Making Performance-Based Learning Work

Making Performance-Based Learning Work

This Alaska school district junked its traditional education system and was rewarded with a Baldrige

Imagine having to fly in a twin-engine airplane to visit one of your schools. Average round-trip price: $2,500. But, there is no other way, and worse yet, weather frequently interferes.

"Sometimes, you have to turn around," says Bob Crumley. "It actually has gotten a lot better. We now have airstrips."

Welcome to Alaska, where the public school system is amply challenged by weather, scattered populations, topography and poverty.

It costs $22,000 per year just to light a small building in the Chugach School District, where Crumley is director of curriculum and instruction.

The district, which serves just 214 students, encompasses some 22,000 square miles, about the size of Ohio. In this region, 52 percent of the residents are unemployed and 75 percent live below poverty level, according to school officials.

The Chugach School District is undeniably remote and challenged, but it is nonetheless at the center of educational innovation. The Alaskan district is a New American High School, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funnels millions through the district to provide training to other educators.

Chugach's latest award, however, is its finest yet. The South Central Alaskan district has won one of five Malcolm Baldrige Quality Awards for 2001. It is the smallest organization to have ever received a Baldrige, the government's premier award for excellence and quality achievement.

Given out since 1987, the award has been bestowed by the president on manufacturing, small business and service organizations. In 1999, Congress created the education category, but there were no winners until this year. "This was the first year we felt we had education applicants that were of the same caliber as our business applicants," says Harry Hertz, director of the Baldrige National Quality Program.

Two other educational institutions were also named winners: the Pearl River School District in New York and the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

All applicants go through an examination process by an independent board that ranges from 300 hours to 1,000 hours of outside review and a site inspection.

The Baldrige stands for "exemplary" achievement in seven areas: leadership, strategic planning, customer and market focus, information and analysis, human resource focus, process management and business results. Chugach had all that; the results were so impressive, Hertz says.

Chugach Superintendent Richard DeLorenzo says that when he arrived in 1994, "90 percent of the kids could not read at grade level." Furthermore, in 20 years, only one student had gone on to college. Test scores were in a deep freeze, and staff turnover was averaging about 55 percent per year, he says.

Now, 70 percent of eligible students are taking college entrance exams, test scores have risen dramatically, and staff turnover is down to an average 12 percent.

On state exams, the percent of Chugach students who passed the high school graduation exam and benchmark exams for third, sixth, eighth and 10th grades exceeded the state average in all areas of testing.

The percent of 10th graders who passed the high school exam ranked first in math, third in reading, and 17th in writing among the state's 54 districts. Results on the California Achievement Tests dramatically improved in all content areas from 1995 to 1999.

The Chugach School District, which covers Whittier, Fairbanks and Valdez among other towns, has gone from spending less than the state's recommendations on school instruction to exceeding it and bringing in millions in grants. It has gone from two computers per 27 students to 21 computers per 27 students. Some students get their own laptops.

DeLorenzo says that when he arrived, the traditional educational system was just not working for his students, many of whom are Native Alaskans. He says he turned to Northwest Labs in Portland, Ore., for a grassroots process to incur change. This process required intense discussions with all the community's stakeholders, parents, leaders, businesses, etc.

Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education at the Gates Foundation, says this intensive collaboration is one area that the foundation found "remarkable."

"... These community conversations lead to quality standards for academic subjects, character development and career preparation (the last two categories are often ignored). Learning goals are specific and measurable and understood by all the stakeholders," he says. The community asked for a focus on basic skills, individual needs of students, character development, transition skills and technology.

The district is still run by a highly participatory process called Onward to Excellence, with twice monthly teleconferencing with the five-member Board of Education and an education advisory committee to determine goals, short- and long-range planning and performance expectations.

With such democracy, the district is amazingly unified. In eight years, the school board has not had one split vote, Crumley says.

After community consensus was reached, the district applied for a waiver from the state and changed its entire system, moving to a performance-based system.

The district erased grade levels and now uses a set of developmental levels each addressing 10 content areas. The four-step instructional model enables students to progress through those areas by using drill and practice, practical application, interactive simulation and real-life situations. To progress, students must not only show proficiency with the identified skills, but they have to apply those skills in real-life situations.

Each student has an individual learning plan, and the district even does cognitive process testing and emotional intelligence testing to help make those plans as effective as possible, DeLorenzo says. Another significant change is that the district eliminated its time-based system of prescribed periods for each subject area.

When students reach a certain developmental level, they attend a residential program at a school called Anchorage House in Anchorage, where the district administration is based.

Anchorage House is a short-term program that helps students make the transition from their old learning environment to independent life, work and higher education. It covers personal and social skills, health, career development and community service. Students even get jobshadowing opportunities.

Teacher retention, DeLorenzo says, is less a problem now because of the performance-based system. It is even a recruiting asset.

"What is so exciting is we have a shared vision with our teachers. All the teachers say that this is what it should be like," he says. He admits that having only 30 staff members, change occurred rapidly in his district. However, he does provide some 30 days of annual training for faculty, twice the number of days offered by any other school district in the state.

"Rich understands that improved student learning begins with adult learning. He has made professional development a priority and created time for teachers to work together to improve their skills and practice," Vander Ark says.

As to whether the students like their new school structure, 17-year-old Deserae Stellwag of Tatitlek Community School says she does. "It is really good in the long run," she says, noting that the structure allows the students to realize their self-motivation.

The independence does open up the possibilities for laziness, she says, but eventually all the students realize they need to move on. "You won't graduate unless you do the work," she says. Amy D'Orio, wdorio@earthlink.net, is a freelance writer based in Brookfield, Conn.


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