One Educator’s Experience of Reform

Dan Crocker, Taking it Personally

Dan Crocker took to proficiency-based/learner-centered practices almost as soon as he heard about them.

In 2009, two colleagues at RSU 2’s Hall-Dale Middle School – where Crocker had taught sixth grade for a decade – returned enthused from a Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC) workshop that had been brought to the state by the Maine Department of Education.  When they shared what they had heard, it sparked a revelation in him. “It just made such sense,” Crocker remembers.

The very next day, he scrapped his lesson plan and instead asked his students:  “Have you ever sat in a classroom while the teacher went on and on about something you already knew?”

This began an honest conversation in his classroom that confirmed what he’d been quietly thinking for years.  “I asked them if they’d ever sat bored in class, and they all raised their hands.  ‘Well, what do you do?’  They told me they looked out the window.  They messaged.  They drew pictures.  It was very honest,” Crocker recalls.  “So I asked, ‘What do you want?’  And their response was, ‘We want that not to happen.’” 

Crocker, who was in the middle of his graduate work at the time and working on small scale, classroom-based research, invited his students to become involved.  

“We did our own action research project.  We made a questionnaire about these issues.  The question of what do kids want in the classroom?  We had a five point Likert scale, and overwhelmingly, kids wanted control in the classroom.  They wanted not to have to wait for me for them to move on.  They wanted to be able to move on when they were ready,” he says.

Rather than waiting for any formal implementation process in the school or the district, Crocker began doing those proficiency-based/learner-centered practices in his classroom that seemed reasonable.  At the time, this meant working with the RISC classroom tools, including standard operating procedures, codes of conduct, parking lots, etc. 

“Later, we created our own thing, and weren’t so RISC-focused, partly because of cost – RISC was expensive – and partly because of politics.  But we still use those tools,” he says. 

This was a fundamental shift for Crocker.  “For the first six or seven years of my career … we were talking about what we as teachers could do to kids to get them to learn.  Now, we were talking about letting kids have some say in what and how they learn,” he recalls. “It’s a different galaxy.”

Conversations and Leadership
Crocker first came to teaching in 1999, after working years as a health administrator.  Middle school suited his temperament.  He became involved as a teacher-leader when the district created curriculum leadership teams in each of the eight content areas, where he first led the English language arts team and then the math team.  He also served on the district-wide District Curriculum Leadership Team. Crocker credited these teams with much of the success of the district’s change. “I can’t believe there are districts where these kinds of conversations don’t regularly happen,” he says.

He chose to enter leadership for a number of reasons, including that he felt as if he had something to offer the district and his colleagues.  More selfishly, though, he liked knowing what was going on and influencing what was going on, and he genuinely enjoyed learning from his colleagues.  “I’ve always been the type who felt I can’t do this alone,” explains Crocker.

In leadership positions, Crocker realized and respected that he had colleagues who approached change differently.  “There’s this protocol that we do in leadership meetings where you move to one of the points of the compass depending on what style of person you are, and I always go to the point where you ‘learn a new thing and get right out there and try it.’  And across the room are always those people who ‘need to learn everything they can about a thing before trying it.’  I’ve always been the type to say, ‘Try it.  See what happens.  We can learn from that.’”

This caused some frustration early on.  “I definitely had a bias.  I felt like the people who need to learn everything before they act … they never get going,” he admits.  “But maybe they saw me as reckless.  We had conversations of all kinds, both in meetings and in the parking lot.” 

At a pivotal workshop in which the school board met with 60 faculty members, Crocker found himself getting up to argue that if the teachers can do better, than they must do better.  “Please,” he pleaded to the board, “let us do this.”

The vote of the school board in 2009 to adopt standards-based grading at Hall-Dale was the beginning of a long conversation (described in Maine DOE’s Center for Best Practice RSU 2 case study) that led the district away from a RISC-specific model to one devised within the district, drawing from a number of sources. 

They joined other districts in forming the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, and pursued a more systemic, learner-centered model.  Hall-Dale consolidated with Monmouth, Richmond and Dresden to form the Regional School Unit.  The new district has had to “check and adjust” often.  This bothers some, but is in line with Crocker’s “try it and see what happens” preference.

Crocker’s Takeaways
Hall-Dale was the site of much parent opposition when it was announced that the high school would become standards-based. As a result, Crocker has two pieces of advice for educators attempting this kind of work.  “My one regret is that we didn’t bring parents in soon enough.  We should have brought the parents in sooner,” he says. 

The other: don’t take it personally.

That was a challenge for Crocker, who lives in Hallowell and is a neighbor of many of the opposition group of parents.  “It wasn’t a lot of fun for me, or my colleagues. [The opposition] launched a Facebook campaign.  You worried about who was talking to who … some of the folks on these [opposition] committees were good friends of mine.  Some of them I ate dinner with.  I worried about conversations that had to happen.  I don’t want to be confrontational in my free time, but when I ran into these folks at basketball games or at the little league field.  I didn’t want to have these conversations.  I wanted to watch my son play ball,” he explains.  “But they needed to talk about it, so we did.  Which was fine, but it was also fatiguing.”

At some point, said Crocker, he felt so strongly about the shift to a proficiency-based model that if the school board had rejected it he would have considered leaving Hall-Dale, though he says ultimately he wouldn’t have done so because of family obligations.   

“If learner-centered hadn’t happened at Hall-Dale the kids would have been worse off.  I could still do a lot of what I do in a zero to 100 grading system, but it would have been harder,” he says. “It would have been disappointing.”

Five years later, the question has been settled.  RSU 2 will not move back from proficiency-based systems.  “It’s how we do things,” Crocker explains.