EdVisions is Supporting the Transformation of Public Education

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A new blog post from EdVisions’ own Dr. Ron Newell! Dr. Newell describes the way EdVisions is approaching school transformation, what changes schools can make, and these changes will benefit students and bring the outside world in to prepare them better for life after graduation.

Dr. Ron Newell

Dr. Newell is presently the Director of Assessment for EdVisions, and has served as the Director of Learning Programs for the Gates/EdVisions replication efforts. Dr. Newell was a founder of the Minnesota New Country School and EdVisions Cooperative. He has published four books that explain the rationale and practices behind the learning program and governance of the EdVisions Schools. His work with development of coaches training, staff development and evaluation has lead to creation of processes and materials that enhance the development and sustainability of newly created charter schools. His work with Mark Van Ryzin in development of the Hope Study has lead to an assessment of school culture that is becoming nationally recognized.

Dr. Newell was a high school history teacher and coach, a mentor teacher, a college professor, a Director of Clinical Experiences at two universities, and is a founding member of the EdVisions Leaders Center. His interests are learning theory, adolescent development, alternative assessment, decentralized distributive education, use of technology in education, and development of new curriculum for the development of Life-long Learning Skills.

Dr. Newell graduated with a B.A. from St. Olaf College, an M.S. from Minnesota State University – Mankato, and an Ed.D. from the University of South Dakota.

EdVisions is Supporting the Transformation of Public Education

Merriam-Webster defines transformation as a “thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” Although many of the illustrations of transformation are scientific, biological or related to physics, it is still possible to apply the word to organizations and to people. To transform is defined as “a) to change in composition or structure; b) to change the outward form or appearance of; and c) to change in character or condition.”

One of the missions of EdVisions is to transform existing schools, primarily by adding two major characteristics: teacher-powered schools, meaning teachers have the most say in how a school is run; and to personalize education, so that students have an equal say in what and how they learn necessary skills. Both of these transformative outcomes require changes in composition or structure of a school, so that it’s appearance (at least from within) will change, but mostly to change the character and condition of the school.

Why is this mission important? Why not leave schools as they are? For years the educational system has proclaimed their goal as transforming society. But does the system provide the necessary skills and dispositions for the young to transform society? It appears the primary purpose of schools is to equip students for the status quo. Curriculum and tests are designed to learn about what was and what is – not to utilize the outside world nor the inquisitive nature of the student to discover and create a new world.

This idea of involving the young in creating new worlds can be very scary for adults. Yet young people are doing so all the time, without our control or despite our censure. The world changes, transforms itself, goes through metamorphosis – we can be part of it, or be overwhelmed by it. But most young people have to skirt around school to become part of the world’s changes. One transformation needed is to involve more of the world into schools via problem-based or project-based learning. If it is to be done well, this involves restructuring the school day, possibly changes in the interior structure, the concept of “seat time”, and the relationship between student and teacher. Very scary, indeed!

So, why transform schools? What is it that present-day schools are not doing for students? The first answer would be that the seat-time, curriculum-based, teacher-directed school does not engage nor motivate, and that passing courses and tests does not necessarily prepare young people for thinking and creating. What does a transformed school deliver? There is enough evidence available (although ignored) that project-based schools, ones that are teacher-powered, do deliver problem solving, communication skills, creativity, responsibility, self-direction, time management, collaboration, presentation skills, and a work ethic.

This transformation in development of life skills is the outer layer of an inner transformation – one of dispositional hope, the development of agency and persistence, of developing pathways around obstacles, that develops an expectation of success. It is this transformational learning that delivers the skills to transform people and society. When learners can see themselves actually making a difference, by making a commitment to transform their own attitudes and beliefs, and aspire to higher expectations for themselves and society, then they can change the world.

Examples of a innovative schools within traditional districts – Impact Academy in Lakeville MN and Bluff Creek Elementary in Chanhassen MN

Why transform schools? To transform students into discoverers and creators – to motivate the young to transform themselves and their world. As EdVisions works with schools, or school creators, we envision this primary outcome – to help transform students from passive recipients of knowledge to knowledge creators and world changers. When you see it happen, the re-structured school is not so scary. It is instead inspiring!

EdVisions is taking the lead in school transformation regionally through the Midwest School Transformation Project, thanks to the generous support of the Bush Foundation. Schools in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota in the project will design by rethinking how to use the resources of space, time, personnel, technology and standards to better meet the needs of their students. Unique plans from all eleven schools will lead to student centered environments of relevant connected learning for all children. A strong EdVisions coaching team of fifteen are ready to support the teachers in shifting practices, skills, dispositions and mindsets as the school implements their plan to transform. The coaching focus is to build capacity and ownership within the staff and students, so when the three year project is complete the changes made are irreversible and sustainable, as schools continue on the journey toward more student centered learning.

