Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts looking at how two school networks—Rocketship Public Schools and Wildflower Schools—enable their students to master standards at their own pace. See the first post here.
Last week I argued that one of the greatest challenges facing elementary educators is the vast gulf in readiness levels between their high- and low-achieving students. Some kids enter first grade ready for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, if not Harry Potter, while others are still sounding out their letters. We looked at how two very different school models—Rocketship and Wildflower—cope.
This week we go deeper into how these schools ensure that their lowest-performing kids don’t fall further behind. That’s an essential objective for any school, but it’s a particular concern in the personalized-learning world. That’s because some skeptics have insisted that by focusing instruction on the current level of struggling students, educators might inadvertently impede them from making progress and catching up.
For example, after the release of last year’s blockbuster report, The Opportunity Myth, TNTP’s Amanda Kocon urged schools to make sure every student was spending at least half of their time on grade-level content:
Students don’t need assignments to be grade-appropriate 100 percent of the time—or even three-quarters of the time. In fact, in the very best classrooms we observed in The Opportunity Myth, students spent roughly half of their time on grade-appropriate assignments, and that made a real difference—about six months of additional learning for kids who started the year behind—relative to classrooms where students had those opportunities less often. That still leaves plenty of time for intentionally designed remediation, for tapping into student’s individual interests and strengths to guide the arc of their learning, and for making sure students’ experiences in school leave them feeling successful and proud.
And of course the Common Core standards stress the importance of students reading books with appropriately demanding “text complexity,” rather than spending all of their time with “just right” texts at their current reading levels.
So how do Rocketship and Wildflower thread this needle for their low-performing students—meeting them where they are while helping them stretch to master grade level content? Let’s find out.
Wildflower’s Matthew Kramer:
Those of us in the Montessori world, and at Wildflower, don’t think of the curriculum as one long scope and sequence to be worked through linearly. We think of curriculum as a spiraling, branching way of organizing skills and knowledge—where students find different things easier and harder and more and less interesting at particular moments in time, or over longer periods. This can lead to the situation of a child being “behind” state standards in a given area, sometimes for trivial reasons (e.g., the student has yet to learn a particular geography topic), and sometimes for very important reasons (e.g., undiagnosed dyslexia leads to accumulated struggles with reading and writing). We also don’t think of childhood as a long, undifferentiated teaching and learning opportunity. As modern neuroscience research has demonstrated, children go through periods of special sensitivity and openness to particular types of input and learning.
We aim to leverage the natural energy that exists in children to follow their passions as the primary fuel for student learning and development, but we also recognize that there are times when a more direct intervention model is needed. For example, in a Montessori environment, when sensitive periods for language acquisition and touch end between six and seven years old, children are much less likely to spontaneously be drawn into reading and writing. Once that happens, it’s the teacher’s (we call ours Guides) role to create a highly structured, direct instruction program focused on phonics—generally delivered in short, fifteen-minute bursts sprinkled throughout each day, where most time is still spent focused on a child’s interests. Over the years, Montessorians have borrowed intervention programs developed in other environments (e.g., Orton-Gillingham for reading) and developed their own interventions that typically involve using the manipulatives in more teacher-directed, structured ways.
This approach to curriculum causes the notion of being ahead or behind to be much less salient. As a Montessori child and parent myself, I have appreciated the way Montessori classrooms are more collaborative and less competitive than traditional classrooms. There is less focus on getting good grades and figuring out your class rank. That doesn’t mean that kids are protected from reality about things they are learning quickly or struggling with; the environment seeks to use reality as a tool for reflection in many important ways, and materials are self-correcting so that feedback is built into nearly everything. It just means that we don’t seek to roll things up into broad summative judgments. We don’t need to go from “long division is interesting and I like it and I’m good at it” to “I’m good at math” and certainly not to “I’m smart.” That chain of inference isn’t very helpful, as Carol Dweck’s work on fixed versus growth mindsets has made clear.
