The following speech was presented at New Classrooms 1st Annual Geek Out Breakfast by our VP of School Partnerships, Mark Williams. It highlights a Teach to One: Math partner school in Denver, where it was the students themselves that helped us to discover a whole new way to use our engine to accelerate learning. The text of the speech has been slightly altered to fit the blog post format.
Can Highly Gifted and Talented and General Education Students Learn Together?
At Morey Middle School in Denver, Colorado, about one third of students are Highly Gifted and Talented, or HGT, students. Two thirds of students are general education students, mostly from the neighboring community. HGT students are mostly white, while the general education students are mostly Black or Latino. Historically, students from the two groups rarely have academic classes together.
While all schools have diverse learners, the gap at Morey was unique. When we first work with any school, we typically see a wide distribution of incoming achievement levels that looks like a bell curve. Some kids are on or near grade level, and at the outer edges we see those that are well behind or well ahead. But at Morey, it was the inverse. There were high levels of students at both ends of the spectrum with fewer students on or near grade level.
In partnership with the school, our shared challenge was to help create a single school culture where all of Morey’s students could learn together, while still being both challenged and supported at their current academic levels.
Advanced Learners Weren’t Being Challenged
Things started off just fine. Teachers were excited about the model and students seemed to adjust quickly. But then, a couple months into the school year, we started hearing concerns from the HGT students. They weren’t feeling challenged enough, and they let their parents know that. Parents then complained to the principal, who shared with us that we had a problem to solve together.
It’s not uncommon for some students to express frustration at the very beginning of a first year of implementation. We don’t want to assume a student knows a skill or concept without a strong evidence base. So, the first few weeks can sometimes seem too easy. But at Morey, the problem seemed more acute. This feedback from students, coupled with the entry data, caused us to look closely at our academic progression approach at Morey. We began by taking a hard look at a critical component of our model called “Grade-Level Anchoring.”
Students Focus on Grade-Level Skills Even as They Fill in Gaps or Advance
To help understand this, let’s look at what we call a Skill Map. Typically, when we work with a group of 6th, 7th, or 8th graders, we anchor their learning in the standards from their assigned grade level. That means that while the primary focus of a 6th grader’s learning will be on 6th grade skills, the student is still able to fill in relevant gaps from the 4th or 5th grade. At the same time, a 6th grader who demonstrates they know a 6th grade skill can also accelerate into 7th grade and beyond. The grade level anchor ensures that we are prioritizing skills from the student’s’ assigned grade level, even though they may spend some time on pre- or post-grade skills.
At Morey, it was clear that Grade-Level Anchoring was too conservative an approach for the HGT students. Many of the students already knew the grade-level skills.
Advancing the Entire Cohort to the Next Grade Level of Skills
We started to explore whether we could simply move the advanced students into the next grade level; just make the most advanced 6th graders into 7th graders, for example. But this would have caused too many ripples within the school’s schedule. Plus, the school was striving to serve all students together, regardless of their incoming proficiency level, and in a way that challenged each of them each day.
We realized that if we couldn’t move the students into a higher grade level, we could move the higher grade level to the students. So we ultimately re-anchored the entire cohort in the next grade level up. For this example, all 6th grade students would now be anchored in 7th grade standards. All students would still be able to fill pre-grade gaps, but that would be in service of a skill that was more advanced than their assigned grade level would expect of them.
The first week the changes went into effect, the HGT kids noticed a difference. They were finally learning things they didn’t know and they were being challenged in new and interesting ways.
We saw this play out in our own internal data as well. We saw a 30% increase in the time it took these students to master new skills – suggesting the skills were more challenging for them.
Higher-Grade Level Anchoring Also Boosts Students Who Were Behind
The fact that we were re-anchoring students in a higher grade level also gave general education students a boost. One phenomenon we’re beginning to see nationally is that for students who are behind grade level, anchoring them in more advanced skills and then enabling them to fill the relevant pre-grade gaps may be a better approach for helping them to catch up. We’ll continue to monitor how this is playing out at Morey, both academically and culturally.
Prove-Its: On-Demand Assessments
In addition to re-anchoring, we also introduced a new feature called Prove-Its. Here’s how it works: let’s say that we thought an individual student didn’t yet know a particular skill such as how to calculate the area of circle and would benefit from dedicated class time focused on that topic. But the student thought she did know the skill, and would far prefer to focus on something new and challenging. The student could sign up for an on-demand assessment, called a Prove-It, and if she scored high enough, she’d get the credit for understanding that skill without using up any class time.
The kids loved this. The kids simply proved they knew much of the on-grade material and off they went. Some kids, on their own time, even taught themselves advanced skills that were higher than what was on their assigned grade level.
The combination of re-anchoring students in a higher grade level and the introduction of Prove-Its is enabling all students at Morey to thrive, and to thrive together. Students at all levels are now happily challenged at Morey and we have worked with the school to lay out a plan for next year that will ensure this is the case from Day 1. In fact, some of the students have been so happy with the program that they recently challenged our own academic team to a virtual math competition.
Spreading the Success of R&D Piloted at Morey
After piloting Prove-Its at Morey, we’ve rolled them out to the entire network. We’ve since administered more than 21,000 Prove-its, and students have passed 6,000 of them! That’s 6,000 lessons kids won’t need to experience, ensuring they spend their valuable in-class time with teachers focused on new, more challenging material.
This spring, we’ll begin to get our first set of data points on how these modifications are impacting the students at Morey. Perhaps we’ll need to make some additional tweaks and modifications.
But the fact that we can make changes here in New York, and that a school can feel the impact of those changes 1,700 miles away, is a real breakthrough. While this example happened to focus on HGT students, tomorrow’s examples may help us better understand how best to accelerate students with specific learning disabilities or English Language Learners or students with attention issues or students simply unmotivated to excel in school.
This is what it means when New Classrooms talks about R&D. Whether it comes through thoughtful planning, or — as in the case of Morey, from pure necessity — we are starting to discover new ways to positively impact the school experiences for thousands of students by turning the dials on the engine we’re building.