Do Students, Principals and Superintendents See Eye-to-Eye on...

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Do Students, Principals and Superintendents See Eye-to-Eye on Eliminating Grade Levels?

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Apr 25, 2017

Do Students, Principals and Superintendents See Eye-to-Eye on Eliminating Grade Levels?
(L to R) Summit Elementary's Principal Lakya Taylor-Washington, Superintendent Dr. Cederick Ellis, and students Hayden, Kiana, and Patricia.

This article is part of the guide: Real Life Learning: An Up Close Look at Competency-Based Education.

McComb School District down in McComb, Mississippi doesn’t just believe in the power of technology when it comes to personalized learning. In fact, for superintendent Dr. Cederick Ellis and Summit Elementary School principal Lakya Taylor-Washington, the bigger asset in going personalized comes down to removing arbitrary grade level assignments and creating “learning labs,” a style of competency-based learning that Summit has been experimenting with since 2015. At Summit, “scholars” are grouped by readiness and performance—not by traditional grade levels—and indicate evidence of mastery by completing projects at their own pace.

In theory, the rollout and success of this instructional approach sounds feasible, but oftentimes, it’s the adults who explain how the program works—without the opinions or inputs of students. How about Summit students adjusting to the change? What do they like? What do they wish was different?

In order to hear exactly how different stakeholders feel about this competency-based system, EdSurge brought two Summit students, Kianna and Patricia, together on the EdSurge podcast with Ellis and Taylor-Washington to ask the question: “Do students, principals and superintendents all see eye-to-eye on saying goodbye to grade levels?” Hear the full interview below, or scroll down for the Q&A.

EdSurge: So, McComb has gone through some changes in your district. You’ve brought iPads into your system, but the bigger change seems to be around getting rid of grade levels. Can you give us a quick reminder about what exactly those changes have been?

Lakya Taylor-Washington (Principal): In Southwest Mississippi, there's a need for economic development, and with that economic development comes getting things right at the school.

The first thing I think that has taken place is a huge mindset shift in terms of what we're doing with our model. It's a huge jolt. It's been a jolt in terms of the physical work, the emotional work, the cognitive work, everything that has to take place to see this to unfold and unveil in such a way that it's effective.

Two summers ago, our teachers underwent an intense training to prepare them for that jolt. All of our classrooms are learning labs now. Teachers are practitioners in that they get to actually practice the art and science of teaching. They are not following Common Core textbooks—they're working together in PLC teams.

We’re letting kids be the developers of their own learning, rather than regurgitating facts. They have a much more relevant view or much more relevant vantage point where they are headed, because it is their life. It's not mine. That's kind of the whole aim, using technology pieces so that they can drive their education. And with that comes the automatic ownership piece. They own their learning. This is about you. These are things that you need.

Now, we are walking the tightrope of mitigating what we have to do in terms of policy, that traditional policy in Mississippi. (I could use a lot of other adjectives there, but I won't.) We are learning how to mitigate between policy and trying to be as innovative as possible without breaking state laws.

How exactly have you switched up the grade level structure?

Taylor-Washington: We take a test. It's a universal screener we take at the beginning of every year to determine where each and every scholar is. They are given a scale score, and we have developed a translation from scale score to a level. That's where we are in terms of using instructional levels rather than a grade level. Now, keep in mind, I wouldn't dare put a scholar that's six years old in a learning lab that has ten-year-olds, just because of the social element and development there. But that child still gets what he or she needs at his level or her level.

I am curious to hear from the girls, because they have been in this for a little while now. Kiana and Patricia, how do you feel about the fact that you do not technically have grade levels anymore?

Kiana Griffin (Student): Well, it is actually kind of fun, because now, I do not really have to work where everyone else is working. Since I already know some of the stuff, I don't have to go over and over it again.

Patricia Coleman (Student): I think it is good because I don't have to be referred to on the same level as everyone else, even though I am not. I can work on my own stuff instead of working on what other people need. I can work on what I need.

Now, what about the things that frustrate you? Since you've been there for a while, what was tough about the transition to not having grade levels, all of a sudden? When I first asked you what grade levels you were in, neither of you could give me an answer. Do any of your your parents or friends outside of school get confused when you try to explain the way that this works?

Patricia: My mom, when I try to tell her… I will tell her our level, then she's like, “What?” And then, I say, “Okay. Hold up. I'm going to draw a chart because I can't just explain all of this."

Kiana: Sometimes, when people ask me what grade I'm in, I just try to explain it to them that we don't have grades. I say, "We have levels." Then they just ask me, "What do you mean? What's levels?" Then I just try to explain it to them, but...

Patricia: You’ll be explaining it for an hour.

And what about you, Dr. Ellis? I know you probably get questions all the time about this. What do you tell parents when they say, "Wait a second. What's going on here?"

Dr. Cederick Ellis (Superintendent): Well, the biggest shift is to really get parents involved, because when we say we don't have grade levels, that really freaks folk out. This is what they have traditionally been accustomed to. There are some parents who still want to know if their child is in the third grade.

We're trying to make sure that we tell the parents and we tell folk that, "Yes. This learning lab is a traditional, fourth grade classroom. However, inside of that classroom, we have students who are functioning on various different levels. Inside the classroom or inside of that fourth grade learning lab, we're providing every student with what they need, based upon where they are.” Meaning, we may have a fourth grade scholar in a learning lab who may be getting first grade traditional first grade reading content. Or, we may have a fourth grade scholar getting something on a ninth grade level, because that is where the scholar is.

Taylor-Washington: Parents didn't know what to ask. But this year, with them being more knowledgeable and of course wanting the best for their child, this has been a conversation that's come up often.

What about performance? Kiana and Patricia, how do you both know whether you're succeeding or failing at the work that you're doing?

Kiana: We know [where we are] because we take a test that’s adaptive, so at the end of the test, it gives us a score and what level we’re on. A level three would mean we're second grade, or you could be a level 17 or 18 or 21, which means we're higher and we're doing good.

Patricia: We also take that test at the beginning of the year, and then at different spots in the year. Like, we take STAR bi-weekly. So, it lets us know how we've grown in two weeks.

Ok, last big last question. These are for the girls, and then adults, I'm coming to you in a second. Ladies, if you could ask for anything in your school to be changed by your superintendent or principal, what would it be?

Kiana: I would ask for more apps to learn, to learn.

Patricia: Well, what she said, but different. More apps, but where the teacher can also work on the app while we're working in it and help us.

Taylor-Washington: What we have in place is a work in progress, but I have seen just a shift in the culture. On a scale of one to ten, I'd give us right now, in terms of what students want and what they need, a strong seven.

Dr. Ellis: Listening to the scholars, they're confirming one of the things that we talked about with technology. We want to be able to use technology so that our scholars can create new learnings.

Like preparing them for jobs that we might not even about yet?

Dr. Ellis: Yes. We need to provide them with those opportunities, and we're not there yet. And these two scholars have confirmed that we're not there yet.

Mary Jo Madda—@MJMadda—is Manager of Audience Development (previously Senior Editor) at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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