Over the last three years, Summit Public Schools, a network of charter public high schools in northern California, has made a radical shift from a traditional high school model to an innovative, competency-based learning model. In this new model, students are responsible for independently mastering basic content, freeing up teachers to spend class time on projects and other tasks that promote deeper learning.
Summit’s push to reimagine its programs was based on four core ideas:
- To succeed in college and in life, students must be self-directed learners.
- In addition to basic content knowledge, students need to develop high-level cognitive skills like Inquiry, Listening and Analysis.
- Student should have personalized learning paths so they can learn content at their own pace and in ways that work best for them.
- Teachers have the most impact by leading interdisciplinary projects and other rich performance tasks that help students weave together content knowledge and high-level cognitive skills.
These ideas are no longer aspirational. Summit students direct their learning today using Summit’s Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) software which the team developed in-house.
In this article, we will do a guided tour of the PLP software to describe the student experience and explain how the school model works.
The Big Picture
Summit leaders felt it important to control the student experience and the pace of innovation. Thus, the PLP software is a front-end user interface that was built internally by Summit’s developers. The PLP is currently powered by Illuminate Education for on-demand assessments, Activate Instruction for playlists and ShowEvidence for projects. Students access the PLP through Chromebooks and use their Google IDs to automatically log into all PLP modules. Summit hopes to make the PLP freely available to all schools and families in the future.
Summit students have 8 hours per week of school-based Personalized Learning Time where they work independently or with peers to (1) master content knowledge standards and (2) complete project tasks that were not completed in class. Students have an additional 8 hours per week of extended Personalized Learning Time (after school or at home) instead of traditional homework.
Teachers use Personalized Learning Time to mentor students and do weekly, 10-minute one-on-one check-ins with their advisees. Students set goals and make plans inside the PLP that both students and teachers can track.
The “Current Projects” dashboard (shown below) is the first thing students see when they log into the PLP. It shows the projects students are working on in their core classes along with specific content knowledge standards that are prerequisite for each project. Students can see the content knowledge they have mastered (shaded green) and what they still need to learn (outlined in red).
Helping Students Self-Direct Their Learning
All the projects and content knowledge standards for the year are laid out for students in the “This Year” dashboard. This allows students to work at their own pace and make decisions about how to spend their time in the short- and long-term.
The thin vertical bar (near the right side of the image) moves throughout the year and sets the “minimum pace” so students--at any given time--can tell if they are behind, on pace or ahead in each class.
Projects are on fixed schedules during the year while content knowledge standards are self-paced by each student.
Using Playlists to Master Content Knowledge
When a student clicks on a content knowledge standard, the PLP launches a playlist for that standard. Playlists include:
- A diagnostic assessment so students can see what they know about the topic and gauge how much they have to learn.
- One or more resources, including videos, websites, pdfs, etc. so students can learn about the content knowledge standard.
- Practice materials and checks-for-understanding to help students judge their progress.
- Final assessments that can be taken on-demand during Personalized Learning Time under teacher supervision.
The playlists empower students to decide when, where and how they want to learn core content. Teachers coach students to set goals and discover the work habits that work best for them.
Summit teachers create and curate the playlists with much of the work occurring during the summer. Students can upvote or downvote resources such that the best ones rise to the top of the playlists. Playlists are populated by various online resources such as Khan Academy, BrainPop and CK-12.
Tracking Progress Across Years
The “My Learning Continuum” dashboard allows students to see their progress across multiple courses in any subject. For example, by the month of April, this hard-working 9th grader has completed all the content knowledge standards for Algebra I and Geometry, and started working on Algebra II and Pre-Calculus (not pictured above).
Deeper Learning Through Projects
When students click on a project in the PLP, they are directed to another application that contains all the instructions and materials related to the project. Students upload their final performance tasks online and take any assessments.
According to one Summit student, “The projects can be a little hard, but teachers really make them come to life.”
Projects are aligned to both content knowledge standards and a cognitive skills rubric. The high-level cognitive skills rubric allows for growth on these key skills throughout students’ time at Summit.
How Am I Doing?
Summit students can see their current grades using the “My Projected Grades” dashboard. Cognitive skill growth accounts for 70% of the course grade and content knowledge acquisition accounts for the remaining 30%.
The information presented in the screenshot above is designed to help students make decisions about how to best reach future learning goals. This approach lies in stark contrast to traditional, backwards-looking report cards.
In building the PLP, Summit is putting students at the center of school design ‒ this student-facing tool that has been iterated literally hundreds of times based on student and teacher feedback. Teacher dashboards are rolling out now that the student experience is stable.
While Summit is still early in its journey of promoting deeper, more personalized learning, it is clear that high schools students are capable of taking far more control of their education.
As one Summit Shasta 9th grader noted, “It can take a while to adjust... You have to find your own motivation and learn what strategies work best for you. But I like that we are trusted to make decisions [about our learning].”
Editor's Note: Alex Hernandez works for the Charter School Growth Fund. Charter School Growth Fund is a philanthropic supporter of Summit Public Schools.