To stay up to date on the project, follow us on Facebook and Twitter to see all the news as it unfolds!

Announcing the EdVisions Midwest School Transformation Project with support from the Bush Foundation

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Bloomington, Minnesota – EdVisions, a premier non-profit education development organization, announces the Midwest School Transformation Project, a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models.  To date there are 11 schools partnering with EdVisions; nine are from Minnesota: Bridges, Prior Lake-Savage; Caledonia Area Elementary, Caledonia; Career Pathways, St. Paul; Chatfield Elementary, Chatfield; Nawayee Center School, Minneapolis; Riverview Elementary, Farmington; Rochester Alternative Learning Center, Rochester; Sage Academy, Brooklyn Park; and Watertown-Mayer High School, Watertown.  One school from North Dakota is participating:  Wichakini Owayawa – Lakota Language Immersion Nest, Fort Yates and one school in South Dakota:  Porcupine School, Porcupine.    

With support from the Bush Foundation, EdVisions will assist partner schools with strategic planning and provide coaching and networking along with other forms of professional development to embed EdVisions’ Ed°Essentials framework into their redesign.  Key features of the framework include student agency and ownership, relevant project-based learning, authentic assessment, and teacher empowerment.  

What excites me about this project,” says Julene Oxton, the project’s director at EdVisions, “ is the opportunity it gives teachers who are ready to design and launch completely different learning environments for their students.  The information age is upon us and the teachers of the Partnership schools are connecting with EdVisions to design schools that will prepare students for this new world we live in.”

Schools that take part will create their own action plans based on the needs of their students and their communities. EdVisions is committed to providing staff with a collaborative environment for planning and implementation and to connecting the partnership schools to the regional student-centered network of educators.  Data on each school’s progress will be collected and reported throughout the project, adding to the body of evidence surrounding best practices for creating learner-centered schools.  

For more information, contact Julene Oxton at juleneoxton@edvisions.org or call 612-601-1043.

EdVisions is a non-profit education development organization located in Bloomington, Minnesota that provides support to schools across the United States seeking to transform learning.

Making Experiential Learning a Central Part of Your School Program

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Experiential learning… it isn’t new. It’s taught to all educators at some point in their training. But it is probably one of the best ways traditional schools can help prepare students for the non-traditional workplace and economy of today.

As Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro describes it, “learners able to apply the cycle to a wide range of experiences become masters of their own destiny.”

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

How do you teach a five-year-old to ride a bike? Would you show her pictures of a bike, make sure she learned how to spell the word “bike,” then have her color a bike, cut it out, and paste it to a piece of brightly colored construction paper and call it done? Probably not. At some point, she needs to get on the bike.  I can’t think of a single parent who would teach a child this way.  Instead, they would use a set of guided supports, such as training wheels or holding the bike up and running alongside until the child finds her balance.  When the child is ready, they step back and let go.  

Most learning requires doing of some sort. Didactic instruction – the act of telling as a method of teaching, provides students with baseline knowledge. And if all we want to do is expose students to an idea or concept, it may suffice.

However, if we want students to become creators and producers, now considered essential skills, the practice of telling falls short. We want doers, not observers of life. At some point, students need experiences that engage them with content and helps them develop mastery in a variety of topics, all the way from the simple to complex.      

Letting go is hard for teachers. They feel compelled to cover the material.  And with limited prep time, setting up active learning experiences can feel overwhelming. Let’s not forget the confines of a traditional classroom with four imposing walls; sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be space. And the schedule. Oh, that crucible.

But there is a framework for instructional practice that can take any classroom and transform it from a teacher-centered place to a student-centered space. All educators learn about it in one if not more of their education foundations course. They may have forgotten the specifics of the theory, but they’ve not forgotten their aspiration to create vibrant lessons – the kind they wish they could have had as students.  I’m talking about experiential learning.

Experiential learning has been around for a while – millennia, in fact. Even cavemen and cavewomen learned by doing. But in modern times, we credit David A. Kolb with turning it into an educational theory that helped us get our arms around something that people like John Dewey spoke of in 1938 in Experience in Education and in later decades Paulo Freire in his advocacy of critical pedagogy.  

In his Experiential Learning Theory (ELT), Kolb showed how learners create knowledge through experience. He put forward a cycle in which learning begins with a concrete experience: students take part in a learning activity.  In the second phase, they reflect on their observation. They ask themselves, what just happened, and what does this mean?  In the third stage, the learner attempts to construct their own theory or create their own model regarding what they observed. In the fourth stage, they prepare to test their theory in a new experience.¹

So goes a learning process one could say applies to anything in life, not just the classroom. Learners able to apply the cycle to a wide range of experiences become masters of their own destiny. When motivated and inspired to learn something new, they intuitively know what steps to take. The tech-infused environment we now live in puts a supply of endless knowledge at our fingertips anytime, anywhere. Today, knowing how to apply the cycle is a powerful skill indeed.

