There are Better Answers than the “No Excuses” Model

There are Better Answers than the “No Excuses” Model

March 23rd 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson


Almost two months ago, The New York Times released a video of a first grade teacher at Success Academy in New York City berating her students. The teacher, frustrated, tore up a student’s homework and told her to go to the calm down chair. “There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper.”

Nothing personal, but it sounds like the teacher needs to go to the calm down chair more than the student.

The teacher in question was suspended from the school for a little less than two weeks before being reinstated. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the Success Academy, defended her.

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That is part of our culture — not having kids getting away with just not trying.
— Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy

Parents are outraged at the video – but not for the reasons you would think. At a press conference the school held, parents were actually angry against The New York Times.

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I read the story in the morning, and I thought it was not only unfair — it was insulting.
— Youssef Senhaji, a father of three Success Academy students
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I don’t understand why The New York Times thinks it has to educate me as a parent about the school that I choose to send my children to. I’m not some poor, uninformed parent or someone who is not aware of what’s available in New York City schools. I chose Success. I made that choice because it’s the best choice for my daughters.
— Natasha Shannon, a mother of three Success Academy students

The video has sparked a larger conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of strict discipline in schools. One of the leading voices in the argument acknowledging the gray zone in the issue is Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green.

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It’s complicated, more so than you might think. Coming to any personal conclusion requires understanding a deep and very active debate about discipline, race, and the conditions that brought Charlotte Dial, the teacher in the video, to the moment that was caught on camera.
— Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat CEO

One of the chief conditions is an education philosophy called “No Excuses.” “No Excuses” advocates for strict discipline as a critical foundation for learning. It pushes students by giving no room for them to not give it their all. However, it can be argued that this makes the learning environment become hostile. Success Academy was in the news less than a year ago because students were wetting their pants during standardized tests. They didn’t want to lose time going to the actual restroom.

Do you want that in your school?

I understand that it is easy to criticize a school from the comfort of an online blog post. I won’t be so blind as to suggest students do not sometimes need to be addressed differently in certain behavioral situations. I also won’t be so dogmatic as to claim that this video discounts all positive impact this 34-school New York City charter network is having. Discipline, when facilitated in a healthy way, begets respect, temperance and character.

But here is a question I would pose to you: what if there is another way to instill these positive characteristics in students without an authoritarian approach? How can discipline dovetail with a healthy learning environment?

 

Replacing Punitive with Restorative

Schools are environments that deliver not only learning in the core subjects, but in all areas of life. It’s where we grow the next generation of citizens. So let’s capitalize on that – how can schools do discipline in a way that is conducive to the growth of our children and also teaches them how to later carry out discipline in society when they are grown?


Some of the schools we work with have a restorative justice program. Restorative justice focuses on the needs of the victim, the offender, and the community involved. It focuses on learning to prevent the issue from reoccurring. For example: instead of suspending a student for saying something racist against Latinos, mandate that they go to two Hispanic events in the community and use what they learned to write an apology letter.


We are inspired by their approach – and we want to take it a step further. In the personalized learning system we are launching in the coming months, we want to give schools the option to explore how they want to improve their discipline and character development. It’s our hope that some schools will go a step farther and launch student committees that are in charge of creating restorative justice opportunities for their peers that help them grow as individuals and as a community.

It will be a challenge to make this shift. Not every Indigo school will want to make it – or they may have even greater needs that must be addressed first. But these are the types of questions we are constantly asking ourselves at Indigo: What are better ways for schools to get to their objectives? What are better ways for schools to get to even better objectives?

We are trying to find solutions so that we don’t live in a world where teachers feel like they need to yell at their students in the first place. There are answers – and we will find them.


 

Sources

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Personalizing School Culture Causes Radical Transformation

Personalizing School Culture Causes Radical Transformation

March 14th 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson


Your School is Struggling? Tacking on a New Computer Lab is not the Answer

I remember when my district began introducing smart boards into my high school. Teachers fought for a classroom outfitted with the new technology. Educators began to build lesson plans around the boards, excited as they imagined how students would gape in awe at the digital equivalent of a whiteboard.


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However, as a current high school student at the time, I remember how my friends and I actually responded. A lackluster comment here, a raised eyebrow there, and any interest the smart board may have initially garnered dissipated within a matter of weeks. Math was still math, whether you wrote it with a dry-erase marker or a digital marker (we frequently mixed up the two types of markers, much to my teachers’ chagrin).

In college, the same trend continued. I remember how bullishly the journalism school fought for students to get iPads. The professors felt like rock stars handing out 100 iPads in a lecture hall – their class had now been validated as a “cool” place to learn because of 1:1 hand-held technology in the classroom. I am remember looking quizzically at the fresh iPad with a university branded cover, tossing it in my bag, and then opening up my computer where all of my files were stored. The majority of students followed the same behavior. 


