By: Chris Sturgis

First published  October 31, 2013 on

If ten of us went to visit the same school we would come away with 10 different insights. It’s why I believe so strongly in joint site visits as a method of knowledge transfer – you learn together in a way that taps into previous knowledge as well.  So here are my insights, and you can read what  struck Tom VanderArk about EAA in his Ed Week column.  I encourage you to take the time to put a team together or even a cross-district or cross-state team to go visit Nolan Elementary, Phoenix Multicultural, Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts, and Southeastern Technical High School sooner than later. Michigan and Detroit have a lot of volatile political dynamics (i.e things change), and I’d hate for people to miss the chance to see what can happen when you integrate personalized, mastery-based, and blended into a “student-centered” model of learning.


1) Reaching the Outliers: A teacher at Nolan and a teacher at Brenda Scott told me just about the same thing: I can reach many more kids. Before, I had to teach to the middle, but now I can use blended learning so that outliers are fully supported as well. Without blended learning, I don’t know if this would be as possible. I’ve been wracking my brain, have we ever had a reform that was meaningful for students who are way behind, those chugging along at teacher pace, as well as those that get placed in gifted and talented?  Could this actually be a universal reform that works for all children? Seems too easy – I want to dig harder about what the implications are for the students at the margins.

2) We Can’t Have Student Voice Without Having Teacher Voice: Mary Esselman, Deputy Chancellor of EAA, related one of her lessons learned.  They realized they couldn’t expect teachers to create environments for students to have voice if they didn’t have it themselves.  So professional development became an experiential experience with reflection and presentation. Teachers use Buzz — they don’t just learn about Buzz. After they’ve finished the initial stage of professional development, they prepare three minute videos – Who am I as an EAA educator? In the same way that we have to help students that have been trapped by C’s, D’s and F’s and that horrible feeling of not being “good enough” to succeed we have to create ways for teachers to unpack those feelings as well.  Sure, the younger teachers and those from TFA aren’t walking in with the same preconceived notions, and might be quicker to innovate.  However EAA schools have had a lot more autonomy than most schools. We need those experienced teachers willing to change their practice and talk about that process, both technically and emotionally, to help train other teachers.

3) Blended + Project/Problem = Competency

It was great seeing a highly developed competency-based model that was using blended learning extensively. The more time I spend around schools doing blended learning and competency-based learning, the more I’m thinking that to get to competency we have to figure out how to offer much more vivid deeper learning experiences. And this means we have to be versatile in project-based, problem-based, and real-world learning, such as internships. I tend to use Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to talk about deeper learning simply because it is simpler – with just four levels (recall, skill, strategic, and extended). So we can get to strategic thinking (revise, analyze, hypothesize, etc) in a classroom that challenges students.  However it seems to me that extended (connecting, creating, designing, and applying)– or sometimes referred to as knowledge utilization– requires knocking down the walls a bit. We aren’t going to go for Level 4 Extended on every learning target or every unit. However, students are going to need opportunities to really deeply apply what they are learning. Schools around the country manage it differently with two week Symposiums or Intersessions or end of course projects. So this might be one more strand of capacity building – we know schools can’t do it all at once but it might be helpful to have project/problem/real-world learning on the horizon.

4) Creating a New Language of Learning: In some of the EAA classrooms there were posters with the new language of student-centered learning. It’s clear we are developing a new set of language to talk about learning. The traditional Carnegie unit created a way to compare units of learning based on time.  In mastery-based models, there are usually courses (although Virtual Learning Academy Charter School  in New Hampshire is starting to move beyond courses to focus on competencies), academic levels indicating the skills students have and if much scaffolding is required, teacher-planned units that include a mix of ways instruction can be delivered and practiced, and learning targets or specific standards that need to be met at a certain performance level or depth of knowledge.  As I continue my studies on badging, blended, and customization, I’m realizing that they are bringing in a whole new set of language as well. I’m becoming familiar enough that I can almost sketch out my own learning progression.

