District 50 Standards-Based Education Tour Raises Hopes of Success (With Patience)

On Friday my Education Policy Center friends took in the presentation and tour of new Standards-Based Education (SBE) system in the local Adams School District 50 (Westminster). It’s the largest school district in the nation to have taken such a bold departure from the traditional system of age-based grade levels and familiar letter grades.

Under the leadership of Superintendent Roberta Selleck, District 50 decided to move outside the box in addressing the challenges of a long-term decline in student enrollment coupled with growing rates of student poverty and limited English proficiency. The district is just completing its first full year using the SBE system, and there’s definitely something exciting and innovative going on. The system is about so much more than can be squeezed into a blog post, but here’s 16summary thoughts about SBE:

  1. Two of the key pressures that helped guide District 50 into the place that inspired innovation were: A) Colorado’s policy allowing the choice of open enrollment between school districts and B) A state accountability system putting the district on academic watch
  2. It takes a lot of hard work and community support to take the leap into SBE, and even so all will not be smooth in the transition
  3. Superintendent Selleck emphasized how the district was able to accomplish the change with existing financial resources
  4. On a related note, the district largely abandoned the fetish of small class sizes and made their teachers the most highly paid in the state
  5. Eighty-six percent of District 50 teachers threw their support behind the transition and stayed on board for the 2009-10 school year
  6. Even though they face many new challenges, especially in increased demands for record-keeping, teachers overwhelmingly want to press forward and continue improving the SBE system
  7. Through SBE, District 50 may have found a way to make teacher professional development truly meaningful and effective
  8. The key hinge to the innovation is the combination of SBE with a learner (student)-centered classroom environment
  9. One factor that should help with literacy scores is the district’s use of Open Court Reading Curriculum, though important levels of autonomy at the building level mean that curricular implementation isn’t entirely universal
  10. Students generally like the change, and demonstrate greater independence and ownership of their learning — interestingly, it even was noted that classroom discipline issues have declined significantly
  11. Fears about unintended consequences of harming self-esteem of slower students appear to be largely overblown, especially at the elementary and middle school levels
  12. Through the Educate software platform, parents and teachers alike can monitor clearly how students are progressing in specific skill sets
  13. With help from a little extra grant funding, District 50 is working with Scantron to develop and refine assessments that align with the specific standards and learning targets they have developed
  14. Implementation depends significantly on building-level leadership and culture, as some schools have embraced SBE more than others — I’d especially keep an eye on the academic growth of Sunset Ridge Elementary and its unusual but promising division of faculty into content specialists
  15. District leadership has thought carefully about interventions for students with varying special needs, and is taking an approach through SBE that incorporates flexibility and doesn’t let student labels determine how services are provided
  16. If you want to learn more about the specific standards District 50 is using and ideas for how to incorporate them into classroom activities, check out the special Wiki they created

So you’re probably itching to ask me: Is District 50 doing the right thing? Will they be wildly successful? Is this the wave of the future?

All I can say is take a deep breath, put your hands down, sit back and wait. Dramatic change of this kind cannot be judged overnight. I don’t expect to see rising CSAP scores for District 50 after one year of SBE.

After three years (2011-12)? Yes, that will be more than fair, and I can hardly wait to see just what kind of impact this dramatic change will yield, and whether other schools and districts in Colorado catch the same vision. And to see what other reforms accompany District 50’s landmark journey into Standards-Based Education.