Uncompromisingly Learner-Centered Schooling

Type: Article
Topics: Curriculum & Assessment, School Administrator Magazine

February 01, 2018

California’s Lindsay Unified Schools have spent a decade developing a performance-based system
Barry Sommer (left), director of advancement in the Lindsay, Calif., schools, is a co-author of Beyond Reform, detailing the district’s transformation into a performance-based system.
Barry Sommer (left), director of advancement in the Lindsay, Calif., schools, is a co-author of Beyond Reform, detailing the district’s transformation into a performance-based system.Imagine an environment where excited student learners cannot wait to return to school each day. A place where learners are met at their developmental level, are challenged and ultimately are successful. A place where students have positive relationships with adults and work collaboratively with peers. A place where learning is customized and meaningful and where students leave as graduates with lifelong learning skills, ready for the future of their choice.

This education system is not based on the constructs of time. It does not become a reality through simple initiatives or standard reform efforts. It’s transformational, demanding systemic shifts in thinking, leading, teaching and resource management across the school system and the community.

It’s uncompromisingly learner-centered, built on the diverse needs of learners versus the convenience and preferences of adults. It’s also possible, as we are demonstrating in the Lindsay Unified School District, a PK-12 school district in central California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Second-Order Change
Lindsay Unified, serving about 4,000 students, sits in a region that is home to a large population of immigrant families and English learners. About 87 percent of school families live below the federal poverty level, with low levels of literacy in English and parent education. Almost a third of the district’s learners come from migrant families who work in the surrounding fields and production areas.

For decades, student achievement in our district was flagging. Schools were grossly underperforming, and apathy characterized student and staff dispositions. Instructional reforms were ineffective. What we needed was systemic, second-order change, a new way of seeing and doing.

This required us to tear down the constructs of traditional education, to change our philosophy about teaching and learning and to emphasize collaboration over isolation. Of our early moves toward transformation, Jaime Robles, Lindsay’s executive director of human resources, says, “We didn’t want a better version of bad. We wanted a good version of right. ”

Learners at the Center
National school reform experts Bea McGarvey and Chuck Schwahn helped the district develop a community-driven strategic design — a blueprint to reimagine Lindsay’s schools and empower learners and staff members. In spring 2007, the leadership team organized a series of community stakeholder forums and asked five essential questions:

» Why do we exist as an organization?

» What are the core values that govern how we will interact with one another?

» What are our guiding principles?

» What is our vision for the future?

» What is the description of our graduates?

The answers led to the July 2007 adoption of the Lindsay Strategic Design, a crucial turning point for the school system as it established the mission, core values, beliefs/guiding principles, vision and lifelong learning outcomes that would create transformation. It became a community mandate to develop and sustain a performance-based system that ensured academic and social success for all learners. Key components of Lindsay’s learner-centered model
Key components of Lindsay’s learner-centered model

Transformation Underway

Our shift to a learner-centered culture began with a new lexicon. We called our students “learners.” Teachers co-constructed learning and became “learning facilitators.” Classrooms were “learning environments” and schools “learning communities.” At all levels of the organization, the new terminology contributed to the district’s and community’s investment in the new culture.

Next, leaders agreed that rather than trying to create curriculum that addressed every core standard, the district would collectively decide what was absolutely essential for learners to learn. Narrowing the curriculum to essential knowledge and skills was difficult, but it made the curriculum viable, meaning it focuses only on the essential learning outcomes and that these outcomes are achievable for all learners.

By working with a more focused curriculum, Lindsay Unified could also ensure that learners understood exactly what they were expected to know and be able to do. Because the curriculum is viable, it also is guaranteed, meaning that, without exception, every single learner will learn it.

Instruction now centers on essential measurement topics and learning progressions. Measurement topics are composed of multiple learning targets, within a common unit of study, that are divided into performance levels reflecting a 1–4 scoring scale. Within this scoring scale, the level 3 content represents the minimum learning level for every Lindsay learner and is intended to demonstrate that the learner has achieved proficiency in that learning target.

Using formal and informal assessment measures, as well as summative district assessments, learners and learning facilitators track learners’ progress toward mastery of each measurement topic.

As Lindsay transformed its model, more and more elements of the time-based system, including bell schedules and yearly promotion by age, progress and report cards, became roadblocks to a truly learner-empowered culture.

We began to customize structures for grading, facilities, schedules and grade levels. For example, as we renovate our schools, we are using a “lab” structure that combines several traditional classrooms into a larger, open, technology-infused space. Our newest lab houses six learning facilitators and 180 learners in a single learning environment.

