New ways to do high school 

At Omaha’s Bryan High, students may plant potatoes, care for chickens, tour Union Pacific headquarters or sort and ship books at a school-based distribution center, reports Education Week.

“Students can choose from 16 career clusters and two pocket academies—one focused on urban agriculture and natural resources and another on transportation, distribution, and logistics—or TDL, for short.”

Katrina Whitford, another junior, holds a chicken in her lap as she works in an animal science class at Bryan.

Katrina Whitford, a junior, holds a chicken as she works in an animal science class. Photo: Ryan Henriksen, Education Week

The story is part of Ed Week‘s Diplomas Count report, which focuses on new ways to do high school.

Another story looks at a new Denver high school that’s struggling to make its model work.

Northfield High was designed to place all students, regardless of past achievement, in rigorous International Baccalaureate classes. Students can pursue “pathways” in the arts, business, biomedical sciences and other subjects of interest.

The school also pledged to base grades on mastery, rather than homework completion or class participation.

Teachers were supposed to help run the school and share counseling responsibilities.

However, the principal was forced out in October after complaints about discipline. A majority of teachers will not return next year. The advisory program has been changed.

The second year’s incoming class will be predominantly Latino with fewer white and black students choosing the program.

The four-year graduation rate is up to 82 percent, notes Ed Week. Neerav Kingsland adds: “Expected to hit 102% with new credit recovery program.”

Ed Dept drags feet on competency pilots

Two years ago, President Obama touted competency-based education (CBE) as a key to college affordability and quality.

President Obama lauded competency-based education in a speech at SUNY-Buffalo two years ago.

President Obama lauded competency-based education in a speech at SUNY-Buffalo two years ago.

Giving “course credit based on how well students master the material, not just on how many hours they spend in the classroom” will help students finish a degree faster and for less money, the president said.

But no CBE experiments have been launched, writes Amy Laitinen on EdCentral. Colleges are eager to launch competency programs, she writes, “but the Department of Education has been dragging its feet.”

Can’t fail 

New York City gave me a ­diploma I didn’t deserve,” 18-year-old Melissa Mejia told the New York Post.

She frequently cut her first-period government class at a Queens high school, didn’t turn in homework and skipped the final. To her surprise, she earned a passing grade and a diploma.

Teachers are under pressure to pass students and keep up their school’s graduation rate, said Andrea McHale, who taught Mejia at Bryant High in Queens.  “If we don’t meet our academic goals, we are deemed failures as teachers. . . . I thought it was in her best interest and the school’s best interest to pass her.”

A Virginia mother in an affluent Virginia suburb is complaining that her chronically truant daughter passed English, reports Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. The girl skipped the final exam,  but earned an A for the fourth quarter, bringing her F average up to a D.

The teacher admitted the girl hadn’t earned an A, but said she “participated in several class discussions and demonstrated that she understood the bulk of the material throughout the year,” despite poor attendance and lack of effort. The final counts only if it raises the student’s grade.

“I complained recently about D.C. schools’ giving D’s for no work to get as many uncooperative students as possible graduated so the schools wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore,” writes Mathews. It’s an issue in the suburbs too.

The Fairfax student was delighted with the results, telling her parents she might hold the world record for getting passing grades despite doing nothing. Her parents want her to grow up. They wonder why the school system won’t help.

“If she still hasn’t mastered the skills or tackled the assumed requirements for a high school diploma — such as writing a paper, exploring historical periods, reading the classics and presenting a project — she will never succeed in college,” the mother said.

The mother is planning to send this kid to college? The girl sounds like a good candidate for a competency-based alternative program. If she’s so smart that she already knows it all, let her prove it. Or she could try to get a job that doesn’t require showing up.

Mastery grading: Learn it now or later

Ohio Gov. John Kasich wants to pilot “competency-based education“– aka mastery grading or standards-based education — writes Jessica Poiner on Ohio Gadfly.

New Hampshire is the national leader in competency-based education. In Ohio, it’s being tried at Metro Early College School and MC²STEM high school, as well as the Pickerington school district.

Mastery grading assesses how well a student has learned specific skills and concepts. It doesn’t count homework completion, daily assignments, class participation or tests on multiple standards.

. . . Instead of interpreting what Tyrone’s B in algebra means, Tyrone and his parents know that he understands polynomials at 97 percent mastery and two-variable equations at 90 percent mastery; but he has trouble with inequalities and the quadratic equation, where his mastery hovers at 65 percent.

. . .  let’s imagine that Tyrone needs additional help to master the quadratic equation. This extra help can take multiple forms: Tyrone could log in to Khan Academy. He could receive one-on-one tutoring from his teacher during or outside of class. Or he could work in a group of similarly struggling students to complete a project on the real-life applications of quadratic equations. . . . After receiving remediation for the material he hasn’t mastered, Tyrone retakes the assessment. If he achieves mastery, he moves on (say, to exponents and factoring). If he doesn’t achieve mastery, he receives more support.

