time vs. mastery

‘The only thing we held sacred was time’: Why Indianapolis is exploring ways for kids to learn at their own pace

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

The poster-covered classroom walls at Warren Township’s Hawthorne Elementary School could resemble those anywhere.

But mixed in with the inspirational messages and themed bulletin boards are displays of reading levels, test scores and progress reports. That’s because there’s a clear expectation that students be aware of how much they’re learning at any given time.

This awareness, coupled with a “learn-at-your-own-pace” philosophy, comprise what educators call competency-based or mastery-based learning. Students move through material at their own pace, and once they’ve shown they understand a concept, they can go on to another or explore it more deeply — time spent on a subject is no longer the marker for how much a kid learns.

“In education, the only thing we held sacred was time,” said Ryan Russell, the assistant superintendent in Warren Township.

Now, Indiana lawmakers are looking to schools like Hawthorne as they propose a pilot program in House Bill 1386 that could offer schools across the state grants to bring the model to their own classrooms.

Although the bill passed with support from Republicans and Democrats, some worried that a small pilot program could exclude urban schools, where larger class sizes and more diverse students could provide a better test of whether the model can work large-scale.

“In order for us to make sure this pilot is doing what it should do, it’s imperative we look at some of the variables,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary. “When you look at the research on competency-based education you find that it has some gaps in it with students of a lower socioeconomic status.”

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A bulletin board shows student reading level progress. Hawthorne Elementary School, in Warren Township, has adopted a “competency-based” learning model where kids can move on to other material once they’ve shown they have mastered a skill or concept.

Across the country, competency-based learning has gained traction. According to a 2013 report from KnowledgeWorks, a national organization that advocates for personalized learning, at least 40 states are exploring competency-based learning.

And it’s not playing out in the same way everywhere. Some schools have gone as far as getting rid of grade levels. For Hawthorne so far, it means students regularly use devices like tablets or laptops, teachers and students carefully track test data and students can work in different stations on different subjects. It’s less about getting students to progress quickly and more about allowing them opportunities to dive deeper into the subjects they’re studying, Russell said.

Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said it won’t attempt to micromanage schools — they would be able to have some support from the state, but they’d figure out the specifics on their own.

“As you look at education and technology and what we have available today, we have the ability to do a lot more in terms of personalized learning,” Behning, R-Indianapolis, said. “Our teachers are doing a great job of that in the classroom already, but this kind of takes it to the next step.”

The bill passed the House 68-21 earlier this month and next heads to the Senate Education Committee.

In Amanda Henry’s first-grade math class one February afternoon, students were scattered across the room.

Some sat in a small group with Henry, reviewing simple addition problems on small dry-erase boards. A few feet away, three students sat at a table with laptops working on other math concepts. And in another corner, kids completed worksheets with a partner.

Every so often, Henry addressed the entire room, letting them know how much time they had left for their current activity and directing them where to rotate next.

In some ways, it was a far cry from classrooms today’s parents, and even older siblings, might remember. Desks were not always arranged facing the front, and a lesson didn’t consist of one teacher lecturing a big group.

But to get to that point, teachers need support, too. Russell said that was a big part of how the district approached moving to competency-based education, and he also thinks it’s a key component missing from the House bill. When she testified to the House Education Committee, Warren Township Superintendent Dena Cushenberry said personalization can’t stop with the students.

“As we started rolling this out, what we found is everyone deserves a personalized experience, not only our students, but our teachers,” Cushenberry said. “Our teachers are at different levels … we challenged the district staff to look at what every person needs.”

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
First-grade students work on English and math skills.

After winning a $28.5 million federal grant that paid for, among other things, research into competency-based learning, Warren Township began to convert its schools.

First and foremost, parents needed to be brought onboard.

The district made an effort to hold informational nights at each school. Parents got to use computers, work in small groups with teachers and see how children might be spread across the room doing different work at different times. The district also presented at every school board meeting and held community forums.

“We didn’t want phone calls saying, ‘Well, you’re not teaching my kids any more,’ even though the very reason we were doing that was so we could better teach them,” Russell said. “This is a paradigm change. It isn’t just a new instructional strategy, in our opinion. We’re really trying to challenge the notion that kids can’t have more ownership over what they’re learning.”

But that doesn’t always mean technology is king, Russell said. One of the biggest misconceptions about personalized or competency-based learning is that it is as simple as sitting a kid in front of a computer.

“Some kids thrive on virtual,” Russell said. “For others, they will do nothing all semester long if they were on virtual. So what I think we’ve learned most is we have to know more about our students to make sure we are helping guide them in the right direction.”

Going forward the district is still trying to get all the schools phased in over the next few years and work on any kinks. For example, in high school, there are still some restrictions to qualify for NCAA sports in college — and the athletic conference doesn’t accept some virtual classes. But Russell emphasized that competency-based learning is about more than virtual education, which is just one aspect of student learning.

