Student-centered, mastery-based instruction

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One district’s transformation of school culture and learning outcomes through student-centered, mastery-based instruction

-- The Windsor Locks School District (WLSD) presented at the NEASC Annual Meeting and Conference in December 2016. WLSD district leaders, school leaders, teachers, parents and students all contributed to the presentation on WLSD’s shift to student-centered, mastery-based instruction. The following profile is based on their presentation and conversations from the session.

Nine years ago, the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) asked its members to identify their top five educational policy priorities. Joseph Cirasuolo, Executive Director of CAPSS, says that its members only came up with two; the second was so distant, it was clear there was only one main priority. “For a long time, the job of schools and teachers was to give every kid a chance to learn,” Cirasuolo explains. “But whether they actually learned or not wasn’t our responsibility. Now, this is flipped around and schools are expected to ensure that every kid learns what they need to know.” Cirasuolo says that CAPSS members felt that schools and classrooms were not designed to make sure every kid was learning – and that school reform efforts were just tweaking around the edge, but not getting to the heart of the problem. “The reforms were like taking an ocean liner and putting wings on it – and then expecting it to fly,” says Cirasuolo. “What is needed is transformation of the system.”

Cirasuolo said that CAPSS worked for two years to come up with a proposal for this major transformation – a mastery-based personalized learning system in Connecticut. “In the past, time has been constant, and learning has been variable,” he says. “We had to flip the system to make time the variable and learning the constant. We need to teach kids in a way that’s consistent with their primary learning styles and teach to the students’ interests.” CAPSS is pursuing this systemic change through public policy at the state level, but public will is a part of this change – and having proof that this concept works is important to build demand and momentum. “In Connecticut, there are now 30 to 40 schools implementing this shift to mastery-based personalized learning, he says. “Some are farther along than others, but Windsor Locks School District is the most advanced in the state.”

The two educational leaders spearheading Windsor Locks School District’s (WLSD) mastery-based learning initiative have been a part of the district for many years. Dr. Susan Bell, the superintendent, is in her sixteenth year in the district. Through a variety of roles – school administrator, assistant superintendent, and director of school counseling at the high school – she has seen the complexity involved in helping the schools and community raise achievement levels. Sharon Cournoyer, the assistant superintendent, has been in the district for 22 years as a science teacher, high school administrator and principal. “This has been my professional home for a long time,” she says. “I’m very connected to the community and the kids, and I also have the historical perspective as well.”

With this deep understanding of the district, Bell explains that WLSD had a culture of low expectations for a long time. “We had low achievement levels on multiple indicators,” she says. “For a relatively suburban town, our dropout rates were fairly high – almost 20 percent. That was a big concern, along with our scores on Connecticut state achievement tests.” Bell says that these low expectations trickled down to students; there was an undercurrent of feeling that they didn’t deserve better. “When we would suggest AP classes or applying to certain colleges, students would say, ‘No, we can’t do that. We’re just the Locks,’” says Bell. Cournoyer adds,

“There was also concern about equity in our graduation rates and scores – not all students had equal access to learning.”

By the 2006-2007 school year, the district had developed targets to help resolve this low achievement issue. “But there was no unifying vision of what the graduate would leave high school with,” says Bell. “It wasn’t clear what kinds of competencies they were expected to demonstrate. And our plan only focused on what we were going to do – without acknowledging our students’ needs and interests.” Bell says that this focus on educational targets did not make any significant changes to student achievement. “A long time middle school principal in the district said something insightful,” says Bell. “He said: ‘The teachers are working harder at trying to teach students than the students are working at learning.’” WLSD students, by Bell’s account, were passive, bored, and disengaged with thinking. “Kids were coming to school every day to watch teachers work,” she says.

