Blended Learning

District says 24 credits and a D-minus average aren’t good enough

Focusing on family buy-in, a Connecticut district shifts to mastery-based learning

WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. — When Kylie Jones brings home her report card, it doesn’t have any A’s, B’s or C’s. The Windsor Locks High School freshman belongs to the first cohort of students going through middle and high school under a new system. Traditional grades no longer exist, children get extra help based on their individual learning needs and classrooms run very differently.

The small Connecticut town, just south of the Massachusetts border, is in its fifth year under a system that asks students to master specific skills in every subject. They can’t just do all their homework and ask for extra credit projects to obscure the fact that they didn’t truly learn something.

Superintendent Susan Bell likes to say 24 credits and a D-minus average — what used to be the cutoff for graduation — is not enough.

Kylie’s class is known as the guinea pigs. They will be the first to graduate with a mastery-based diploma. And, more important to many parents in town, the first to find out how this new system will affect their college applications.

Some families have not stayed in the district long enough to find out. Indeed, five years into the shift, there is still organized opposition to it — even though 69 of the region’s colleges have said students with diplomas from mastery-based schools will not be discriminated against in their application processes. Some families have left for magnet schools and private alternatives. Some teachers have departed for more familiar work or taken advantage of offers for early retirement.

But the commitment to helping all students achieve mastery has attracted new teachers. And some families who left have come back, after deciding that Windsor Locks’ model is actually better for their kids.

The model is easy to understand for subjects like math, in which coursework easily breaks down into specific skills. Kylie finds it a little stranger in chorus and physical education, but there, too, she is held accountable for mastering certain competencies, like singing on pitch, clapping an accurate rhythm and dribbling a basketball.

Each semester, progress is the goal. Students who take longer to learn something aren’t penalized for it, and they don’t get the chance to give up and move on. Actual mastery is the new bar for passing classes. Teachers have had to get more creative in helping students understand new concepts, and students have had to take a lot more responsibility for their own learning. Sitting quietly at the back of the room is no longer an option in classrooms that prize student engagement.

While some students don’t love these extra demands, Kylie says the new model gives her a deeper understanding of her own strengths and weaknesses.

“It’s nice because I don’t feel left out anymore because my friends are geniuses,” Kylie said. “It definitely makes you feel like you’re not failing, you’re not behind; you just have certain things that you’re not strong in. But people who are geniuses also have things that they’re not strong in.”

Already, the district’s standardized test scores have begun to reflect students’ growth. According to 2015-16 state accountability data, high-needs students in the district performed better than high-needs students statewide in both English language arts and math, and, overall, district students showed more growth than the students statewide.

Mick Jones, Kylie’s dad, has been pleased to see an upward trend in his daughter’s scores, and he is among those who have become evangelists for the mastery-based system. Jones particularly likes the new Windsor Locks report cards that give him a deeper look at where his daughter needs extra help. He compares the extra detail to a trip to the mechanic.

“When you go to get your car fixed, you’re not fixing the whole car. You’re going to fix the tire, fix the brake,” Jones said. The mastery-based system “is a great way to say, ‘I know you’re struggling in math, but it’s not all of geometry you’re struggling with.’ ”

Such parent support has been hard-won in Windsor Locks.

Related: Personalized learning: How kids are getting into college by mastering their skills

Bell and her last two predecessors have worked for years to get parents on board with the new system. She and other administrators continue to host advisory committee meetings, speak at community events and encourage parents to come into the schools.

“It’s about being able to build something that has ownership,” Bell said. “All of us deciding together. Not, ‘We did this to you.’ ”

In 2015, Bell partnered with the local newspaper to distribute a four-part “explainer” about competency-based grading. It described what goes into traditional grades, why averaging a student’s grades over the entire school year doesn’t necessarily make sense and why the district began to separate student behavior from academic performance in its grading system. Students are now assessed based on their “habits of scholarship” in addition to their mastery of course standards. Habits of scholarship cover four behavioral expectations: “conducts self in an appropriate manner,” “completes homework,” “maximizes time on task” and “participates in class discussions.” To participate in extracurricular activities, students must be in good standing behaviorally as well as academically.

The district also created a family and community engagement coordinator position. One of the many jobs assigned to this person is setting up school visits, so that parents can see, in practice, what the competency focus means for their kids.

That’s what finally changed Cheryl Picard’s mind. She has two children in the district, a seventh-grader and a fifth-grader. Picard was planning to send her seventh-grader to a magnet school to get away from the changes at Windsor Locks. She was apprehensive about the new grading system, in particular, even after attending meetings about the change.

