In a Rural California School District, a “Quiet Revolution” in Learning

October 16, 2014

What if a school started with the principle that students learn differently, but everyone can learn—and then designed a system around that?

It would look a lot like what's happening in the Lindsay Unified School District in California.

This school year, none of the students in the Lindsay Unified School District has received an A—or, for that matter a B, C, D, or F.  And while students can say “I’m a sophomore” or “I’m in grade 7,” those distinctions no longer mean what they do in most other school districts. 

In 2007, Lindsay adopted a performance-based system, meaning that students advance only when they have demonstrated proficiency in required content and skills.

“Before, we were passing learners through the system based on time, not on learning,” says Tom Rooney, Superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District. “If the school year ended and you got most of the content in algebra but not all of it, you earned a C or C- and we’d move you on to geometry.”

In the long run, Rooney says, this approach “perpetuates mediocrity and a system where learners have holes in their learning that will catch up to them.”

Often, that reckoning came early: nine of the 10 Lindsay High School valedictorians from 1997 to 2005 had to take remedial courses when they went to college. That, combined with ongoing low-performance in state assessments, spurred the shift to a performance-based model.

Lindsay Unified School District is located in rural Tulare County, Calif., where farm work is an economic mainstay and it’s not uncommon for students to work the orchards on weekends. Ninety percent of its 4,100 students are Hispanic and 80 percent of local students receive free or reduced-price school lunches.

For years, the district invested in teacher training and other reforms, with some initial improvements. But by the mid-2000s, the progress had largely flat-lined, and in some areas things were getting worse.  For example, in 2006, 11 percent of students in seventh and ninth grades reported gang affiliation, as did 7 percent of eleventh graders.

That year, district leaders got together and asked themselves a fundamental question: If our system could meet every learner where he or she is, what would that look like?

The discussions illuminated the shared beliefs “that people learn in different ways and on different timeframes, and that all students can learn,” Rooney says. “So if we believe that, why do we have a system that groups learners by age, grade and time?”

Although schools and districts across the country have been experimenting with a similar system, often called competency-based education, Rooney says leaders in Lindsay could not find a model to fit the local context.

So they built their own.

Lindsay administrators and teachers worked with education researcher Robert Marzano and his Colorado-based education organization, Marzano Research Laboratory, to develop the rubric and measurement system. 

Schools in Lindsay use the same curriculum as all public schools in the state, as required by the California  State Standards, but Lindsay’s curriculum  is organized differently and the process for testing and promoting students has been retooled. 

Subjects are separated into units called Measurement Topics, which are in turn broken down into sections called “learning targets.” 

Rather than letter grades, the district created a proficiency scale of 0 to 4. To move from one section to the next, students must demonstrate a “Level 3” understanding of the material—that is, a grasp of “complex knowledge” or the ability to use the information in a meaningful way within the subject area, roughly the equivalent of a 3.0 in a traditional grading system. (A level 2 score indicates a basic knowledge of facts and dates; anything below 2 means you either didn’t turn in the work or don’t understand the basics and need more help.) 

If summer hits and a ninth-grader has mastered only 8 of 10 units, he or she starts on unit 9 when school resumes in the fall. Conversely, a second grader who has mastered the second-grade content by November can move down the hallway into another classroom—which Lindsay calls “learning environments”—and begin the next unit.

“It’s a great atmosphere,” says 16-year-old Lindsay High School student Jacqueline Baca. “You feel more connected and it’s more about how you are and where you are.”

The assessments also measure non-academic skills like problem-solving.  

Although it is in many ways a significant departure from standard public education practice, Lindsay’s performance-based system is fully aligned with state education policy. The District did not receive any waivers that would allow it to bypass laws or requirements, and it did not seek charter status—an intentional decision to enable replication in other districts.

The reforms were also designed to fit within the existing school budget.  In 2012TK, that budget got a boost when Lindsay became one of just three districts in California to win a Race to the Top  grant, which provides $10 million in additional federal education funding over four years.    

The funds were “a shot in the arm,” says Rooney, “but we were going to do this with or without it. This just helped us do it faster.” 

The new funds are being used to provide every student in the district with a laptop or technological device for learning, such as a netbook or Kindle Fire. They were also used to build a new high school, which opened in 2013.

“Implementing a Revolution”

Lindsay USDTransforming the culture of Lindsay’s schools was not an easy process.  “We had to remove some ‘weight-bearing walls’ and replace them with learner-centric systems,” says Rooney. “We made mistakes along the way. We had to stop, slow down, go back, because we were breaking the system and people were getting upset.”

Several lessons emerged from this process. First, engage students in school design.  Community members and parents were brought into the work early on: Marzano Research Laboratory facilitated two “town halls” with 150 parents, community members, and business and nonprofit staff. Together, community members and school officials developed the Strategic Design —a shared big-picture vision for the work—which the School Board adopted in July 2007.

Yet students themselves were not explicitly included in the work, nor were they invited to the community meetings. “That would be a redo,” says Rooney.  “We didn’t understand the power and the thinking they’d bring to it.”

Second, it is essential that school leadership understand and buy into the redesign—this requires extensive and careful training. The district didn’t require principals to be part of the curriculum design, so only a few took part, which created challenges with implementation.                          

Yet students themselves were not explicitly included in the work, nor were they invited to the community meetings. “That would be a redo,” says Rooney.  “We didn’t understand the power and the thinking they’d bring to it.”

Second, it is essential that school leadership understand and buy into the redesign—this requires extensive and careful training. The district didn’t require principals to be part of the curriculum design, so only a few took part, which created challenges with implementation.

Perhaps the biggest lessons are those still playing out as teachers and students adjust to the new structure.

“This system really requires a lot of planning,” says Lindsay High School Spanish teacher Adrian Gutierrez. “This is not a system for the winging-it type of teacher.”

Before the first day of each school year, Gutierrez maps out the measurement topics, lessons and assessments for every class he teaches. “As a teacher I have to be ready to provide assessments for every one of the Measurement Topics (MT) and standards. I’ll have one student working on MT 4 and another on MT 8 and I have to be ready to evaluate their evidence of learning.”

Early Results

Lindsay officials are quick to acknowledge that six years on, the results are not revolutionary. The needle on educational performance does not move quickly. 

Still, there have been four years of steady district-wide academic gains. Six of the eight schools in the district had overall improvements on the 2013 Academic Performance Index, a federal tool that measures a school’s academic performance and growth.

Perhaps the most visible gains are in non-academic measurements:  Six months into the 2013-14 school year, there were only two student expulsions.

The high school’s reputation as a violent and gang-affiliated place has shifted dramatically, according to students and staff. Today, rates of violence are down and only 3 percent of seventh graders 4 percent of ninth graders claim gang membership, down from 11 percent in 2006.

Katherine Wills, 16, transferred to Lindsay High School a little over a year ago, halfway through her sophomore year; she was drawn to the performance-based system. “A lot of people were shocked when they heard I was going to Lindsay. They were asking, ‘Why are you going there?’ I got here and it’s a lot more academic. It’s a lot better than my old school.”

The Race To The Top-funded high school opened in 2013. The new campus has several buildings arranged around a quad, with space designated for cross-disciplinary teacher collaboration.

“Everything is still kind of new. We have trees that are growing but they’re still babies,” says Wills.  “It’s starting to get character.”

                   


Caitlin J

Caitlin Johnson is a writer and journalist, and co-founder of SparkAction.

 

Caitlin Johnson

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