Blog: The Educated Reporter

How One Charter Group Took a Start-Up Approach to Teaching

Classroom with Chromebooks Flickr/kjarrett (CC BY 2.0)

At Summit Public School: Denali, young learners do it differently. Most of the students at this Bay Area-area school complete their coursework on school-issued Chromebooks, where they access a portal to online videos, assigned readings and interim assessments they take at their own pace. It’s a competency-based approach to proving they have mastered the subject at hand. 

The school, one of several that’s part of the charter provider Summit Public Schools, is nestled in an industrial park an hour south of San Francisco; classrooms are in open-planned office space, more tech start-up than middle school.

Its unique layout allows the students to cluster in teams of four for part of the day to work on group projects. There’s space available for the lone learner, too, where a student can slouch on a large cushion pressed against a wall and take in a lesson or opt out of a section of the curriculum by taking a test.

The glue that keeps the differentiated, project-based learning curriculum together is the school’s robust student-data system. Every time a student attempts an assessment, begins a learning module or submits an assignment, the time, date and result of the effort are recorded into a dashboard. Teachers and parents follow the data, which can reveal a lot about the student’s approach to learning.

Still, while Summit is seen as a model in personalized learning, the charter school group spent several years planning its transition from a school that focused on college entrance to one where students take more responsibility for their own education. Not all efforts to develop data systems and make this type of switch pay off.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion that if you use data, instruction improves and student learning improves,” said Ann-Maria Faria, a scholar on education data tools at American Institutes for Research.

Faria cited several studies during a December 2014 EWA webinar on teachers’ use of student data. In one 2013 study, schools that gained access to high-quality interim assessments saw academic improvements in grades 3 through 8 during the first year, only to see scores dip in the second. Another study that evaluated a popular interim assessment developed by Northwest Evaluation Association, whose tests are used by many schools across the country, found no difference in student reading achievement after schools scaled up their student-data systems.

“Why do we have all of this mixed evidence when we look at the research? I would argue that that link between using data and improved teaching and learning is mixed because it really depends on what teachers actually do with the data,” Faria said. “Right now, it’s a black box.”

Denali and the rest of the Summit schools network have help. Several major foundations have awarded the charter school organization grants totaling a few million dollars for startup costs, though school officials say they rely on traditional state and local aid for operations once the schools are fully enrolled (Denali, for example is adding a new grade until it enrolls grades 6-12). Facebook pitched in, too, last year providing Summit with technological know-how in developing the data tools that are crucial to the schools’ signature brand of personalized learning.

Nor is the school’s student body as poor as many urban schools: less than half of Denali’s students receive federal lunch subsidies. Mira Browne, the Summit chief external officer, said Summit “intentionally serves a mixed race, mixed income student population … and we mirror the districts and communities that we reside in.”

Despite the focus on group work, Denali’s student-teacher ratio is on par with other schools in California, Browne said while guiding me on a tour of the two-year-old campus last November. And those teachers play a major role in shaping the curriculum. They prepare hundreds of projects, curricular chapters that rely on myriad online resources, and various assessments during a six-week period before the start of the school year, according to Browne.

In one example provided by Summit schools founder Diane Tavenner, a student attempted to take a test online, only to score below passing level. Undeterred, the young learner had another go at it, missing the mark once more. A third time. A fourth.

Is this a sign of perseverance or lousy studying habits? To Tavenner, it shows that instead of failing once and hitting the coursework to bone up on the material, the data suggests the student tried to take the exam multiple times in a few hours without shoring up his academic weak spots. 

Teachers at Denali are trained to spot those warning signs. They consult with students during weekly one-on-one sessions, going over academic concepts the kids struggle with while also steering them toward more sensible studying habits. In the example Tavenner cited, the teacher encouraged the student to review the coursework, particularly those sections that the student scored poorly on, and return to the assessment only after that review.

Denali seems to be avoiding the pitfalls that have compromised data-driven efforts at other schools. Brennan McMahon Parton, a researcher on student-data use for the Data Quality Campaign, told reporters during the EWA webinar what bad data-driven instruction looks like.

“It’s using data to jump to a solution,” Parton said. “’Our kids are bad at math; let’s buy this math intervention,’ instead of saying, ‘Our kids are struggling with math, let’s dive in and see what that means.’ Is it different for different groups of kids? Is it that this kid’s teachers are actually struggling with this piece of information, whereas [that] teacher’s kids are struggling with the whole concept?’”

While the school practices a largely student-driven approach to learning, teachers at Denali and other Summit schools maintain certain expectations for how many course units, or chapters, a student should complete per week. If a student slips behind, the teachers move into action, motivating students to quicken the learning pace and providing additional support after school. The school keeps its doors open for a few hours after the last bell rings so that students can arrive home with their homework complete. The staff sticks around after school, too, and each teacher serves as a mentor to 20 students throughout the school year.

And as much as the data systems can help students who are behind, they also can shine a light on those who are racing through the curriculum at breakneck speed. So does the quick study run out of things to do toward the end of the year?

“They never run out of things to learn,” says Tavenner. Because the Summit schools enroll grades six through 12, a student who completed the coursework for her grade before the end of the school year can migrate to concepts taught in the higher grade. A sixth-grade student can decide to pursue seventh-grade material, if the kid is ready.

Teachers meet regularly to share stories from the classroom and tips to improve instruction. For eight weeks out of the year, students at Denali are placed with employers and career-oriented teachers representing fields for which students have shown an interest. While the students are off campus learning about medical or communications careers, teachers band together for professional-development sessions.

Research suggests that’s a smart strategy. “It’s not an ‘If you build it, they will come’ [situation]” Faria said. “You need to make sure that there’s a lot of other concrete supports around that infrastructure.” One major example of those supports includes time for data review built into the teacher’s schedule.

Tavenner said the unorthodox approach to instruction didn’t catch on with parents at first. Kids rarely brought loose-leaf sheets home because much of the homework is done at school. “I don’t know how to be a parent in this school,” is how parents initially felt, according to Tavenner.

Are Summit’s efforts paying dividends? Before the school underwent the conversion to personalized learning, nearly all of its graduating students went to a four-year college — better than the national average — though Summit learned roughly half its graduates completed their studies in six years, according to 2011 data. Tavenner and the rest of the Summit team felt they could do better. 

Time will tell if the charter school system’s overhaul will pay off.