In 2011, a new superintendent, Bell’s predecessor, was hired. He was focused on making a dramatic change and creating an environment where students were leaders of their own learning. Coincidentally, a new mandate by the state of Connecticut that required schools to create teacher evaluation rubrics went into effect at the same time. “We asked teachers, ‘What was the best lesson you ever taught? When were students most highly engaged? What did you do to make that happen?’” says Bell. “We were able to take the work of our teachers and create a ‘best practices playbook’ in our own district – and then create a rubric from our playbook. Our teachers’ voices were infused right into the teacher evaluation rubric.” Cournoyer notes that this work also helped the district start to shift to a focus on what students were demonstrating, rather than on what teachers were teaching. She explains, “We began to infer how well teachers were doing based on what students were able to accomplish.”

This shift to evaluating teachers based on student mastery, and inclusion of stakeholders’ voices in the process, set the stage for WLSD to reimagine instruction – while deeply rooting the work in WLSD’s own best practices. It also left room for teachers to innovate. “In some areas we mandated what students needed to learn, but we allowed for innovation in how teachers get students there,” says Bell. “We want risk-takers.” She adds that teachers were also highly motivated because they were “designing their own future.”

WLSD also included the Windsor Locks community in the process, bringing students and parents into discussions. Not all WLSD parents were immediately on board. This way of teaching and learning was a big unknown to most parents who had only ever experienced a traditional education. But a change was also important – and desired. “The requirement for graduation – 24 credits and a D average – wasn’t good enough for our kids anymore,” says Cournoyer. “Our students deserved better, and this became our mantra across the district.” As the district started to see the initial benefits of the switch, the focus on mastery-based learning became more than a mantra. “It became a moral imperative,” says Bell.

The district’s plan slated the Class of 2020 as the first to graduate with a standards-based diploma. As these students entered middle school, the district’s work in this area stepped up. “We received a lot of support and guidance on how to develop the content graduation standards,” says Bell. “It was a long process. We created cross-curricular graduation standards with the soft-skills students needed and worked with every department to develop content standards in each area. But it’s flexible and ongoing,” she notes. Cirasuolo takes the opportunity to add that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for this work and that every district and school may have its own way of implementing this mastery-based learning. He is impressed with WLSD’s transformation, and says, “It didn’t take a lot of retraining to get teachers doing this work. Teachers weren’t trained in this to begin with – but imagine if they were.”

When WLSD teachers themselves weighed in about how things have changed since the shift to mastery-based learning, the answers were illuminating. “I have gone from a sole proprietor to a co-owner,” said Tricia Lee, a first grade teacher in Windsor Locks. This statement was echoed by other teachers, students and parents, who explained in different ways that students are now more accountable for their learning – and not just for memorization on one test, but for retaining and applying their learning across the entire year. “Teachers are more like facilitators,” says one teacher of the classroom dynamic, “with students leading the conversations and teachers providing guidance, but letting it happen.” Another teacher adds, “It’s more like a maze than a line. You need to have a goal in mind for the class, but be fluid with it.” When asked to describe mastery-based learning with one word, WLSD teachers and administrators used the following: “Deeper,” “Empowering,” “Challenging,” “Invigorating,” “Ownership,” and importantly, “Worthwhile.”

For students, the change has been equally impactful. Bell says that teachers engage students in all phases of their learning, starting with design, moving to application, then to documentation and defense. She explains that feedback is based on the whole process and student engagement comes from involving students in each phase. Erin Christianson, one Class of 2020 student, shared, “There’s been a change in how the classroom runs. Instead of getting a sheet with the requirements for a project, the teacher asks you to follow a theme but pick your topic, take charge of the project, and show your end result and what course you will take to get there.” A Class of 2019 student, Derby Egyin, noted: “Teachers make you work harder and articulate what you know. They make you prove your learning.”

