The Long Conversation Continues:  18 Months Later at RSU 2


In February of 2012, the Maine Department of Education’s Center for Best Practice posted The Long Conversation, a case study of Regional School Unit 2, and their implementation of student-centered learning systems in the schools of Dresden, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond.  In that case study, educators in the district discussed their journey over the past ten years moving away from a traditional system of schooling.  Eighteen months later, we revisited the district, sitting with Matt Shea, Student Achievement Coordinator, to catch up on RSU 2’s continued progress.

When the interviews were conducted for the RSU 2 case study, the district was in the middle of its first year in which the entire K-12 system was proficiency-based.  It was also the first year of the adoption of a district-wide curriculum based on the measurement topics and learning targets developed in collaboration with the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning (MCCL). Both of those firsts taxed the capacity of the district, and experiencing the system led to profound changes in approach.  For example, halfway through the year the district found that students, in a student-paced system, were getting far behind.  Rather than waiting until the end of the year, when the damage might be irreparable, the district in February shifted from a “student-paced” model to a “teacher-paced-or-faster” model.  This experience reflected the districts commitment to a “check-and-adjust” ethic,  meaning the educators at RSU 2 are constantly evaluating their levels of success, and, if there are gaps or lapses, adjusting practice immediately to address it.  This process of checking and adjusting has been primary engine of RSU 2’s work for the past 18 months.
“This past year has been a process of refining practices,” said Shea. The measurement topics and learning targets benefitted greatly from a year of ground-truthing. The MTs and LTs were considerably edited and improved based on the experience of RSU 2’s teachers; and the teachers considerably improved simply by spending a year in system that, through its structure, made different demands than a traditional system.

Approaching Rigor Through Practice
RSU 2 also focused its energy on defining rigor, and making sure that all students in the district achieve the standards to an acceptable level.  “In the first year we had the learning targets.  This is what you need to know.  But [we] were not clear about what the rigor of it was,” explained Shea.  The question he describes is one that every district faces:  What does proficiency look like?  As defined in the Glossary of Terms Related to Proficiency-Based Learning, a standard describes the knowledge or skill required.  Proficiency describes the acceptable level of performance.  RSU 2 had two concerns.  First, what is an acceptable level of performance?  Second, how could they ensure that teachers throughout the district were teaching and assessing to that level – that a student in one building or classroom would have an equitable experience as a student in another?
To begin the process, RSU 2 began to focus on and embrace the taxonomy of learning that is embedded in the Measurement Topics. Developed by Robert Marzano and John Kendall in 2007, the taxonomy provides very specific language around what the different levels of cognitive rigor would look like.
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The district worked with teachers and administrators to come to common understandings and agreements about what level of rigor is sufficient to be called “proficiency” and what that actually looks like in the classroom.  Conversations and workshops were held on professional development days, and through the ongoing district curriculum structure discussed in detail in the original case study.
RSU 2 then began developing a system of common assessments that reflected this understanding.  It is through these common assessments that teachers will be held accountable.  “If I’m a teacher and kids are meeting standards on all of my assessments, but they’re getting two’s on the common assessments… that’s evidence that I have to change what I’m doing,” said Shea.  In such a system, with common assessments designed and agreed on by teams of teachers, then students in different classes will not only address the same standards, but will address and meet them at the same level of rigor.  In addition, the common assessments create a common pool of data for teachers to discuss the learning of students and methods of instruction.