5) Competencies teachers need in a personalized, blended, competency-based environment: Kristin Floreno, Matchbook Learning’s blended learning coach at Brenda Scott, really helped me understand that teachers are learning new skills along several trajectories – how to use technology in a blended environment, how to manage a personalized classroom where students have voice and choice, and how to support students in a mastery-based environment where students receive differentiated support in order to reach proficiency.   And, of course, every teacher is at a different point along their own learning progression or what Kristin called the “SCL (student-centered learning) continuum”.  For example, as teachers get more comfortable with the rotation model where students move to different stations during class, they often start exploring even greater levels of individualization as exemplified in this video.

So I started to pull together the different skills and competencies I heard people talk about during my visit to the EAA schools.

  • I can level students appropriately.
  • I can help students move along a segment of specific learning progression (including the grade level above and below my class) through effective unit planning, instruction, formative assessment, and feedback.
  • I can recognize proficiency at different depths of knowledge along a specific learning progression (including the grade level above and below my class).
  • I can use data to help group students as well as recognize when I may be tracking students rather than grouping them.
  • I can effectively identify a growth mindset and a fixed mindset and provide feedback based on both (so I can recognize when I’m operating on a fixed mindset).
  • I can create unit plans using technology, adaptive software, and activities that provides students choice in how they learn, practice, and apply.
  • I can assess the application of skills across a variety of methods such presentation, essay, diorama, or multimedia project.
  • I can assess deeper learning skills like creativity or design.

What am I missing? I know I’m missing a lot.

Three Emerging Questions

1)   How fast can students learn?  We all know our kids have incredible potential to do great things…much more than we expect of them in our current school system. At the same time, there are a bunch of skills we need them to learn so that they can learn more and more and more ….and eventually have the technical skills that allow them to deal with complex problems when they leave high school.  The EAA has established stretch goals to have students learning on average at a rate of 1.5 grade levels per year (or 3 levels).

Maybe it can be done with the help of adaptive software or perhaps by igniting students’ curiosity so that they are just loving every minute of learning.  I’ve been investigating this idea of accelerating the rate of learning for years because so many over-age, undercredited students have to build up 4,5, or 6 years of skills in three years or less. It’s definitely possible to get 2 grade levels of growth per year in the first year of a student feeling cared for and academically challenged with supports, but very hard to get those same gains the 2nd year. I’ve heard different reasons why this is so – some say the kids are just rusty or just not motivated to show what they know on pre-assessments. Once they know the teachers are “for real” and really have their back, students are willing to show what they know. Bottom line – it’s an issue of trust.

Rich Delorenzo told me that he thinks that the very best teachers in a personalized, performance-based system where students are owning their education can get, on average, 2-3 grade level gains per year, your average teacher can get somewhere between 1 – 2, and your “low-performing” or new teachers may not be able to get more than 1. The ingredients here are student ownership, relationship, instructional skill, and managing a personalized classroom.

To wrap up this reflection, Michael Griffie, principal at Health High School, emphasized that “Faster isn’t necessarily better.”  It’s the quality and depth of learning that is important in the long-run. However, if we are going to keep students on track, then pace does matter.  Looks like we will need a way of being able to talk about rate, pace, progress, and depth as we build up our common language.

2) Is it possible to create balanced assessments that are triggered by progress in reaching proficiency and age (not grades)?  There are a crew of folks that are constantly trying to rethink and deconstruct accountability so we can design something that is more meaningful for students and competency-based schools. As I visited classrooms in Detroit, I started wondering — what if we used progressing to the next academic level and age (rather than grade) to drive our assessment systems? Could we establish a balanced system that grew out of student needs so students will take state summative exams only at the point they have been deemed proficient? Could we use the summative assessment as a quality control mechanism to doublecheck that when teachers say a student is proficient they really are? Could we then meet our equity and accountability needs by comparing groups based on age, race, income, ELL and and special educational needs?

3) Are we going through the same process of decentralization that health care and other industries have gone through? Driving through Detroit, with huge trucks on every side of me, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how the city started to change as just-in-time manufacturing shook up the factory model 30 years ago.  Health care and newspapers are both being hit hard by the decentralization that is possible with today’s technology.  If education is going through this same process, and going through it quickly, what might we anticipate and how can we learn from the unintended consequences in the other industries?


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