K-12

A statewide school reform gains fans and concerns while letting students learn at their own pace

How lawn mower racing, sword fighting, bubble-gum making and other student projects might transform public schools in Vermont

Students at Mount Abraham Union Middle High School in Bristol are creating their own line of bath soaps as part of their daily “ME Time,” which stands for “mastery and exploration.”

HINESBURG, Vt. — Troy Paradee loves going to school. He loves “the excitement about all the things I’m getting to learn.” Jocelyn Foran can’t wait to get to her classroom either: “We are learning so much more and it’s so much more fun and creative.”

Paradee and Foran are among the surprise beneficiaries of a statewide effort in Vermont to “personalize” learning: They are teachers who say that their jobs have become far more rewarding by giving students greater freedom to choose what to learn both in and out of school.

Foran’s seventh-grade students at Mount Abraham Union Middle High School in Bristol start each day with an hour of what’s called “ME Time” (for Mastery and Exploration). “They can pick any topic that they want,” said Foran, now in her eighth year of teaching.

One student studies Vermont’s rare reptiles, another the weapons of World War II. A third designs Japanese Anime. They’re all new topics to Foran — a science teacher — but she’s game to go wherever her students like.

“I find it exciting,” she said.  “Instead of recycling the same units you’ve done, I’ve learned so much more and have been forced to learn outside of my discipline.”

Related: School of Me: Letting students study what they want, when they want is the latest education trend

Personalized learning dates back to the turn of the century at a Chicago lab school, but it has drawn increased attention in the last decade, boosted by technological advances and embraced by some districts, states and even the federal government, which has given out millions of dollars in grants to develop it.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently made it one of his personal causes for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, while a range of tech companies are offering products that provide customized programs. And the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in 2015, paved the way by giving states the ability to create new methods to measure student learning.

Now several states are getting on board, exploring ways to let students learn what they like at their own pace. The states hope to boost students’ engagement and propel them toward college and career. Vermont’s foray into personalization, which dates to 2013, offers a chance to see it in action.

Why Vermont?

The largely rural and under-populated Green Mountain State at first seemed an unlikely place for a reform like personalized learning to take root. Vermont is famous for having small schools, consistently high per-pupil spending and a high school graduation rate near 90 percent.

But just 52 percent of its high school graduates went on to college in 2013, compared with 66 percent nationwide.

The state’s answer was Act 77, signed into law in June, 2013. The act’s core requirement directed schools to create “personalized learning plans” for all students in grades 7 through 12 — reflecting their “individual goals, learning styles, and abilities”— by November, 2017.

Act 77 pays for high school students to take college courses and awards credits for internships and other “work-based” experiences. Its overarching aims include higher graduation rates, a head start in college and clearer career objectives.

“This is a big shift…there are definitely more choices for students,’’ said Jessica DeCarolis, Vermont’s state’s education division director for personalized learning.  “Students are engaged in the process of learning in a way that they hadn’t been before.”

The law is taking hold. “There are pockets right now, basically pilot programs happening across the state for personalized learning,” said Kevin Downey, program coordinator at Big Picture South Burlington.

High school senior Jacob Parker of Williston, VT stands on the trailer where he’ll soon
build his “tiny house”, a project he’s doing at Champlain Valley Union High School.

Big Picture is among the first public schools in Vermont to embrace personalized learning via a student-driven curriculum and lots of hands-on, off-site experiences and internships. Downey expects more of it in years to come, prompted by a recent switch in the state’s graduation requirements, from course completion (four years of English, three years of math, et cetera) to demonstrated proficiency in areas like communication, problem solving and citizenship

“Huge conversations are going on right now in high schools across the state of Vermont,” Downey said. “It [personalized learning] has the potential to be a major cultural shift.”

Not all of those conversations are supportive of the shift; plenty of teachers would prefer to keep the system as it is, said Chris Smith, who teaches economics at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg.

“My guess is if you took a cross section of the school, you’d get about fifty percent on each side,” said Smith, who favors giving students greater responsibility for their education, but also believes in setting limits. “We all agree that students’ brains aren’t fully developed until age 23, 24, 25. Most of us at age 14 or 15, we just don’t have enough knowledge of the future to know what we want to do.”

Studying sign language, horse management

At Champlain Valley, a new alternative program called Nexus Path gives students time each day to pursue independent studies led by teachers, including Troy Paradee. “We hope their understanding changes about what learning is,” Paradee said. “They get to understand that they can learn anything.”

One student is teaching herself American Sign Language. Another is pursuing certification in horse management. Others are directing films, studying philosophy, giving play-by-play for a local sports radio station; one is immersed in building a tiny house, just 8 feet by 18 feet.

