Starting a School, Part I

Thanks to the vision of the remarkable people at Center for Inspired Teaching, I’m part of an initial working group tasked with bringing a new school to life. And, after a three-hour meeting yesterday, I’m struck by the totality of decisions to make — from the sacred (hiring the principal and staff, designing the curriculum, etc.) to the profane (choosing a food vendor, picking office furniture, etc.).

What’s most exciting to me is the chance to help create the central frame on which the future faculty will build — the vision, the mission, the curriculum, and the developmental benchmarks. Already the process is uncovering the core questions that need to be asked in order to arrive at the optimal frame — “What do we want a graduate of our school to know and be able to do?” “What kind of a person do we want a graduate of our school to be?” “How will we identify our developmental benchmarks?” What will be the interdisciplinary elements of the curriculum?” “To what do we owe our fidelity?”

When you have the opportunity to ask these questions before anything has been established, I’m realizing that you must immediately wrestle with a vital threshold decision — When it comes to identifying our developmental benchmarks, will our school be time-based (e.g., grades, annual progression, etc.) or competency-based (e.g., you don’t progress until you’ve demonstrated mastery of what you need to know to move on)?

So here’s my question for you to consider — Is there ANY reason to maintain a time-based system of schooling, other than the fact it makes it easier to fit into the existing system?

Categories: Assessment, Learning

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5 Comments

  1. Michelle Durange
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    I think if you have mastered the required skill then move on. Seems only natural to let students move on to show the their potetial. Isn’t that what differentiated instruction is trying to accomplish, but few know how to do? (or curriculum gets in the way)

  2. janet dennis
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Mastery of which subjects? Have you considered students with Learning Disabilities? some will never master the intricacies of Algebra, but may be fluent, eloquent writers, for example. Everyone as strengths and weaknesses. I think it needs ot be a combination of both. Good luck reinventing the variations of the wheel.

  3. Posted June 15, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    This is such a vital question to school reform today I think. Trying to balance the creative, academic, and the archaic (traditions) is a complex challenge to even consider, much less to communicate. I look forward to where this discussion goes!

  4. Posted June 15, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    What’s mastery supposed to be here? I would think that benchmarks ought to mark minimal competence. So, taking Janet’s example, perhaps a student can excel at writing, but be good enough at Algebra to go ahead to the next level, though not necessarily attain what we’d consider mastery? I don’t know how the level of competence ought to be calibrated. The minimal standard ought to be higher than what would be acceptable for someone to pass rather than fail a course as we usually think of it, but not require a student to solve the most difficult problems or be a good prose stylist. I would still call this “mastery,” even though “competence” or “adequacy” is more accurate. I mean for these terms to have a highly positive connotation, which I am afraid they’ve lost in our day and age of adjective inflation.

    I suppose there must be grades, although as a proud Banana Slug (UC Santa Cruz college graduate) I don’t take that as a given. But how about something like—“distinguished” at the top, and then everyone else is at the “mastery” level? (As opposed to “competent” or “passing.”) Those who are especially talented are in the distinguished group, those who meet the standard for mastery are in the mastery group. I’ve often thought that this would be a good way to grade my (college) introduction to philosophy classes. It’s taught at a level so that a good student will finish the course with a certain knowledge base, level of understanding, and with certain skills; but I don’t see what good comes from distinguishing between, say, B- and C+, or B and B-.

    To take a shot at Sam’s question, I think there are some compelling reasons to have some time constraints. Children develop at different rates as it is; if someone rockets ahead in math, say, then placing her with students too far outside of her age cohort might be harmful to her development, or at the very least, awkward and confusing.

    I think that the range of ability levels might be accommodated by thinking about how those who attain immediate mastery might be challenged to progress beyond it, doing work requiring synthesis, leadership, research, presentation skills, and the like can be provided for. If we’re not grading people, we don’t have to have to worry about, say, one student doing extra research and being awarded the “A,” while another student progressing more slowly but still distinguishing herself also gets an “A.” Both are in the “distinguished” category. So students can stay in their age groups but remain challenged by their work.

    Looking for connections with other classes: this seems to me to be an excellent way to challenge students what progress rapidly relative to others in their cohort.

    I am shying away from Janet’s provocative question about how LD students will be accommodated.

    A final remark—fitting into the current system is not such a Very Bad Thing to try to do, because both the student and the school will have to interact with that system. So some consideration ought to be given to how to do that, if the new school is going to deviate from it in significant ways.

    I hope my long comment still fits in the comment box and that there are some ideas here that might be useful to others.

  5. Katri Kytopuu
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    I’m no expert on this issue, but here’s few of my thoughts. Do anyone know, why the system was created to be time-based at the first place? Is it a fair system especially for the youngest children? When we have grades (that is all the children are born within the same year?) are those born in january and those in december having same chance for learning? In sports there is some evidence, that when children are put into groups solely because they are born in the same year, those born in Jan-March are more probable to be successful.

    Then there are children with learning disabilities, which I would prefer to be called more difficulties than disabilities. Maybe if we would concentrate more to competency, we would use more time to create different kind of enviroments & techniques for learning? I refer to -> http://www.dvfs.org/

    The challenge is to create a living community, in which everyone support each other and where children feel that they do belong. And we need systems, where the main point isn’t get the children out in certain amount of years, where we pay more attention to the real learning.

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