Michigan's Reform School District Lets Students Set Their Learning Pace

The Education Achievement Authority is the state's new school reform district, created to take over and improve the lowest performing 5 percent of schools.
by | September 21, 2012

The chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan plans to improve the state's lowest performing schools by dumping traditional teaching methods and giving students a learning plan that will allow them to progress at their own pace. And the schools won't use grade levels or letter grades. It's an education shake-up that the EAA calls student-centered learning.

A version of this technique has been adopted in at least 29 small districts, organizations and schools nationwide. Results show that students taught with this method are up to 55% more likely to pass state standardized tests, according to experts.

The method is performance-based, not time-based: Students are assigned lessons based on their ability, not their grade level or age. It is supposed to ensure that students are not passed along to graduation with low skills.

"When you start teaching a child where they are -- to address deficiencies -- kids are going to be better off," EAA Chancellor John Covington said earlier this month. "You master, you move."

The EAA is the state's new school reform district, created to take over and improve the lowest performing 5% of schools. On July 1, the EAA took control of its first batch of struggling schools -- 15 in Detroit.

Covington implemented a system similar to the EAA's student-centered learning in 10 schools in Kansas City, Mo., where he was superintendent before coming to Michigan in 2011. But Kansas City scrapped the teaching method this year -- two years after it started -- because of mixed test results, said Andre Riley, a spokesman for the district. He said the new superintendent wants to take the district in a different direction.

Across the country, versions of the new approach go by a lot of wordy names -- content-based, performance-based, proficiency-based or personalized learning, to name a few.

The EAA -- with 10,001 students -- is one of the largest school systems to use a version of it. For this first year, it is being used in what is traditionally considered kindergarten to ninth grades.

Here's how it works:

Students are placed in classes with other students their age. During the next two weeks, they will take tests to determine their skill levels. There are 18 levels that cover what's traditionally considered kindergarten through eighth-grade skills. Ninth-graders will be required to master a class before they can progress to the next course. For instance, a freshman who fails Algebra 1 cannot take it in summer school (EAA has an 11-month calendar), but the student will continue to take Algebra 1 level lessons until he or she proves mastery.

A teacher could have a class where students' skills range across a few levels. Teachers will be known primarily by which ability levels they teach, not which grade level.

Students will log onto a website to access lessons in the four core subject areas -- math, English, science and social studies -- and selected electives. The system will assign students lessons based on their ability levels. That course work is considered a student's individual learning plan.

The EAA will provide a computer for each student to use at school, but students will be able to access their work online from a computer at home or the library also.

Students must give evidence -- through tests and projects -- that they have mastered learning targets in order to progress to the next level.

For example, if a student's learning target is to show mastery of the concept of symmetry, the teacher will give a lesson, then the student will choose from several practice lessons online. Next, the program will offer a choice of projects to complete to show evidence of mastery, such as creating a snowflake from construction paper and identifying the lines of symmetry.

"You're not teaching a lesson, you're teaching a child," said Mary Esselman, the EAA's chief officer for accountability, equity and innovation and the chief administrator who helped Covington implement the approach in Kansas City.

And parents will see a report card that has no A-F grades. Progress reports will list learning targets and tell whether a student has mastered them.

Jennifer Armstead, 30, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher now teaching at Nolan Elementary-Middle, an EAA school, is impressed with the new approach.

"It used to be you'd teach the class, give them a work sheet," she said. "This is more individualized."

Some of the schools across the country that use the approach also use an online system; others assign lessons from textbooks and hands-on projects.

The Chugach School District in rural Alaska, with 250 students, is credited with developing a model adopted by 29 schools and districts in the U.S.

A 2010 report by the Colorado-based Marzano Research Laboratory showed that schools that use the model are 37% more likely to score proficient or above on state tests for reading, 54% more likely to score proficient or above on state tests for writing, and 55% more likely to score proficient or above on state tests for mathematics.

"Usually, with the people we're working with, by year three is when we start to see some results that are pretty significant," said Rick Schreiber, co-founder of the Re-inventing Schools Coalition inspired by the Alaska school.

Covington brought a team of educators from Kansas City to implement the student-centered learning for the EAA.

Angela Underwood, whom Covington recruited from her job as principal at Faxon Elementary in Kansas City, is now principal at the EAA's Nolan school. She said students were more engaged when they knew exactly what was required to progress and were required to show evidence of mastery.

"We saw students move ahead," she said. "I'm sure we're going to see the same thing in Detroit that we saw in Kansas City." The student-centered approach is used mostly in elementary and middle schools.

Covington acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges for the EAA will be implementing it in high school where graduation credits are earned based on Carnegie units, or seat time -- the amount of time a student physically spends in a classroom.

Esselman said the EAA has asked the state for waivers to allow high school students to progress based on when they meet standards -- which could take more than four years.

(c)2012 the Detroit Free Press


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