School districts across the United States are trying to improve student performance. But few have taken as radical an approach as Adams 50 in Colorado.

For starters, when the elementary and middle school students come back next fall, there won’t be any grade levels–or traditional grades, for that matter. And the organizational transformation — to a pattern popular in the era of the little red schoolhouse, but with a modern twist — is only the most visible change in a district facing significant challenges. Adams 50 is striving to reverse dismal test scores and a soaring dropout rate by opting for a wholesale reinvention of itself, departing from the incremental reforms usually favored by administrators.

The 10,000-student district in the metropolitan Denver area is at the forefront of a new standards-based educational approach that has achieved success in individual schools and in some small districts in Alaska, but has yet to be put to the test on such a large scale in an urban district.

"There was a sense of urgency to attend to what wasn’t happening for kids here," says Roberta Selleck, district superintendent, explaining why she decided to go with a drastic approach. "When [we saw] the stats for the whole school district over time, we realized we are disconnecting [from] our kids."

The change that’s getting the most attention by far is the decision to do away with traditional grade levels. At first, the new approach will affect only kids traditionally in grades lower than eighth. The district plans to phase the reform in through high school, one year at a time. Ultimately, there will be 10 multiage levels, rather than 12 grades, and students might be in different levels depending on the subject. They’ll move up only as they demonstrate mastery of the material.

Selleck and her colleagues are quick to emphasize this is only one piece of a radically different, more student-centered, approach to learning–and it’s not the same as tracking, the currently out-of-favor system of grouping students by ability.

Students help craft own lesson plans

The district is training teachers to involve students in the lesson plan in a far greater way than before: The students articulate their goals and develop things such as a code of conduct for a whole classroom. And when children fall short of understanding the material, they keep working at it.

The only "acceptable" score allowing a student to move on to the next lesson is the equivalent of what would be a "B" in normal grading–a level indicative of proficiency. Attaining step-by-step proficiency gives kids a better foundation as they move on to more advanced concepts, administrators explain. Advocates sometimes describe the arrangement as flipping the traditional system around to focus on mastery of the material rather than seat time.

Although the idea of standards-based education, as it’s often known, has been around for a while, the only public district where it’s been tried for any length of time is in Alaska, where the Chugach district–whose 250 students are scattered over 22,000 square miles–went from the lowest performing district in the state to Alaska’s highest-performing quartile in five years in the 1990s, a shift the former superintendent, Richard DeLorenzo, attributes to the new philosophy.

"We saw how radical a reinvention needs to happen," says DeLorenzo, who is serving as a consultant to Adams 50 and is the founder of the Reinventing Schools Coalition, which is seeking to spread the model.

In Adams 50, the challenges aren’t quite so severe as they were in Chugach, which had only had one college graduate come out of its schools in the 20 years before DeLorenzo implemented the reforms. But the district, which has a 58 percent graduation rate, has been on an academic watch list for several years now, and has seen a drastically shifting student population in which percentages of minorities, non-English speakers, and low-income kids have shot up.

Selleck decided the district needed a massive transformation, and she got the OK from the state. This year, the district is beginning to phase in the changes before all the schools switch to the new, gradeless system next year. One elementary school is serving as a pilot program, and many of the 300 or so teachers who have undergone training from DeLorenzo are implementing a modified approach in their classrooms–albeit still in traditional grade levels.

In Nikolaus Namba’s first-grade classroom, that means his students have worked over the year to create, and refine, a classroom code of conduct (which includes items such as "don’t hit people" and "we will not play with hair" written in childish handwriting on Post-it notes mounted in the front of the class) and goals of the week. Students employ what Namba calls "power voting," using the Post-its to get a voice in these and other classroom decisions. Namba hopes the strategy will ultimately give students a greater sense of independence and ownership of their learning.

Namba says it’s been somewhat tough to implement the new approach halfway–retaining a traditional first-grade classroom,  with all ability levels and learning speeds mixed together–but he says that even a few months into the year, he’s come to appreciate the new method.

"We have discussions about what is a good student, and what does a good teacher look like," he says, noting that it’s easier now to talk to students about work that comes up short, for instance, of where they thought they were, and he says that everyone is aware of each specific thing they need to learn.

On one recent day, classwork includes a quiz on telling time. Namba is having the only student who received a perfect score help some of the others. "Cristian knows how to tell time," he explains. "He’s available to help others."

Next year, Namba hopes to really dive into the reforms, and he’s looking forward to being able to work with students all at a similar level. "The goal is that they’ll accomplish things faster," he says. Moving up without truly understanding what they learn "is what creates the cracks in the foundation later on."

But if Namba and other teachers who have bought into the idea in a big way have high hopes for the future, there are also significant complications.

Scheduling is a big one. It’s also unclear what will happen if large numbers of kids arrive in high school still unable to demonstrate proficiency in certain subjects, like math, and a bottleneck gets created. Because no student can move forward without a "B" equivalent, it’s also essentially impossible for students to have lower than a 3.0 GPA, which could be a challenge to explain to colleges.

‘Video-game’ approach to grade levels

Still, Selleck says most parents she talks to are enthusiastic, and the district is doing an enormous amount of outreach and education to explain the changes to them.

Selleck often uses a video-game analogy: Students are engaged, take as much or as little time as they need to at each level, and can’t move on to the next level until they’ve mastered the one before it.

Arisbeth, an articulate fifth-grader at F.M. Day School whose teacher is already incorporating some of the reforms, says she’s looking forward to the changes.

"You’ll be working with other kids where you’re working on the same thing," she explains. Already, she adds, "Our voices are being heard more."

Links:

Adams County School District 50

Reinventing Schools Coalition