading them.”

Aligning Teacher Evaluation

As the educators throughout the system began to use a common language and similar set of instructional strategies, WLPS realized they needed an aligned teacher evaluation system. After determining the Danielson and Marzano models wouldn’t work for them, as they represented a different pedagogical philosophy, they decided they needed to create a rubric complete with their own instructional language. Along the way, the WLPS team was introduced to John Hattie’s work, which helped them identify what they would look for in students as well as students to understand the quality of learning and teaching. (The teacher evaluation and support rubric is a dynamic document. You can see the version as of March 2016 here.)

Revisiting How Learning is Communicated

WLPS began the discussion about grading by looking at the problems with the traditional A-F system with its averages, zeroes, and variability. Realizing how much these practices impeded learning, they began to ask what it would mean to exclude these harmful practices and what the alternative might be. They started with transitioning to K-5 to mastery-based grading and are now in the second year of implementation in the middle school. Windsor Locks High School will begin mastery-based grading with ninth graders in fall of 2016.

Discussions with staff started to identify many of the unproductive implications of the A-F grading scale. One of the biggest concerns was the grade inflation and deflation that occurs in the traditional system. They could see it clearly in AP classes where students might have a 95 but not do equally well on the actual test. Bell explained, “One of the most challenging parts is separating the true academic substance and the padding. We had lots of kids who got credit in their grade for being good little munchkins that didn’t have anything to do with what they knew academically. This situation leads to grade inflation and to remediation when students get to college.” WLPS separated the “padding” and turned it into habits of scholarship.

Bell highlighted that one of the big changes from the traditional to mastery-based grading is to ensure that there are objective reasons for the scores students receive. “In the traditional system, it can mistakenly feel more precise because we use mathematics to determine the grade,” she said. “In the mastery-based system, we have to make sure we are as objective as possible – we have to be subjectively objective.” Prinstein added, “We used to have teachers say that they wanted to give students who had worked hard the benefit of the doubt. Why is there any doubt? We need to have a system in which we can be confident of what students know.”

One of the important steps was for the middle school to develop clear Habits of Scholarship that teachers, students, and parents could use to talk about how students were doing: completes homework, participates in class discussion, conducts self in appropriate manner, and maximizes time on task. Prinstein explained, “Habits of Scholarship are about expectations and are different than academic standards. We want to make sure students and parents understand the difference so we have different scoring systems for each.”

Engaging Parents in Changes in Grading Policy

Windsor Locks used local media to help engage the broader community in the discussion on the shift to mastery-based learning and grading. They took out a four-part newspaper insert on What is a Grade (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)? They also prepared for conversations with parents and the community by hiring a director of community engagement. Even so, Bell reflects, “We didn’t do enough community engagement in the beginning.”

Prinstein explained that engaging parents in the transition to the new grading policy is an ongoing process, as there are always new parents to the school. He noted that large group conversations about grading are much more likely to encounter resistance, especially when you can have the same conversation with individual and smaller groups and have everyone come to the conclusion that a new system that supports student learning makes perfect sense and A-F grading must be eliminated. He emphasized, “There is a gap of communication when we talk to parents in a group. However, we have found talking individually about new grading policies is effective 100 percent of the time.”

Reflection: As is the case with all of us when we find ourselves outside of our comfort zones, parents need a safe space to think through changes in grading. They are of course protective of their children and what is best for them. And as is the case with all of us, we can’t just snap our fingers and instantly understand mastery-based or competency-based practices. We need a chance to understand why the traditional systems aren’t working. We need a chance to learn and process through dialogue. We need time to think about it and consider implications. Funders, there are lots of resources available on grading but nothing has been put together that could be used to help parents understand the major shifts and serve as a basis for small group dialogues. Perhaps you could invest in a project that would co-design tools with districts that have already gone through the transition to competency-based systems from several states?

Prinstein noted, “The big unknown is still college admissions.” Bell, who has been a college admissions counselor at one point in her career, noted that parents are constantly asking, “Is my student going to get into college?” Although she has explained that college admissions staff know that A grades all mean different things in different places and even by different teachers, they found it helped to bring a college admissions director in to come talk about what are the most important things that students will need to do to gain admissions. First, districts need to provide a conversion chart that allows admissions staff to understand the WLPS transcript. Second, parents can work with their children and the schools to develop ways for students to stand out to an admissions committee.