Still, people are wired differently; they don’t all learn the same way. We have to pay attention to natural tendencies. Kolb helped us in this regard as well and identified four types of learners:

  1. Assimilators:  Learners who respond best to logical theories
  2. Convergers:  Learners who prefer practical applications
  3. Accommodators:  Hands-on learners, and
  4. Divergers: Those who learn best by processing a broad range of information²

It would be wrong, however, to assume students can or should rely on solely one learning style. The fact is, students need to use multiple styles, especially as a task becomes more complex. A student may enter the task using their preferred style but eventually must use all four types of learning to advance their understanding. Flexibility is learned over time, and their confidence grows with successive use.

Teachers also show a preference for a particular style of teaching. David A. Kolb and Alice Kolb identified four roles teachers are likely to fulfill: coach, facilitator, subject matter expert, and standard-setter/evaluator.³ Naming these roles provides clarity around a teacher’s preference based on their educational philosophy regarding teaching and their personal style. But like students, teachers need to develop flexibility and apply all four roles based on the need at hand. Having said that, when a teacher’s preferred role is matched to a student’s preferred learning style, learning outcomes can be enhanced.    

In recent decades there has been a rise in the number of schools seeking to embed experiential learning in their curriculum. Frequent examples cited include competency-based education, action learning, problem-based learning, adventure education, service learning, and simulation and game learning.  According to Kolb and Kolb (2017), these types of experiences connect students to the real world.

When we think about the kinds of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and abilities needed in the 21st century, they all center on active participation in a world in a constant state of change. Students are graduating into a knowledge-based economy that expects them to learn and relearn, frequently. They must be adept at managing change. This means being curious, being adaptable, and being prepared to navigate uncertainty.  It’s not just in the economic sphere; as our society becomes more diverse and social norms shift and evolve, a student’s healthy social and emotional development depends on the same skill set.   

Experiential learning is not just important for schools. Rajiv Jayaraman, CEO and founder of KNOLSCAPE, a human resources firm uses experiential learning as the basis for talent assessment, development, and engagement. He believes experiential learning is the future of learning because it:

  1. Accelerates learning
  2. Provides a safe learning environment
  3. Bridges the gap between theory and practice
  4. Produces demonstrable mindset changes
  5. Increases engagement levels
  6. Delivers an exceptional return on investment
  7. Provides accurate assessment results, and
  8. Enables personalized learning⁵

It’s important to note that experiential learning differs from hands-on learning. While hands-on learning does, in fact, engage students, it falls short of helping students connect a typical classroom activity to a specific learning goal and create new knowledge because of their participation. This is where using a well-researched, defined approach such as the ELT can make a world of difference. Teachers don’t have to invent the proverbial wheel; they only need reinvent themselves.

Facilitating the ELT cycle as a teacher or advisor takes skill and a good bit of expertise acquired over time as the teacher participates in his or her own cycle of learning. If teachers add metacognition to their instructional repertoire and instruct students in how to think about their own thinking, they further equip their students with self-knowledge in how to learn while in school – and more importantly, for the rest of their life. This is how self-directed, lifelong learners are born and nurtured.

Considering the increased attention to experiential learning, it’s a good time to revisit Kolb’s theory. If you’d like your school to recommit to or fine-tune its use of experiential learning, or if you’re starting your journey as an individual, team, or an entire program, there are some excellent resources available to assist you.  

First, consider reaching out to EdVisions for support in making experiential learning a potent part of your educational program.  For years EdVisions has promoted experiential learning, and many of the schools in their EdNetwork feature it in their curriculum.  The most common examples which you can find here are project-based learning, personalized learning, outdoor and adventure learning, career and technical education, and cooperative learning.  Edvisions’ long-standing involvement in experiential learning that dates back decades makes them one of the country’s leading authorities. They are equipped to help you with planning as well as provide a range of professional development services.  For more information you can contact Dr. Steven Rippe at stevenrippe@edvisions.org.   

Second, Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc, founded by David A. Kolb in 1981 and its president Alice Kolb offer educators with a vast set of resources online.  You can learn more about teacher role preferences by examining the Kolb Educator Role Profile (KERP).  What I like about the profile is its simplicity.  In it, we see the different strategies teachers incorporate into their instructional repertoire.  As previously stated, though teachers may prefer one role over another, their work requires they use all four.  It is important they be intentional about which to use and when. According to Kolb and Kolb, “The KERP assessment instrument is designed to help educators sharpen their awareness of these preferences and make deliberate choices about what works best in a specific situation.”⁶ 

Kolb and Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory is also worth reviewing.  They do a superb job explaining the nine learning styles included in the inventory in a  2017 article published in the Journal for Engaged Educators.⁷  Further, you might want to explore the Institute for Experiential Learning, with which Kolb and Kolb are affiliated.  They assert the Experiential Learning Theory applies to all aspects of learning throughout life.  Beyond contracting with educators, they support development in human resources, professional services, health care, law, finance, manufacturing, management, engineering, IT and non-profit settings.