From a parent perspective, the road to mastery-based learning hasn’t been without bumps. Participants said that the key is to communicate, get parents involved and educate them on how a mastery-based system works, including inviting them into the classroom to see it for themselves. Kylee Christianson, the parent of a WLSD student, says, “I had to open my mind and allow them to show me what the plan was. Parents are encouraged to go into the classrooms – and the learning is breathtaking.” Christianson attended high school in Windsor Locks herself, and says, “I graduated at the top of my class at this school, but my daughter is far more prepared in her education than I was.” Another parent, Chris Orszak, says that the mastery-based learning approach has been challenging, but in a good way. He feels communication with teachers has been very good, which is different from his own educational experience. “I don’t know how much my parents reached out to teachers when I was in high school,” he says. Orszak notes that some of the feedback around student progress can be unclear for parents, but that everyone is working through it.

Bell and Cournoyer are still mindful that even as WLSD’s instruction and assessment has changed, standardized testing has not. To that end, teachers still assess students through “snapshots” that let them get a sense of how students are doing, and tailor homework assignments to any gaps that exist. But teachers and students alike note that these tests – which in the past may have been stressful for students – are now “no big deal,” as students are accustomed to demonstrating their knowledge on a frequent basis as part of a mastery-based learning system. Teachers even weave the mastery-based approach into traditional tests by using pre-assessments to get students excited about what they will be learning and engaged in setting their own learning goals, and then utilizing post-assessments to help students reflect on how they are progressing to their goals.

WLSD leadership also acknowledges that while the mastery-based learning approach engages most students through personalization and teaching to interests, it does not fully eliminate challenges related to student motivation. Bell, Cournoyer and the teacher panelists describe how they work to increase student motivation, starting with teaching real world applications for learning from early elementary onward so that it becomes internalized. In addition, students have a separate report card for their “habits of scholarship,” which comes out nine times per year. The habits of scholarship report card is tied to student eligibility for extracurricular activities, which is motivating for many students. In addition, this frequent assessment helps flag students that need extra support and intervention. “It’s a variation on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS),” says Bell. “We say, ‘These are the habits you need, and if you demonstrate them it gives you access; if you don’t, we will intervene.’” WLSD also uses Connecticut’s Response to Intervention (RTI) process, called Scientific Research-Based Interventions (SRBI), which refers students for academic or behavioral reasons to a team within the school that plans interventions for each student.

Bell points to work on mastery-based learning as integrally related to equity in education. She notes that WLSD’s student-centered, personalized approach often allows students to work at their own pace, taking assessments when they feel ready. Bell says that pace is one way to address equity, as accommodates different learning styles. She emphasizes that this method has actually allowed teachers to see student gaps more clearly, and look at ways to address them. Bell says that overall, WLSD is seeing achievement levels improve, but subgroups are still lagging. She adds that WLSD is constantly reflecting as a leadership team, and at all levels of the school, to figure out how to use the mastery-based learning system to help benefit achievement for all students. The district is also taking further steps to ensure cultural competence as a district, and develop culturally astute educators and approaches to education as well.

While everyone acknowledges that a mastery-based learning approach requires commitment and work, there is broad consensus within Windsor Locks that it is well worth it. David Prinstein, Principal of Windsor Locks Middle School, says, “There is never a good time to make this change, but if you wait for the right time it may never come. It really is hard work, but to see the shift in students and teachers… is something special we didn’t anticipate.” Parent Kylee Christianson advises school leaders to be patient with parents and says, “You will always have naysayers. Listen to them, but don’t let them squash this dream. Mastery-based learning isn’t perfect, but the traditional way wasn’t perfect either.”

Most indicative of the change that Windsor Locks has been able to make are the words of its students. They talk about sparking passion and motivation, working harder, owning their goals and being in the driver’s seat of their education. When they speak, it’s clear that the old attitude of “we’re just the Locks,” has faded. Perhaps summing it up best, Derby Egyin says, “This is not just about my learning, it’s about everyone’s learning. We’re a team, and you don’t get that everywhere. In 10 years, Windsor Locks will be doing amazing things.”

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NEASC 2017-01