Reflection: We need to think creatively about transcripts that help students to tell their story. As more and more students reach levels of college readiness, personalization will allow students to develop and capture their interests and strengths across the broadest domain of skills. The tools of personalization – co-designed projects, exhibitions, and mastery-based transcripts – may be able to help students tell their story in a way that a GPA never has and never will.

“The mastery-based approach is changing what it means to graduate. Before, we had the language of all students to be prepared for college and careers. With a mastery-based diploma, it becomes more operationalized,” explained Prinstein. With 40 percent of students FRL and growing, there are some students who don’t imagine themselves going to college. Prinstein said, “I ask students to talk to me clearly and with compelling reasons why college isn’t for them. They have to have a meaningful alternative. The one situation that is unacceptable is for a student to not want to go to college because they aren’t prepared or because college is too hard.”

Calibration and Collaboration

The Windsor Locks school board approved the College, Career and Life-Ready expectation for high school graduates based on five domains: responsible citizen, informed thinker, self-directed learner and collaborative worker, creative and practical problem-solver, clear and effective communicator. These domains required the district to think about how they would ensure that instruction and assessment was aligned with deeper levels of knowledge. Prinstein emphasized, “We should be living in the Levels 3 and 4 of Depth of Knowledge as much as possible.” To date, the graduation standards and their accompanying K-12 progressions 5-12 have been developed.

Calibration is taken very seriously at Windsor Locks – and it’s calibrating around the teacher and support rubric used in the evaluations, not just on the alignment around proficiency. Windsor Locks has drawn from John Hattie’s work on Visible Learning, with the leadership team visiting every school twice a year. Teachers have collaborative time once per week using early departures, and also do visible learning walks within their own schools.

One of the issues that developed was that teachers in the middle school were certifying mastery before students were ready to advance to the next level. It opened up a deep conversation about what “true mastery” means and what it means to be confident that students can demonstrate their learning consistently and independently. Prinstein explained, “Teachers need to offer performance tasks and multiple opportunities for students to shoot for independently demonstrating learning. To ensure consistency, teachers need to be prepared to have students demonstrate learning in multiple forms, in multiple demonstrations and multiple contexts. Focusing on true mastery has released pressure from the teachers to do any guess work.”

Making Data-Driven Decisions in a Mastery-Based Environment (or Trying To)

Similar to most districts making the transition to mastery-based learning, Windsor Locks is doing so using an information system that has adapted to being standards-based but not student-centered. This forces them to have to do work-arounds to access and organize data in ways that allow them to make data-driven decisions.

“Our current student information system is not meeting our needs,” Prinstein said. “We are awash with data but we don’t have a way to organize it and use it to communicate with families well. Grading and reporting is nothing unless it is effective communication. We are either flooding parents with data or not providing it in ways that allow them to become more active in their children’s education.”

When we talked about how education data is inherently fuzzy, Prinstein also explained, “We are constantly triangulating data to understand where students are in terms of their learning, how they are progressing, and to determine mastery. In addition to classroom and student work observations on how well students are reading, we triangulate data from MAP, Gates reading, Achieve assessment, and SBAC. The student operates somewhere in the middle of this. That is why a teacher’s professional judgment is so important.”

Our conversation then veered towards what the ideal might be – their “data fantasy.” Bell offered, “As a superintendent, I want to be able to understand the progress and rate of growth of our students, especially those who are performing behind their grade level. Are they making progress? How is their instruction inspiring and engaging them to make connections? I want to be able to look at complete profiles of a student year to year as well as where they are going.”

Prinstein’s data fantasy took a different turn, “I want to be able to correlate across unrelated sets of data so I can get a deeper understanding of what is happening in the school, with the teachers, and with our students. Academic learning is only one part of what we are doing. The Habits of Scholarship are equally important. I want to be able to choose the data I look at for a handful of students and understand what is happening with them. I want to be able to spot areas that we can improve.”

Culture Change before Compliance

In wrapping up this summary of my conversation with Susan Bell and David Prinstein, I’d like to share Prinstein’s reflection on the biggest fear for introducing mastery-based learning in Connecticut. He explained, “The culture of the district and schools is very, very important. If we don’t get that right, the rest won’t work effectively. It’s important that schools begin to create new cultures now. If the legislature ever decides to make mastery-based learning mandatory, it will make it more difficult to get the culture right. Schools will be making the decision to become mastery-based out of compliance rather than doing what is best for kids.”

Susan Bell said it all when she started our conversation with, “Mastery-based learning is all about what’s good and right for kids.”

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