The more you can make learning relevant, and the more you can teach students to self-direct their own learning, the better prepared they will be for their future.  Where are you at in your journey in making experiential learning a central part of your classroom?


1. David L.  (2007, February 13).  Experiential learning (Kolb).  Learning Theories.  Retreived from https://www.learning-theories.com/experiential-learning-kolb.html.  

2.  Ibid.

3.  Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2017). Experiential learning theory as a guide for experiential educators in higher education.  A Journal for Engaged Educators, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 7-44.  Southern Utah University Press.  Retrieved from https://learningfromexperience.com/downloads/research-library/experiential-learning-theory-guide-for-higher-education-educators.pdf

4. Ibid.

5. Jayaraman, R. (2014, October 24).  8 reasons why experiential learning is the learning of the future.  Retreived from https://elearningindustry.com/8-reasons-experiential-learning-future-learning  

6. Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2017). Experiential learning theory as a guide for experiential educators in higher education.  A Journal for Engaged Educators, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 19.  Southern Utah University Press.  Retrieved from https://learningfromexperience.com/downloads/research-library/experiential-learning-theory-guide-for-higher-education-educators.pdf

7. Ibid, pp. 7-44

An Educated and Engaged Citizenry:  The Foundation of A Democracy

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Just as important as helping students find their voice is helping them learn how to use it. Today, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro takes a look at what schools can do to promote civil discourse and encourage students to become engaged citizens in our democratic society. 

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


An Educated and Engaged Citizenry:  The Foundation of A Democracy

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro


In the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, it’s hard not to wonder what students took away from the barrage of political ads that flooded the streets and airwaves. In today’s political climate, facts seem to be less clear. What is truth, and what is rhetoric?

Without an understanding of the issues and being well-informed, it is easy to be fooled by messaging that seeks to manipulate voters. How do we equip students with the skills to be critical consumers of political ads? More importantly, how do we ensure they are ready to fulfill their civic roles and responsibilities as members of a democratic society?      

Over 47 percent of America’s voting population turned out for the November 2018 elections.  That’s the highest percentage since 1966 when 49 percent voted.¹ This is good.  However, this surge in voters comes at a time when civic knowledge is at an all-time low. For example, in a 2015 survey published by The Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 31 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government.² Americans’ belief in democracy is also in decline.  In a 2016 Washington Post survey, 40 percent of Americans said they have lost faith in American democracy.³ The same survey showed a declining trust in America’s institutions (e.g., the media, organized religion, public schools, banks, unions, and big business), and only nine percent of those surveyed expressed solid confidence in Congress.

We pretend to hate politics, but politics are us. Thomas Jefferson is oft quoted as having said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” While there is no evidence he actually said or wrote this exactly as stated, there is widespread agreement it captures the spirit and intent of many of his writings. He was right. The fight for American independence was hard fought and won, but that was only the beginning. What followed has been much more difficult to achieve. Democracy is demanding. It’s messy, and it requires endless care and attention, precisely because of what it is – a representative form of government.  

In the age of social media, satellite radio, and 24-hour cable channels that increasingly promote narrow party agendas, voters can tune in to what they want to hear. Facts seem to be of little significance. As much as we’d like to think people make rational decisions when choosing who to vote for, they are far more likely to vote based on ideology, which is driven by emotion.⁴  

So what’s a voter to do?

No matter what ideology they may choose as they mature, we need to help students understand the complexities of government and how public policy impacts their daily lives. We need to teach them the importance of seeking empirical data to support their conclusions, and we need to show them how to distinguish fact from rhetoric. Doing so will prepare them for real civic engagement, the kind that goes below the surface and beyond party lines.

The educational journey begins with a solid foundation in what we think of as the social studies – civics, history, economics, geography, sociology, and psychology…the list doesn’t end there. The study of people and how they interact are timeless subjects, and they belong in the school curriculum. In fact, as topics, they transcend categorization and are multi-disciplinary in scope. When brought to life by an excellent teacher in any subject, students learn much about human nature and the world around them, past and present. In this way, we prepare them to construct their future.

A second and equally important way to prepare students to become members of the kind of enlightened citizenry America’s founders imagined is to enable them to experience democracy in action, even at a young age. After all, lessons lived become the finest lessons learned.

It is not uncommon for students to take part in different democratic governance structures, which are a vital part of the overall school experience. Student councils, student advisories, and participation in various clubs and activities (including officer positions) offer ways for students to experience real-world roles and responsibilities that are personally meaningful to them. It involves a stake. They invest themselves because the outcomes matter. As a result, they develop insight into themselves and others, as well as important leadership skills they will carry with them for a lifetime. In fact, students will tell you these were their most formative experiences in school, especially when they were given real decision-making authority.  

