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Different Paths to the Same Goal: College and Career Readiness

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By Joel Rose, the CEO and co-founder of New Classrooms

Imagine your daily commute is typically a 30-minute drive, straight up the highway, from Exit 1 to Exit 30.

One day, your GPS tells you there's a big traffic jam and it will take one hour to get there if you stay the course. It then proposes an alternate route that gets you there in 45 minutes. You take the next exit, follow the directions, and arrive as projected—later than you had originally thought, but sooner than sticking in the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

It helps to have many paths to get to the same destination. Why not offer the same opportunity to our nation's students?

Today's educational policies and practices are oriented around a single learning path in order to achieve college and career readiness—students in the same grade learn the same grade-level content at the same time. States measure performance annually in grades 3-8 against a set of uniform standards.

It's as if all that mattered was hitting Exit 10 in 10 minutes, Exit 20 in 20 minutes, and Exit 30 in 30 minutes. There's no real opportunity to consider alternate routes to the same destination.

I am the co-founder of New Classrooms Innovation Partners, a nonprofit organization focused on identifying new student learning paths in math. The program we've developed, Teach to One: Math, integrates a variety of instructional approaches in ways intended to provide each student with instruction tailored to their strengths and needs in an effort to prepare them for college and careers. 

Our journey to explore new paths to college and career readiness is still in its early stages. Transparency is important to us, which is why we publish annual reports for each partner school that shows how students performed on annual state tests and on NWEA's MAP assessment. We've also commissioned or participated in several third-party studies over the years, which have applied different methodologies, used different samples, and looked at different measures of success.

The recent release of two new studies highlighting the impact of Teach to One: Math provides a new opportunity to learn. Both studies provide invaluable insight not only into the impact of Teach to One, but more importantly into how to accelerate mathematical learning more broadly. 

One study, funded by a federal innovation grant and completed by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) at Columbia's Teachers College, focused on a three-year implementation of Teach to One at five schools in Elizabeth, N.J. It was the first study of Teach to One that focused on a Common Core-aligned state assessment (PARCC). For us, this was an opportunity to learn if the growth we had seen on tests such as NWEA's MAP would be reflected on the PARCC as well.

Many of the students in the five schools began two or more years behind grade level. For students who entered behind grade level, we had historically recommended they learn a mix of pre- and on-grade skills over multiple years in order to ensure they would be ready for high school and, ultimately, college. 

But that approach was in conflict with PARCC and New Jersey's accountability system that measured proficiency against each year's grade-level standards. If what matters are the scores on the 6th grade test, taking precious instructional time to detour and fill key foundational gaps from 4th or 5th grade can seem risky—even if doing so is essential for students' longer-term success.   

In collaboration with our school and district partners, we began to modify the program in different ways that more heavily prioritized exposure to grade-level material. The study includes details of the strategies we implemented to accomplish both these objectives, which varied widely by school and by year. In the end, the CPRE evaluation did not produce any generalizable conclusions about the program, positive or negative. But we learned vital lessons along the way that will inform new efforts to address this tension. 

The second study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and completed by MarGrady Research, differed from the CPRE study in several ways. It focused on all schools implementing the program for three consecutive years (not just those in Elizabeth) and thus provided a broader and more diverse sample size than the CPRE evaluation. It also compared the results to national norms as opposed to a control set of schools and students. This approach provided an efficient way to analyze data from multiple states, though it could only provide correlational (not causal) conclusions.

Perhaps most importantly, the MarGrady study used results on the MAP to measure learning gains over multiple years. This allowed us to compare the results of schools that committed to a multi-year learning path for students to schools more focused on single-year measures. 

Overall, the MarGrady evaluation found that consistently enrolled students across all 14 partner middle schools saw 23 percent greater learning gains over three years than students nationally. The study also found that schools with accountability systems focused on student growth (as opposed to the annual grade-level proficiency targets we tried to solve for in Elizabeth) grew 53 percent above the national average.

The two studies taken together seem to reinforce an emerging tension in math around grade-level-based accountability systems and approaches to instruction that enable more personalized paths to college and career readiness. 

Those who focus on standards-based reform and those who focus on personalized learning share the same objective: college and career readiness for all students. At the same time, the reality is that most students are arriving into middle and high school with significant learning gaps that must be filled in order to achieve that objective. Expecting teachers to fill these gaps in a single year while also preparing students for a grade-level state assessment is impractical and can set students even further behind.

In a truly student-centered world, each student would be on an ambitious but achievable path to college and career readiness that's right for them, and our assessment and accountability system would measure growth against that path. In pursuit of this vision, we all must recognize that the incentives and measurements that undergird today's policies are all oriented around a single path to success. 

We're grateful for the work of both studies, and more importantly the school leaders and teachers who work tirelessly each day to bring Teach to One to life and help us all to learn these invaluable lessons.

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