Teaching Opinion

On Becoming Student-Centered and Mastery-Based

By Tom Vander Ark — June 12, 2018 4 min read
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If you’ve flown into Hartford, you’ve been to Windsor Locks. It’s an old mill town on the Connecticut River a dozen miles north of Hartford in north central Connecticut.

Like the community, the students served by Windsor Locks Public Schools have grown more diverse in 17 years that Dr. Susan Bell has been a staff member. Starting as a counselor, then principal, Bell became superintendent in 2014.

Previous Superintendent Wayne Sweeney set the stage in 2011 for updated and higher expectations. The adopted goal was “to create and sustain a community of lifelong learners where all students are engaged, empowered, and expected to achieve.”

That set the stage for a new graduate profile: Informed Thinker, Self-Directed Learner and A Collaborative Worker, A Clear and Effective Communicator, and A Responsible Citizen. Each dimension came along with a rubric describing competence in each area.

New student learning goals set the stage for a shift from marking time to expecting demonstrated mastery. In 2013, the decision was made to move the middle school to mastery based progressions. The elementary school had been using standards-based grading so it was less of a stretch than it was at the secondary level.

From Marking Time to Expecting Mastery

Rising juniors, the Class of 2020, will be the first class in Windsor Locks to graduate with a mastery-based diploma.

The fundamental shift in thinking, according to Bell, is that “Failure is not an autopsy, failure is part of learning.”

“We’re trying to become more student-centered as well as competency-based,” said Bell. That means updating the “what and why” of change, she added.

By making learning targets clear, Windsor Locks teachers have been “Putting the power in the child’s hands and helping them become self-directed learners,” said Bell.

The shift in Windsor Locks “is not about accountability, it’s about helping young people execute what they want to achieve in their lives,” said Bell.

The district has invested in leaders and teachers. “The majority of staff and community support this direction,” said Bell. But she acknowledged “We’re retooling while flying.”

Reimaging High School

“This work has to help us all reimagine high school,” explained Bell. Conversations about grades and growth, effectiveness and efficiency raised new questions, “What about kids that have mastered expectations for a year-long course in December, what’s next for them?”

This led to the development of individual learning plans, extended learning opportunities, and more community-based learning. It made clear the need for an advisory program that tailored personalization.

“Departments are talking to each other and collaborating, it’s pretty monumental, the barriers are breaking down,” said Bell.

She sees more student voice and more learner-directed activity in high school. Teachers are using multiple ways of assessing a student in different subjects.

While there is some competency-based momentum in New Hampshire and Maine, the Windsor Locks team is largely moving on their own in Connecticut. They appreciate technical assistance from regional nonprofit Great Schools Partnership. The Connecticut Center for School Change and the state school superintendents association (where Meriden’s Mark Benigni is chair) has been helpful. Nellie Mae Education Foundation sponsored parent engagement.

On to Mastery

In July, Bell will be leaving the district joining the Mastery Transcript Consortium as Director of Member Schools Engagement. The consortium is building a new transcript that, rather than courses and credits, calls for demonstrated mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence that is then assessed against an institutionally specific standard.

Bell has served as an advisor to MTC since inception and looks forward “to supporting WLSD in a different way.” The district may be one of the early pilot sites.

“Every student is much more than set of courses and grades; they have lots of content and character that they need to be able to share. A new transcript will allow student put their best foot forward,” said Bell.

She thinks a new mastery transcript will “Prompt much-needed change, update expectations from university admissions offices, and reduce the immense pressure to follow the traditional game plan.”

Key Takeaways From the Podcast

[:15] About today’s conversation with Dr. Susan Bell.
[:50] About the community of Windsor Locks in Connecticut.
[2:59] About Susie’s early life and education.
[3:40] Did Susie go to MCLA with the intentions of becoming a teacher?
[4:23] Susie’s start as a counselor at Windsor Locks, in 2001.
[5:29] What did Susie study at the University of Hartford?
[6:17] The importance of building a rich path to principalship.
[7:52] About Windsor Locks’s goals and how they were formed.
[10:00] Windsor Locks’s graduate profile.
[11:09] Windsor Locks’s efforts to become a mastery-based district and where the idea originated.
[13:53] The challenge of becoming more competency-based and student-centered.
[16:07] Did Dr. Susan Bell start in K-8?
[17:20] How Susie’s work has helped her reimagine high school.
[21:09] Supporters that have helped Windsor Locks.
[25:15] The progress being made through Susie’s hard work.
[27:11] Susie’s new position at Mastery Transcript Consortium.
[29:05] Why a new transcript and the work at MTC is so important.

Mentioned in This Episode:

Windsor Locks Public Schools
Mastery Transcript Consortium
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
University of Hartford
Great Schools Partnership
Hartford Foundation for Public Giving
Connecticut Center for School Change
Nellie Mae Education Foundation
High Tech High
Most Likely to Succeed film

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.