It’s still early for Warren to measure the effect on student achievement. The district has surveyed teachers and students at its other schools using competency-based learning, and have found so far that most teachers say they enjoy their jobs more. Students have reported that they feel their teachers know them better.

Looking at test score data, the Northwest Evaluation Association’s MAP test is the best indicator school officials have to see how kids are learning, Russell said. Schools that have had the competency-based model for a full year met more learning goals, and overall, all schools with the model are seeing more MAP test improvement among students.

But although Russell says there’s plenty of work still to be done, he’s happy with the district’s progress. While he acknowledges this is a big change, there’s also plenty that won’t change, he said. Teachers will still work with students as they always have, and computers won’t replace those kinds of interactions. Grade levels probably aren’t going anywhere, either.

“We’re not ready to get rid of grade levels, and I don’t know that we ever will be,” Russell said. “Our intent was always that every kid who walks into every classroom gets more of what they need and less of what they don’t.”

Scared of robots? Here’s how one Detroit science teacher helps students deal with complex machines and instability at home.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Maxine Kennebrew, science and robotics teacher at Denby High School in Detroit, previously worked with robots at auto plants in the city.

Before she became a teacher, Maxine Kennebrew’s days were measured in hard numbers.

I could say, ‘Okay this was a good day, we ran 1,000 engines today,” said Kennebrew, who formerly was a systems engineer for a Detroit automaker. “It was very tangible what I was accomplishing. In teaching, you can’t always measure what you accomplish, but you can feel it. The end of my day usually feels a lot better than it did.”

Now she’s combining her skill sets as Denby’s new robotics teacher, guiding students through a certification program that the district sees  as a step toward training students for careers. Last month, FANUC, a manufacturer that supplies robots to the Detroit auto industry, donated eight robots to high schools in the Detroit district, including Denby High School, where she teaches science.

The armed-shaped devices delivered to Denby two weeks ago can be programmed to automatically carry out a huge array of tasks like handling food or sorting pills.

“These were everywhere” at the manufacturing facilities where she used to work, Kennebrew said, adding that she hopes the class will help students find jobs with good pay.


“The cool thing about this robot is that it can record your motion and do it again,” said Alantis Clayton, a junior at Denby. “It’s like training a pet to do something.”

Kennebrew started at Denby as a long-term substitute teacher six years ago, when the school was part of a state-run recovery district. She went on to become a certified chemistry, physics, and now robotics teacher.

Our conversation with her started with robots, then branched off into forensic science and the challenges her students face at home. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Alantis Clayton, a junior at Denby High School in Detroit, practices picking up sections of pipe with a recently donated industrial-grade robot.

What’s the hardest thing about basic robotics?

At Chrysler, I trained older autoworkers to use new robots. They were scared of the machines, they were scared to touch them. They had to learn to interact with them, to do cooperative work with the robots. My first day with the students in class felt very similar. They would all point to what they needed the robot to do, but no one wanted to press the button.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Talk about chemistry if you’d like — you’ve been teaching robotics for less than a month!

My students have not had consistent science instruction. I don’t think they had a science teacher last year. My entire goal is to make them understand what science is and to make it fun, so they want to come to class. So I’ve arranged for lectures for them from people who use chemistry in their daily lives

The first one was with the state police forensics department, and they were amazing.

I was so proud of these students. The detective said it was his favorite class. He had 54 slides, and he never left the first one because they asked so many questions.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Stability. I don’t think adults realize how much instability affects the students. When you hear talks of school closures, talks of a business closure if their parents work there.

I feel like there’s always worry in their brains, and it’s hard to get them to be normal students, because you want to acknowledge what they’re going through but you don’t want it to stop them from growing and learning.

It’s hard to say for the next 90 minutes, ‘Ignore what’s going on outside of here, ignore the worries you have.’ It’s hard to place such a high importance on being in class when you know what they’re going through.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Cheyanne Robinson, a junior at Denby High School, practices with a robotic arm donated by the manufacturer FANUC.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I always went to really good schools, and it’s hard to stand in front of the students and put on a happy face when you know things aren’t fair. It’s hard to do.

I try to be as real with them as possible. Things aren’t fair, but we’re not going to let it stop us from achieving what we can achieve.

I’ve borrowed materials from anyone who will loan them — the Detroit Children’s Museum, the Science Center.

I don’t want them to think that because it’s not here in front of you there’s not a way to get it done.

Do the new robots help that feeling at all?

The new robots did make me feel better. I want my students to feel special but I also want them to feel normal, that they go to school and that is what’s there because it is supposed to be there. They should have an AutoCAD  lab and a coding lab and a robotics lab. They should have electives to choose from. It makes me feel better because there are kids on a waiting list to get into the class, who come by my room and ask if I have space for them. But I’m still angry because it is not the normal — yet.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

That I can only control what’s inside of my classroom and make sure my classroom is an amazing place.

enrollment challenges

South Side parents: ‘We’re struggling with high schools’

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Nearly 100 residents, educators and school district leaders convened Nov. 19, 2018, at Thomas Kelly High School in Chicago to discuss their school needs.