Technology in schools is a boon for innovation – new tech brings new applications and options for educators. However, smart boards and iPads are not the solutions – they are not the independent variables that drive educational outcomes. You need to go deeper than surface-level tech plugins to impact schools in meaningful ways.

Put simply, technology needs to be married with personalized learning. Schools need to be using more applications that facilitate tailoring pedagogy, curriculum, school culture, and even the school environment to students. Any technology that doesn’t contribute to personalizing learning holds little to no value in improving the quality of education.
 

Personalized Learning – Why it’s Important, Why it’s Hard, and What We’re Doing About It

Personalized learning means diversifying academic instruction, strategies, and experiences to meet the unique strengths and needs of individual students. In short, it’s the transition from a one-size-fits-all teaching approach to inviting students to help co-create their own education. It’s the power of listening for how students actually want to learn, and building a path that makes sense for each individual.

Although the modern wave of personalized learning is still nascent, schools that take on personalizing learning are seeing tangible impacts in their classrooms. Schools that are taking personalized learning are seeing major shifts such as 20% more students pursuing college and 14% more satisfactory grades across the board. Personalized learning isn’t just an interesting trend, it’s something that is unlocking student potential across schools.

In reality, however, personalized learning is difficult to implement because educators cannot copy and paste successful initiatives from one school to another. Since successful personalized learning is tailored toward an individual school’s culture and students, there’s no guarantee of repeated outcomes from any schools attempting to mimic them. While there are models that exist to help guide schools through the conceptual path, there is no easy solution. Because of this, 78% of teachers say meeting the personalized learning needs of students is too difficult.

So how does technology come into play with personalized learning? Schools are in need of technology that gives them more avenues to reach students. Cloud technologies and products that track meaningful student data provide new, innovative, low-cost avenues to make personalized learning possible in all types of school – from upper-end private schools in California to inner-city public schools in Detroit.


Technology that helps schools personalize education is what we need– but what does that technology look like? How do schools avoid throwing EdTech products at their teachers until something works? How do education leaders cobble together a series of ideas and philosophies that actually fit their students without getting frustrated by trial and error?

At Indigo Project, we believe that the most crucial piece of any personalized learning initiative is knowing the answer to the following three things:

  1. Who are the administrators? How do they like to work?
  2. Who are the teachers? How do they like to teach?
  3. Who are the students? How do they like to learn?

We help schools find the answers to all three with the Indigo Assessment, a corporate-level assessment that measures the Behaviors, Motivations, Skills & Strengths, and Social Emotional Health of each individual. We test everyone – from the youngest freshmen to the most tenured administrator – and use the data to paint a picture of the school body. Once you understand who the administrators, teachers, and students are, how they operate, and what they want, you can start effectively personalizing the school to fit its people.

We’ve worked with more than 30 high schools and universities – more than 8,000 students and teachers. Below are three stories from schools that began to personalize their schools based on Indigo’s data and saw their schools begin radical, positive transformation.

Pinnacle High School – Identifying Leaders


In Pinnacle High School in northern Denver, Principal Todd Bittner and his teachers are using Indigo to identify potential leaders who may otherwise go unnoticed. Teachers are pulling in “problem students” into their office hours to talk about their strengths, skills and passions, and connecting them to clubs and opportunities where they can put those strengths to use in a positive way. For example, one teacher looked up the Indigo Report of a student causing issues in his class and discovered one of his top skills was leadership. Instead of shutting him down, he decided to give him a leadership position in the classroom and it transformed the entire dynamic of the class. The student went from being a “problem” to being an engaged, positive example of a leader.

“It’s giving students confidence,” Principal Todd Bittner said. “They start thinking ‘maybe I can go to college’ – Indigo is giving us hope.”

 

The Academy – Change School Culture


Indigo has the potential to change the whole culture in a school. At The Academy, Principal Cody Clark is giving students control of clubs and activities and watching the community thrive. The Indigo test identified that his students want to give back and make a positive impact in the community – and so he started providing opportunities to do just that. As a result, coat drive donations went up, food drive donations went up, the student council doubled the attendance at the homecoming dance, and classroom behavior referrals went down 50%.

“This has been transformational for the school,” Clark said. “It breaks down barriers.”

Peak to Peak – Building Strengths Improve Grades


Helping students understand their strengths improves academic performance. At Peak to Peak High School, Counselor Kimberly Gannett ran a 10-week group with failing sophomores. They all took the Indigo Assessment before beginning the group. Each week, they focused on the different strengths in their Indigo Reports and how they could use them in their school and in their futures. As a result, at the end of ten weeks the number of failing grades in the group went from 30 grades to only 3 grades.

“I really do feel it was the first time for those kids in their entire lives where we focused on what they were good at instead of what they were failing,” Gannett said. “I’ve never seen a change like that in my 20 years of education.”


