The Sharp Ones: A Few Takeaways from Idaho

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This is the tenth article in the series on Mastery Education in Idaho. Links to the other articles can be found below.

Oh, there is so much to learn in Idaho. Where to start?

1) Learning from others and making it your own.
Too often we recreate the wheel. It’s fun to be so creative and to think it through. It’s also a lot of work to investigate what others have done and try to make sense of it. However, the cost is huge to start from scratch. You’ll make mistakes. The designs will most likely only represent the limits of your own knowledge and imagination at that point in time. Usually, we can only design around a few strands or concepts – it’s hard to create robust models straight out of the gate. Reiteration takes time, and there is a risk that there will be pushback on the big idea if early models are too limited or shallow.

Idaho seems to have mastered being “a sharp one” in the language of the “pencil metaphor.” In other words, they saw what early adopters had done, grabbed the best of it, and learned from the mistakes of others to do the best they can for their students. At every stop, people would refer to other schools and resources, describing which parts they were using and which parts they have modified. In Kuna Middle School, the teachers at Synergy had taken the Summit platform and pillars as the foundation for a fully interdisciplinary, project-based approach. At Central Academy, they had drawn from Building 21 and Bronx Arena in terms of approaches and information systems. Columbia High School has been pulling pieces from Marzano Research Lab, Summit, and Buck Institute. The team from reDesign has been a strong partner throughout the development of the Idaho Mastery Education Network.

2) Summit Learning platform is a game-changer.
Increasingly over the years, I’ve bumped into the Summit Public Schools model in other schools, but usually as the framework being used in one classroom. However, in Idaho two different schools, Columbia and Synergy at Kuna Middle, referred to Summit Learning platform as a game-changer.

They like the mix of skills and content. They like the Habits of Success. They like that it comes loaded but makes it easy for teachers to add their own content. They like that students monitor their own pace (students referred to it as the blue line). They like that they can look at student data through many different lenses so it can be used to reflect with individual students or individual teachers, to look at groups of students or groups of teachers, and to analyze specific instructional processes or trajectories. They like that it has problem-based learning or project time. The only thing they didn’t like (and I hear Summit Learning will address this in the future) is that it forces a grading policy upon the schools. It wasn’t that they thought the grading policy was terrible — it just wasn’t what they would have used themselves.

Most of all, it accelerated the rate of implementation tremendously, as all those decisions about competencies, standards, habits of success, rubrics are provided. Thus, the focus can move much more quickly to redesign, instruction, and building assessment literacy.

3) The process of pilots shape their success.
In general, the schools I visited had a well-developed understanding of competency-based education even if they were only one year into implementation. The educators with whom I spoke understood that it is seeking to redesign around deeper learning, with equity at its core, and requiring highly responsive schools that are continually learning and improving so their students can learn and grow. At CompetencyWorks, we’ve been worried about the dynamics in which people set off toward transforming their schools with a limited or shallow version of competency-based education – as if it is only a change in grading, only about changing your standards into competencies, or only about digital instruction and assessment. (See Levers and Logic Models and the upcoming Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education for a description of a high quality comprehensive model.)

Idaho created a very thorough process in defining mastery-based learning, in its RFP process, and in inviting reDesign to be a partner from day one. Several people said that the first convening with Sydney Schaef was instrumental in “building a broad and spirited understanding of competency-based education.” This has paid off as even the weakest approach we saw (which may actually be the ebb and flow of the change process) had many important pieces firmly in place. For those states or large districts thinking about using the pilot approach to introduce and advance competency-based education, I encourage you to be “a sharp one” and learn what you can from Idaho.

4) Coverage vs mastery
One of the interesting conversations that came up throughout the site visits in Idaho was the tension between covering the standards as compared to students learning (i.e., mastering) the standards. Many of the schools we visited, for example Greenhurst Elementary, were very clear that they were going to do their best to “meet students where they are” and repair gaps than most other schools I have visited. However, there seemed to be some tension with districts that were encouraging purchased curriculum while also advancing mastery-based learning. This is generally problematic, as the one-size-one-pace-fits all approach doesn’t sync with a personalized mastery-based approach organized around student’s learning trajectories. Kelly Brady explained, “Covering is a mentality that can get in the way. Some educators think that students haven’t mastered it unless we cover everything in the curriculum. It’s as if learning is in a can, and as a teacher, I make make all my kids eat it. The problem is that it doesn’t take into account what we know about the learning sciences. We want to turn kids on to learning. We need to figure out how to get them to be active learners.”

