Future of Learning

What does it take to make an innovative school?

Two groups find and publicize ways to share “best practices”

One of the challenges in trying out new learning strategies, including those that embrace technology, is that schools have a tough time finding out which new methods work best – which ones actually help kids learn.

This week brought two useful resources for addressing that problem. One is an expansion of a coalition of schools that share best practices, called the League of Innovative Schools; the other is a comprehensive report on the ways that competency-based learning initiatives have grown in the six New England states.

In competency-based learning systems (also sometimes called proficiency-based or mastery-based), the goal is to have students demonstrate their mastery of a subject before being moved on to the next level, rather than move ahead simply by accumulating enough time in class and passing the year-end test.

Even as high school graduation rates have risen, the number of students who need remedial classes once they enter college has also risen. The advocates at CompetencyWorks, a coalition set up to promote this method and assess best practices, argue that this is because students are not mastering what they need to know to prepare them for college or for the workforce.

Its latest report, “Reaching The Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England,” evaluated progress in those six states and found that only Massachusetts has not yet evolved at least some form of mastery-based credentials or diploma. The report has a wealth of specific information about each of the six states.

Without such research, the report states, “districts must rely on benchmarking – learning about the most effective processes their colleagues are using across the region.”

Sharing effective practices for using technology in education has been the mission of Digital Promise a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, for five years. It has done so through its League of Innovative Schools, a carefully selected group that adds more districts each year.

They test new strategies. They work together to solve problems. They serve as examples for other schools that want to test-drive new technology – and avoid the mistakes made by those who did it first. Often they also serve as advisers to other schools seeking help with technology planning.

This week the league added 19 new members. It now includes 87 school districts in 33 states. The league estimates that those schools enroll about 3.3 million students. They also announced a new podcast series, “Ask a Leader.”

And their influence goes beyond peers. Leaders from these schools speak at many major education and technology conferences, so they are directly or indirectly – and for better or worse – shaping how companies, think tanks, philanthropists and schools of education view classroom technology.

The newest members are a diverse bunch. The folks at Digital Promise explain in a blog post: “Students with sensory impairments participate in maker learning camps offered by the Utah Schools for the Blind and the Deaf. Students in Compton Unified School District are learning computer science from pre-K to senior year. And the School District of Lee County is committed to providing pathways to college for its students in rural Kentucky through robust local and national partnerships.”

The new schools are: Bristol Warren Regional School District in Rhode Island; Compton Unified School District in California; Covina-Valley Unified School District in California; Dysart Unified School District in Arizona; East Irondequoit Central School District in New York; El Segundo Unified School District in California; Evergreen School District in California; Fox Chapel Area School District in Pennsylvania, Freehold Township School District in New Jersey; Fullerton School District in California; Kokomo School Corporation in Indiana; Lee County School District in Kentucky; Lindsay Unified School District in California; Montour School District in Pennsylvania; Morris School District in New Jersey; Seminole County Public Schools in Florida; Springfield Public Schools in Missouri; Stephenville Independent School District in Texas; and the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

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

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo is the senior engagement editor and a writer. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic's online edition, Mind/Shift,… See Archive

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