Cristina Hernandez is a big proponent of public education: She graduated from Jose Orozco Clemente Community Academy in Pilsen. Now she has three children in Chicago Public Schools, the oldest a seventh grader.

But she isn’t planning to send them to neighboring Kelly High School, rated a Level 2, the second-lowest on Chicago schools’ five-tier rankings.

“We’re struggling with high schools. Unless you score into a selective-enrollment school or you are lucky enough to get in a charter school,” students end up at their neighborhood high school, said Hernandez, who is chair of the Local School Council at James Ward Elementary School.

That’s why some South Side parents have been pushing the district to open a new high school in the South Loop. But that has created its own controversy: The site would displace more than 700 students at the top-rated National Teachers Academy, and likely pull students from neighborhood schools like Kelly.

The question of enrollment in neighborhood schools — and the forces pushing South Side students to attend schools elsewhere — dominated a forum Monday exploring ways to put top-rated schools and programs within reach of all Chicago students.

Parents and other speakers called for more resources for neighborhood schools to stem the tide of students fleeing South Side elementary and high schools.

Nearly 100 residents, educators and school district leaders convened Monday at Thomas Kelly High School to raise questions and discuss findings of a districtwide report on enrollment trends, school quality, parent choice and program offerings.

Students in the area, which after the Greater Stony Island Region has the city’s second-highest number of students attending high schools elsewhere, soon will have the option to attend a new South Loop high school, which could further shrink the local high school’s attendance boundaries and enrollment.

Discussing the report, known as the Annual Regional Analysis, offers communities a chance to comment on academic changes they’d like to see in their region. Meetings around town have spurred conversations about school quality, barriers to education equity — and fears of painful decisions to come amid rapidly shrinking enrollment. The school district presented hard numbers behind the problematic trend of shrinking neighborhood schools.

Parents and community members spoke to the difficulty of finding desirable high school options.

Why does the region have no Level 1 or Level 1-plus high schools, parents asked, noting the dearth prompts families to seek schools elsewhere.

The region includes the Back of the Yards, Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Brighton Park, and Armour Square neighborhoods.

Last year, when the data was collected, the area had 21,741 students at 33 schools. Three-quarters of the students were Latino, while 14 percent were Asian.

According to the report, 87 percent of elementary students in the area attend school in the region, compared with 60 percent at the district level.

But those proportions change dramatically in high school. Only 41 percent of high school students stay in the region, compared with 55 percent districtwide. Almost 1,000 students from what the report labels the Greater Stockyards region go to selective enrollment schools outside the area.

A new high school for the South Loop, slated to open next school year, would also draw from the South Side, possibly exacerbating the drain of students to newer, better equipped schools outside the area. It would also shrink the attendance boundary of the area’s Tilden High School.

The report’s Greater Stockyards designation encompasses Back of the Yards High School, a Level 1-plus school; Kelly High School, which is Level 2; and Tilden, which is Level 2. The area also has one charter and one options high school. 

“Right now, we have more schools in our district than we did when we had almost 100,000 more students,” said Chief Education Officer LaTanya D. McDade at the hearing. “How do we deal with the decrease in enrollment?”

She also said the meetings were not connected to any plans for school closings, which have been one way Chicago has dealt with under-enrolled schools in minority neighborhoods. “We want to make sure that your voice is heard within your community.”

Hernandez would like to see investments that would boost the rating of schools in the area.

“Be more equitable. I don’t understand why we have so many Level 1 elementary schools but we have to look outside for a good high school for our kids. I don’t see that as fair,” Hernandez said.

Many Chinese-American parents in the area, meanwhile, opt to place their children in private schools because they offer more Chinese language options, community member Debbie Liu said.

Liu, who works with the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, attended Healy Elementary on the South Side for her first few years of school, until her parents moved her to a private school that offered better language instruction.

“A lot of new immigrants are finding comfort in going to a school where they know there is bilingual staff and teachers,” Liu said, which many schools in the area don’t offer for Cantonese or Mandarin speakers. “I think CPS is moving in the right direction to solve this disparity issue, but there is still a lot of work to do.”

The region’s struggle with gun violence also means that academic issues sometimes come secondary to dealing with trauma, said Cheryl Flores, director of community schools for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.

“In our community students are suffering from trauma so we can’t begin to think about addressing academic issues until we can figure out how to best support them,” she said.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had fewer guidance counselors per student than many other big cities — 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students.

Flores and other attendees Monday asked the school district to hire counselors who can deal with violence-related trauma, teachers who speak Chinese, and buildings that offer the latest in technology and facilities.

“If we were to invest in our schools and the facilities, I think CPS knows what works. We need supports for our diverse learners, high quality teachers for [English learners] and diverse learners, and we haven’t been doing that,” Flores said.