by Latisha Chisholm, 2016 Education Innovation Fellow
Equity in education is at the core of who I am as a social worker and educator. I was raised under the poverty line by a single mother. A great education and the opportunities it has afforded me are the tools I have used to move out of poverty and into a place where I am serving children and communities that reflect me and where I grew up.
I moved from social work into teaching because I noticed that the students I case managed did not have some of the basic skills I considered necessary for successful transition into adulthood. How could they be “successful,” or access anything they could dream of, if they could not read above a 6th grade level? How could they be productive citizens if filling out employment applications independently was difficult and sometimes impossible to do coherently?
By the end of my first three years in the classroom, I had not gotten one professional development opportunity focused on data-supported methods that work with academically struggling youth of color—methods proven to actually close the achievement gap. I have used Kagan Structures, or instructional strategies “designed to increase student engagement and cooperation.”1 These instruction strategies contributed to some success with students as measured by highly effective DCPS teacher ratings, high student engagement and academic success with students repeating the ninth grade, and greater ease of planning for differentiation. The effects, however, were not big enough. My students were still flailing and falling further behind in gathering the skills needed to be productive and self-sustaining adults.
As a psychology major and licensed social worker who focuses on adolescents, I am always thinking about child development and how the brain works. A hallmark of adolescent behavior is impulsivity. Of course, I found that my students were making impulsive decisions. Deciding not to do work. Not to turn in assignments. Not to come to school daily. Not to revise work for better grades or mastery, if they had gotten at least a passing grade. Not to do the best they could at all times. These actions did not make sense to me as a generally logical adult, primarily because if asked, all of my students would verbalize that they wanted to graduate from high school. They could tell you at least one profession they were interested in.
I was frustrated and continued to try new things in hopes of seeing big changes with my students. I began prototyping, or trying out innovative ideas, in my classroom before being introduced to CityBridge, the d.school (it was just starting up when I graduated from Stanford), or design thinking. By August 2015—during my 4th year of teaching—I began to ask myself a big question. “How might I increase student ownership and self-reflection that results in more engagement and higher overall academic progress?” My first prototype of the academic year included data walls, student support plans, and checklists for moving toward mastery on each class objective. These seemed to engage some students, but the success was limited to my students who were present everyday. They were not creative enough for students that were partially connected to school.
The second prototype went a little deeper. I added an attendance data wall that highlighted days absent, or when work was refused, and documented grades. There was a requirement to review attendance data and write a reflection that included an assessment of how one’s grade related to their attendance. I also continued to use checklists to track mastery. I wanted the students to see how much their own actions, attendance, and engagement affected their overall progress. This was moderately successful, and I saw that students were better able to express the connection between their actions and their grades. Grades were no longer this arbitrary thing that the teacher assigned, but a reflection of the level of effort and consistency put in.
The adolescent mind, however, seemed to still need a higher level of analysis and something to remind them of why their current education is important them. I still was looking to increase ownership and self-reflection, so I created a individualized learning plan for each student. This included assessments around career interest and learning styles, analysis of current grades, and short-, medium-, and long-term goal setting. Each student’s long-term goals required them to finish high school at some point, so their short-term goals encouraged them to do better in class by being more consistent. I was elated because I could see them buying into the idea of high school actually having personal importance to them. I gave them warm ups that required them to look back at their goals and assess their own progress. My goal was to keep reminding them, as often as possible and in various ways, that their actions today either moved them closer to or away from their larger goals. I was so excited at the student response that I gave my prototype to a fellow teacher and we agreed to look at it after he implemented it with his class. We wanted to see if his student engagement also increased and to figure out the best ways to tweak it.
I became a CityBridge fellow right after I began prototyping the individualized learning plan. During the first leg of the fellowship, our focus was on learning about innovative practices in the field. My personal motive was to understand the practices of anyone who was doing anything that works with the most difficult high school population to move and to figure out how to implement whatever they were doing that works. During a presentation from Summit Public Schools in California they began to describe Basecamp, an online personalized learning plan that Facebook engineers have designed for their schools and to share with others. During that presentation, I looked at my peer—the same teacher I had shared my paper individualized learning plan with—and we understood we had stumbled upon a digital prototype of exactly what we had been doing by paper in our classrooms. What are the odds that we would find a refined iteration of the exact thing we were prototyping in our classes?