Instead, we encourage children to find the things that spark their passions, dig into them deeply with the structured support of the Montessori curricular framework, and think of their classmates as a group of fellow human beings who also have passions, strengths, areas that don’t come easily, etc. One person whom I went to school with thirty-five years ago, who subsequently became a Montessori teacher and administrator, recently said to me that the first time he realized there were “smart” and “dumb” kids was when he switched to a traditional college prep high school environment. Up to that point, the other kids in the class were just kids. He didn’t realize that evaluating each other and ranking the group by aggregate smartness was a thing. I think that’s a beautiful sentiment.
Rocketship’s Preston Smith:
Twelve years of experience has confirmed our belief that it is critical to meet students where they are and help them rapidly grow up to and above grade level. If a child is behind, giving them solely grade-level content is not necessarily the best solution, as they cannot access that content. Similarly, if a child is ahead, giving them solely grade-level content can often lead to boredom and disruptive behaviors.
Our model has proven effective for all types of students, helping children of all abilities grow and succeed. We set high expectations for all students, regardless of where they start academically. As a parent of two Rocketeers, I have personally witnessed the benefits of purposeful differentiation and personalization for each of my kids. Our mission to eliminate the achievement gap compels us to serve students who are most at risk of falling behind their college bound classmates. Eighty-plus percent of our students are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, with some schools seeing up to 30 percent of pupils classified as homeless. Many Rocketeers have experienced PTSD and trauma, such as depression, anxiety, and lack of trust, causing short- and long-term challenges to their learning and physical and mental health. We also accept students in all grades at all times of every school year, so we have many children coming in mid-year or mid-elementary school. All of this adds up to many Rocketeers starting the school year more than one grade level behind or at vastly different academic levels. Therefore, there is quite a lot of ground to make up to get our Rocketeers to grade level and beyond, so we have focused our model on making sure we can get our kids from behind to ahead instead of stuck working on material not at their mastery level.
We’ve accomplished this through a more flexible approach to curricula and instruction than other schools. Our model is built upon using different learning modalities in order to meet the unique needs of each student. Our Rocketeers move throughout the day, week, and school year from large to small group to even one-on-one instruction, based on academic data that indicate their level and need. Our ability to rapidly utilize student achievement data indicating content mastery (regardless of grade level) allows us to quickly and accurately discern where our Rocketeers are excelling and where they need more practice. Data are reviewed and used to adjust work plans on daily and weekly bases, ensuring that our Rocketeers are meaningfully engaged in a flexible learning environment that best allows them to master content and skills.
We know that this approach and flexibility of groupings and content in the classroom is working, as our Rocketeers progressed an average of 1.36 years in math last year (as measured by the nationally-normed NWEA MAP), which means that in just one school year they learn an entire year’s worth of material and skills, plus 36 percent of an additional grade level’s content. So a student who comes in far behind stacks this success year over year to rapidly close that grade-level gap. Last year alone, over 2,100 Rocketeers made the leap from behind grade level to ahead in at least one academic subject.
This approach to instruction and learning at Rocketship means that grades are not the driving force for our Rocketeers and families. Rather, parents and students are intimately aware of their personalized goals on various indicators like STEP, NWEA, their online learning programs, and more. Our Rocketeer’s success is not determined or judged based on subjective means or grades, but rather personalized goals that grant our parents and students greater agency to succeed and thrive. In addition to greater ownership, it makes success and progress more visible for all of our Rocketeers, which better enables their growth mindset and engagement in school.
Through regular analysis of student work and assessment data, we are able to ensure that our Rocketeers are not falling further behind, but rather are making the level of progress necessary to return to grade level. In addition, our advanced Rocketeers are exposed to content that challenges them at their level, and they are supported to continue to accelerate their learning above and beyond their grade level. This instructional approach enables us to best serve all students and, in the process, enable our Rocketeers to more rapidly eliminate their achievement gaps.