Providing all that support — and designing advanced work for fast-moving students will require more from administrators and teachers, writes Poiner. Teachers will need time to plan and share ideas and resources. They’ll need to use technology.

Teachers can leverage online resource-sharing hubs, including sites that boast lessons written by effective teachers. There are applications that make tracking mastery data easy, allowing teachers to focus on planning instead of tracking. The rise of blended learning and adaptive models makes effective, personalized remediation real without asking teachers to build a system from scratch on their own.

Some think master grading sets students up for failure by denying “points for showing up, points for being on time, points for homework completion, points for participation, points for extra credit.”

Diligence should be tracked separately, Poiner argues. The hard-working, well-behaved kid who hasn’t learned how to solve a quadratic equation, understand DNA or write a persuasive essay needs a chance to learn those skills — not a worthless diploma and a future of frustration.

Standards-based grading can give parents much more information, writes Matt Collette on Slate. He reports on a Brooklyn middle school. Via a “continuously updated online grade book . . . students are rated on more than 70 different skills, such as the ability to write persuasively, determine the main idea of a passage, or multiply fractions. . . . Students need to demonstrate proficiency three separate times—through homework, on a quiz, or through some other means—to be considered proficient.”

‘Personalized learning’ helps in math, reading

“Personalized learning” appears to be raising math and reading scores at 23 schools, according to “interim research” by Rand for the Gates Foundation.

Teacher Pete Knight works with students at an Oakland middle school.

Teacher Pete Knight works with students at an Oakland middle school.

The 23 urban charter schools in the study predominantly enroll low-income students with below-average scores. Yet students ended the school year above or near the national average. The lowest performers improved the most.

Most teachers use technology — adaptive software programs with short lessons and quizzes — to personalize instruction. Students work at their own pace and their own level, moving forward only when they’ve demonstrated mastery. Typically, teachers work with small groups while other students are working independently.

Slightly less than half of teachers said students use technology for educational purposes about a quarter to half of the time, and about 20 percent said students use technology between 50 to 75 percent of the time. Among the remainder, nearly 20 percent reported an even higher level of technology usage, and nearly 20 percent reported a fairly low level of technology usage.

Most schools used common elements, notes Chalkbeat

  • “Learner profiles,” or records with details about each student;
  • Personalized learning plans for each student (students have the same expectation but have a “customized path”);
  • Competency-based progression, in which students receive grades based on their own mastery of subjects rather than on tests that all students take; and
  • Flexible learning environments, in which teachers and students have physical space and time in the schedule for small-group instruction or tutoring.

Denver’s  Grant Beacon Middle School has used blended learning to personalize for three years, reports Chalkbeat. Test scores and student engagement have improved, says Alex Magaña, the principal. Denver may create several new schools modeled on Grant Beacon.

I wrote about experiments with blended learning in Oakland schools — mostly district schools — in Education Next.

For more on using blended learning to personalize, check out: Blended. Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve SchoolsHow to get blending learning right and Does blended learning work?

Testing for competency

New Hampshire requires high schools to measure credit in terms of competency rather than “seat time,” writes Julie Freeland. Schools are trying different ways to evaluate competence.

At Sanborn Regional High School, students take pen-and-paper exams, but they can retest if they haven’t achieved mastery.

North Country Charter Academy students follow a self-paced online curriculum with frequent online tests to evaluate mastery. Teachers provide support as needed.

Next Charter School uses student projects.

For example, the students in a social studies course might be asked to write a letter to President Obama proposing foreign policy strategies. The letter might have to include both a historical account of previous foreign policy strategies, a proposed action, and a rationale and justification for why that proposed action was the best option.

If the project doesn’t show mastery, the student can revise it or pick a new project.

From Policy to Practice, by the Christensen Institute, looks at New Hampshire’s shift to competency-based learning.

CreditWren McDonald

Replace the college admissions systems with assessment centers, proposes Adam Grant in the New York Times. Businesses, government and the military use these to evaluate job candidates, he writes. “Today, at a typical center, applicants spend a day completing a series of individual tasks, group activities and interviews. Some assessments are objectively scored for performance; others are observed by multiple trained evaluators looking for key behaviors.”

Competency degrees help working adults

Working adults are turning to online competency-based programs to cut the cost and time of earning a degree.

Feds will test aid for competency programs

Hoping to speed older students to a degree, the U.S. Education Department will allow some colleges to award credit — and student aid — for competency and prior learning.

Online, competency degree is aimed at adults

Washington state community colleges plan to offer an online, competency-based associate degree in business designed for working adults. Students should be able to complete a degree in 18 months or less for $2,666 per six-month semester.

With college costs rising, competency-based degree programs are expanding.

Colleges try competency ed

Competency-based programs in information technology are in the works at 11 community colleges. In competency programs, students progress at their own pace as they demonstrate mastery of knowledge and skills. Learning– not time — is they key variable.