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.”

Future of Schools

Indiana lawmakers are bringing back a plan to expand takeover for Gary and Muncie schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

It’s official: Lawmakers are planning to re-introduce a controversial plan to expand state takeover of the Gary and Muncie school districts when they come back May 14 for a one-day special session.

Indiana Republican leaders said they believe the plan, which would give control of Muncie schools to Ball State University and strip power from the Gary school board, creates opportunities for both districts to get on the right track after years of poor decision-making around finances.

“Two state entities year after year ignored requests from the legislature to get their fiscal health in order,” said Senate President David Long. “We understand there’s going to be some politics associated with it.”

But Indiana Democrats strongly oppose the takeovers, and House Minority Leader Terry Goodin, a Democrat from Austin, said bringing back the “heinous” takeover plan is too complicated to be dealt with in one day. Democrats had cheered when the bill unceremoniously died last month after lawmakers ran out of time during the regular session and lambasted Republican for calling for an extension to revisit it.

“This is not a thing that can be idly approved without full consideration,” Goodin said. “Because you are talking about the latest step to take the education of our children out of the hands of local school boards and parents and placing it under the control of Big Brother.”

But lawmakers’ push to expand district takeovers come as the state’s education officials are stepping back from taking control of individual schools. In this case, as with last year’s unprecedented bill that took over Gary schools, finances appear to be the driving motivation behind lawmakers’ actions, not academics. Typically, state takeover of schools has come as a consequence for years of failing state letter grades.

Gary schools have struggled for decades to deal with declining enrollment, poor financial management and poor academic performance. Although the Muncie district hasn’t seen the same kind of academic problems, it has been sharply criticized for mishandling a $10 million bond issue.

“All I had to hear is that a $10 million capital bond was used for operating expenses,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said, since those funds are intended to make improvements to buildings. “Fiscal irresponsibility is paramount, but also fiscal irresponsibility translates to educational irresponsibility as well.”

Bosma said that Ball State and Gary officials were on board with resurrecting House Bill 1315. Another part of the bill would develop an early warning system to identify districts in financial trouble.

The provisions in the bill would only apply to public school districts, but other types of schools, including online charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers, have had recent financial situations that have raised serious questions and even led to closure.

Bosma said those schools have their own fiscal accountability systems in place, but recent attempts to close gaps in state charter law and have private schools with voucher students submit annual reports to the state have gone mostly nowhere.

Both Bosma and Long said their plan to reconsider five bills during the special session, including House Bill 1315, had passed muster withGov. Eric Holcomb. But district takeover was not mentioned in Friday’s statement from Holcomb, nor did he say it was one of the urgent issues lawmakers should take up when he spoke to reporters in mid-March.

Instead, he reiterated his support for getting a $12 million loan from the state’s Common School Fund for Muncie schools and directing $10 million over the next two years to the state’s Secured School Fund. The money would allow districts to request dollars for new and improved school safety equipment and building improvements.

match day

On high school match day, two-thirds of Newark eighth graders want magnet schools — but far fewer will get them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Keyon Lambert waited a long time for April 20th to arrive — the day when he and hundreds of other Newark students are discovering which high schools they’ve been matched with.

Long before this day, Keyon, an eighth-grader at Brick Avon Academy in the South Ward, spent hours poring over the test scores, class offerings, and graduation rates of the city’s high schools. As he awaited the results this week, he explained why he had invested so much time and thought into his application.

“If I went to a bad high school and got distracted — time flies by,” he said. “Senior year, I [might not] even know what I want to be, what college I want to go to. I probably miss out on a whole bunch of stuff. I’d probably be a dope by then.”

“But if I go to a good school,” he added, “I’ll be able to get my education and focus on the other things. Nothing, basically, will distract me.”

Newark students can apply to as many as eight high schools — traditional, magnet, or charter — through the district’s universal online application, and to the county-run vocational schools through a separate application. While the city has long offered competitive magnet schools alongside its traditional “comprehensive” high schools, the online system has made it easier for students to apply to multiple schools.

Still, each student only gets one match. And, as Keyon understood, some options are better than others. That leads many students to compete for the limited seats at the most selective schools, whose enrollments often do not match the overall demographic makeup of the district — a trend the school board has been probing.

Chalkbeat spoke to more than a dozen eighth-graders this week as high-school match day approached to understand their decisions. We’ll be checking back with some of them after they receive their matches Friday.

“There’s going to be a lot of tears,” said Jahida Gilbert, another Brick Avon eighth-grader, earlier this week.

The district’s six magnet high schools, which admit students based on their academic records or artistic talent, are by far the most popular option — and the most exclusive. Last year, more than two-thirds of incoming ninth-graders ranked a magnet school first on their applications, according to a new report on the city’s enrollment system. But just 31 percent of students across all grades who rank magnets first are actually admitted, and only 24 percent of Newark high schoolers wind up attending one of the coveted schools.

At the other end of the spectrum are the district’s eight comprehensive high schools. Unlike magnets, they cannot weed out students with low scores or poor attendance — they must admit anyone they have room for, or use a random lottery if they are oversubscribed. Partly as a result, they tend to serve far more students with disabilities, have many more students who are chronically absent, and post much lower test scores.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Brianna Padilla and Ahad Hall, eighth-graders at Hawthorne Avenue School.