As a school administrator, the maturity and wisdom students demonstrated when performing their duties in these and other types of democratic structures awed me. Often they acted with more grace and dignity than adults, and certainly more than headlines would lead us to believe Congress and other legislative bodies act, where bickering and partisanship seem to have become the norm. Students’ sensibilities regarding fairness, justice, and inclusivity serve as models for us all.

Simulations are also effective, whether students take part in classroom, regional, or national and international formats. To prepare for citizenship, few examples compare to Model United Nations (MUN), a program of the United Nations Foundation. Though conducted under the format of a global community, the skills and abilities students attain through their involvement translate well into civic engagement at the local, state, and national/international levels, both political and non-political.   

Model United Nations is an authentic simulation of the UN General Assembly, UN Security Council, or other multilateral body, which introduces students to the world of diplomacy, negotiation, and decision making.”⁵ In this simulation-based educational program, students from all races, ethnicities, religions, political affiliations, and economic backgrounds come together to learn how governments work.  

Students fulfill the role of ambassador for the country they represent. As ambassadors, they tackle the same tough issues world leaders face. The simulation format provides them with a safe, structured way to delve into difficult, and potentially highly charged, matters.  

After conducting research, students prepare and present their positions in a mock assembly. By design, participation connects people who hold alternate, even opposing, views and interests. But as they pursue a meaningful resolution, ambassadors build shared understanding and mutual respect. By gaining new knowledge and exposure to different perspectives and the reasons behind them, students’ perceptions of others, the issues of our time, and the world evolve.

I spoke with Rhonda Fox, a long-time advocate for Model UN and Youth in Government, sponsored in the Twin Cities by the YMCA.  She has served as a coach for middle and high school students from the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School District for 18 years.  When I asked her why Model UN, she said she believes in connecting people to the world.  Her goal is to promote understanding among cultures and build bridges between different people.  “I love seeing how kids learn about each other and other countries. Model UN makes it real for them.  They see their commonalities and their differences.”

Model UN was a natural for Fox, who also runs her own travel business and formerly worked as a director for a sister city organization in Portland, Oregon before moving to the Twin Cities. She saw an article about Model UN in the newspaper. She and her daughter were interested and took part in an assembly tour to find out more. From there Fox volunteered as a parent and started a club in the district. The program was soon underway.

During her tenure coaching Model UN, Fox has seen a few changes in students.  “At first, students joined because they were mostly interested in other cultures,” she said. There is a cost to participate, so the program tended to draw students from families who traveled or were likely to have the means to travel. “Today it appeals to a broader range of students, not just privileged students.” In the middle and high schools in her district, scholarships are available, which has significantly opened access to all students regardless of income.       

Fox also observes that today’s students are more curious about global issues. “They are more aware of their world and more aware of diversity.” The Internet has brought the world closer to them, and the United States itself is becoming more diverse. She sees both impacting students.

The benefit to students cannot be understated, Fox insisted. “They become leaders.  The program cultivates skills like research, problem-solving, collaboration, and negotiation.” Their communication skills also flourish. Writing, public speaking, and debate are key features of the experience. Through their involvement, students become more self-directed and their self-confidence grows.

When I asked what difference a program like Model UN can make in preparing students to be citizens in a democracy, Fox was unequivocal. “Students see themselves being civically engaged.  They see the process [of government] and learn how they can fit in, how they can make changes.  Institutions and political processes don’t scare them. In fact, they feel empowered to make a personal impact on big issues.” The Model UN experience need not stop at high school. The program extends into college for students who want to continue their involvement, and many do.

Last spring, high school students organized a 17-minute nationwide walkout protesting gun violence; a student-led rally at the Capitol in Washington, DC followed a week later. What a terrific display of the freedoms they enjoy as citizens of a democracy. These were students who knew how they system works and how to make their voice heard.

In light of evolving attitudes towards democracy and the institutions that make a democracy work, and at a time when Americans are more divided than they are united, it is imperative schools foster a wide range of opportunities for students to take part in democratic forms of governance. Whether in the classroom or through a co-curricular activity, we can be sure students are building their personal foundation for future civic engagement in their state and community, as well as the country at large.  

What is your school doing to ensure students experience democracy in action? Can you do more?