The common denominator of change wasn’t new technology; it was creating opportunities for students that let them take charge of their education. If you give students the opportunity to connect their strengths to your curriculum, leaders emerge, referrals go down, and failing grades disappear. It’s all about leveraging your resources to create learning opportunities that make sense for students.

Indigo does use technology in our process – our assessment and online cloud-based platform are key parts of how we execute. Although they are key parts of what we do and help catalyze change, educators don’t walk away praising the tech. They walk away in awe that they found answers to the three questions Indigo solves when we begin working with any school – they discover who are their students, who are their teachers, and who are their administrators.

 

Conclusions


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Indigo is pushing our schools into new territory. We’ll be launching a long-term personalized learning plan that will use our data as a base to guide schools to the next level of personalized learning; students and teachers will be working together to set school culture, seniors will be teaching social emotional resiliency to freshmen, and all students will be advocating with their community and school to find opportunities that enhance and push forward their studies in impactful ways.

As we continue to grow and add tools to our arsenal, however, we fight to make sure we don’t lose sight of why our work is important. It’s not because of the tools, the gadgets, and the plans. It’s important because of what that helps schools accomplish. We don’t celebrate Indigo’s accomplishes – we celebrate the accomplishments of schools like Pinnacle, The Academy, and Peak to Peak.

Indigo isn’t another EdTech thing to slap on the wall next to the smart board. It’s a process that engages with the one thing in school that’s not going out of style anytime soon – people. 

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Highlighting Excellence: New Vista’s Success in Personalized Education

Highlighting Excellence: New Vista’s Success in Personalized Education

March 9th 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson


It’s not everyday you hear about high school students restoring a 1969 Pontiac Firebird.

This past fall Indigo Project, an education technology company headquartered in Niwot, Colorado, peered behind the curtain of New Vista High School to see what makes the school tick. Through this work, Indigo discovered a school that is excelling at personalized education. Based on the data insights, New Vista has cracked the code on how to connect with students. It’s leading to the development of skills such as empathy and creativity, an open and collaborative environment, and helping students nail down who they are and what they are passionate about in life.


Indigo’s data proves this. New Vista’s faculty have the highest Steadiness Behavior (calm, loyal, patient) of any high school Indigo has worked with in Colorado. Additionally their Empathy Skill is far above the average corporate adult, and they are also highly motivated by giving back and making an impact in their students’ lives (Social Motivator). These characteristics, identified by the Indigo Assessment, indicate New Vista’s environment is a nurturing and stable place for a school that is “designed to cultivate the unique talents, gifts, and interests” of students.

To understand what New Vista is doing right, a deep dive is necessary to see who are the students, who are the staff, and what things are administrators doing to help align students, staff and themselves together. Understanding how Indigo shed light on what New Vista’s process is and why that process works can launch larger conversations about what is the current state of other schools who are trying – and maybe struggling – to figure out who their students are and what the school culture is.

What if Test Scores Aren’t the Most Important Thing? 

Many schools today are focused on driving students toward the types of success that are easiest to measure. They would rather emphasize school-wide SAT scores and percentage of students going to a four-year university than evaluate how many students feel good about themselves and also feel prepared to pursue the future they want for themselves. It leaves out a lot of narratives about how schools are actually developing children as people. 

Enter New Vista High School: a school of about 300 students in the heart of Boulder, Colorado. New Vista is one of the schools that champions the idea of creating a safe, supportive and trusting environment for students. It’s not about cutthroat competition. It’s about an open, collaborative place where individual differences are respected and students are held to high standards for the betterment of the community. It’s a nurturing environment that is designed to develop students in all aspects of their life.

However, this leads to a dilemma. How does a school like New Vista display these qualities to potential students and their families? How do they advocate for the model in a concrete way? What if test scores aren’t the most important thing to measure?

New Vista, an Overview

New Vista opened its doors in 1993. For more than 20 years, they have been providing an alternative education experience to students who do not thrive under traditional models.

“One of the things we do really well here at New Vista is focus on the whole student through individualized instruction,” Principal Kirk Quitter said. “ Ultimately, our aim is to meet students where they are and give them what they need to be more successful.” 


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As soon as you walk into New Vista, you can feel that the school is personalized for its students. The New Vista community is creative, and student artwork is all over the walls. The students are also environmentally conscious, with posters on the wall announcing meetings for groups like Earth Task Force and classes such as Community Adventure Program, a quarter-long outdoor course that focuses on survival skills and how to reduce your eco-footprint. This is not a one-size-fits-all model, but a school that is clearly honing in on how to best fit the students that are coming through their doors.

In the spirit of a collaborative culture, classes are not separated by age. Instead, all classes have a variety of students from freshmen to seniors. It breaks down walls that sometimes occur when grades are isolated in their own cohorts. The result is a strong community where 14-year-olds and 18-year-olds are interacting in the same room and learning together.

