All Eyes (Including Mine) on Radical Westminster School Innovation

I’ve told you before about Westminster School District’s program to move from seat time to standards — re-thinking the whole traditional grade system that has dominated American education for decades — and the Doogie Howser-like potential such a system could offer me. Well, earlier this week, Rebecca Jones at Ed News Colorado chronicled the fact that the moment of truth has arrived for Westminster (aka Adams 50):

It’s the last day of the 2008-09 school year in the district. The last day of life as most students and teachers there have always known it. The last day that categories like “third grade” or “sixth grade” – or A or B+ or C- — will exist in most of Westminster.

The district is scrapping traditional notions of grade level and doing away with letter grades. Students will instead progress through academic levels 1-10 based on their mastery of subjects, not on the length of time they’ve been in school.

This concept, known as standards-based education, has been tried in individual schools and in some small districts in Alaska, but never before in a large, urban district such as Westminster. The bold step is bringing national attention to the district.

Westminster has piloted the new program in individual classrooms and schoolwide at Metz Elementary. But with the 2008-09 school year done, the full-fledged transition begins.

It’s not often you get to say that a school district is undertaking a truly radical reform on its own. But certainly this is one of those rare times. And who can doubt that teachers, principals, and officials from all over will be watching carefully to see how it unfolds. As Jones explains:

The district’s goals are lofty. Officials say once the system is fully implemented, they anticipate the graduation rate to top 90%, with fully half the graduates earning some college credit before they leave high school. They say they expect district scores on statewide achievement tests to rise well above state averages.

And they expect Adams District 50 to be transformed from a marginal place whose best students flee to other districts into a world-class, exemplary school district that is a lighthouse of hope for other large urban districts.

Success very well could persuade other education officials here in Colorado and across the country to pursue the same course. If officials take a balanced, eyes-open approach and see it not as the silver bullet but as a very important piece of the reform plan, it could pay positive dividends for students. If indeed it works, parents should demand the availability of more standards-based education options — a vital competitive choice that could improve (and maybe help transform) the educational marketplace.

It would be great to see Standards-Based Education as another category option available to families searching our School Choice for Kids website.

On another note, it’s kind of fun to live here in Colorado where my friends in the Education Policy Center already have documented and reported on several innovative school districts. Maybe Westminster 50 is next on their list?