5) District disconnects
Throughout the visits, small disconnects kept popping up between the districts wanting to advance mastery-based learning but also relying on previous operational processes, policies, and dynamics that seemed to be getting in the way. We haven’t done substantial research in how districts need to or can change to strengthen competency-based systems, and it may be time to do so. A few of the examples are advancing curriculums with the idea that they need to be implemented with fidelity and a predetermined pace (described above) and requiring approval for schedule changes.

6) Is the future of middle schools interdisciplinary, project-based learning micro-schools?
That hum of learning was the same at the Synergy program in Kuna Middle School as it was at Create House at Kettle Moraine Middle School in Wisconsin. Both of these programs, essentially operating as micro-schools within schools with a team of teachers and about 75-125 students, were designed around the stage of early adolescence. Similarities include high interest, high self-discovery projects, multi-age grouping, and what I would refer to as structured independence (we are going to give you lots of independence, but we are right behind you and ready to catch you if you fall).

Whereas Create House had some interdisciplinary projects, Synergy has organized the learning experiences around interdisciplinary projects supported by Summit Learning platform. Students are able to access the content needed for the projects through the LMS system while also building cognitive and project management skills in the planning, execution, and reflection of the project. Teachers told me that the transparency of competency-based education, especially with an emphasis on cognitive/academic skills, enables interdisciplinary learning.

As I watched the “murmuration” of students at Kuna (honestly, as they moved from activity to activity, it really felt like watching a flock of starlings in the sky), with the powerful adages targeted to the young teen painted on the walls, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this what middle schools will all look like in a decade or so?”

7) Idaho is positioned for taking a look at implications of information management products on design.
The schools we visited were using a variety of different information management products that had a range of functionality. As I listened to educators describe how they are designing their mastery-based approaches, how they are using the information management products, and the implications of limitation to the integrity of the design, I began to think that Idaho is positioned well for a research study comparing the functionality of products and how they are being used.  For example, Greenhurst Elementary is using Mastery Connect, Synergy and Columbia High are using Summit Learning, and Central is working with Building 21 and Bronx Arena’s model using Slate and a mix of Google docs.

8) Competency recovery is better than credit recovery, but it’s not the same as a full competency-based system.

We visited several alternative schools during the three days in Idaho. It was clear that mastery-based learning was helping them to think more intentionally about instruction and how they were helping students to learn. As always, students responded positively to the transparency of the system and the focus on formative feedback. It was also pushing toward application of learning and deeper learning.

Understandably, credit accumulation tended to be emphasized even as the schools sought to focus more on learning. And of course alternative schools are burdened with an almost impossible task of helping students who have most likely lost some confidence in themselves and in the the adults in schools, who have big gaps in learning and credits, and usually with somewhat complicated lives, to re-engage and strengthen the building blocks of learning needed to take responsibility for their learning, repair gaps, become college and career ready, and accumulate the needed credits.

However, periodically I heard the term competency recovery replace credit recovery. And I think we need to be cautious about that. Competencies can’t be “recovered.” They are developed over time, building a set of skills and knowledge that can then be demonstrated through application. We need to think more, in honest, facing-the-reality ways, about what it means to have schools designed for students who are ready to re-engage. Just yesterday I heard about a comprehensive high school in Maine that is building the capacity to respond to students who are over-age and under-credit. Perhaps we will see more students stay in high school and get the support they need…and alternative schools can focus attention on just those students who need more support and structure as they build the skills and maturity they need for the transition to adulthood.
This wraps up the series on Mastery Education in Idaho. Next stop is New Zealand.

Read the Entire Series:

This article was originally published in September 2018 at CompetencyWorks.

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