Story of Angelica
Angelica was a model student at KAPPA International. She had a good attitude, did her homework, always went for the extra credit, participated in class, and had a 90 in all of her classes. But then she failed the Earth Science Regents Exam. Assistant Principal Andy Clayman said, “We had been lying to Angelica. Her good grades were giving her misinformation about how she was doing. She is the kind of student who would do anything we asked. She needed to be working on her gaps in knowledge. But we weren’t giving her the information or the opportunity she needed. It was a lightbulb moment for us.” (It’s worth watching this video to directly hear from Angelica and the team at KAPPA.)
So began KAPPA International’s journey to mastery-based learning.
It was a journey to a focus on learning, not requirements. Principal Panorea Panagiosoulis, who goes by Penny, explained, “Our students are very good at identifying what the state wants as far as minimum requirements. But we wanted to bring the focus back on learning. Instead of focusing on forty-four credits, we wanted students to be thinking about the skills and knowledge to be successful when they leave here.” Clayman expanded with, “It was a huge pedagogical shift to only focus on mastery in a student’s grade and to begin to work intentionally on building their work habits. We are seeking better and faster ways to help students develop their work habits because the connection between the habits and learning is so strong.”
Bridging the Gaps, Tightening the Curriculum
KAPPA has an interesting story. They launched in 2007 as an International Baccalaureate (IB) program because of the strong pedagogy and the dynamic role of assessment. Clayman explained, “AP exams focus on what the students don’t know as much as what they do know. But how much can you tell from an essay and multiple choice in a three-hour exam? The IB program gave students opportunities to show what they know and build the skills they would need to do well in college.” The curriculum of six academic areas, foreign language, and the arts – regardless of whether students passed and received the IB curriculum or the NYC diploma – would position students to compete for college admissions.
Within a few years, enough students made it clear that they weren’t interested in the IB program. Panagiosoulis also noted, “Many of the students had significant gaps. The kids didn’t have the base they needed and they knew it. It didn’t make sense to throw them into an IB class that is very focused on grade level curriculum.” Clayman added, “You can’t make kids do what they don’t want to do. Kids didn’t have ownership over the IB program. Not all our students were connecting with it. We learned that the IB diploma isn’t valuable unless it has value for kids.” So KAPPA is expanding their program to include career programs that used the same pedagogical model of IB, including Doctors of Tomorrow and an arts program. Students began to screen for interest and commitment to the IB program through an application, or students could select one of the career programs. “We were giving students choice and classes that made sense to them,” explained Clayman.
And then, as Clayman explained, one of their tops students, Angelica failed an important Regents exam. KAPPA International turned on a dime. At their summer retreat, staff began to talk about the gaps. Implications of gaps in student knowledge, gaps and variation in the quality of their curriculum, gaps between what grades tell about a students and where they are as learners… The decision was made to move to a mastery-based learning model.
Clayman described KAPPA’s working theory. “Mastery-based learning allowed us to bridge these gaps,” he said. “First, it provides students with clear and explicit feedback on their current level of performance and the key levers for reaching the next level of mastery. Second, it creates a structure for very tight and intentional curriculum.” Clayman then raised a point that was new to me, “We have a very short amount of time to get students from middle school to college ready. For students enrolling with elementary or middle school level skills or gaps, four years is a very short amount of time. If our six hours and twenty minutes a day with students is focused on a tight and intentional curriculum, then we may have time to chip away at those gaps.” KAPPA isn’t thinking about time as a variable, they are thinking about how to be more effective within the time students have through intentional instructional and curricular strategies.
Assistant Principal Casey Smith explained, “We’ve devoted time within department and grade team meetings for teachers to work on curricular development. Our school-wide focus has been on identifying the critical skills necessary for students to be college and career ready and developing a common language across grade level. We’ve begun articulating mastery for these skills and have created assessments for measuring student progress. This has been helpful in identifying students’ performance levels and leveraging the conversation about what students need to do to reach the next level.” For students in the IB program, the clearer focus on performance levels helped those with gaps know what they needed to do to succeed and for teachers to instructionally target areas where students were weak. Smith added, “The best thing about mastery-based learning is that teachers have confidence that students are learning. Before we didn’t really know if students were learning.”
