In a social studies classroom, a group of teenagers gather for a rare experience in schools — going over material that has already been tested. Having earned scores or teacher referrals indicating a major gap on an important topic, in this case how the United States abolished slavery, teacher Kristy Center is leading a workshop created to clarify fundamental concepts.
Within minutes, one student explains that she never understood before that abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman lived 100 years before civil rights champions like Martin Luther King Jr. She hadn’t realized how much time passed between the Civil War and civil rights.
Center explains how farm economies in the South and factory economies in the North created different views of slavery, and that a growing nation struggled to decide whether a new territory would become a “free state” or “slave state.” Within this narrative, Center explains how the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act addressed divided views but put off an ultimate resolution. The concepts she stresses, including terms like sectionalism and nationalism, will be part of a re-test to demonstrate a solid understanding.
Last year, Trimble County Junior High overhauled its school days and its emphasis on student progress, giving all students more opportunities to master academic basics. It identified fundamental concepts it expected all students to learn, leading to new “workshop” time where teachers provide new opportunities to go over content.
With the new mindset and new technology, the school has become one of several Kentucky schools seeking to personalize learning and emphasize mastery. The system encourages students to accelerate their learning, dig deeper into projects they care about, and recover from test-day wipeouts by studying more and trying again. Students confer each week with a mentor teacher on their progress.
“It feels like I’m learning more,” Bryce Granger said last spring, reflecting on his 7th grade experience. “Before, I thought I wasn’t really that smart because my grades were always bad.”
In math, Bryce said he had a hard time understanding circumference. In previous years, he would have taken a bad grade and moved on. Now, however, he had to keep trying. “Because I know I need to figure that out, my teacher will help break it down until I fully understand,” he said. “I like that you don’t just take a test once and then you’re done.”
‘It feels like I’m learning more,’ said student Bryce Granger. ‘I like that you don’t just take a test once and then you’re done.’
Bryce fell behind in the new system early in 7th grade, but between the workshop time at school and extra studying at home, he caught up with the expected class pace by December. Weeks before the end of last school year, he said that the opportunity to prove mastery at his own pace would allow him to move into 9th grade content before the end of 8th grade. He said he had gone from an expectation of “barely passing” to making good grades and seeking advanced work.
Tracy Poe, principal at Trimble County Junior High, said that growth in student performance has been evident among students “who’ve never experienced success but are carrying a C or B now,” as well as traditional high performers “who we were not pushing as far as they could go.”
Poe and Trimble County Superintendent Steve Miracle were part of a team from the district that joined the University of Kentucky’s Next Generation Leadership Academy seeking ways to improve student learning.
“We know that students have changed and modes of learning have changed,” Poe said. “We want to make schools more relevant and valuable to today’s students.”
The team decided to join the Summit Learning network, the outgrowth of a nonprofit 11-school California and Washington State charter school system. With support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Summit system created software for measuring student mastery and opted to share the “platform” with interested public schools, along with regular support and training for learning that is more engaging and personal.
“We are helping schools work through a fundamental change in the classroom — the experience for both students and teachers — by implementing a holistic approach where the platform is just a piece of the puzzle,” said Catherine Madden, senior communications director for Summit Learning.
‘This has opened the door for so much more conversation with students about setting and reaching goals,’ said Principal Tracy Poe.
From an original cohort of 19 public schools three years ago, when the network began, the Summit program grew to 330 public schools last year, with several in Kentucky involved through connections from the UK academy.
“There is a huge appetite among communities, school leaders and teachers to improve the daily function of schools,” said Justin Bathon, an associate professor of educational leadership studies at UK and director of innovative school models. “We’re coming up on a decade of schools pushing for changes that create stronger learning experiences for students.”
Bathon said that free tools and support Summit offers have made it a popular option for ensuring all students learn fundamental academic material and increase achievement.
Schools that join the network commit to provide laptop computer access to all students and to develop ways for students to demonstrate a significant portion of their learning through projects. Schools can tailor the Summit system to the local curriculum.
“This has opened the door for so much more conversation with students about setting and reaching goals,” Poe said. “Our mission was always to serve every student, but schools and teachers can be so constrained. Now, our teachers spend more time looking at student data, and planning is much different. What we are asking students to do is much more rigorous.”
