Only 30 to 40 percent of high school students graduate college- or career-ready. And one of the main reasons may be traditional public schools’ focus on grade-level proficiency. My colleague Mike Petrilli identified the underlying problem almost a decade ago, and reiterated his warning earlier this year: “the greatest challenge facing America’s schools today… [is] the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom.” That variation remains unaddressed when mandatory tests can’t tell us where—if not at grade-level—teachers must meet students.
A recent report by Joel Rose, founder of New Classrooms Innovation Partners, explains how Teach to One: Math—a radically unique learning model—tackles this problem, and how traditional schools can open themselves to such novel, evidence-based teaching methods.
Teach to One: Math, developed by New Classrooms Innovation partners, is an “innovative learning model,” meaning it’s an alternative classroom experience that departs from the paradigm of standardized, age-based models that apply the same curriculum to every student. The program designs an annual, personal curriculum for each student based on the results of a diagnostic exam at the beginning of the year. The curriculum includes below-, at-, or above-grade-level content targeted to students’ needs and incorporates teacher-led, peer-learning, and individual activities. Students also take brief, daily exit exams that facilitate the grouping of similarly-situated students, which helps teachers optimize acceleration. This division of labor frees educators to focus on implementation and relationship-building with students, and the program provides them with quality pupil data.
While many schools may welcome this kind of innovation, Rose’s report found that they aren’t ready for it. It argues that four embedded aspects of the education system are to blame: accountability relies on uniform instruction paths; there’s inadequate investment in developing learning models; bureaucrats are encouraged to stick to the status quo; and long procurement processes discourage partnerships between districts and new model providers.
Rose blames ESSA for the accountability problem, particular its mandate of annual, grade-level, standards-aligned tests that omit critical information about learning gaps, and disincentivizes teachers from addressing them by teaching content outside students’ grade levels. He acknowledges that these assessments keep expectations high, but notes that the research supports emphasizing a mixture of on- and pre-grade level skills in math that the tests often omit. Rose also found that many schools that are willing to adopt Teach to One: Math were constrained by inflexible local accountability policies. In one case, district policy forbade them from using curriculum dollars for materials that weren’t grade-level-aligned, and in another, teachers worried that the new model would interfere with the formula for their evaluations.
Regarding the lack of investment in developing innovative learning models, Rose blames state laws, such as those that require massive allotments for old-fashioned textbooks but detract from funding for nontraditional approaches. Such policies can signal to the private sector that states are not interested in change. He quotes a venture capitalist who said his firm rarely invests in the K–12 sector because “the market is too fragmented… slow-moving, and often resistant to change,” making profitability and scalability difficult to achieve. He also believes the federal government’s R & D budget should devote more funds to development as it did to revolutionize the green energy sector.
Adding to all of this is bureaucratic inertia. Because district leaders reach their current positions by working within the system, they develop loyalties to its underlying pedagogical philosophy. Rose recounts a meeting with one district leader who expressed his conviction that “all students should do the same thing on the same day, no matter where they are.” Moreover, once a district adopts a model that bucks the system, he asks, “What does that say about the chief academic officer who drove last years’ textbook adoption?” So adopting innovative models breeds political conflict—a fact that makes innovation riskier than sticking to the status quo. Nonetheless, the report found that teachers were the most willing—yet, ironically, the least empowered—to try new models and effect major policy changes.
On the significant barrier that stifling procurement procedures presents to innovative organizations, Rose tells the story of an enthusiastic district that he partnered with in good faith, agreeing that they would resolve the paperwork later. After months of form-filling and providing services for the full school year, the district had still not offered them a signed contract.
Rose offers four recommendations for overcoming this quartet of impediments. First, accountability policies should move away from annual, grade-level proficiency tests, and instead use adaptive exams that measure learning growth and evaluate schools using multiyear growth data. Second, the government should fund development by supporting learning-model providers like Teach to One: Math, since it’s unlikely the private sector would. Third, states should identify and support early adopters through initiatives such as Texas’s Math Innovation Zones, which works within ESSA’s framework to find volunteer schools and fund their adoption of experimental, state-approved learning products. Last, Rose suggests states and districts revise and streamline their procurement policies.
Rose’s assessment of the obsolescence in our K–12 infrastructure is both eye-opening and challenging. We absolutely need a revolutionary shift away from grade-level proficiency systems if we want to address student learning gaps—and the time is ripe for it. Rose’s best recommendation is his call for better federal investment on the development side of innovation. But he’s also right to suggest that our school evaluation policies should comprise multiyear and growth-centered measures, which are permitted under ESSA and leave room for more experimentation than the alternatives. The multiyear approach has already worked to weed out good and bad ideas with charter schools, for instance, which get evaluated every three-to-five years. In fact, it’s easy to imagine a sensible policy that pairs these two insights: a second Race to the Top–style funding grant that rewarded states that develop innovative accountability reforms. If we want a personalized-pacing revolution that mirrors our green energy revolution, it may require a strategic nudge from the federal government.
SOURCE: Joel Rose, “Overcoming the challenges facing innovative learning models in K–12 education: Lessons from Teach to One,” American Enterprise Institute (October 2019).