Turning to Expeditionary Learning for Assistance
“Casco Bay High School is what we want to be when we grow up,” enthused Clayman. And so began a conversation about how Expeditionary Learning practices have helped KAPPA dramatically revamp their pedagogical approach to one that empowers students and engages students through inquiry-rich curriculum. KAPPA is seeking to have every class and every program offer as high quality learning experiences as the IB program. “We want students to walk out of here with the same analytic skills no matter what program they were in,” emphasized Clayman.
Turning to Expeditionary Learning’s training, KAPPA has been strengthening their assessments so they are more authentic and connect to students’ lives.
The emphasis on student ownership has challenged KAPPA. They were already very relational and asset-based, focusing on students’ strengths. The decision to introduce student-led conferences (SLC) was a big step. Clayman said, “We were apprehensive about SLCs. Kids were challenging us by stating that their parents wanted to talk with all their teachers. So we continued to have a ‘meet and greet’ at the beginning of the year so parents could meet all the teachers. At the end of the first year of SLCs, a survey of parents showed a unanimous yes that they were valuable.”
KAPPA’s SLC model is a thirty-minute presentation by the student that includes student work, an explanation of their grades, the behaviors that helped or got in the way, and their accomplishments. (See KAPPA’s in-depth guide on implementing SLC.) Panagiosoulis explained, “This is about student ownership. Students practice their presentations with their advisors and the advisors can provide clarity within the conference, if needed. However, this is an enormous pedagogical shift to students describing what they did to earn their grades rather than seeing grades as something just given by teachers.” For the 20 percent of students whose parents did not participate, KAPPA staff sat in on the conference so that every student had a conference with an adult invested in her or his future.
Clayman believes that the SLC is more respectful of parents’ time, as they are able to have an in-depth conversation for thirty minutes with their son or daughter and advisor rather than sitting in the hallway for two hours to get two minutes with each of their six teachers. “I had never questioned the traditional parent-teacher conference. However, the poverty of that model is revealed when looking at the multiple benefits of the SLC. In the traditional parent-teacher conference model, the students are not even there. How is that adding to their educational experience?”
KAPPA is finding the concept of experiential learning opportunities (ELO) to be very valuable, as well. “Without ELOs, students may not be making full connections,” explained Panagiosoulis, a former math teacher. “For example, in science we can talk about rock formation, volcanos, and what the strata looks like. But if they have a chance to go somewhere where they can see the strata within a rock formation, the concept will have much more meaning. They will understand what it means to look at the evidence.” Clayman added, “You can start with inquiry in the classroom, but we fundamentally think the world is a fascinating place. We want to explore things that kids are going to find fascinating. Students can’t build and apply skills in isolation.”
Smith described the three-day training with EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) on how to create engaging experiences and close the skills gap in science in schools without the advantage of a lab room. “If you want to create authentic experiences and be prepared to close the gaps, you focus on the four Ts: topic, target, text, and task,” she said. “Choose a topic that is engaging, identify the learning targets and understand where students are in their learning in relationship to them, find text that is complex and extremely engaging, and use aligned performance tasks.” Students with lower reading skills will keep struggling, so it’s necessary to spend more time building their vocabulary and persevering in making sense of complex sentences.
She also shared her own struggle with the fact that the Regents exams are set at a minimum level. It is important for the science department to think about how to help students build the analytical skills while still covering the content that will be on the exams. The team shared an example of how they are doing this: One of the science classes is looking at asthma and air quality in South Bronx, including looking at how many trees would be needed to help improve air quality. Within the project, students are also covering the content that will be on the Regents.
Starting Points Matter in Building Intentionality and Consistency Among Teachers
KAPPA International embraced depth of knowledge as their rubric, with a 4 indicating knowledge utilization or transfer of skills to a new context. In their summer retreat, they asked themselves what a 4 looks like for each discipline and each grade level. But they quickly realized that they were not yet ready for this level of conversation.
