Low-Performing Detroit Middle School Eliminates Grade Levels, Goes Blended

Low-Performing Detroit Middle School Eliminates Grade Levels, Goes Blended


“I’m a level 11 in math, and a level 9 in English, but I’m trying really hard to move up,” I heard from a student who I believed to be a 5th grader. Huh?

In July 2013, Matchbook Learning, a national K-12 school turnaround nonprofit, partnered with Burns to bring up scores and graduation rates by using a student-centered learning approach. And one major facet of that? Individualized learning that brought an end to K-8 grade levels in mathematics and English language arts.

The history behind Burns and Matchbook

It’s a tough situation: a 2013 NAEP report shows that urban students in Detroit performed the worst out of 24 U.S. cities on the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA), and within that Detroit community is Burns Elementary-Middle School. According to the school’s teachers and administrators, Burns has traditionally been known as a low-performing school in Detroit, with a history of low enrollment, low scores, and violent behavior. Burns currently serves 482 students, and all of them qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Back in 2009, the state of Michigan passed a district takeover in Detroit (similar to the TN ASD). The reform turned a number of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools--the bottom 5% in academic achievement--into The Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a public district that currently operates 12 schools in Detroit, including Burns. However, despite high hopes and an extended school year, Burns continued to flounder for the next four years.

“In the state of Michigan last year (2012-2013), as far as middle schools go, Burns fell dead last,” explains Assistant Principal Jamelle Settles. “Our students, on average, performed under 10% on literacy… on Michigan statewide exams for 2nd grade and up. Many students were two or three grade levels behind.”

When Burns and Matchbook first entered into discussions about partnering back in April 2013, Matchbook made some lofty suggestions for change--more instructional coaches and intensive professional development, to name a few. But every change came with the following requirement: any tweak had to be student-centered in nature. According to a July 2013 Matchbook report about Burns:

“Student-centered learning (SCL) is the core of their strategy, organizing students by instructional level (rather than age and grade level) and providing the autonomy for them to progress via mastery rather than seat time."

According to Nichole Husa, a Blended Instruction Specialist and Matchbook Program Manager at Burns, going blended was a given: “We feel blended learning lends itself to student-centered learning. We’re trying to meet kids where they are.”

As such, Burns used Title 1 funds and School Improvement grant money to purchase approximately 60 devices (a combination of tablets and computers) for the 2013-2014 year, at a ratio of 1 device for every 8-10 students. Students can accomplish work at their own pace on these devices with an online learning platform called Buzz (a platform housed on Agilix and developed by the EAA).

When using an online learning platform like Buzz to generate and complete these instructional levels, students have the flexibility to learn at their own pace with varying devices. (For example, a student could complete ST math work on a Lenovo laptop, but find it easier to practice vocabulary skills on an iPad). This instructional video demonstrates how the Buzz platform works.

How “instructional levels” work

EDUCAUSE defines competency-based education as a form of education that “allows students to advance based on their ability to master a skill or competency at their own pace regardless of environment.” Essentially, Burns’s current math and ELA structures embody that in a nutshell.

“Take a student’s traditional grade level, multiply it by 2, and add 1 to get their instructional level,” Husa explains. Why? EAA reps explain that the “2” represents the two semesters that it takes to make up a full year’s worth of material.

For example, a student reading at a fourth grade reading level would be at level 9 in English language arts--but without the finite limits of being a ‘fourth grader’. She continues: “As a result, you might have an 8th grader and a 2nd grader reading on the same level.”

In order to advance to the next level, a student doesn’t have to wait to “graduate” from one grade to another. Instead, he or she must complete four required elements to indicate “readiness” based on a year’s worth of work:

  • Completion of their Buzz work (which mixes instruction, practice, and mini-assessments that only get checked out with 80% mastery);
  • Teacher observation of the student;
  • An overall performance assessment;
  • Student defense on why they should be allowed to move to the next level.

But, why do this?

