A unique approach

Is Westminster Public Schools’ investment in competency-based learning paying off?

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Teacher Amy Adams will tell you that her class at Flynn Elementary School is loud and chaotic.

Her class of almost 30 students is used to doing a lot of independent or small group work. In Westminster Public Schools — the only Colorado district to use what is known as competency-based learning in all its schools — it’s common.

The model does away with traditional grade levels — meaning there is no such thing as third grade, sixth grade and so on. Students are grouped together based on proficiency in each subject, and they are expected to know what they need to master to move up a level. That means during the day, students are moving around, talking to each other and sometimes working on different assignments — raising the volume in the process.

“We don’t like quiet classrooms,” said Justin Davis, principal of Flynn Elementary. “These teachers know what they’re doing. But most importantly, the kids know what they’re working on.”

Seven years since beginning to adopt the competency-based model, Westminster Public Schools is still working out problems and testing changes to try to make the system work, all while the district remains on the state’s watchlist for poor academic performance.

Among the lingering problems: Teachers have been inconsistent in tracking data, the district hasn’t pinned down just how long is too long for a student to linger on a single level, and many students and parents remain confused about how the model works.

Still, the district credits the competency-based model with improving district schools on the state’s performance ratings between 2010 and 2014 so that no district schools are on the state watchlist for a fifth year in a row. That distinction would trigger state sanctions.

But those improvements have not been enough to move the district itself off the watchlist for low performance, according to preliminary ratings. Westminster district officials are contesting this year’s rating, in part insisting the state’s evaluation is not adequately considering their model.

The idea for the new model was simple: Kids should move grade levels when they prove they’ve mastered a learning goal, not based on how long they’ve spent in a class. Students would be grouped in classrooms based on their performance levels and would be able to move levels — or sometimes physical classrooms — in the middle of the year. For state tests, students still must be tested based on their age, not considering what material they’ve been taught based on their proficiency levels.

If the latest rating doesn’t change, the state will decide in the next several months what action to take against districts such as Westminster that have failed to move out of the bottom two performance ratings for five years.

Nationwide, the popularity of competency-based education models is growing. In Colorado, Westminster is the only district using it in all schools and across all grade levels.

Aurora Public Schools included competency-based learning in its innovation plan for Aurora Central High School earlier this year. But officials there said they are still reviewing how it would work and have yet to put a system in place.

As more schools try the model, the research around it is trying to catch up. In a report published last year by CompetencyWorks, an initiative of the advocacy group International Association for K-12 Online Learning, researchers found that school districts switching to competency-based models varied in their time to make the switch. Leaders suggested the first phases took at least five years.

“All the districts highlighted here emphasize they are still involved in continually improving the design and implementation of the system,” the report stated.

In October, Westminster officials presented at a conference in Texas about challenges in tracking how students progress through the levels. This week, district officials will also be in Washington D.C. after they were invited to participate in a White House discussion about improving testing.

Superintendent Pam Swanson has said that it would make sense to test kids “in real time” when they move levels instead of once a year. The tests also need to stay consistent so data can start to be compared and used for more analysis, officials say.

“This progression data doesn’t exist anywhere,” said Jeni Gotto, Westminster’s executive director of teaching and learning. Gotto said having progression data would help teachers plan for students to get on track, and would help the district aggregate data to identify students who are struggling.

Every month, teachers meet with their principal to pore over data about individual students to determine if they’re making progress toward moving levels. Interventionists and psychologists recently began joining those meetings to discuss each student’s needs.

But at a district level, officials couldn’t provide data showing how long students take to move each level compared to how much they should take. Without that, it’s hard to track district-wide trends, including whether any one segment of students is more or less likely to struggle with the model.

Data that is available, such as graduation rates, shows drops. In 2015, 59.4 percent of Westminster students graduated on time, down from 62.3 percent for the class of 2010.

The last two years of PARCC state test scores didn’t show students in Westminster growing much, either. Westminster’s growth scores this year showed students were growing at a slower rate than more than half of the state, and achievement scores also showed several groups performing worse than last year’s classes. For example, among third graders, 15.8 percent of students met or exceeded expectations on English language arts tests in 2016, down from 16.8 percent of last year’s class.

To get more information on progress, Westminster officials last year hired AdvancEd, a national nonprofit, to audit the program.

The group gave the district an accreditation — and a mostly favorable review — but still found many problems and suggested several changes that the district is working on now.

“Many students could describe in varying degrees the concepts of grading and reporting, but often even they could not articulate a simple, clear explanation of the process,” the report stated. “When parents and students do not understand how learning progress is reported, engaging them in meaningful ways becomes much more difficult.”

Teachers say that getting students to take responsibility for their pace of learning is a challenge.

“That’s been perhaps the most difficult — to get the kids to buy into that,” said Westminster teacher Seth Abbott.

Abbott said students in his class have remained engaged by showing their creativity in proving they understand a concept. When he gives them suggestions, they have come up with other ideas including designing a test, he said.

“Everyone learns differently and everyone can show evidence in different ways,” Abbott said. “It’s neat to think of the ways someone can show what they’ve learned in ways I maybe hadn’t even thought about.”

District officials say that’s evidence of positive change that needs time and flexibility to expand.

“Not only have we seen progress,” said Swanson, the superintendent. “We’re still very humble and learn every day.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”