About 10 percent of Newark students opt into one of the four technical-vocational schools run by Essex County, where they can join peers from other towns and study trades ranging from culinary arts to engineering while also earning a high-school diploma. Like the magnets, the “vo-tech” schools screen applicants. They look at students’ grades, test scores, disciplinary and attendance records, and the results of an entrance essay and interview.

Keyon ruled out the comprehensive high schools. But he did go for an interview at a vocational school, where the interviewer tried to assess Keyon’s personality by asking whether he’d rather be a lion or a bear. “I picked a lion because you could set a good example for others,” he explained.

He also explored a third category — charter high schools. Publicly funded but independently operated, those schools cannot screen applicants. However, several are affiliated with lower-grade charter schools that act as feeder schools, leaving few spots for other incoming ninth-graders. The charter high school Keyon applied to, Great Oaks Legacy, which includes pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade, reported having no available seats for students entering ninth-grade last year.

During his search, Keyon consulted his parents, who told him: “Be mature and pick the wise decision,” he said. Finally, he decided to apply to the vocational school (Essex County Newark Tech), along with two magnet schools (Science Park and American History) and two charter schools (KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, in addition to Great Oaks Legacy).

Noon on April 20 was this year’s appointed hour, when families could start viewing their children’s matches — for elementary as well as high schools — on the enrollment website. The district also sends letters to students’ homes and gives copies to schools to hand out. Last school year, 41 percent of incoming ninth-graders were matched to their first choice, while 70 percent got one of their top three picks.

Brick Avon’s principal, Charity Haygood, said students shouldn’t despair if they don’t get into one of the most competitive schools. Some high-achieving students flourish at the city’s comprehensive schools, which also boast impressive sports teams and arts programs.

Still, Haygood is troubled by the knowledge that some of her students will be shut out of the selective schools where they applied. She hates to think that a less-than-stellar report card one year or a poor showing on the state tests — perhaps because of an upheaval at home — can determine the course of a student’s high-school career, and maybe well beyond that.

“The idea that we — at the age of 12 or 13 — tell a child their destiny. How dare we?” she said. “That’s devastating.”

Out of about 14,400 students who attended a public high school in Newark this school year, 45 percent go to one of the district’s traditional high schools and 24 percent attend a magnet school. Another 21 percent are enrolled in one of the city’s seven charter schools with high-school grades.

While each high school has its strengths and weaknesses, academic performance varies sharply across sectors, with the magnet sector on average outscoring the charter sector on state exams — and both sectors outperforming the comprehensive schools. One factor that impacts their performance is the share of students with disabilities they serve.

Among comprehensive high schools, 22 percent of incoming ninth-graders require special-education services, compared to 13 percent in magnet schools and 15 percent in charter schools, according to the new report on the city’s enrollment system by the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University and MarGrady Research.

One exception is People’s Preparatory Charter School, where 33 percent of ninth-graders have disabilities, according to founder and co-director Jessica Rooney.

“Our whole job is to make sure that we’re decreasing or eliminating barriers to a high-quality education,” she said.

Haneefah Webster with her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School.

To help families sort through all the options each year, the district publishes a 115-page guidebook, hosts two school fairs each year, and created an informational video on the website where families can apply to most district or charter schools using a single application. (The vo-tech schools use a separate system.)

Students also lean heavily on their teachers and guidance counselors to make sense of all the options. At Sussex Avenue Renew School in the Central Ward, seventh-grade teacher Amanda Grossi prints out the guidebook and goes through it page-by-page with students, helping them interpret the schools’ academic data and acceptance rates. She brings in former students to talk about the process and where they landed, and hosts a family night where parents can fill out the application.

While Grossi tries to help students make informed decisions, she worries about hardworking but middling students who fall into the “big divide” between magnet and comprehensive schools — and who, for all the dizzying options, have limited choices.

“There’s really no in-between,” she said.

For many parents, the solution is to push their children toward the magnets. Haneefah Webster encouraged her daughter, Samiyah, an eighth-grader at George Washington Carver School, to apply to Bard Early College High School, a magnet where students can earn two-year college degrees by graduation.

When she was her daughter’s age, Webster attended one of Newark’s traditional high schools, where she said she was a “math genius” and a “super honor roll student.” But when she entered a public college to study accounting, she soon found huge gaps in the math education she’d received. Before long, she switched her major to literature.

“That’s why I picked Bard” for Samiyah, she said. “So when she gets to college, she won’t have that struggle.”

Below are some of the eighth-graders we spoke with:

Valencia McDonald
Age: 13
Current school: Sussex Avenue Renew
Top choice: Bard Early College High School (magnet school)
Advice to next year’s eighth-graders: “Go to a school that you like, especially if they have a club day you want to go to — so you can enjoy your time there, and also learn.”

Jahida Gilbert
Age: 14
Current school: Brick Avon Academy
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet school)
Advice: “Go beyond where you want to go — not what level your teachers say you’re at. [But] also, don’t choose too high, to where all the ones you choose you don’t get accepted so then you have to wait until they put you in one. Be reasonable with your grades — but try to go big too.”

Brianna Padilla
Age: 13
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Essex County Newark Tech (vocational-technical school)
Advice: “Don’t let no one doubt you, whatever high school you want to go to. If you feel you want to go there, then go there.”

Jordan King
Age: 15
Current school: Hawthorne Avenue
Top choice: Science Park High School (magnet)
Observation: “The one thing I hate is the waiting part. Life is all about waiting.”