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How Can We Help All, the Board of Ed Included, Understand Student Centered Learning?

At last month’s Hartford Board of Education meeting, a $120,000 contract to sustain student-centered learning almost got voted down.  What was going on?


Student-centered learning obviously is a misunderstood phenomenon.  Some see the expected learning via the chromebook at home as government over-reach – a sort of loco … in loco parentis!  Others worry about whether teaching is becoming too electronic – or that there won’t be sufficient resources to provide the one-on-one tutoring student-centered learning calls for.  The digital divide, in which some students do not have Wi-Fi at home, certainly is another issue.  All of these concerns are real.


Yet students never before seen participating in class now seem to find a voice with the personalized, internship-backed, and mastery-based activities where they own their learning, the District’s Executive Director of Planning and Partnerships, Michelle Puhlick, said in an interview this week.


At Bulkeley High School, partnering with the Journalism and Media Academy; Pathways to Technology High School, partnering with the Engineering and Green Technology Academy and High School, Inc.; and the Law and Government Academy, Nellie Mae Foundation grants have started and expanded student-centered learning programs here in Hartford and taken education innovation to real heights, of which we all can be proud.


Indeed, on Thursday, November 17, 2016 at Goodwin College, Pathways will celebrate its summer interns and their employers with a student showcase featuring intern presentations, Principal David Goldblum said yesterday.  Here’s the link to that program information.


Students in these Nellie Mae-supported high school programs report experiencing less absenteeism – and having more interest in personally driving their learning, Executive Director Puhlick said.


There is a misperception that student-centered learning merely plugs students into computers – and unplugs teachers from being educators.  That is not true.  Rather, the approach shifts ownership over learning to the students – and establishes a dramatically different, challenging, and perhaps game-changing coaching role for teachers.  It is, of course, new to some educators, parents, and students – but many have been on this road for a long time, seeing that young people must be equipped to cope with the global information economy.


Students who want to be car mechanics today have to develop the requisite computer skills.  By taking control of how they learn, they also can prepare themselves for the unforeseen jobs of the future – money in the bank, so to speak.



So Why Do Board of Education Members Sometimes Not Seem to Get It?


The Board of Education approved the Education Elements contract for student centered learning last month by a narrow 4-3 vote (with discussion within this video at the 1:11:45 mark).  The opponents thought the $120,000 could be better spent elsewhere, but they apparently didn’t realize that the grant funding was not transferable – or understand how this paradigm shift holds great promise to elevate individual and societal economic health in the years ahead.


This isn’t the first time that members of the Board have opposed contracts that push student-centered learning forward, which raises a question about how many Board members have even witnessed this new learning paradigm in action.


While impact reports expected in the next few weeks will provide an external evaluator’s assessment of student outcomes, we encourage Board members to visit the participating schools and see for themselves the difference a student-centered approach to learning makes.


A District program last spring, to provide a hands-on experience with students drew only a couple of Board members, and that’s a shame.  The November 17 event at Goodwin College – or site visits to participating high schools – would help spread the word that student-centered learning is an important modernization – energizing kids and teachers alike.


We will be looking into the state of support for SCL in Hartford, as it is critical to moving the work forward.

Overcoming the Achilles Heel of the Equity 2020 Process

The Achilles heel of the Equity 2020 advisory process, to analyze school closing, consolidation, and relocation possibilities, was the absence of deliberation about raising school quality.  Instead, the focus was on closing buildings – with the assumption that more resources invested in fewer buildings naturally would enhance equity.  Is that a sound assumption?


Efficiency does not necessarily elevate equity, especially when no financial data is being used to inform just how much efficiency can be gained.  But it is clear to all that diverting attention and resources toward many low-performing schools, versus fewer mid-performing schools, makes a lot of sense.  No question there.  One central question remains, however: How will the larger buildings become super high-quality schools?


That’s the same question facing the Weaver Steering Committee, which just last week was re-launched after a few months of absence.  The area of focus: co-location.  How will three schools with three separate visions, missions, and goals co-exist and share resources in one building?


While this mandate is logical, it’s based on an assumption, which is  that Hartford Public Schools already knows how to operate a high-functioning neighborhood high school, where ALL students are prepared for post-secondary advancement.  We don’t hold that assumption, based on the track record of neighborhood high school performance.   There’s no question that HPS high schools do incredible work preparing youth, but the attendance, discipline, SAT, college enrollment and completion data tell a story of “almost” there, not “there already.”


