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.”

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.