Sutton Nelson is the type of high-achieving learner who in a traditional environment either might be unchallenged by the material or might skip a grade and miss a year’s worth of material.
But Warren School District is not a traditional environment. They don’t really give letter grades there, and grade levels are not so clearly defined. Instruction is based on individual pathways and clearly defined goals rather than seat time. Young people are called “learners” – the idea being that “students” connotes sitting in rows and taking notes rather than engaging in a process of discovery.
In that environment, Nelson has taken ownership of her education, learned at her own pace, and is now a year ahead of schedule without skipping anything.
“It kind of like helped me,” she said. “‘Oh, I have more goals. I’m going to try to get this done and get good at this and know what I’m doing.’”
Warren uses a model known as standards-based education. Students – oops, learners – advance individually, so class time is often spent in small groups with teachers giving targeted attention. All the learners have a digital device, so they work side by side but often on different skills. While there are scheduled whole group assessments, learners often tell the teacher when they are ready to assess and then move on to the next skill. Instead of receiving letter grades, they receive scores of 1-4, with “3” indicating mastery of a particular skill and “4” meant to represent performance that is in the top 2 percent of the population. When they’ve reached a 3, they move on to the next skill – but not before then. Or, they might move on and then return to that skill later. For example, a student who is stuck on fractions might be allowed to proceed to decimals, which often helps him or her better understand fractions. Instead of grade levels based on seat time and chronological age, Warren has “learning levels” based on mastery of material.
“It’s truly individualized learning, personalized learning when you go in the classroom,” said high school principal Bryan Cornish. “Our teachers can tell you what skills every child is lacking, where they’re at.”
Warren educators say this type of differentiated learning gives learners an ownership over their education that they didn’t have before. Level 3 (second grade) teacher Elizabeth McKinney said her young learners know what their goals are and make their own choices about how they meet them and about how they show her they’ve met them. “Once they get into the groove, they know what to do, they know where to get their work, they know how to help each other, so they kind of take care of it themselves,” she said.
Learners are asking teachers if they can work on their goals during lunchtime, over summer vacations and during Thanksgiving break. When they finish a pathway, they can move forward, and if they finish all their pathways in a given year, they can advance to the next level. That’s how Nelson, now a level 7 learner, finished her level 2 and level 3 years in one year.
Nelson said that the standards-based model inspires her to master the material fully and quickly. Meanwhile, the model also allows learners to move more slowly if that’s what’s right for them. If a learner ends a year with pathways left to complete, they don’t flunk. Instead they can take some extra time at the end of the school year, or start the next one at the next level except for that one skill, which they will have a chance to master.
“It gives us our own pace instead of just taking, ‘Oh, move on, move on, rushing, rushing, rushing.’ If we rush, then we wouldn’t know how to do it, and we wouldn’t know how to learn,” she said. “So I feel like it’s good because it takes your own time instead of pushing you to work as fast as you can and not getting it finished.”
Regina Scroggins, principal at the elementary level Brunson New Vision Charter, likes the new model.
“We no longer just look at test scores because you know, if you give a student an F, that’s it?” she said. “Are they done forever? An F, they failed, they leave feeling stupid or like they’re never going to be successful. But this way with our personalized learning, they have another chance. It’s just like taking your driver’s test. You just don’t flunk it and never drive. I mean, what do you do? You study. You go back, try again.”
In Elizabeth McKinney’s level 3 classroom, advancement is represented graphically by learners writing their names beneath colored signs describing skills such as, “I can use addition and subtraction within 100 to solve one- and two-step word problems.” Far from that being a shaming tool, it helps everyone see where they are and serves as a catalyst for learners to help each other. Sometimes “average” learners help the smart kids.
“We talk about how you might be good at one skill, and you may be the helper on one skill, but on the next skill you may need help from someone else,” said McKinney. “So it’s not about being better at everything, but we all are better at certain things, and we can help each other out with that.”
