At Northern Cass, teachers plan to step in if a student gets more than three weeks behind or ahead of an expected “teacher pace.” Students who struggle will get extra support. Students who speed ahead will get a conversation about next steps.
“Maybe we let them fly,” said Steiner. “Or maybe they want to do an independent project, or work as a peer teacher or go back to work more on a competency where they’ve struggled.”
Meanwhile, the district is reworking teacher assignments to better fit a school where age and academics are no longer tied together. Last year, for example, the elementary teachers stopped being generalists and started to specialize. The idea is that teachers will encounter students in a broader range of ages and abilities, but only in their own academic areas of expertise.
“We asked, who’s passionate about math, writing or science, and so forth. And we ran with it,” Steiner explained.
We were too often teaching to a test. Educators wanted students to engage more and apply their learning in meaningful ways.
Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota state superintendent of public instruction
One early adopter was math teacher Danielle Bosse. On a typical day, most of her students spread around the classroom, working independently on math skills, while one or two at a time pull up a chair to Bosse’s desk for a coaching session. Kids who feel ready to move on ask Bosse to unlock an online test, which they take at a table topped with black cardboard dividers.
Asked how students have adjusted, Bosse said, “Standard operating procedures. We did a lot of standard operating procedures.”
Known around Northern Cass as “SOPs,” these procedures are co-developed by students and teachers to help kids manage their time and stay organized. An SOP might require students to take out planners at the start of class and jot down their learning targets or put their names on a whiteboard next to the competency they are working on that day.
The SOP brainstorming began last October, after many students struggled with their newfound autonomy. In fact, Steiner’s plan is to start this coming fall with a week devoted just to SOPs and other “soft skills,” such as critical thinking.
“All these key skills we want kids to learn, like time management,” he said, “we need to teach them very explicitly.
After cutting the regulatory red tape and solving the logistical puzzles, a deeper challenge remains in the move away from seat-time. Grade levels are part of our culture, deeply rooted in how we think about learning and childhood more broadly.
If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to manage without grade levels.
Cory Steiner, superintendent, Northern Cass (N.D.) School District
“When you meet somebody and ask how old their kids are, they say, oh, they’re in third grade or fourth grade,” noted Phillips of ExcelinEd.
Cultural norms have kept grade levels partially intact in Maine’s RSU2 district, which has hosted Steiner and Northern Cass teachers many times.
“We’ve decoupled the curriculum from those grade levels,” said RSU2’s Zima. “You are studying what you need to study at your level.” But, he added, the district has kept the grade levels as a “social moniker.”
Even Waukesha STEM Academy gives grade levels a cameo in student progress reports. “Parents still wanted to know how their kid was doing compared to a kindergarten through 12th-grade scale,” said superintendent Murray. So, the school added a grade-level scale across the top of report cards that mostly measured student progress along broader “learning continuums.”
“Parents had the comfort of seeing the old system while being aware that the new system and progression was in place in school,” said Murray.
Some competency-based schools want to keep grade levels for reasons beyond offering parents a safety blanket. Grade levels, they argue, can give students a sense of camaraderie and enhance social learning. For instance, at Casco Bay High School, in Portland, Maine, two or three interdisciplinary “learning expeditions” a year are arranged by grade level. Last year, a junior-year expedition had teams of students visit rural Maine to interview local “unsung heroes” and create mini-documentaries about them. that were stitched into a large, single documentary for the entire grade.
“There’s an element of ‘we’re all in this together.’ We’re all taking on the same complex project,” said the Casco Bay principal, Derek Pierce. “Our kids support each other, and they are really good at giving each other feedback, because the quality of your project will reflect on the whole project and, therefore, reflect on me.”
Back at Northern Cass, however, they believe that grade levels would become a crutch for students and teachers and ultimately stymie reform. “All of us have a pit in our stomach right now,” said Steiner. “We know that we’re taking a big leap and not everybody’s going to be on board.”
This summer, Northern Cass teachers and administrators have continued rewriting lesson plans and assessments, including those for “habits of work.” They’ve also been visiting more-experienced competency-based districts such as Lindsay Unified. By 2020, Steiner wants Northern Cass to be the district hosting visitors, as a mentor to other schools mulling the idea of nixing grade levels.
“On their way to visit Lindsay or another of these pioneering schools, they can stop in North Dakota,” Steiner said, “because there’s a school out in the middle of a cornfield that’s doing this transformative work.”
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