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Learning at its Best, School Stories

Magical Forests, Growth Models, and School Reform

I sit watching the educational debate unfold in front of my eyes and the current tenor of the debate has focused on prescribing a method that will achieve the end result of high test scores.  There are some that believe if we create a uniform set of procedures, scripts and decision-making trees; giving them to a teacher, the teacher will produce the perfect kid.  Stamped from a uniform set of materials with a uniform wrapper and product distribution end point.

But soul craft is not uniform. Each child is unique and as such requires a different set of circumstances in which to flourish.  Teaching is a subtle profession of careful nudges, listening, and having the patience to discover what the child needs to be successful.

It is not measured in one year of academic growth, which is a very linear male dominated model.  We only need to look to the natural cycles to really understand how kids grow.  If you have ever cut a cross-section of a tree, you will notice the growth rings that are revealed.  Some years the rings are large, some years the rings are small.  We never would judge the health of a tree on one isolated tree ring in time.  Each ring represents the environmental conditions of that moment in time.  When judging the tree we look at the over all growth to determine its health.

So when the educational professionals began looking at growth models I became nervous. They are moving in the right direction, but fall short.  Growth model proponents want to see a linear progression, yet just like trees, humans grow in spurts and frenzied learning followed by periods of slow or non-existent progress. And just like no two trees have the same growth rings, despite coming from the same forest; no two children will grow in a similar fashion. Learning is not a clean predictable endeavor, and I am afraid that if we try to impose this model from above that we will, “not see the forest for the trees,” and as a result we will kill the magic of the forest and learning for our children.  How does this metaphor work with real live students?

Here at NWPHS we look at growth through the lens of the end in mind.  Our goal is for students gain in Hope Scores over time, graduate, improve their academic skills, and leave with a plan for post-secondary education.

Research has shown that as a student’s Hope Score increases there is a corresponding increase in academic achievement,  (See my post, Fostering Hope, in Peter Papas’s Blog Copy Paste). Here at NWPHS, on going students gain in hope over time, which is not the case for their peers in traditional schools.  The principal researcher, Dr. Mark Van Ryzin, states that NWPHS’s “growth in hope is outstanding.”

At NWPHS, we take a long view on academic achievement, we create an environment where adolescents are given autonomy; self-mastery is promoted through individual learning plans for every student.  Each student is assigned an advisor, who helps develop long and short range goals. Using NWEA MAP assessments, which are given in the Fall and Spring each years, we have gathered the following data on our students who graduated in the 2009-10 school year.

Looking at this chart the average RIT score for these graduates was 225 Math and 218 Reading, which corresponds to a 7th grade math level and a 7th grade reading level.  They acquired skills at our school and graduated with 11th grade math scores (240 RIT) and College Level Reading Skills (234 RIT).  When you look at the lowest performing graduate; they came in at the 4th grade math level and moved to the 8th grade level and were able to pass the Minnesota Grad Test in Math.  The lowest performing reader at our school came in at the 2nd grade level and left at the 7th grade level and was able to pass the Minnesota Grad Test in Reading.  So we are seeing jumps of 5 grade levels for 3 years of work at our school.  The problem with the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) is that our students typically are only in our school for 3-6 months before they are required to take the Math MCA examination.  This is not a growth model.  Growth models measure the same student over time to see what affect a program has on their academic achievement.  It is important to know a HIGH SCHOOL ONLY program in Minnesota only has one data point for math, reading, and writing.  It is impossible and statistically erroneous to compare one year’s data to another to measure growth.  It is comparing apples to oranges.

Another measure that the school uses is post-secondary enrollment after graduation.  Does NWPHS give students the skills to enroll at the college level?  Staff conducted a personalized survey to find out whether graduates from 2006-2010 had attended college.  We had an 85% response rate with 60% of the graduates reporting that they either attended college or are currently enrolled.

We are also implementing other measures to get a deeper level of understanding of our students.  This year we have tied every course and project to one of Harvard Professor Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills for the 21st Century.  Students and staff complete rubrics on seven higher order thinking skills.  This is our pilot year and we will be excited to share the results in the next 3-5 years.  We feel that the promotion and measurement of these skills will give our students the edge in the new economy.  Recent graduates have told us that the focus on these skills has prepared them to assume college level work.

How do we structure the student experience to promote growth?  We do this by cultivating a nurturing environment through a REAL advisory system.[1] Students meet everyday in their advisory for 2.5 hours.  They stay with the same teacher their entire career at NWPHS.  Their advisor sets up a Continual Learning Plan, helps students design independent project based learning using Project Foundry, is the main contact for parents, helps design career plan and coordinates resources for the student to be successful.  As one recent graduate stated, “Your advisory is like your family.”  There is real ownership over your advisees.  They don’t just take your class and leave for the next course.  You have these students for 3-6 years.  When they graduate, it is the advisor who hands out the diploma.

I will concede, that I work in a magical environment, where decisions are based on mission and the needs of kids.  How can a traditional teacher apply this to their world?  I see the protests in Madison, WI and I support the Union for their right to collectively bargain; however, wouldn’t it be nice if the protest was based on the inherently bad policy of standardization and this obsession with test scores?  Wouldn’t it be great if we gathered together to promote authentic assessment and school design that promoted what children need to become creative and curious learners as opposed to obedient and compliant consumers and workers.  I could say to the traditional teacher that you can implement more choice the classroom.  You could use Responsive Classroom, community meetings, limit the time you spend on test prep, fight for resources to be spent on field experiences, raise money to support a rich breath of experiences for you students.  Get quality books for you classroom.  Try to connect your student’s experience with the curriculum.  In essence minimize the damage caused by the implementation of NCLB and RTT. If you don’t believe me read an article from ASCD, the article contends that we as school professionals have contributed to the decline in reading.  I know I didn’t become a teacher to create non-readers.  In the end you may have to be courageous and refuse to work at schools that are designed to damage kids.  I offer you this hope, creative people working together can create the “schools our children deserve.”

Taken together these measures are excellent benchmarks for the implementation of a holistic growth model of our students, and like the beginning metaphor of the forest students will over the long-term grow with deep roots and significant fruit.

[1] Too often I hear school people say, “We use advisories.” When pressed I become critical of the use of the word when they mean a glorified home-room.

About Jamie Steckart

Currently the Head of Academic Affairs for the Qatar Leadership Academy. Passionate about experiential and project based learning.


3 thoughts on “Magical Forests, Growth Models, and School Reform

  1. Jaime, I love the analogy of human growth with that of tree growth. It’s one of the better ones I have heard.

    There have been several calls for organizing to “fight” for authentic assessment, student-driven learning, and other kindred modes of education. I am not sure what it is going to take to create a formal, collective bargaining force for these things. How can we better leverage the informal networks such as Cooperative Catalyst to elevate and promote these?

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 7, 2011, 1:24 am

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