The model has required the district to rethink the way schools are organized. Classrooms feature cloverleaf tables instead of individual desks to facilitate small group learning. At Brunson New Vision Charter, the buildings were rearranged to be organized by subject rather than learning level. That makes it easier for learners to move from one classroom to another – to work on a math skill, for example, without disrupting literacy classes. In high school, if a learner is on pace in one class and struggling in another, they have the freedom to leave with a hall pass for the classroom where they need to catch up. “We’re very transparent, and we’ll allow the learners to have a lot of ownership in what they do,” said Cornish.
The changes began in 2009, when the district’s administrative team read an article about the Adams County School District 50 in Denver, which was in its first year of incorporating a standards-based approach. That article struck a nerve. It wasn’t that Warren was badly underachieving. Educators just decided the district wasn’t as good as it could be.
“We’re from a small town, and it doesn’t take much to drive through town and see the kids sitting on the front porch after they graduated high school, and you know they graduated without the skills to be able to hold a job,” said Kathy Cornish, principal at Warren Middle School. “And I think that really started to play with us more than test scores. Are we really preparing them for their future?”
A team of 16 people, including administrators, educators and parents, traveled to Denver and returned enthusiastic about the idea. The group formed a task force to study implementing a standards-based model. Faculty members were involved early in the process. The group strategically took to Denver some of the district’s more cautious teachers so they would have buy-in. Teachers were polled and showed a lot of interest.
There really wasn’t much of an established nationwide model, so staff members researched what individual districts had done. School personnel contacted consultant Beatrice McGarvey, who traveled to Warren and helped the district write its strategic plan. The few schools nationwide that had tried the model started at the high school level and worked their way down. Warren instead would start in 2010 at East Side New Vision Charter, which served learners in grades K-3, and work its way up. In 2011, a delegation from Warren’s Brunson New Vision Charter visited the Lindsay Unified School District in California. Lindsey had received a Race to the Top grant to implement its vision, and Warren took advantage of the lessons it had learned. By the time the process was over, Warren had become the first district in the state where very school is a conversion charter.
At first, learner report cards included only numbers 1-4, but parents weren’t comfortable with that system, so the district converted the numbers to letter grades. The difference is that these report cards describe a learner’s progress across each pathway rather than a single subject. It’s a long list, but it gives parents a better understanding of their children’s progress.
And that’s led to more questions. Parents no longer are looking for a simple letter grade and being satisfied seeing an “A” or a “B.” Now they can understand if their children have completed their pathways and are asking questions if they haven’t.
“At the end of the year, I had a lot of parents coming to see me because their child had not finished their pathway,” said Sara Weaver, East Side New Vision Charter principal. “In a traditional setting, these would have been kids that would have had B’s or C’s on their final report card, and normally you wouldn’t hear from those parents because they would have been fine with that, and then they’re moving to Brunson. But they were upset because they could now see that transparency was there that, oh, my child has not finished this pathway and they don’t have all their skills for the next grade.”
The model replaces the letter grade system, which is based on averages, with individual standards. That means learners can’t rely on areas where they are strong to make up for areas where they are weak. Now they don’t advance until they have mastered the material at hand.
“Parents know more about what their child can do,” Scroggins said. “Traditionally, if a learner received an A in math, what does that mean? Does that mean they know multiplication facts? Maybe not? Maybe they’re just good at one thing and not the other. But with the way we do it, as Miss Cornish said, it is very transparent. Parents know exactly what skill their learner is on. The students know. The teacher knows, and I think that helps with giving that ownership. And the student can look at their pathway, and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is what I need to do, and this is what I’m going to do next.’ So the teacher doesn’t have to continually stand over them. I mean, they know what they need to be doing.”
The high school has been the last to implement standards-based learning, and in many ways that school has been the most challenging. There learners must be given letter grades by subject in order to qualify for scholarships and denote class rankings. The school is still working out the kinks but has designed a conversion system.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the requirement that learners actually master the material. If a learner hasn’t completed a required pathway by the end of May of their senior year, they’ll be given a chance to finish during extended high school over a three-week period. If they still don’t have it, they can come back in August and finish up. At that point, they’ll be handed a diploma and given the chance to walk the next spring.