1. Allows for students to push and work at their own pace

One benefit of Burns’ competency-based structure manifests in how Burns students view themselves as “leveled” (rather than in grades). Upon entering Katya Loseva’s class during my Burns visit, students immediately swarmed around me while proclaiming news of their current “leveling up.” Alara, Cartaya, and Marlon spoke of their varying levels in English language arts, ranging from 9 to 15, and their willingness to work harder to move up.

“I’m currently an 11, but I’m getting close to a 13,” Alara said.

And the stigma of an A-F grading system? Now nonexistent in math and ELA. Buzz has a 1-4 grading system, and students who score a 3 on any given unit are then allowed to move onto the next unit.

Additionally, with such flexibility, students who must be at home for any reason (family obligation, suspension, illness) can continue on Buzz with Burns’ virtual learning teacher, Mr. Vogel. Burns supplies them with the necessary tools, as well--even internet.

“For kids at home who don’t have internet, we also provide them with a hotspot,” reports assistant principal Jamelle Settles. “Mr. Vogel currently has five students that he works with.”

2. Works well with unstructured blended learning

Additionally, students have flexibility with Buzz while teachers can assign what they wish (with guidance from their PLC and instructional coaches) via the Buzz LMS. Teachers choose from a library of learning resources that include content from Compass Learning and ST Math, or generate their own resources.

But the value doesn’t stop there. With the open platform available to students, teachers can alternate students between small group instruction and device usage as they see fit. This proves incredibly useful when there are not enough devices available for 1:1 instruction. “We’re low on technology,” Husa admits.

Ms. Regina Parker, who self-identifies as a level 15/16 educator (essentially a seventh grade teacher), explains: “On a normal day, I have small groups while students who are comfortable with 1:1 are on their computers.”

The result? Husa reports that she’s witnessed “lots of small group teaching” within Burns classrooms: “A teacher will pull a group while other students are engaged on the Buzz platform.”

3. Students push each other

Though work is self-paced, Ms. Parker also reports that students work together to get each other farther. “Kids want to be higher. They band together to work harder,” she says.

This is likely partially due, again, to the competency scoring system. According to Mr. Settles, teachers consider students who score a 4 on Buzz as “advanced,” meaning they are eligible for peer-tutoring. The EAA practices this across the board in its twelve Detroit schools, and Parker describes it as strongly contributing to a positive “culture.”

Room for growth

Though Burns champions competency-based learning, not everything is perfect. That lack of adequate numbers of devices proves problematic--even when teachers balance small group time with student self-paced learning.

“Browsers are also a problem,” Husa adds. “We have different types of devices, and different devices have different browsers.” For example, a note-taking program may function better on a Chromebook with a keyboard, than on a iPad.e e

And beyond small numbers, Burns also must juggle safety and device security. Though Burns had a total of 505 tablets, laptops, and desktops at the conclusion of May 2014, a recent break-in on June 9 resulted in the loss of several devices.

“It’s one of those tragedies, break-ins. Sometimes, with the neighborhood we’re in, we have to deal with some of the things that come with the city,” Assistant Principal Settles explains. “But this is the first break-in this year, and we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

In addition to device concerns, culture and systems play a huge part in how well competency-based practice is working at Burns. Truthfully, some Burns teachers are still slowly getting adjusted.

Ms. Parker explains, “The levels require you to be extremely organized. Students need to know what to do when they come in, and it’s a lot of independent work,” but also adds that “It’s more about culture than technology, and in the other schools I’ve taught in, blended can make or break you.”

Current outcomes and the future

Despite growing pains, assistant principal Settles reports “an 85% decrease in suspensions” from the 2012-2013 academic year to the 2013-2014 academic year.

By way of formative assessment, Settles also reports that almost every Burns students has made overall improvement: “99% of our students are “leveling up” in math and ELA, even before the end of the year.”

Whether Burns will expand these practices to science and social studies remains to be seen. But according to Settles, the main concern right now is developing Burns beyond competency-based learning.

“Our goal is to level across the whole board (by 2015-2016),” Settles explains, “in math, science, social studies, and ELA. But we are are also looking at moving more towards project-based learning, ensuring the alignment of teaching with Common Core… We are going to dig deeper now.”

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