• Ellen A. Thompson, Ed. D.

Politics and Standards-based Teaching and Learning at the Middle Level in Vermont

Here in Vermont, we find ourselves in a very politically charged environment. Many of our middle schools are deeply immersed in orienting their instruction using a middle level teaching philosophy, much different from traditional structures of a typical junior high school. With this philosophy comes the idea of team teaching and of coaching students to achieve their best learning potential, both of which are impacted by a number of variables.

These variables include changes at the state and national level, such as the new national standards which are far more rigorous and complex than our previous standards. These standards stress the importance of career and college readiness; their push is on applying knowledge versus gathering it. Another variable is the passing of Vermont’s Act 77 which requires that students in grades 7-12 have a personalized learning plan. Schools are expected to initiate a process for students to identify their goals, learning styles, and abilities and align this information with the school's academic expectations and each student's pathway toward graduation. There’s also been the 2014 adoption of Vermont’s Education Quality Standards, which requires standards-based graduation requirements and further pushes schools to consider assessment and reporting through a standards-based teaching and learning approach. Lastly, add 2012’s Act 156 which outlines how our small and expensive Vermont school districts will merge into larger entities for taxpayer cost savings; Chittenden Central Supervisory Union (CCSU) began merger conversations with Essex Town School District (ETSD) in earnest this past school year. We now have the perfect storm for changing up business as usual!

During this transition, both CCSU and ETSD middle level teachers were working hard to change their thinking about how they can show genuine student attainment of the standards. Discussion about traditional grading was at the top of our list. Do “grades” as we’ve come to know them really demonstrate student growth? Growth in knowledge and ability to apply it go hand-in-hand with these new standards and Vermont’s push for personalization of curriculum for all students. With this work came the realization that both districts were “parallel playing” around several big topics; a merger might work more effectively if we were playing together, in the same sandbox.

Of interest to both sets of teachers was the use of a digital tool to allow them to move forward in their understanding of standards-based reporting and to allow parent and student access to this reporting. Both districts had used more traditional grade books, but with the move to standards-based reporting, they no longer worked. About this time both CCSU and ETSD middle level teachers began piloting JumpRope, and pockets of teachers jumped right in, with enthusiasm. Discussions about standards-based reporting began in earnest within each faculty team and across the two districts. As teachers developed units of study to address the increased expectations of the new standards, not only were their reporting practices changing but their teaching practices were changing as well. JumpRope helped to facilitate - helped to push - those changes in practice.

In the spirit of merging our conversations, our spring and summer involved multiple meetings as we explored our thoughts about standards language, use of standards-based grading, communication to students and parents, and use of a traditional report card. Time and again, we found common and also uncommon ground. Eventually, we realized that striving for complete common ground would not be possible, but it was possible and even advantageous to agree on several important things now. This realization forced us to put on our list of next conversations anything that would involve more time, research, and focus to come to consensus.

And so our agreements:

  • Use national standards, such as the Common Core and Next Generation Science

  • Use Vermont’s state standards in areas where the national standards have not been adopted

  • Keep standards in their original language

  • Use Power Law in JumpRope, a grading calculation method that values learning over time over grade points

  • Use a four point scale

  • Open JumpRope’s parent and student portal with common expectations

And our list of next conversations:

  • Create a work habits section to be used by all three middle schools

  • Develop common curricular expectations across grade levels and schools

  • Use common assessments, both formative and summative, within common units of study

The school year has begun, and our “policy” conversations are now being put to the test. Teachers have set up their accounts in JumpRope to align with our conversations and expectations, and so far there are many smiles. No complaints. That means, no doubt, that it’s getting close to the time to stir the pot once again with our to do list!

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