They decided to take a step back, making an effort to articulate each of the levels within their courses with review by the discipline teams. That too led to a lot of conversation, such as how much to focus on high level skills and how much to focus on content, but it still wasn’t getting them where they wanted to be. So they slowed it down by focusing on what the expectations are for students in each of the disciplines, identifying the core concepts in each, and opening the conversation of how they expect students to be advancing through the grade levels. Clayman explained, “This is professional development at its best. It’s not one-shot PD, it’s deep conversations with colleagues, sometimes one-to-one and sometimes in groups talking about expectations, assessments, and instruction. It was beneficial that we had also begun the shift toward more inquiry-based learning, as we needed to have a shared understanding of pedagogy to make decisions.” One of the adjustments the teachers had to make is the difference of thinking of a 3 as getting 80 percent right as compared to demonstrating proficiency at a level 3 or at 4 with greater analysis and complexity.
As Panagiosoulis pointed out, “Mastery-based learning has pushed our teachers to think about planning in a new way as well. We are asking ourselves, ‘How will they know that students get it? What questions should I anticipate from the students?’ Some of our really good teachers are becoming great teachers through mastery-based learning.” Clayman recommended, “Have faith in the process. Not every teacher is going to tackle all of the changes in mastery-based learning. Some may be ready to think more deeply about how to design instruction and assessments for level 4. Others may be thinking about how to organize instruction to better serve struggling students. Others may be looking for more opportunities to give voice and choice to students. However, it is important to get agreement within the school that grades are given that represent the level of mastery. At the end of class, you need to know whether kids learned it or not. Once you know exactly where students are, all of the wheels really start turning.”
Meeting Kids Where They Are
When we slid into the conversation about how to meet students where they are, especially those with gaps in skills, Panagiosoulis raised the importance of reading. “We identified that reading was often the issue that caused students to struggle in class,” she said. “So we decided that all of our teachers needed to become teachers of reading with the assumption that the writing will follow. After giving each student diagnostic assessments and identifying their Lexile level, we found our new ninth graders ranged from second to twelfth grade. We know that for students to pass Regents, they need ninth grade level reading.” She continued, “The beauty of transparency is that teachers are not afraid to come to us to look at student work and have a conversation about what we can do. With some targeted professional development, our teachers are better able to identify early on if we are dealing with dyslexia or some other issue that needs special education specialists or if students are missing skills.”
Smith explained the importance of anchor text, “We don’t ask about all the content we need to cover in a course. We start with anchor text that is interesting, authentic, and complex as the centerpiece of any project. We work closely with students who are struggling to read and understand the anchor text. In this way, students build confidence. They can look back and know that they are capable of reading challenging text.”
Advisors have direct conversations with students about where they are in their reading skills, their growth, and what strategies they can use. Is it more time to read? Is it to let teachers know when the student doesn’t understand the text? KAPPA is putting their strongest teachers where the need is greatest. They are building up a library of high interest books. They are helping students to understand how to select a book at their level or just a bit higher. And they are looking into research to see which strategies might work and rule out those that haven’t.
Transparency, Honesty, Courage, Accountability, and Empowerment = Continuous Improvement
Every school has an Angelica, but not every school decides to make a change.
In listening to the KAPPA team, I realized that continuous improvement was more than just developing mechanisms to use data to improve processes. It takes a combination of accountability (or responsibility) to one’s students and community, plus the belief that as a team you are empowered and can build the necessary skills, plus honesty (which usually requires respect and trust), topped off by courage. Why courage? Because for schools in big districts like KAPPA, they are going to be pushing the larger system simply by exposing the fallacy that grades, both grade level curriculum and A-F grades, are obscuring student learning – not supporting it.
A theme was running throughout the conversation with KAPPA: “How do any of us, teachers and students alike, know what we know?” Clayman answered with, “The beauty and the power of transparency is that you can engage kids in understanding their process of learning.” Panagiosoulis also shared an insight about the implication for teachers, “When everything is planned out for teachers with a purchased curriculum, they don’t have to figure it out for themselves. When there is intentionality and transparency, we are all joined in reflecting on what is working, for whom, and how we can do it better. Our students have taught us a lot.”
KAPPA uses their retreats to make major mid-course corrections to their model. Penny, Andy, and Casey all agreed, “Summer is always a big turning point for the school.” I’d love to go back and visit next year.
FYI: KAPPA International participates in the NYC Department of Education’s Mastery Collaborative. The Mastery Collaborative supports, documents, and advocates for mastery-based shifts in NYC public middle and high schools. Mastery-based schools in New York have a community where ideas, resources, and practices are shared.