Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Innovation in Education (and Without Technology!)

There is a tendency to assume that innovation is strictly a matter of deploying a new technology (unless you are in the financial sector, in which case it is a matter of coming up with a new way to circumvent existing regulations). However, if you are in a school district that cannot afford new technology (let alone find the time to train your teachers on how to get the most of it and then give them the time to revise curricula accordingly), the best way to innovate is to come up with new ways of doing things with the resources you have. This seems to be what Adams 50, a 10,000-student district in the metropolitan Denver area in the state of Colorado, has done. We can thank Amanda Paulson of the Christian Science Monitor for reporting this innovation to the rest of us, since I doubt that anyone on the Adams 50 teaching or administrative staff is likely to get an invitation to that naval-gazing innovation fest on Technology Entertainment, and Design (TED):

The change that's getting by far the most attention is the decision to do away with traditional grade levels – for kids younger than eighth grade, this first year, though the district plans to phase in the reform through high school a year at a time. Ultimately, there will be 10 multiage levels, rather than 12 grades, and students might be in different levels depending on the subject. They'll move up only as they demonstrate mastery of the material.

But Dr. Selleck and others are quick to emphasize that that's only one piece of a radically different, more student-centered, approach to learning – and that it's not the same as tracking, the currently out-of-favor system of grouping students by ability.

Students help craft own lesson plans
The district is training teachers to involve students in the lesson plan in a far greater way than before – the students articulate their goals and develop things such as a code of conduct as a classroom. And when children fall short of understanding the material, they keep working at it. The only "acceptable" score to move on to the next lesson is the equivalent of a "B" in normal grading – hopefully showing proficiency and giving kids a better foundation as they move on to more advanced concepts. Advocates sometimes describe it as flipping the traditional system around so that time, rather than mastery of material, is the variable.

While the idea of "standards-based education," as it's often known, has been around for a while, the only public district where it's been tried for any length of time is in Alaska, where the Chugach district – whose 250 students are scattered over 22,000 square miles – went from the lowest performing district in the state to Alaska's highest-performing quartile in five years in the 1990s, a shift the former superintendent, Richard DeLorenzo, attributes to the new philosophy.

Needless to say, there will be implementation problems, just as they are with any innovation. As Paulson pointed out, scheduling will probably be the biggest of them. Nevertheless, when we consider how little productive thinking has gone into our current educational crisis, we should give points to a school district with the moxie to take a radical (audacious?) approach to change they might be able to believe in. Let us wish them all the best and thank the Monitor for deciding that their story was newsworthy!

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