To fulfill the strategic design’s vision for 24/7 learning, Lindsay implemented the “One World Initiative.” All learners are given their own device to use at school and home. However, we recognized early on that connectivity at home was limited because of economics, so we spent two years developing our community Wi-Fi -project (with our own ISP) to ensure all learners are connected to our curriculum, and the world 24/7.

Critical Considerations
The district’s journey has seen many successes. Graduation rates at our two high schools — Lindsay High School and our alternative high school — now exceed 90 percent. Student achievement is showing steady and progressive growth.

School climate is rated at the 99th percentile on statewide measures, and the number of high school graduates enrolling in four-year colleges has doubled in six years. Suspension rates have dropped significantly and the percentage of students claiming gang membership has fallen from 18 percent to 3 percent.

Robert Marzano, addressing the district’s progress, wrote in the foreword of Beyond Reform, “In a relatively short period of time, Lindsay USD transformed its system into one that can and should become the model for K-12 education for the next several decades.”

Based on our experience, these are a few critical considerations for any organization interested in transforming to a learner-centered model. All should be addressed early in the process.

» Involve learners from the beginning.
Valuing the learners’ voice upfront increases their empowerment and leads to more effective problem solving. Many learners know better than adults how to fix the education system.

We include learners on leadership teams and acknowledge their voice when building a compelling case for change. In Lindsay USD, learners have multiple opportunities to grow and demonstrate their leadership as ambassadors. For example, learners serve as tour guides for visitors and often facilitate workshops and presentations at local, state and national conferences.

» Clearly state the expectation that all members of the leadership team use the strategic design as the guiding document for the transformation.
The strategic design reflects the voice of the community and conveys the values and principles all leaders must embrace and pursue to lead successfully and to accelerate the vision for personalized learning. If all leaders do not carry out the strategic design in their daily work, the entire vision will be ignored, placed on the shelf to collect dust like so many other initiatives.

» Make the strategic design the centerpiece for the entire community.
Foundational aspects of any organization become better aligned when everyone fully embraces the strategic design as early as possible. Strategically and intentionally educating all stakeholders about the key components of the strategic design is critical to ensuring that staff, parents and the community clearly understand and embrace the transformation.

Students in California’s Lindsay Unified School District brainstorm with staff how to best inform community members about the changes involved in becoming a performance-based school system.
Students in California’s Lindsay Unified School District brainstorm with staff how to best inform community members about the changes involved in becoming a performance-based school system.
» Make lifelong learning part of the core curriculum.
To ensure learners become highly motivated, self-directed and fully empowered to take ownership of their learning, school systems should value and promote the standards for lifelong learning to the same degree they value standards for reading, writing and math. Lifelong learning standards, which define what qualities a community wants in its newly minted graduates, should be the social-emotional backbone of all learning in a learner-centered system.

» Remain focused on the intended outcome of a learner-centered system: all learners reaching their full academic and personal potential.
Education organizations are obligated to produce learning results. During the transformation process, it is easy to become overwhelmed with doing “things” and implementing “pieces” of the system and losing sight of the goal, which is to improve learning of students. Therefore, it is essential to be relentless in the effort to ensure academic achievement and personal success for all learners.

Measures of Success
Transforming from a traditional grade-based, schedule-driven system where time is the constant and learning is the variable, to one that is performance-based, continues to require changes in culture, systems and structures.

Now 10 years into development, we have accomplished many elements of our vision, yet so much work remains. We must continue to develop our lifelong learning and adult learning curriculum and ensure that learning is relevant and meaningful in today’s world.

Dismantling a 125-year old educational system is incredibly challenging. The true measure of success is the voice of the learners who embrace their new opportunities and embody a new way of looking at their growth.

“It used to be all about the teacher,” says one 13-year-old Lindsay learner. “Now it’s all about us.”

Additional Resources

Author Barry Sommer suggests several informational tools that further detail Lindsay’s performance-based model.

»Beyond Reform: Systemic Shifts Toward Personalized Learning, a 2017 work by Sommer and three district colleagues, published by Marzano Research.

» “The Lindsay Story: Confronting the Status Quo and Creating a New Vision for Learning” identifies the significant challenges that have impeded progress toward an uncompromised learner-centered model.

» “THRIVE: Transforming Education and Empowering the Community,” a video highlighting the transformation of the Lindsay community in concert with shifts in its schools.