This community is not just internally focused however. Once a week students can go out and engage with their city in Community Experiences. CEs can take many forms, ranging from professional experiences like working in a local architecture firm to partnering with nonprofits in the community. Regardless of form, students are going outside of their schools and advocating for themselves in roles and responsibilities with real organizations. This builds a sense of autonomy, independence and confidence that is critical for the development of our youth.

New Vista brings all these unique experiences to head with their Culminating Projects. The projects are senior capstones a la personalized learning – students complete an original, rigorous piece of work that is relevant or of great interest to them based on who they are. It dovetails the intensity of a traditional capstone with the individualized streak of the student. With a community like New Vista, projects stay wide, varied and original; some past examples include ecological studies in Tasmania, interning at a school for autistic children, and restoring a 1969 Pontiac Firebird. 

New Vista is a community based on the individual. It stresses individual discovery and provides opportunities to explore passions through a variety of projects and experiences. It also provides a collaborative space where all these individuals can engage in respectful dialogue with each other regardless of age. In terms of a school-student fit, New Vista fits its students like a glove fits a hand.

 

New Vista through the Lens of Indigo

This fall, the Indigo team worked with all the students and faculty at New Vista. Here’s some of the key insights on how the school is shaping students that the Indigo Assessment revealed.

 

A Steady Staff

One of the areas the Indigo Assessment measures is Behaviors – how people communicate or “show up” in a room. One of the Behaviors measured is Steadiness: it embodies consistency, patience, loyalty, and how nurturing an individual is capable of being. When looking at the staff at New Vista, teachers showed up nearly two standard deviations higher than the average adult in Steadiness. This is the highest Indigo has seen in any school.


What does this say about the school? It says they are doing a good job at hiring. If the school is truly focused on individualized education and growing students in a holistic way, that requires a lot of additional time from teachers to form one-to-one relationships with students and invest additional time in each person. It requires patience, understanding, and a non-aggressive demeanor. With a staff this high in Steadiness, this team of teachers will constantly be thinking about how they can help provide the right environment for their students – and it shows. Teachers want outside guests and speakers to understand who their students are and what the culture is before they come because they want to make sure anyone working with their students provides a personalized experience fit to them.

They don’t do it because of rules or compliance. They do it because they care that much about the students.

 

A Creative and Empathetic Student Population

 Another area the assessment measures is Motivators – what drives a person, how they prioritize things in life. It measures between six different motivators. One of the motivators is Aesthetic: it embodies a desire for balance and harmony, and typically underscores a desire for some sort of creative or artistic outlet. Looking at the seniors, 50 percent of students indicated that Aesthetic was their number one Motivator.

Remember when I said there was artwork all over the school walls? That wasn’t some school program that forced students to paint – students there are looking for an artistic outlet. The fact that the school is hanging up their artwork everywhere just means that the school is listening.

As a result, when looking at students’ top 21st Century Skills on the test both Creativity and Empathy show up as top skills. Confidence in these skills are a direct result of being in an aesthetic, steady school built around student preferences.

 

A School that is Addressing Social Emotional Issues

The fourth and final section measured on the test is Social Emotional Health – measuring how people view both internal and external elements of who they are and the world around them. At Indigo, we typically see most schools have about 30 percent of their population showing up on the “Blue List” of students that may need additional social emotional support.


At New Vista, however, we see an interesting trend. While the school is known for attracting students that need social emotional help, the school is showing that the percentage of students in each grade that needs additional support is dropping marginally each passing year as they get older. The school is aware that its students need the additional support, and the test shows that they are doing things to help students that are working. 

Conclusion 

New Vista’s model is different than the other schools in its district. It has an environmental emphasis and cares deeply about the state of its student community. It gives students a lot of flexibility to pursue their own path and passions. The assessment puts concrete numbers behind their culture. They are a school with an incredibly steady staff. Their students are developing skills they wouldn’t be developing at any traditional school in the district. On top of all that, students are finding closure in their emotional struggles as they begin to feel more and more confident and empowered to go into the future.

In other words, New Vista is a model that excels at their mission, and they now have scores to show that.

So what’s next? New Vista will begin integrating curriculum around Indigo into their advisories. Additionally, counselors are beginning to use Indigo in one-on-one advising with students. More than anything, Quitter says it brings a lingua franca into the school to talk about the different attributes that make people who they are.

“The results mean a greater opportunity to serve the needs of our kids, and bringing that common language into our community is huge,” Quitter said. “This process has had some big ripple effects from the classroom, into the advisory level and out into the community amongst parents.”

It is our hope those ripples will continue to grow in starting conversations between students, parents and teachers about how to connect with students and help them find a college and career future that fits who they are.

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