¹ Domonoske, C.  (2018, November 8).  A boatload of ballots: midterm voter turnout hit 50-year high.  Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/11/08/665197690/a-boatload-of-ballots-midterm-voter-turnout-hit-50-year-high

² Kahlenburg, R.D. & Janey, C. (2016). Putting democracy back into public education.  Washington, DC:  The Century Foundation.  Retrieved from https://tcf.org/content/report/putting-democracy-back-public-education/?gclid=CjwKCAiAlb_fBRBHEiwAzMeEdll8WWXmqWf4ENIfUSCt9jZYevCRWlSNlvUZI2_EeHvcfIGK3IZMsRoCZJoQAvD_BwE&agreed=1#easy-footnote-bottom-46

³ Persily, N. & Cohen, J. (2016, October 14).  Americans are losing faith in democracy – and each other.  The Washington Post.  Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/americans-are-losing-faith-in-democracy–and-in-each-other/2016/10/14/b35234ea-90c6-11e6-9c52-0b10449e33c4_story.html?utm_term=.187606ec82f7

⁴ Winter, E.  (2015, May). Voting is Irrational.  Emotions Always Win.  The Guardian.  Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/07/voting-irrational-emotions-politics-ideology

⁵ Bridging the Education Gap and Creating Global Citizens. http://www.unausa.org/global-classrooms-model-un

Empowering Students in a Digitally-Enhanced Learning Environment

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Technology in schools is not new but how schools utilize technology with their students can make a big difference in how they learn. Today, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro takes a look at the successes Valley New School in Appleton Wisconsin has had by empowering their students to help embed technology in their learning environment.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


Empowering Students in a Digitally-Enhanced Learning Environment

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro


It is hard to imagine personalizing learning without the use of digital tools and resources.  Technology is the one tool we have that changes everything. But there are challenges.  Amidst the rapid rate of innovation, it’s not easy to keep inventory stocked with new devices loaded with the latest in apps and software.  It is also difficult to keep expanding staff and student expertise at a pace commensurate with how quickly things evolve.  

But Valley New School in Appleton, Wisconsin has found a way to stay at the leading edge.  In this digitally-enhanced school environment, they’ve turned to students to help them embed technology into the learning program, all the way from procurement to support for the end user.

Today’s students have never lived in a world without handheld devices, computers, and all the other digital gadgetry that permeates our times. For them, the use of these tools is almost second nature; they are curious and will explore their use without fear.  And they are eager to share what they know with others. Valley New School decided to enlist their students’ natural curiosities to achieve an academic outcome.

The school opened its doors as a charter in the Appleton School District 15 years ago.  Unlike a traditional school setting, it looks like a modern-day office environment filled with individual workstations.  There are no walls. Instead, the school atmosphere is casual and inviting.  Throughout the day, students meet in large and small groups, but they spend most of their time working independently on projects of their own design.  Teachers serve as advisors who’ve shifted the balance of power from the teacher to the student.  Deep relationships are formed as students and staff spend their entire school day together.  

Functioning as a true lab school, they have had strong support from the Appleton District.  By design, they exist to try new things, so the school district has given them wide latitude and the freedom to experiment.  Between them they work to find a bridge between what is done in the lab school and what the district might take to scale in the larger system.  

According to Nicole Luedtke, a co-founder, advisor, and co-administrator at Valley New School, personalizing learning in a student-centered environment has been a priority since inception.  But personalization, she says, has evolved over time. The adults have had to change to keep up with students.  “But it’s been worth it. The culture has transformed itself.  We cut out the ‘middleman’ that we used to know of as the teacher.  Now, I synergize people.”

Valley New School infused technology into the program from the start.  They wanted students to be creators rather than consumers of technology, with the primary focus on learning, not the technology itself.  They began by defining technology broadly.  According to Luedtke, “It’s all the evolving tools students use to learn and the school uses to support learning.”  Students are free to use whatever is available to help them accomplish their learning goals.  

Even more exciting, learning goals are driven by student interest.  As a result, what they produce varies widely. Luedtke states they do all the things adults do in the real world.  They code, they write, they research, they design; they even publish material from their personalized projects, all while pursuing what is important to them as an individual.  

The level of student voice and choice at Valley New School is a key reason students are so highly motivated.  This is a point worth noting.  It is one thing for students to use technology as a tool to complete an assignment from a teacher, as you would typically see in a traditional school setting.  It’s quite another when students use technology to explore their passions.  This radical reversal between what students “have” to do for an assignment versus tapping into what students “want” to do to explore and discover an area of keen interest is where the magic happens.  At a time in students’ lives when they are seeking autonomy and independence, this not-so-subtle shift can make a difference between students viewing school as meaningful rather than boring and without purpose.

Over time, Valley New School has seen an increase in rigor and adventure in student projects.  You might find students working on wind technology with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or you might find Luedtke and her colleagues arranging an international call so a student can connect with a project resource in London.  The possibilities have proved to be without limit.

Another part of their success in keeping students engaged in meaningful work is the access to new technology provided by the Appleton District.  But Valley New School went a step further than supplying students with a select set of tools and gave them a seat at the table where lasting decisions regarding technology are made.  According to Luedtke, the involvement of students is not symbolic; students have a real say.  