“In the long run, this is very beneficial,” added Ali Maldonado, a 7th grade science teacher. Beyond greater student mastery, she noted that the approach also requires students to persevere, manage time, and show initiative.
Students recognize that the changes both require and deliver more.
“I’ve learned better how to present things and manage multiple tasks,” said Keegan Congleton, looking back on 8th grade at the end of last school year. “This approach feels more like college or a job, where there is more freedom to get your work done.”
“This has helped me realize school isn’t about what grade you get; it’s about what you learn,” he added. “I’ve worked on a science project that was hard and fell behind, but I just started working harder. I learned a lot more in English because I had to pay attention to grammar, words, and structure. I reworked my first project to get a better grade. Next year I can definitely say I’m going to do better.”
While a focus on individual competency or mastery are mentioned prominently in recent efforts to personalize learning, schools have long focused on strategies to identify and address areas where students fall behind. Making sure students catch up on academic basics are fundamental to longstanding intervention efforts and key to keeping students on track to be proficient or stay on grade level. The success of these methods are critical to boosting student skills and reducing achievement gaps. Some questions that might spark a local conversation:
\\\\\ How does your school measure individual students’ proficiency on academic standards during the school year?
\\\\\ How does your school use information about student proficiency and specific standards to inform teaching? How is student mastery of basic academic skills communicated to families and students themselves?
\\\\\ What is your school’s philosophy on giving students opportunities to demonstrate learning even after content was first covered or tested?
Moving all students through content at once can produce major holes in student learning. Misunderstandings of concepts like fractions in math or punctuation in English classes can be masked when grades are averaged for a class. Such academic weaknesses can persist beyond school. At Trimble County Junior High, giving students multiple opportunities to demonstrate that they know important academic content marks an effort to deliver a more solid foundation for far more students.
\\\\\ The Summit Public Schools charter school system in California and Washington State emphasizes that a focus on student success leads to being as responsive as possible to data collected from everyday school work. Such a system creates schools organized around more learning for more students, organizers say.
The Summit Learning Network, which involves several Kentucky schools, is built to create challenging learning experiences, stronger connections with school faculty, and more chances to show mastery. In turn, the program expects students to reach higher levels of achievement. “Learners vary in the pace at which they learn, in the subjects and topics they find interesting, and in the types of materials that they find engaging,” the group says in “The Science of Summit,” a publication that explains its approach. The Summit Learning website also offers resources on mastery and personalized learning.
\\\\\ Former Kentucky education commissioner Gene Wilhoit has been a prominent voice for schools seizing the opportunity to deliver learning in new ways — and for students to gain new options for demonstrating what they know. Through the Center for Innovation in Education, which he leads, Wilhoit promotes fundamental changes in schools centered on individual leaning.
In a 2016 report, “Leadership for Learning: What is Leadership’s Role in Supporting Success for Every Student?” Wilhoit and co-authors wrote that learning should start “where the learner is in the context of developmental progression rather than status against a fixed standard of performance on a pre-planned lesson, where the curriculum-pacing guide says they should be, or where adults want learners to be.”
Each month, the BRIGHT SPOTS blog showcases impressive learning in Kentucky schools.
IN SEPTEMBER \\\\\
REACHING RURAL PRESCHOOLERS in Clay County.
ABOUT TRIMBLE COUNTY JUNIOR HIGH \\\\\
ENROLLMENT: 200 in grades 7-8
RACE: 1% minority
INCOME: 60% eligible for free/reduced price meals
\\\\\ The interest from Trimble County leaders in new approaches to boost achievement grew, in large part, from the disappointing results through traditional approaches. On the most recent state test data from the 2016-17 school year, Trimble County Junior High’s overall scores placed below the state average for Kentucky middle schools. About half of all students scored proficient or better in reading, writing, and social studies, while about 28 percent of all students were proficient or better in math.
\\\\\ Proficiency rates for students whose family incomes qualified them for free- or reduced-price meals were close to 10 percentage points below the overall school results in each subject. The school did not have any other demographic groups large enough to be reported for achievement gap measures.
\\\\\ This year, the district merged the adjoining junior high and high schools and expanded the mastery emphasis to all core academic courses in grades 7-12, with the personalized learning and active goal-setting and mentoring efforts also extending to all students.