Lindsay Unified students blazing their own paths to higher achievement

December 4, 2012

Benjamin Riley

Those of us who travel in education reform circles hear a lot of skepticism about whether traditional school districts can truly innovate.

Yet, more than five years ago, a small rural school district in the Central Valley that serves predominately English language learners from low-income families reimagined its entire strategic approach to education and learning.  And now, Lindsay Unified School District may just win a $10 million “Race to the Top-District” grant from the federal government.

You see, a few years back the leadership of Lindsay Unified started asking provocative questions about the traditional method of schooling, where students progress based on a preset length of time and are given simple letter grades at the end of their courses. Questions such as:

Unable to find any satisfactory answers, Lindsay embarked on an ambitious project to move to a performance-based education system (sometimes also referred to as “competency based”). Instead of advancing students through school at a predetermined rate, Lindsay’s educators developed a strategic design that requires students to show mastery of academic content and lifelong learning skills before they can advance to new topics.

As part of that redesign, Lindsay scrapped the traditional alphabetic grading system and replaced it with a scoring scale tied to specific standards of learning. For example, to receive the highest rating of “4” on a particular topic, students must, at their own direction, go beyond what they’ve learned in class to apply the knowledge and skills in a new context. This, of course, is exactly what we ask of college students and employees in the workforce. Students receive a “3” if they master complex and simple skills, a “2” if they master simple skills only, and “1” if they master simple skills with help; all students must achieve at least a “3” to progress to their next learning target. (The insatiably curious can read about the intricacies of the system here.)

Lindsay began implementing the new system in 2009, and thus far the results are encouraging. Since 2008, the districtwide API scores for its Latino students – who comprise the overwhelming majority of students – have risen 46 points, from 629 to 675. Proficiency scores on English Language Arts as measured by the CSTs have improved dramatically as well – e.g., 9th graders have increased from 29% (2009) to 41% (2012).

The numbers are good, but what does it look like on the ground? In a bit of fortuitous timing, I visited Lindsay earlier this month and met with Superintendent Tom Rooney, Lindsay High Principal Jaime Robles, and a handful of teachers and students to figure out what lessons they’ve learned as they made this transition. Three main points jumped out at me.

First, transforming an entire school system is hard – really hard. Without exception, the students I spoke to described the first year of the new performance-based system as chaotic. Many complained that their teachers were uneven in their willingness to give students the freedom the new system promised, such as being able to take tests at a time of their choosing. Yet, with equal unanimity, students believed that great progress had been made and that the new system was much fairer than the one it replaced. “I like being able to retake a test to show that I’ve mastered the subject,” one student told me. The teachers I met with appeared to have wholly bought into the performance-based approach as well, in part because of the responsibility it puts on the students to direct their own learning.

Second, it’s important to not over-promise what performance-based learning can deliver. For example, some advocates for such systems like to wax poetic about students learning at their own pace, unbound by any restriction related to time or place. In reality, and as you might expect, some students prefer to learn at a pace befitting a jar of molasses. So now Lindsay sets a basic minimum level of progress, while allowing more ambitious students to advance more quickly if they so choose.

Third, by already undertaking this systems change, Lindsay is far better prepared than most school districts to make the transition to the Common Core. This is so because Lindsay’s performance-based model is more flexible than the traditional semester- or year-long course that’s tied to a specific curriculum. The performance-based framework allows for easier substitution of new learning goals based on the Common Core standards. As a result, the teachers I spoke to expressed their enthusiasm for the new standards and believed they could incorporate them without requiring a radical overhaul of their current practices. (That said, I was told that a very small number of Lindsay teachers are simply refusing to teach to the Common Core standards – a troubling development if true.)

Regardless of whether Lindsay wins a Race to the Top grant, there’s a lot to learn from what this district is doing. As Superintendent Rooney told me, winning a federal grant would simply accelerate their existing plans to personalize education, incorporate useful technology and provide an outstanding education to the students in their care. Keep your eyes open – and your fingers crossed – for this innovative district.

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Benjamin Riley is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports education entrepreneurs. Previously, Ben worked as a deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice, where he worked primarily on education-related matters. He currently lives in Washington, D.C., but will one day return to the Golden State.

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