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Learning, Not Time, Drives New Approach to Teaching

It’s easier to do well in school when you know what you need to know.

At least that’s how students at Kenowa Middle School see Journey to Excellence, a new performance-based system of teaching being rolled out this year in Kenowa Hills Public Schools. J2X, as it’s known for short, moves students through their lessons based not on how much time the teacher has spent on the subject, but on how well students have learned it.

“It has made a big impact in my grades,” said Aryssa Tijerina, a sixth-grader who helped make a video about J2X to introduce other students and parents to the program.

“In order to take a test, you have to turn in all your homework and assignments,” explained Aryssa, adding that students have to retake tests if they don’t score at least 70 percent. “It’s easier, because then you know you’re not going to fail.”

School officials say far fewer students should fail – and more should excel – as J2X is fully implemented throughout the school system. It has begun this year in math for grades K-8 and will expand to other grades and subjects next year.

The Re-Inventing Schools Coalition evolved from Alaska’s Chugach School District, where the approach increased student achievement and teacher retention rates. The organization was founded after the school district earned recognition in 2001 with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award recognizing performance excellence.

More than 100 schools use the RISC approach, which emphasizes students’ progressing at their own pace based on performance rather than time.

Education reformer Robert Marzano has called it “the most comprehensive and well-articulated approach to standards-based reform in the country.” The RISC last year merged with his organization, Marzano Research.

J2X is nothing less than a complete reordering of the traditional education method, said Mike Burde, Kenowa’s director of curriculum and instruction. Instead of all students being pushed through classes at the same rate, teachers ensure those who are struggling get extra time to learn the material.

“Kids should move through the system based on what they know and what they can do, rather than seat time,” Burde said. “Time needs to be the variable, and learning the constant. Right now it’s the opposite.”

First Year Yields Promising Results

Kenowa’s adoption of the J2X system has been a three-year process of investigation, community consultation and approval. Officials were helped by the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, a national nonprofit that coaches schools on how to implement a performance-based system.

“Time needs to be the variable, and learning the constant.” – Mike Burde, director of curriculum and instruction

Kenowa officials spent a year developing their vision of values, what was working and what wasn’t, in conversations with school staff and students. Forums were held with parents and businesses, and district study teams visited performance-based schools in Maine, California and Alaska. Last spring, more than 80 percent of teachers voted to adopt the system.

Though J2X poses formidable challenges for providing individualized instruction, it is showing promising results at Kenowa Middle, teachers say.

“It’s a lot more work, but you can see where it’s going to get easier in the long run,” said Mark Chase, an eighth-grade math teacher and 26-year veteran. “It’s a good way to go. I think it’s going to work better than anything else we’ve done.”

Students have shown steady improvement on their math tests this school year, Chase and others say. In a recent test on equations, only 18 of 130 students scored less than 70 percent.

“It’s probably one of my most rewarding years of teaching,” said Craig Veldman, a seventh-grade teacher in his 14th year at Kenowa. “I feel like I have a much better idea of where my students are.”

Student Skills Closely Monitored

Keeping close track of student progress, down to fine details of their performance in each subject area, is fundamental to J2X. So is the philosophy that some students need more time to master material than others.

Traditionally, schools have taken an assembly-line approach, said Burde, the curriculum director. All students get on the conveyor belt in kindergarten, and move along at the same rate as pieces are added in each grade. But by the end of line, too many have failed to keep up or even graduate: Only 77 percent of Michigan students graduated within four years in 2013.

“The current system was never designed for all students’ success,” Burde said. “Sometimes we simply need to stop and say, ‘This kid needs the gift of time.’”

That takes differentiated teaching and close tracking of student progress, both cornerstones of J2X. So are high expectations. No one would hire a surgeon who is 60 percent successful, so that should not be an acceptable score for students either, Burde said.

“It’s kind of a no-excuse policy. They have everything they need to be successful.”  – Craig Veldman, teacher

J2X provides detailed data to show what students should know and support systems to help them get there. Learning targets and step-by-step skills are being developed for each course and grade level with a computerized learning management system. Students who fail to achieve them can be broken into small groups or receive individual help, while other students are free to advance.

“We’re saying every kid has the same expectations,” Burde said. “Some just might need more time and help.”

Lots of Support and No Excuses

At Kenowa Middle, math students correct their own quizzes and pre-tests before taking the graded test. Those still struggling can receive tutoring or watch online videos, including those the teachers record of their lessons. Students then are re-tested on the portions they got wrong.

“It takes a lot of stress off kids.” – Aryssa Tijerina, student

Veldman told of one student who missed the cutoff for an advanced seventh-grade math class. After studying the unit online, she scored a 90 on the qualifying test.

“It’s kind of a no-excuse policy,” Veldman said. “They have everything they need to be successful.”

Recent forums introduced J2X to parents, and more will be held this spring. Many people are learning about it thanks to the video made by Aryssa and fellow sixth-graders Annie Egan and Josh Lake. They say the program gives them a better idea of how they’re doing and the ability to move ahead if they’re ready.

“You can be the age of a sixth-grader and have eighth-grade work if you’re smart enough to do it,” Josh said.

Added Aryssa, “It takes a lot of stress off kids. Going at your pace, it’s easier and you’ll understand it better.”


Journey to Excellence overview

Reinventing Schools Coalition

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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