The day after hearing the presentation about Summit Basecamp, we went to visit one of their schools. During a presentation from their administrators, I asked the series of questions I have come to be known for asking at every school visit: “Does this work with your most struggling populations? How do you know?” Summit was one of only two high schools we visited that was able to provide concrete data showing they were actually closing the achievement gap. After four years at Summit, students in their most difficult population—which mirrors that of the most struggling students in the United States—were reading on grade level when they graduated. Their bottom quartile of students were increasing reading levels at a rate 3.6 times that of the average student in that same quartile across the United States. I was astonished and captivated. I have never met a high schooler who came in reading significantly below grade level and graduated reading on grade level.
At this point in our fellowship learning phase, seeing data from a charter school that was closing the achievement gap with students that mirror the bottom quartile of students in the United States was impressive. Honestly, it was the most impressive thing I had heard. The alignment with my own theory of change, and Summit’s years of testing, was icing on the cake. The most important thing I could do at that point was figure out how to get into their training cohort for Summit Basecamp and bring this opportunity to my students.
The sense of urgency I had was almost overwhelming. It felt intense, but looking back I understand why. Everyday we graduate students who do not have a baseline level of numeracy and literacy skills to be competitive in the workforce. They have not been properly equipped by the school district, but they are still graduating. There was no time to waste, because there is no time to waste. Every year that goes by is a new graduating class that will struggle in the world. Therefore, because I had been introduced to something that may help change that, my school needed it, like, yesterday.
At this point, I had not seen the content on the platform, which was okay. Working with students as low as mine often are, I knew we would have to modify or replace content to be sure it was appropriate for my students. I understood that the Summit Basecamp team had the same theory of change as I did, and they tested it with fantastic results. They had created an academic prefrontal cortex for the adolescent brain—a space where students could input their long-term goals and track how their day-to-day decisions moved them closer to meeting those goals. It was an interactive self-assessment. The Summit Personalized Learning Platform holds the rules that students need to be successful as they have defined it for themselves. It does exactly what the brain cannot always do for itself in adolescence.
My partner teacher, also an Education Innovation Fellow, and I went back to our school on a mission. We recruited teachers and administrators. We gave presentations to our school about the program and what we had seen. We were so convincing that every administrator and approximately 15 teachers agreed to complete the application process for our school to be a Summit Basecamp site. While most schools applying put in one application, our principal asked us to put in two. We were excited. Excited about what this could mean for our students and how much they could benefit from the personalized learning platform.
After applying and finding out the program was excited to work with us, we also learned we had to get central office approval to bring the program to our school. We thought this would be an easy task. There were so many reasons why it made sense for our school. Two other DCPS schools in northwest were already implementing the model in their school. Anacostia High is a “Target 40” school, which means we have been identified as one of the 40 lowest performing schools in the district, and need innovative ideas to really bring about change that affects students in the most important ways.
We were told no. Officially, the platform is not compatible with our network and other technology systems. Our school would not be able to access the flexible workarounds used by others schools that enable them to use Summit Basecamp. We were cautioned to remember that many lessons from our charter colleagues cannot be successfully scaled.
Innovation was strangled and a quarter of the educators in my school were left staring at a brick wall.
In speaking to other innovators, I found that Google accounts were a large problem. Every program that required students to have Google accounts was rejected if it required district approval.
I continued to stare at the brick wall, to process the blanket “no.”
The school, teachers, and administrators are on board and excited.
The program is free and will fly us out to to California to get trained.
The program administrators will create the accounts students need for us, so there is no extra work put on the District.
What about what Lisa Delpit said?
In their first iteration, charter schools were to be beacons for what could happen in public schools. They were intended to develop models for working with the most challenging populations. What they discovered was to be shared and reproduced in other public school classrooms. 2
What about the achievement gap?
What about the corresponding opportunity gap?
What about the severity of the need?
What about the dire need for innovation at a bottom 40 school?
What about treating east and west of the river equitably, and giving us the same chances, flexibility, and opportunity as them?
What about the fact that no one knows how to close the achievement gap at the high school level? I believe that makes it our duty to neutralize any potential roadblocks in order to make sure what has been proven to work gets to our most vulnerable students.
There are almost no techniques that people use in high schools that have been proven to work with the most marginalized youth. There may be none. If there are, I have not heard of them. Charter schools have the luxury and flexibility to innovate at a rate that traditional public schools do not. When a charter does develop a great idea and has the wherewithal make it available for free to public schools, it is our duty as educators to make sure what works gets to those who need it most.
How do we move forward and ensure innovation is not strangled by the inequity?
Latisha Chisholm, LGSW, is a Special Education Coordinator at Anacostia High School.
1Spencer, K. Summer 2008. Kagan Structures Simply Put. Retrieved from Kagan Online.
2 Delpit, L. (2012). “Multiplication is for White People”: Raising expectations for other people’s children. New York, NY: The New Press