Approaching Rigor Through Policy
In the course of implementing this systematic approach to rigor the district reexamined the question, “What level of rigor is ‘enough?’”  In other words, what does it mean to be proficient?  What is an acceptable level of performance?
When the district first shifted to a standards-based system, the feeling was that because students had come up in a traditional system and teachers had been trained in a traditional system, it would be unreasonable to hold students to a “3” for proficiency.  A “3” for RSU 2 meant that the student had learned all of the basic knowledge and all of the required complex knowledge.  For the first year, RSU 2 decided students would instead be held to a “2.5,” meaning the student had learned all of the basic knowledge, and some of the required complex knowledge).  This was considered a necessary part of transition, a compromise to allow for the fact that the challenge of getting all students to proficiency was new and formidable.  One year later, though, the RSU 2 the district increased the requirement for proficiency to “3.”
“The traditional system is C-based, so you sit for a year and pass with a 70, which, for many kids is doing your homework on time, answering some questions in class for participation, and then doing okay on the test,” explained Shea.  “Now it’s a lot harder because we have that guarantee of proficiency in every standard.  No averaging.”

Graduation Requirements
At the same time that they firmed up their approach to rigor and the individual standards, RSU 2 has begun revising its graduation requirements.  Each measurement topic has a scope and sequence of achievement levels that take a student through the whole of the topic.  For example, in math, the measurement topic called “Counting and Cardinality” (in the Number Sense strand) has five achievement levels that encompass the whole Topic.  The “Data Analysis” topic, on the other hand, has 12 achievement levels.  These achievement levels aren’t meant to match up with time-based grade levels.
The question is:  How far along these achievement levels must a student get in order to graduate?  The answer is depends on the measurement topic.  For the “Counting and Cardinality” topic, it’s reasonable to think that a student will make it through the entire measurement topic in the mid-elementary grades.  The study of “Data Analysis,” though, could stretch beyond graduate school.  How much is enough.
The question is complicated by the idea that, when they set graduation requirements, RSU 2 is intending to guarantee that every student will achieve proficiency.  This is a central tenet behind the district’s philosophy, the MCCL’s approach, and Education Evolving, the Maine DOE’s strategic plan.
The administration of RSU 2 suggested that it would be reasonable to guarantee proficiency up to what used to be thought of as the 10th grade level.  For math, therefore, the graduation requirement and guarantee would include standards typically covered in Algebra 1 and Geometry.  Teachers objected to this.  The graduation requirement up until then had been Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2 and a fourth year of math.  Wasn’t the administration dumbing down the graduation requirements?  Shea disagreed.  Even if the graduation requirements took one through Algebra 2 and Statistics, graduation rates showed that many students didn’t actually meet those requirements and that far fewer demonstrated proficiency in those higher level standards. 
The administration argued that it’s far more important to guarantee proficiency to the 10th grade level, than it is to set a higher requirement than the district can guarantee.  The teachers countered that they would be willing to guarantee the higher level, and that they did not want the requirement lowered.  As of November 2013, that’s where the conversation sat.

Community Engagement Grows
Four years ago, RSU 2 went through a period of public outcry about the shift to proficiency-based systems.  In the past year, Shea has seen the level of understanding improve tremendously.  “Not only is it so much less opposition, but the levels of questions – from parents and teachers – is so much better,” Shea explained.  “We’re all on the same page, and we’re all thinking, ‘How can we get better?’  Parents aren’t saying, ‘Why are we doing this?’  They’re saying, ‘What do we have for data?  How can I support this?  What are my kids able to do that I can’t see?’  Two years ago, that was a dream, and now it’s happening.”
The district’s “check-and-adjust” philosophy continues to guide with a constant commitment to doing it better.  Some of the changes seem drastic and unprecedented.  At Richmond Middle School, for example, the administration completely rewrote the bell schedule last year because teachers felt that the literacy and writing needs of students weren’t being met.  They sent a note home to parents explaining what they were doing and why, and received overwhelming support.
As the district refines its system, the teachers, parents and students learn better how to navigate and take advantage of it.  The district tries to act as transparently as possible.  The flexibility of the culture continues to grow, as one would expect in a system devoted to learner-centered education.  State testing scores have been improving – though Shea admitted they’re “not mind-blowing” – but the district stands by its own more comprehensive system of assessments when arguing that proficiency-based education is working for its kids.  When asking themselves if the proficiency-based system is working, the district looks to the engagement of students and the larger educational community around RSU 2.
And then it continues to check and adjust.