Staff learned students are often well ahead of them in seeing what’s on the tech horizon. They saw their kids were always testing new waters, so they decided to capture what students were learning and put it to use in short and long-term planning decisions.  The result has been a boon for innovation. The school’s organic use of what students bring naturally to school every day has opened up new territory that stretches them all.

Even when it comes to dealing with some of the more thorny questions that present themselves in a digitally-enhanced environment, students have risen to the challenge.  For example, Valley New School does not restrict resources. As learners, students don’t always make the best choices, so the school has had to grapple with issues surrounding acceptable use.  But because students have had an active voice in the entire process, they’ve been willing to join staff in solving the problem around what students should and should not do with the technology issued and the freedoms afforded them.  Without students at the table, it would leave the dilemma to staff to solve, with the likely outcome being a solution geared towards compliance enforced by the adults. Instead, students help drive a solution. In the process, they learn to think critically, collaborate, and communicate on multiple levels.      

In addition, empowering students has deepened the pool of onsite expertise.  They have shown they can acquire in-depth proficiency in various tools and programs that can also benefit others.  While staff advise and support students, students advise and support staff and each other.  In fact, students helping other students is a pillar of Valley New School’s personalized learning model.  Their mantra to students, Luedtke says, is, “Find an expert to show you what you want to know.”

Recently the school hired their newest advisor, one with advanced tech expertise, to further augment their in-house capacity.  Luedtke states the investment has accelerated everyone’s capabilities and eased some of the obstacles they were facing around keeping up with the latest trends.  Still, even with an in-house expert, it can be hard to synchronize tools and ensure everyone has immediate availability to personalized support.  For example, if a student wants to use a 3D printer, he or she may need access to someone to show how to use the printer or troubleshoot on the spot.  

What makes Valley New School’s approach work? One reason may be that the school has kept their program small.  Only about 70 students enroll annually.  Instead of expanding in size, the school has made it a priority to reinvest time, energy, and resources in quality and innovation.  A second reason may be low staff turnover. In 15 years, only six different advisors have been on staff.  With a total staff of five advisors at any given time, three of the four original founders are still at the school.  Longevity seems to have enabled the school to stay true to its original mission. Third, Valley New School is a teacher-powered school.  Staff govern themselves and make critical decisions surrounding the daily operation of the school, plan strategically, and manage their resources.  Students assist via a student governance structure called the ASA, which stands for Active input in School Affairs.  Here again, students have a real say in how their school functions. This highly localized governance structure that blends staff and student voice allows decisions to be made closest to the students.  The outcome has been a high degree of ownership and commitment across the board.        

In the evolution of the culture, and in the student body itself, you can see the original DNA of the program,” Luedtke notes with pride as she reflects on the 15 years Valley New School has been operating.  “We have a strong alumni following.  Many siblings of previous students attend, and we expect to see children of our first graduates soon.”  When asked what advice she’d give to others who want to inspire learning using a digitally-enhanced approach, Luedtke offers this advice:  “We use technology to help us and our school to be ever-growing and changing in order to be the best – no more, no less.  We have to be careful about when and what we prioritize.  It’s not about the next gadget or the next piece of software. These should not be the focus.  It should instead be on teaching students to express themselves thoughtfully through technology.”

Looking ahead, Valley New School recently established an endowment to help sustain operational costs and make investments in the facility so they can continue to support the school’s vision.  This tells me Valley New School intends to be around for generations. Without a doubt, students will play a big part in what that future looks like.

If you’d like to learn more about Valley New School, go to ValleyNewSchool.com  

¹For more information on autonomous school governance, see EdVision’s July 2018 blog post.

Making the Case for Restorative Practices

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Another great blog post from friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro! This time she’s taking a look at the powerful results that can come from incorporating restorative practices into schools and how it’s being done at Paladin Career and Technical High School.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


Making the Case for Restorative Practices

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

“If you do things to kids, that’s punishment.  If you do things for them, that’s permissive.  Do nothing at all, and that’s neglect.  But if you do things with them, that’s restorative.”  -Brandon Wait, Paladin Career & Technical High School

School discipline is something few people really like to discuss.  Let’s be honest – the topic is rife with negative connotations.  The conversation usually focuses on negative behaviors, and an inordinate amount of time is usually spent on determining the appropriate punishment.  “We need to hold kids accountable,” we say. “They must suffer the consequence of their choices.”    

Traditional discipline models were designed for one purpose:  to keep kids in line. This was usually done by threat of what would happen if students didn’t behave.  In the second half of the 20th century, we started to include incentives and a progressive plan of attack in hopes of modifying behavior before it went too far.  But even such good intentions as these were still dependent on denying privileges.  Missing recess, being sent out of class, suspension, and the big daddy of them all – expulsion – prevailed and continue to this day.

