Low-Performing Detroit Middle School Eliminates Grade Levels, Goes Blended

“I’m a level 11 in math, and a level 9 in English, but I’m trying really hard to move up,” I heard from a student who I believed to be a 5th grader. Huh?

In July 2013, Matchbook Learning, a national K-12 school turnaround nonprofit, partnered with Burns to bring up scores and graduation rates by using a student-centered learning approach. And one major facet of that? Individualized learning that brought an end to K-8 grade levels in mathematics and English language arts.

The history behind Burns and Matchbook

It’s a tough situation: a 2013 NAEP report shows that urban students in Detroit performed the worst out of 24 U.S. cities on the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA), and within that Detroit community is Burns Elementary-Middle School. According to the school’s teachers and administrators, Burns has traditionally been known as a low-performing school in Detroit, with a history of low enrollment, low scores, and violent behavior. Burns currently serves 482 students, and all of them qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Back in 2009, the state of Michigan passed a district takeover in Detroit (similar to the TN ASD). The reform turned a number of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools–the bottom 5% in academic achievement–into The Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a public district that currently operates 12 schools in Detroit, including Burns. However, despite high hopes and an extended school year, Burns continued to flounder for the next four years.

How “instructional levels” work

“Take a student’s traditional grade level, multiply it by 2, and add 1 to get their instructional level,” Husa explains. Why? EAA reps explain that the “2” represents the two semesters that it takes to make up a full year’s worth of material.

For example, a student reading at a fourth grade reading level would be at level 9 in English language arts–but without the finite limits of being a ‘fourth grader’. She continues: “As a result, you might have an 8th grader and a 2nd grader reading on the same level.”

In order to advance to the next level, a student doesn’t have to wait to “graduate” from one grade to another. Instead, he or she must complete four required elements to indicate “readiness” based on a year’s worth of work:

Completion of their Buzz work (which mixes instruction, practice, and mini-assessments that only get checked out with 80% mastery);
Teacher observation of the student;
An overall performance assessment;
Student defense on why they should be allowed to move to the next level.

But, why do this?

1. Allows for students to push and work at their own pace

One benefit of Burns’ competency-based structure manifests in how Burns students view themselves as “leveled” (rather than in grades). Upon entering Katya Loseva’s class during my Burns visit, students immediately swarmed around me while proclaiming news of their current “leveling up.” Alara, Cartaya, and Marlon spoke of their varying levels in English language arts, ranging from 9 to 15, and their willingness to work harder to move up.

2. Works well with unstructured blended learning

Additionally, students have flexibility with Buzz while teachers can assign what they wish (with guidance from their PLC and instructional coaches) via the Buzz LMS. Teachers choose from a library of learning resources that include content from Compass Learning and ST Math, or generate their own resources.

3. Students push each other

Though work is self-paced, Ms. Parker also reports that students work together to get each other farther. “Kids want to be higher. They band together to work harder,” she says.

Room for growth

Though Burns champions competency-based learning, not everything is perfect. That lack of adequate numbers of devices proves problematic–even when teachers balance small group time with student self-paced learning.

Current outcomes and the future

Despite growing pains, assistant principal Settles reports “an 85% decrease in suspensions” from the 2012-2013 academic year to the 2013-2014 academic year.

By way of formative assessment, Settles also reports that almost every Burns students has made overall improvement: “99% of our students are “leveling up” in math and ELA, even before the end of the year.”

Whether Burns will expand these practices to science and social studies remains to be seen. But according to Settles, the main concern right now is developing Burns beyond competency-based learning.

“Our goal is to level across the whole board (by 2015-2016),” Settles explains, “in math, science, social studies, and ELA. But we are are also looking at moving more towards project-based learning, ensuring the alignment of teaching with Common Core… We are going to dig deeper now.”

Read the entire article by Mary Jo Madda on edSurge at https://www.edsurge.com/n/2014-06-11-low-performing-detroit-middle-school-eliminates-grade-levels-goes-blended

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