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In Michigan reform district, students set their own pace for learning

From wire service reports
September 21st, 2012

A 2010 report by the Marzano Research Laboratory showed that schools using this model were 37 percent more likely to score proficient or above on state tests for reading, 54 percent more likely in writing, and 55 percent more likely in math.

The chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan plans to improve the state’s lowest performing schools by dumping traditional teaching methods and giving students a learning plan that will allow them to progress at their own pace.

And the schools won’t use grade levels or letter grades.

It’s an education shake-up that the EAA calls student-centered learning.

A version of this technique has been adopted in at least 29 small districts, organizations, and schools nationwide. Results show that students taught with this method are up to 55 percent more likely to pass state standardized tests, according to experts.

The method is performance-based, not time-based: Students are assigned lessons based on their ability, not their grade level or age. It is supposed to ensure that students are not passed along to graduation with low skills.

“When you start teaching a child where they are — to address deficiencies — kids are going to be better off,” EAA Chancellor John Covington said earlier this month. “You master, you move.”

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The EAA is the state’s new school reform district, created to take over and improve the lowest performing 5 percent of schools. On July 1, the EAA took control of its first batch of struggling schools — 15 in Detroit.

Covington implemented a system similar to the EAA’s student-centered learning in 10 schools in Kansas City, Mo., where he was superintendent before coming to Michigan in 2011. But Kansas City scrapped the teaching method this year — two years after it started — because of mixed test results, said Andre Riley, a spokesman for the district. He said the new superintendent wants to take the district in a different direction.

Across the country, versions of the new approach go by a lot of names — content-based, performance-based, proficiency-based, or personalized learning, to name a few.

The EAA — with 10,001 students — is one of the largest school systems to use a version of it. For this first year, it is being used in what is traditionally considered kindergarten to ninth grades.

Here’s how it works:

Students are placed in classes with other students their age. During the next two weeks, they will take tests to determine their skill levels. There are 18 levels that cover what’s traditionally considered kindergarten through eighth-grade skills. Ninth-graders will be required to master a class before they can progress to the next course. For instance, a freshman who fails Algebra 1 cannot take it in summer school (EAA has an 11-month calendar), but the student will continue to take Algebra 1 level lessons until he or she proves mastery.

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