She heard the rationale for the new system. But when she looked at her kids’ report cards, she wanted to see something familiar — something that, with one glance, could tell her how her children were doing. Even parents who support Windsor Locks’ new model admit that it does require them to do more work to understand their children’s progress.

But the classroom visit persuaded Picard. She was surprised by the students’ advanced communication skills, and she liked that the teachers didn’t simply give confused students answers, but instead pushed them to think about the questions more deeply.

Picard’s older children went through the traditional education system and she can see a difference.

“I find that my younger two, they stand up for themselves a lot more if they don’t understand something,” Picard said. “And they challenge the teacher. If they don’t understand something or they don’t feel they’re getting a good enough answer, they know the questions to ask — in a respectful way — and say, ‘You’re going to have to prove it to me.’ Instead of just saying, ‘Mr. So and So told me that, so that’s got to be right.’ ”

Related: Personalized learning and Common Core: Mortal enemies?

Windsor Locks parents routinely refer to these communication and self-advocacy skills in describing the impact of the model, which ties into a more systemic shift in the district. Teachers have gotten extensive professional development to change their instructional methods — they now lecture less and facilitate student-directed learning more. The district has created a new system for evaluating teachers and reorganized school schedules to create extra supports for students who take longer to understand certain concepts. Students can also get support to surpass the standards and pursue more advanced topics if they wish.

Margaret McCabe Engelmann, a mother of five, has seen the impact on her youngest, a 16-year-old girl with Down syndrome. McCabe Engelmann’s daughter has always spent a portion of her school day in general education classrooms, but she used to be isolated from her peers, getting special help from an aide on the side. She didn’t like it, and her behavior record reflected that. But now she goes to those classes and comes home happy.

McCabe Engelmann said teachers seem to be more prepared to integrate her daughter because the new training has taught them to look at each child as an individual. Teachers are already accommodating students with different strengths and weaknesses, so they are primed to tailor instruction to students with identified special needs as well.

“I see a complete change,” McCabe Engelmann said. She was an early supporter of the new model, recognizing the impact the changes would have on students at the lower end of the performance spectrum.

“This program really makes sure that they’re going to not leave that classroom until they’ve mastered it,” she said. “They’re not slipping through the cracks.”

According to CompetencyWorks, an online advocacy initiative created to share information about competency education, more than one-third of districts in New England are planning for, or are in the process of becoming, competency-based. Windsor Locks is one of many districts that capitalized on the adoption of the highly specific Common Core State Standards in reading and English language arts to shift to an entirely standards-based system.

Other districts all over the country — rural, urban, suburban, small, medium, large, wealthy, poor, diverse and homogenous — have explored the model. Chris Sturgis, co-founder of CompetencyWorks, said the motivation is often local. Sometimes it’s a turnaround effort in struggling schools; sometimes it’s a way to create more opportunities for high-performing students, or a way to better serve a diverse student body that has vastly different needs.

Sturgis said there is no “typical” district that chooses competency education.

In 2012, Windsor Locks Public Schools was designated as an Alliance District — one of the 30 lowest-performing districts in Connecticut. Its new educational model has helped pull all four of its schools out of the state’s two lowest performance categories. And, according to administrators, this achievement has come despite the fact that its percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty, is higher than it has ever been — 45 percent this year, up from 37 percent the year before.

Sturgis said Windsor Locks deserves credit for how conscientiously it approached the shift to mastery-based learning. District administrators spent more than a year working with teachers to define what quality instruction would look like, increase the rigor of their curriculum and adopt a focus on student growth. From there, a standards-based model was a logical extension of their thinking about how to best serve students.

CompetencyWorks now recommends Windsor Locks’ approach to other districts. “We say, ‘Take the time to figure that out,’ ” Sturgis said.

Karen Giannelli’s son is in ninth grade — one of the “guinea pigs,” along with Kylie Jones. Giannelli said when she was a student, she took advantage of being nice and well-liked by teachers. Extra credit often boosted her GPA to acceptable levels. She said she didn’t always understand all the material but she still passed all her classes.

With the Windsor Locks mastery-based system, Giannelli knows her son won’t be able to do the same.

“I’m proud to say, when my kid graduates, he’s going to know that he learned the stuff that I didn’t learn,” Giannelli said.

It may be harder, but Giannelli believes her son will be better off for it.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about K-12.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a Boston-based freelance reporter who specializes in education news for print and online media outlets. Find her online at taragm.com. See Archive

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