Special Report

Vt. Initiative Seeks to Balance Innovation, Accountability

By Kevin Bushweller — March 14, 2011 3 min read
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Laurie Hodgdon is a big believer in the power of technology-rich, personalized learning. But the co-principal of Milton Middle School/High School in Vermont emphasizes the importance of a balance between educational innovation and accountability.

“That level of accountability needs to be there,” she says. “You can’t just teach your pet project. You want to see kids not only learning but achieving.”

Milton Middle School was the first site to participate in I-LEAP, the Learning and Engaging Adolescents Project, an initiative run by the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. The initiative aims to improve teaching and learning for middle school students in the state by creating 1-to-1 computing environments that allow students to use the latest digital tools to work at their own pace, collaborate with peers, and pursue classroom projects based largely on their own interests.

The middle school, which received a four-year, $800,000 grant in 2006 to get started, is now close to having a 1-to-1 computing environment, using netbooks and laptops as well as a host of other digital devices such as Kindle e-readers, iPads, and digital cameras. And the program—which emphasizes a heavy dose of professional development for teachers—has since moved into the high school.

To find that balance between innovation and accountability, researchers at the University of Vermont, in Burlington, are working with the three Vermont schools in I-LEAP—Edmunds Middle School in Burlington, Milton, and the pre-K-8 Manchester Elementary School in Manchester—to assess the impact of technology-rich, personalized learning.

Penny Bishop, the director of the Tarrant Institute, which is based at the university’s college of education and social services, is spearheading the research project. The project is following 256 students in I-LEAP; of that group, a subgroup of students was identified after the 6th grade year as being at risk for dropping out of high school or not completing high school on time because of poor attendance (less than 80 percent), bad behavior (one suspension or a poor behavior mark for the year), or failure in math or English.

The university researchers are following the students as they make their way through middle school (some have already completed middle school) and high school to see how many drop out or do not graduate on time.

In tandem with that longitudinal, quantitative approach, the researchers are gathering qualitative data through teacher and student interviews and on-site observations. They will also be conducting interviews with parents. They want to know more about how students do as they make the transition from middle school to high school, and what impact the I-LEAP approach had on their preparation for high school academic work.

The qualitative research will play a key role in driving changes in professional development, which is a big component of the I-LEAP initiative, Bishop says.

‘It Has to Have Standards’

At Manchester Elementary-Middle School, I-LEAP was put in place in grades 5-8 at the start of this school year with a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Tarrant Institute. After struggling through some major technology challenges in the fall because students and teachers were having connectivity problems with the netbooks the school had purchased, the school switched to pricier MacBooks in January. That change seems to have eased the technological problems. “It made for a very rocky start,” Principal Jackie Wilson says of the problems.

Personalized Learning in Action

Students in the I-LEAP initiative at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington, Vt., are given laptops they can use in class and at home to do school assignments and projects tailored to their interests.

Other, nontechnological concerns remain.

Wilson says she probably would not have embarked on the initiative if it weren’t connected to a university and its researchers. She wants her school’s decisions to be backed up by ongoing research and carefully crafted professional development from the university.

“Folks from outside with fresh eyes, they notice things I don’t notice,” she says.

Without that partnership with the university, Wilson says, maintaining academic rigor with a technology-rich, personalized approach could become a challenge. “I think that’s a real concern,” she says. “When we put out an assignment, we have to make sure it’s not just a free-for-all. It has to have standards.”


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