In Paradee’s classroom, students confer quietly in groups or sit by themselves concentrating on their work. “The thing that makes me most excited,” Paradee said with a smile, “is when I watch a kid at work for one or two hours and [they] have all these books out, or create a giant ‘mind-map’ of all their thinking, and I think to myself, ‘I didn’t assign any of that.’ ”

Senior Jacob Parker is the student designing and building the tiny house. He excels in math and art and spent months drawing detailed blueprints.

“There’s no way I could learn anywhere near the amount that I’m learning inside a regular classroom,” Parker said. “I’m learning about sciences, material sciences. I’m learning how to budget. I’m learning how to plan. I’m doing a lot of writing because I have to document all of this.”

Opening worlds

For Paradee, working with students on their projects quickly forced him to give up on being the expert. “I don’t know anything about building tiny houses,” he freely admitted. “What I tell kids is that ‘I don’t have to know the answer: I have to know how to help you find the answer.’ ”

Changing the teacher’s role fits the times we live in, said Josie Jordan, president of SchoolHack Solutions, a Vermont-based tech company whose software helps teachers create and manage personalized learning plans.

Personalized learning lets Champlain Valley Union High School sophomore Bella Curtis study for a certificate in horse management.

“Right now, it’s just not realistic to expect teachers to be the experts,” Jordan said. “It’s just more respectful of who’s coming in the door when students have learned at the age of five to access information online and pursue their own learning.”

Keeping such tech-savvy students engaged is proving to be a persistent problem. According to a 2015 Gallop survey of roughly 900,000 students in grades 5 through 12, half are either “not engaged” in school or “actively disengaged” from school.

A 2006 Gates Foundation-funded report, “The Silent Epidemic,” found that almost half of the students who dropped out of high school (47 percent) quit because the “classes were not interesting.” (Disclaimer: The Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Jordan, who taught school for 25 years, discovered that personalized learning is having powerful effects on teachers. “You’re not reading 120 of the same papers over and over again — they’re all different,” she pointed out. “I’ve learned about lawn mower racing, sword fighting, bubble gum making — it opens your world.”

And, she said, it sends an important, validating message to students that what they’re interested in matters. “Once teachers recognize that, a connection is made and you have a bridge,” Jordan said.

Realistically, though, those bridges are still reaching only a small number of students while Vermont phases in personalized learning. DeCarolis of the state education department said the state just released a survey to hear from schools how they are doing with their efforts.

“I think the schools have done enormous work and they are forging ahead, and this is work that is not necessarily easy,’’ she said, adding that schools “want to do it right.”

Right now, the 19 students in the Nexus Path program are a tiny fraction of the 1,222 at Champlain Valley.

And while Paradee thinks the school is moving fast, he said he is also cautious: “It’s about rolling things out in a way that’s not going to cause too much disruption to the system.”

Related: Personalized learning and Common Core: Mortal enemies?

The logistics of personalized learning pose challenges, including questions of who should write the students’ learning plans. Chris Smith, the economics teacher, thinks the plans may emerge from “advisory” — a daily, half-hour period in which teachers meet with small groups of about 10 students.

Luca Scheid, an 11th grade student at Champlain Valley Union High School, chose guitar making for his Nexus project, part of the school’s efforts to personalize learning.

Such advisories are common in Vermont, but Martha Allen, the president of Vermont-NEA (the state teachers union), worries that the job of writing personalized learning plans in the future could fall to teachers, needlessly piling too much on their plates.

“Some schools already do things now that focus on each individual student,” said Allen.  “Don’t have them [teachers] reinvent a wheel, don’t have them jump through more hoops to get to the same place.”

Paradee believes personalized learning can work within traditional systems, and doesn’t believe it will mean the end of subject matter classes. “

“You need content, ‘yes, you need to read this book because we think it’s really important,’ ” he said. “But from that, students can still do this project that is their idea, collaborate in maybe a way that the teacher didn’t even think about.”

That’s happening in Jocelyn Foran’s class at Mount Abraham Union Middle High School. At the start of each semester, Foran and her co-teachers ask students to brainstorm a long list of topics they’d like to explore. Students then vote on their favorites.

Sports was a recent winner, and Foran and her students then zeroed in on academic standards and subject areas they might cover through the lens of sports. “They picked physics for science; ‘summarizing’ for English; and economics for their social studies,” she recounted.

Related: Putting students in charge to close the achievement gap

Students also came up with a class project: designing, making and testing sneaker treads. They explored the physics of friction, created a sports magazine in which they summarized their test results and wrote feature articles on economic questions like, “Should college athletes be paid?”

“I never would have picked sports as the unit,” Foran said. “But it turned out great.”

As innovation spreads across Vermont’s rugged landscape, more schools may look different in years ahead, said Downey of Big Picture. “What comes of all this over the next five years has yet to be seen, but it has the potential to make major change.”

This story was reported by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization focused on innovation and inequality in education. Read more about High School Reform.

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