Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Extinguishing Education's 'Burning Platform'

on January 12, 2009

Businesses are evolving globally. The way people communicate is transforming rapidly. Technology is advancing daily. And while the world around it changes, the K-12 education model remains stagnant.

Two school districts -- in Alaska and Colorado -- decided it was time to revolutionize the underlying learning philosophy for their students.

"We were standing on a platform that was burning out from under us," said Robert Crumley, superintendent of Chugach School District (CSD) in Anchorage, Alaska. "What we were doing was not working for us. We had dismal results in all areas of student performance."

In 1996, the district ditched traditional grade levels and letter grades to adopt a performance-based learning model. This strategy holds students and schools more accountable for success, ensuring that curriculum is understood before students learn additional material.

A new wave for education

Chugach's 250 students are spread across 22,000 square miles, with many of them living in remote Alaskan villages. The district has three physical schools, a statewide correspondence and branches in different cities.

Before CSD moved away from the Carnegie Unit System -- the standard method for public schools -- it experienced high dropout rates, low test scores and minimal success from alumni. There were zero students taking college entrance exams after high school graduation.

This called for a change that would speak literally to No Child Left Behind. The school district had to come up with a system that would make students responsible for their education, and teachers had to provide students with more resources, time and individualized learning plans.

Enter Chugach's Reinventing Schools Model.
Students are no longer assigned to traditional grades, but levels. Within the district, there are 10 content areas: math, technology, social science, reading, writing, cultural awareness, social/health development, career development, service learning and science. Every student enters school at level 1 for each of the content areas; however, if an individual proves proficient in math before science, then the student can move to level 2 math while remaining in level 1 science. Some content areas require students to progress to level 10 in order to graduate, while other subjects have lower graduation requirements.

Additionally, students are not given letter grades -- A, B, C, D and F. Instead, teachers use rubrics, projects and traditional tests to determine whether an individual is passing the standards within a particular level. Teachers decide if students are "emerging," "developing," "proficient" or "advanced" within each level for every content area.

"Proficiency, if you have to -- we try not to equate it to a traditional system -- is a B or a 3.0 GPA," Crumley said. "There's nobody that can get through with a C. We call that 'developing' -- they're still working on it. When they move to a proficient or advanced level, then they're allowed to progress to the next level. So that's why we feel our system is a little more accountable: You can't slide through with low scores."

In 1994 -- two years before the model was implemented -- approximately 90 percent of CSD students were not reading at their grade level. By 1999, reading scores on the California Achievement Test -- the state-standard test at the time for basic K-12 academic skills -- increased from the 28th percentile to the 71st.

These numbers are Crumley's proof that this system works. "I not only feel it," he said, "but I have the results to show it."

Following the leader

By 2001, 12 other districts had replicated CSD's example. School leaders began reaching out to Chugach's education decision-makers for guidance, hoping to change their school districts' learning model.

"When we heard about what Chugach had done, we said, 'We think this is the answer,'" said Dr. Copper Stoll, chief academic officer of Adams County School District 50 in Denver, Colo. "We think that makes a lot of sense for our population of kids. We're a low-income district. We felt like [Chugach] was comparable; that's why we started talking with them about this."

District 50 is in the planning process, expecting to launch this system in the fall of 2009. It is adopting the level structure, but is still undecided about how it will address letter grades. Through advisory committee meetings, District 50 -- in collaboration with parents and the community -- will decide on a scoring system before next fall.

Based on the traditional system, Stoll said it would take students 22 years -- not 12 years -- to truly master every state standard. District 50 is narrowing the focus by creating four core subjects, in which students will have to master 10 levels, and electives courses with a lower level requirement for graduation.

"[In the past], we didn't require kids to master skills before we started teaching them the next level of skills," Stoll said. "So in this kind of system, we can be sure that students know and are able to do this set of skills before they start accessing the next level."

Hypothetically, in this system, a student could be in level 3 math, level 5 science and level 4 social studies -- a normal learning report for students in this model. Unlike most public schools, the object at District 50 is for students to grasp the subject in its entirety before progressing.

The adult questions

Although students are learning at their own pace, what happens to those who repeatedly struggle with one subject? Could a 15-year-old get stuck in a low level of reading forever?

"It's a question the adults all have," Crumley said. "It doesn't matter to the kids. They all have areas of strength and areas they can improve on. All our classrooms are multileveled. It's a natural setting for students to assist each other -- peer tutoring, peer learning."

Stoll also said if it's taking a student longer than the traditional 12 years to pass level 10 in each subject, then that student will stay longer; however, the district will provide options for those students. They can seek help from an interventionist, take online classes or attend class at a community college to finish their diploma.

By the same token, students may also complete level 10 in each subject more quickly than in the traditional system. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that a 16-year-old student can move on to college.

"We don't want them to graduate early," Stoll said. "We want them to finish their graduation requirements early. They would start their postsecondary work while they're still technically in high school. Our dream is that students might walk across the stage with a diploma and an AA degree."

In Alaska, the youngest CSD graduate was 15 years old. Crumley estimates that 80 percent of students graduate in their 12th-grade year. Of these, about 80 percent attend college. To ensure these students have usable scores to present to colleges for assessment, CSD can convert the standards-based results into traditional credit-based transcripts.

"We weren't going to allow the fact that our students were in a performance-based system hurt their chance of gaining employment or getting into college," Crumley said. "With many universities, the transcript that we have, which, I think, shows more clearly what a student has proven they can do, they have almost given our students preferential treatment."

Transcripts aside, the results are clear: This performance-based school is sending more students to college.

A round of applause

In 2001, CSD received the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award for performance excellence and quality achievement. The school district was one of the first education groups to receive the award. The Baldridge Award is given by the President of the United States to businesses, education, healthcare and nonprofit organizations that are judged to be outstanding in seven areas: leadership; strategic planning; customer and market focus; measurement, analysis and knowledge management; human resource focus; process management; and results.

"We were pretty blown away that we received that award," Crumley said. "We learned in that process that we were doing innovative educational things, but we didn't have a solid framework to manage those things so they were sustainable. This Baldridge process taught us that the continuous improvement process is one of the things that we need to focus on."

With that, CDS developed a method called PIER to evaluate its academic model:


CSD staff writes annual plans in the district's Web-based system, and then implements these plans. At the end of the year, they evaluate and make appropriate refinements -- then the cycle starts again the following year. Over the course of 12 to 14 years, the district has launched six versions of its performance-based learning system.

"It's this constant looking at what we're doing and evaluating what we're doing and making refinements to make some improvements," Crumley said. "Not only is it improvement, but you have to update it because you have new people in the system and technology has changed."

Pushing for success

For 2006, the U.S. Department of Education reported that low-income high school students have a 16.5 percent dropout rate.1 Although the numbers have improved slightly over the past 10 years, there are still thousands of students left behind under the current system.

The performance-based system holds students accountable for their learning -- they learn at their own pace and set goals for themselves. Because they are required to create plans for each subject, students better understand their focus and goals.

"That makes them feel very excited and accountable," Stoll said. "Some kids move faster, so they don't have to be held back by their classmates, or some kids can get the needed extra support and time that they need to be successful and not feel like we're dragging them through the next level of curriculum without them being ready."

By the time students leave these high schools, teachers, parents and district leaders have equipped young learners with the time, resources and mentorship they each require.

"If we're going to be competitive globally," Crumley said, "we need to make some changes in our education system to ensure that our students are going to be competitive and be able to be successful."


*This story is from Converge magazine's Fall 2008 issue.

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