The community has demanded that Weaver be the best; that it disprove the legend that only magnet schools can achieve near suburban school levels. The community has demanded that the Weaver design process address those problems still plaguing our schools – and, frankly, most urban high schools in American:


  • Can we ensure ALL teachers know exactly how to get disengaged youth to engage more deeply than ever, such that they don’t want to miss even one day of school?
  • Can we ensure ALL incoming students are READY for high school upon stepping foot into ninth Grade?
  • Can we ensure partnership with the local University results in ALL graduates attaining an associate’s degree?


The Bottom Line.


The community demands more from HPS, advocates, and all partners working on the Weaver project; the way this process starts will determine how it ends.


Working with each school separately on issues related to co-location is not addressing the core issues that still prevent our neighborhood high schools from hitting their outcomes for all students.  A new process must start to do so – a process that can then be used to address school quality issues at other high schools.  We look to the community to voice its standards and ensure that the lessons learned from Equity 2020 fully sink in prior to the Weaver Steering Committee going much farther down the road.



It’s Not Enough to Be Better than New Britain and Bridgeport

The 2015-16 Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) scores district-wide place Hartford’s Math and English Language Arts performance on par with Waterbury and higher than those in New Britain and Bridgeport.  Why aren’t the results much higher?


Looking at the proportions of students who met or exceeded the SBAC proficiency standards for English Language Arts (ELA) and Math, respectively, only 26.9 percent of Hartford’s Grade 3-8 students met or exceeded the standard in English Language Arts (ELA), while just 16.6 percent did so in Math.


Several additional worrisome signs jumped out of the SBAC data:


  • On the English Language Arts tests, 14 schools had a lower than 1 in 5 percentage of students reaching proficiency.
  • On the Math tests, almost those same exact 14 schools had a lower than 1 in 10 percentage of students reaching proficiency.
  • From a cohort improvement perspective, in ELA both Sixth and Seventh Grade students posted gains over the previous year’s previous grades, while in Math, Fifth Grade was the only one to show growth over last year’s Fourth Grade.


So What Should We Think of All This?


Nothing can be gleaned from the SBAC results concerning the individual potential of our children, and many would argue that not much can be gleaned concerning their current level of aptitude given the fact that computer-based testing is still so new for Hartford children, compared to those in the suburbs.


But what can be gleaned is this: The opportunity gap our children in Hartford face is astounding.  They enter school already grade levels behind, and they don’t get the intense support and time they need to catch up.  This is an enormous problem that must be addressed fully in the next handful of years.  Whether it be through school consolidation and reinvestment, student centered learning expansion, placement of students in higher-performing magnet, charter, and neighborhood schools, deeper coalition work, teacher training, individual student needs tracking, giving the Board of Education new mandates, or something else, our urgency must be greater.  And for those who don’t understand what our city is up against, take a look at this picture of the opportunity gap throughout our state.  Learn more about the calculation here.


No one wants to punish teachers or schools for the chasm that exists between the opportunities and level of preparation among students in surrounding towns versus those of our own children.  It’s not about blame.  But it is about the fact that we’ve known about the opportunity gap for a very long time and still have yet to address the problems in ways that are radical.


As we stated in our annual open letter, our reality is this: If the status quo does not change in ways that are FUNDAMENTAL to how education and supports are delivered to Hartford students, we are never going to close the opportunity gap, the achievement gap, or the expectations gap.


This means we have to do different work with the money we have and rely more on data to tell us what is working and what is not.  Most people to this day still have no idea how good a job our magnet schools do with just our Hartford children.  How is it possible that these data aren’t reported out by Sheff every year to evaluate performance?  What does this say about our desire to even know what’s working?


The Bottom Line. 


In Hartford, we have a coalition for Pre-K-3, called the Hartford Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.  We have the Hartford Partnership for Student Success from K-12.  And now we have the ALL IN! coalition for high school to workforce success.  These coalitions must be tapped even deeply to ensure all supports needed by students, are given.  We must find a way to squeeze more support from all of our assets in the region.  Period.


Let’s use these latest SBAC state test results to light a sense of urgency about supporting radical change in education.  The Student Centered Learning work at the high school level is innovative, is expanding, but is only a start. Why not push mastery-based promotion into all schools in Hartford, so that we don’t keep living by the one-pace-fits-all rule?  There is incredible work happening in Hartford, yet so many of our chronically low-performing neighborhood schools remain that way.  We must try to approach the problem differently.  One book we’re looking at to jar our own perspective is called No Child Held Back™.  Let us know if you want a copy.


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