Educators are learning as they go and aren’t sure what they’re going to do with learners like Sutton Nelson. Will she graduate a year ahead of schedule and move on to college or a career? Maybe. But another option is to let her move forward with her education while staying in Warren’s supportive environment. The district’s Southeast Arkansas Community Based Education Center lets learners focus on programs of study such as information technology and health sciences. Nelson could complete extra courses as part of that program. The center offers concurrent credit with two universities. If she advances fast enough, she could earn an associate’s degree while still in high school.
The changes made by Warren haven’t always translated to success according to the state’s measuring tools. On the school report card, East Side scored an “F” while Warren Middle School scored a “D.” Brunson and Warren High both earned a “B.” An “F” means a large number of students did not score “proficient” on statewide tests, that schools aren’t meeting performance goals, and that most groups of students aren’t meeting progress goals. Created by the Legislature in 2013, the report card was implemented for the first time at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
The “F” was concerning to the community, but Weaver, the principal, said a campus shouldn’t be judged on one assessment and that the scores should be considered in context. She said she knows learners are more engaged under this system and can demonstrate what skills they have gained.
“It goes back to, we are outside the box and the test is not. … When your learners can take their data binders and walk you through that and talk to you about their learning, that’s rewarding,” she said. “I would put that up against any F on a state assessment.”
Still, rethinking school in so many ways has been “four years of rocky road,” said Carla Wardlaw, assistant superintendent. Among the challenges: East Side’s Weaver said the district’s initial emphasis on individualized learning sent a signal to teachers that their classroom lecturing days were done. They aren’t, so instruction was rebalanced to include a more appropriate mix of individual and group work.
Superintendent Bobby Acklin, who is in his first year at Warren, said the model has required an adjustment on everybody’s part. Universities often don’t teach education majors this teaching model, and teachers coming from other districts don’t have any experience in it. That means the district has to grow its own teachers and administrators and create future evangelists who will leave the district and share what they have learned.
“One of the questions that I had is the same question that parents had, is how do you know where they are if there’s no letter grades?” Acklin said. “Because I’m traditional, 38 years of letter grades. He got an A. He’s got a B. But if a kid had a B, there’s some skills they didn’t learn. We just never were concerned about it, and parents were never really concerned about the skill that they didn’t learn.”
On the day of Report Card’s visit, Katie Williams, a level 7 science teacher, taught about volcanoes using baking soda, food coloring and vinegar. This is her fourth year of teaching at Warren, so she has used both standards-based and traditional teaching. She was trained to teach using traditional methods and had to adjust when she moved to Warren.
“I think this gives students more opportunities to learn, to learn in different ways than what I learned when I was going through school,” she said. “It allows them to do it at the time that they need and to really dig down deeper to focus on what they need to. … It shows them what they need to work on, but it also (allows) them to have strengths in all areas, so it gives them the self-confidence they need to feel good about what they’re learning.”
With learners directing so much of their own education, classrooms are more chaotic than in a traditional setting. In Rebecca Owens’ level 7 class, learners are moving everywhere. One walks to a filing cabinet and files an assessment proving he has mastered a learning path. Another takes a test among the chaos. Owens says they don’t mind. “They like tests. They’re used to it. They beg me to play music all the time,” she said.
Williams said she sets guidelines of what’s to be expected during the first two or three weeks of the year and then doesn’t have too many discipline problems. “Because there is so much hands-on stuff, it’s OK to talk,” she said. “It’s OK to do group work. You know, I expect for them not to be of course shouting or hollering, but you know there’s times to be quiet and there’s time that you can talk, and as long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, I’m OK with that.”
A standards-based approach undoubtedly is more work for teachers, particularly on the front end. Level 3 teacher McKinney must plan the entire year from the beginning so learners will be able to move at their own pace. Teachers must continually monitor the performance of all their learners individually rather than managing one big group. She doesn’t mind.
“We started this because we felt like it was best for kids to learn at their own pace and in their own way, and so I’m all for it,” she said amidst her learners’ bustling activities. “And I’ve told Miss Sara that if we ever went back to doing it the other way, I would revolt.
By Steve Brawner
Report Card Editor
Visit the Report Card Magazine page, December 2015 issue, for more articles.