Bucking Convention in Struggling Michigan Schools

Back to December 2012 Ed Reporter

Bucking Convention in
Struggling Michigan Schools

Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA) aims to improve the state’s lowest-performing five percent of schools by bucking conventional tenets of education, including grade levels and letter grades. The EAA, headed by Chancellor John Covington, is essentially a new school district made up of the state’s struggling schools. Some 10,000 students at EAA schools will advance according to their performance, rather than pre-established timing, and will follow personalized learning plans, a system the EAA calls “student-centered learning.”

This year, Michigan students in EAA schools who would traditionally be placed in kindergarten through 9th grade are instead assigned according to 18 levels. These depend on students’ skill levels, as determined by an assessment test two weeks into the school year. Students access personalized lessons in core areas and electives through logging onto a website that monitors each student’s individual learning plan.

Before advancing to the next level of lessons, students must demonstrate that they have mastered the material through projects and tests. In an October 2012 article, Education Week explained: “For example, if a student’s learning target is to show mastery of the concept of symmetry, the teacher will give a lesson, then the student will choose from several practice lessons online. Next, the program will offer a choice of projects to complete to show evidence of mastery.”

Progress reports will not have A-F letter grades, but instead will list learning objectives and whether the student has achieved them or not.

Chancellor Covington explained, “When you start teaching a child where they are — to address deficiencies — kids are going to be better off.”

Both Covington and Mary Esselman, the EAA’s chief officer of accountability, equity, and innovation implemented a similar student-focused system in ten schools in Kansas City, MO, before coming to Michigan. The Kansas City school district scrapped the system two years after starting it due to mixed test results and the new superintendent’s hope to take the district down a different route.

According to Education Week, “The Chugach school district in rural Alaska, with 250 students, is credited with developing a model adopted by 29 schools and districts in the United States.” Students taught in those 29 areas using the Chugach method are up to 55% more likely to pass state standardized tests.

Rick Schreiber, co-founder of the Alaska-based Re-inventing Schools Coalition, inspired by the Chugach schools, explained that “Usually, with the people we’re working with, by year three is when we start to see some results that are pretty significant.”

On the classroom level, Education Week reports that teachers are pleased with the personalized learning system. Jennifer Armstead, who teaches at the EAA’s Nolan Elementary-Middle School recounted, “It used to be you’d teach the class, give them a work sheet. This is more individualized.”

Nolan’s Principal Angela Underwood, who formerly worked as principal in a Kansas City school under Chancellor Covington is confident that students will be successful using individualized plans. Mary Esselman, supports this sentiment: “You’re not teaching a lesson, you’re teaching a child.”Education Week, 10-3-2012