Friday, February 20, 2015

Visiting High School in the Community

Although mastery and competency-based learning is widely discussed in education circles, it is surprisingly difficult to find a school that effectively implements this approach.  I recently joined a team from PHS to visit one such school, New Haven's High School in the Community. We were warmly welcomed by Community Coordinator Cari Strand who led an incredible day of discussions and observations with staff and students.  To sum up their approach, High School in the Community requires all students to demonstrate mastery of specific learning targets (content and skills) in order to advance and ultimately graduate.  

School Structure
Instead of the traditional Freshman-Senior progression, they established the following "Stages of Advancement."

  1. Foundation year: Developing the basic academic skills, content knowledge, and self-discipline to succeed in high school
  2. Core year: Advancing academic skills and completing most required content study
  3. Focus year: Exploring elective content study and determining the details of a transition out of high school and into college and career training
  4. Bridge year: Finalizing the skills and preparation needed to bridge the transition into adulthood

Although this may at first seem like semantics, I witnessed first hand that it is far from it. Although it is expected that a typical student will progress through this in 4 years, it may take less time or more depending upon the student.  The focus here is not on seat time or Carnegie units.  The focus is primarily on student learning. 

To monitory and track student progress (and communicate with parents), they also use the following "Mastery Performance Levels." 

4 – Exemplary  Student has proven expertise in course material and is ahead of course pace. Student is on track to finish this course and may move on to the next course level before the academic year has ended.

 3.5 – Approaching Exemplary   Student has proven some expertise in course material and is ahead of course pace. Student will need to demonstrate additional expertise to move on to the next course level.
3 – Mastery  Student has proven mastery through demonstration of quality work and has maintained course pace.   Currently on pace to earn credit.    
2.5 – Approaching Mastery  Although completed work may show mastery of skills, student is currently not on pace to complete material by the end of this academic year.  Successful completion of all course material is required for advancement.
2 – Developing  Student has developed some understanding, but has not demonstrated mastery of course content and skills.  Without additional academic support student is unlikely to finish course material by the end of the academic year. 
1.5—Beginning  Student has completed some work demonstrating a beginning understanding of course content.  Student is not on course pace, and will require substantial academic support in order to reach mastery and complete course work by the end of the academic year. 
1 – Limited  Student has demonstrated little or no understanding of course content and skills.  At current pace, student will not complete the course by the end of the academic year.  
So What Does This All Look Like in Practice? 
One of the first classes we visited was a Foundation year math class.  This classroom was a perfect example of how to communicate and visualize progress in a competency-based learning environment.  The entire wall was filled with charts that not only displayed student progress, but also provided a pacing guide for students whose goal was to advance by the end of the year.  (As you can see in the photos below, students are identified by code number to avoid any stigmas with advanced at a slower pace.)

We also witnessed how the learning targets ("performance indicators") for each course and level were clearly communicated and displayed for students (see photo to the right).  Each performance indicator also has aligned scoring rubrics so that students have a clear understanding of what is required for each level of proficiency.  The example below is from an assignment in a history course that is assessing student proficiency in two of the Historical Writing standards.  

In the afternoon, we had an opportunity to speak with members of the student council.  One common theme from this conversation is that they thought there was a better sense of purpose now in school.  It was less about compliance and more about learning.  Some admitted that they fell behind early since mastery learning "was harder." They did like, however, that nothing was holding them back.  If they put the time and effort in, not only could they excel, but also complete their competencies in even less than 4 years.  Some students from the school actually enroll in local college classes during their Bridge (senior) year since they have demonstrated mastery of all the learning targets. 

Grading Program

High School in the Community uses JumpRope,  a standards-based grading platform.  The teachers that we spoke with liked the program and demonstrated how standards were assessed and then reported out through the student/parent portal.  It is much more visual than a traditional program and seems to do a good job of conveying both what students are excelling at as well as learning gaps that exist.


There are many other takeaways and questions that came from this visit, and I will touch upon those in future posts.  I do, however, want to conclude by saying how courageous this group of educators are.  Despite many of the obstacles faced with this transition, they know that at the end of the day, it is best for students.  One staff member said that the most difficult part is that it "exposes" many of the issues that exist under the surface in traditional school, yet are ignored or glossed over.  Their mastery system not only unearths these issues (particularly learning gaps), but addresses them head on in a creative, thoughtful, and courageous way.  This district is a model for those who know that our traditional approach to grading and student progression is fundamentally flawed and are seeking an alternative path.

I again thank High School in the Community for hosting us and wish them the best of luck in their journey!