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Kentucky Invests in Innovation to Advance College and Career Readiness

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May 01, 2014 01:02 pm

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This past week, I had the opportunity to visit two Kentucky Districts of Innovation—Eminence Independent School District and Danville Independent School District. These districts, which serve high proportions of low-income students, had struggled to move a clear majority of high school seniors to college- or career-ready achievement levels. Afforded flexibility to redesign schooling under a Kentucky House bill, these two districts are leading complex changes to redesign schooling that will afford every student a meaningful and rigorous learning experience. They focus on performance-based learning—whereby students engage in authentic learning experiences and demonstrate mastery of knowledge, skills, and dispositions associated with college and career success.

Most important to the transformation of education in these small Kentucky towns is personalization —deeply knowing the learners’ needs and aspirations and placing a priority on cultivating students’ abilities to persevere, self-regulate, collaborate, and adapt. Since 2012, both districts report major increases in the percentage of students deemed college and career ready as defined by the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). In Danville the percentage of students attaining CCR status jumped from 34 percent to over 70 percent; district leaders anticipate 80 percent of students will be college and career ready this year. Eminence’s percentage of students reaching CCR status increased from 39 percent to 60 percent.

Kentucky is a leading state in the Innovation Lab Network—a network of nine states dedicated to identifying, implementing, and scaling promising practices that can lead to greater college and career ready outcomes. A state Senate bill passed in the 2009 session of the Kentucky General Assembly put Kentucky on the fast track to transforming their system. Two years after rolling out the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) along with new assessments and accountability requirements, Kentucky took steps to implement and test innovative strategies that place students at the center of learning. A 2013 state report on competency-based education concluded that traditional education was not meeting the needs of many Kentucky students. Too many were, “simply going through the motions of school getting by with “C” and “D” grades.”  As Superintendent Buddy Berry noted, “Many Eminence graduates go to college but are not staying in college after the first year. At the high school level, students were transferring out of the district to neighboring districts in record numbers.”

What did these students want in their education? The overwhelming majority of students desired learning experiences that engage and challenge them and that offer more choices, increased access to technology, and a better match with their needs and aspirations. In response, Eminence launched School On F.I.R.E, an initiative to personalize learning for each student, providing high school students with laptop computers, project-based learning, and an advisor/advisee mentoring program.

Eminence also redesigned the high school schedule to afford two days a week for interventions, connections, or enrichments depending on student needs. For example, Tuesday and Thursdays, students who meet college-ready performance on the ACT can attend college classes at Bellarmine University in Louisville and earn up to thirty college credits by graduation. For example, one Eminence student completed her high school requirements with a mix of traditional and virtual courses in three years and earned twenty-four college credits before graduating. She spent two summers building a prototype clean water system in Haiti and completed coursework in advanced chemistry in a lab producing environmental services and products.

Another key element of the Eminence initiative is the design of competencies that outline a learning progression within each discipline. Competencies for the English language arts standards have been developed thus far. These provide a much-needed taxonomy of the knowledge and skills students must demonstrate to advance to the next level using performance-based measures along with standards-based grading. Berry noted that too much emphasis is placed on the content covered on summative grade-level assessments.  For example, students completing grade three without mastering essential skills can begin to flounder—particularly when teachers focus exclusively on the content covered on the end-of-the year grade-four test. In contrast, Eminence teaching is rooted in attending to where students are in relation to the standard and determining  what is needed next.

Superintendent Dr. Carmen Coleman likewise seized on the opportunity to pioneer innovation by working with the community to define the essential skills for Danville graduates through the Danville Diploma. “The focus of the work is three-fold: the Danville Diploma skills, content knowledge, and the application of those skills and content knowledge to create meaningful, interesting experiences for our students,” said Dr. Coleman. These essential skills were brought to life through dynamic presentations by teams of sixth-grade students on the day of my visit to Bate Middle School in Danville Independent School District.

Teams provided evidence of learning by demonstrating their design of a prototype race car along with explanations of the math and science concepts involved such as gravitational potential energy, simple machines, ratio, and scale. Their composure and confidence in explaining the results of their experiments and defending their claims was impressive. They spoke about what they learned and how they learned it, the value of their team members, their perseverance in completing multiple complex tasks, and their growing sense of competence in helping their peers succeed.  One student remarked, “I have learned more this year than before doing the PBAT [performance-based assessment task].  We are much more likely to remember important ideas in math and science when we are excited about what we are doing and can talk to other students about how to design an experiment or solve a problem.”

Danville’s goal is to accelerate students’ progress toward attaining college and career readiness benchmarks earlier in the high school experience, thereby opening new opportunities for focused course-taking and exposure to high-level interdisciplinary research, design, and action modules as part of customized college and career pathways. Dr. Amy Swan, principal of Bate Middle School said, “Each student works with his or her teachers to create individualized learning goals, in order to meet every student where they are and challenge them to reach benchmarks and beyond. Students are given complex problems designed to challenge them individually, encourage team building, and learn group problem solving abilities.”

In addition, the district is redefining the roles of teachers as designers and facilitators of project-based learning that encourages student ownership of learning. Danville is working closely with the New York City Performance Standards Consortium to develop a suite of practitioner-designed student-focused performance assessments. Coleman noted that teachers’ assessment literacy would be critical to designing performance-based learning aligned to the CCSS and that challenge students to demonstrate deep levels of understanding.

This move to meaningful and authentic assessment as part of personalized pathways toward college and career readiness is consistent with lessons from high performing systems across the globe. According to the 2013 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, Lessons from PISA 2012 for the United States: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education, the trend among OECD countries is toward multi-layered, coherent assessment systems that are increasingly performance-based and designed to improve learning at all levels of the system. “Top performing systems use assessment that includes progressive learning targets that explicitly describe the steps that learners follow as they become more proficient, and define what a student should know and be able to do at each level of advancement.”

Most importantly, Kentucky continues to place teachers at the center of its efforts to transform public education. In moving to a competency-based system, teachers will need to be able to:

  • ensure students understand the learning targets and the criteria for success;
  • gather evidence of student learning by a variety of means;
  • use feedback to adjust instruction and learning activities;
  • engage students in self-assessment and reflection; and
  • activate other students as resources.

Cindy Parker, who works with the Kentucky Department of Education’s pilot of its teacher development system, said, “The design of Kentucky’s Teacher and Leader Professional Growth and Effectiveness System places considerable emphasis on preparing educators to thrive in learning environments designed for personalized, performance-based learning.” Too often current measures of college and career readiness fall short in assessing readiness dimensions that are meaningful for the individual learner. Kentucky’s laboratories of innovation promise to illuminate the power of varied approaches for students to attain and demonstrate competencies as part of pathway approaches and expanded student options.

Mariana Haynes is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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