But has a system of threats really worked?  Perhaps it has acted as a deterrent for some students.  After all, if you go through a red traffic light, you know you’ll get a ticket.  We all get that. However, as teachers and administrators it’s as much our duty to teach students about appropriate behavior and how to make good choices as it is to teach them how to read and write.  Unfortunately, we are quick to judge and dish out consequences. For some students that just doesn’t work. In fact, we may be doing them more harm than good.

We are also perpetuating inequity in the system.  Take for example the disproportionate suspension and exclusion rates for students of color and students with disabilities, as well as the prevalence for boys to be punished at much higher rates than girls.  This is a topic of grave concern throughout the nation. Moreover, at a time when school staff report alarming increases in mental health issues in students, our standard practice of crime and punishment is simply unacceptable.  

Gradual changes in practice show that better options exist.  Some immediate examples that come to mind are Responsive Classroom, Conscious Discipline, and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, in which each seeks to promote pro-social behavior in an intentional, proactive way.  

Preceding them all, however, was restorative justice. Restorative justice began in the early 1970s as an alternative to the court system.  At its core was restitution, used as a way to compensate for a victim’s loss. Gradually, victim-offender mediation and victim-offender dialogue were added.  The idea migrated to schools and since the early 1990s has gained in popularity as a model for discipline.  Today, a broader set of strategies known as restorative practices are dotting the landscape.

Restorative practices begin with a different end in mind.  Rather than seeking to control student behavior through external reward and consequence, practitioners seek to teach students to manage their own behavior.  Trust, relationship, and community-building are key elements in developing social-emotional skill and awareness. These can be cultivated in a variety of ways, which means how restorative practices look in one school to the next varies widely.     

One school that has embraced restorative practices with sustained dedication is Paladin Career & Technical High School, a public charter high school in Blaine, Minnesota.  Their curriculum specializes in experiential learning, project-based learning, work-based learning, and service learning.  But what makes them special is their trauma-informed lens for working with students.

In existence since 2002, Paladin became keenly aware that many of their students were coming to school having experienced significant trauma, which was affecting every aspect of their lives, including learning.  Five years ago, they decided to develop a trauma-informed approach to managing behavior.  They wanted to take into consideration whether a student had experienced trauma and how it may be affecting how they responded to a situation, why they were withdrawing, or why they were acting out.  Today, they are proud to consider themselves a trauma-responsive school.  

The cumulative effect of childhood trauma has been examined, and the data are heartbreaking.  An oft-cited study on the topic is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, more commonly referred to as ACEs.  ACEs was conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente in the mid to late 1990s.  According to the CDC, ACEs “is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being.”  

The CDC continues to collect data on the original participants.  What has become clear over time is that childhood trauma is likely to have an adverse effect on a child’s growth and development, as well as their overall health condition.  The more adverse childhood experiences a person has, the greater the risk for a list of potential negative health, social, psychological, physical, and academic outcomes.

According to the study, adverse childhood experiences disrupt neurodevelopment, which in turn affects social, emotional, and cognitive development.  When their development is negatively impacted, students are likely to take on behaviors that present risk to their health and safety, which can lead to disease, disability, and social problems.  Ultimately, this can mean early death.  

I spoke recently with Brandon Wait, the Executive Director at Paladin.  He began his tenure at Paladin as the school counselor in 2008 when he was asked to create the student support program.  It was a “dream job for him, he said, because he could really counsel students.  He took over as director five years ago.  

Staff and students will say Paladin used to be a violent place.  Wait himself recalls the school environment five years ago. “We were suspending students at an unfair, high rate.  We were only treating the behaviors, not addressing the causes.  In fact, we were inflicting more harm and re-traumatizing students [with suspensions].  We had to change our approach.”  

The ACES study spawned the work around becoming a trauma-informed school.  When they read the study, he noted, “there was this aha moment when we knew our students had adverse childhood experiences and traumatic events.  Our students had been used and abused and beat up.  As a counselor, I knew that stuff comes out different ways.  Some students act out, others turn inward.” The ACES study showed that without addressing their previous trauma, students can’t thrive.  They decided to take action and become informed about the effects of trauma.

The first stage in becoming trauma-informed, Wait says, is trauma awareness.  Saff learned what trauma was and how it manifests itself. “For us, it was the awareness that childhood trauma events exist.  Then it was realizing, ‘now that you know they exist, what are you going to do about it?’”  Only then did they begin to change policy. Their search for solutions eventually brought them to restorative practices.

The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP)  defines restorative practices as “a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision making.”  They further state,

“The use of restorative practices helps to:

  • reduce crime, violence and bullying
  • improve human behavior
  • strengthen civil society
  • provide effective leadership
  • restore relationships
  • repair harm”

The IIRP considers restorative justice one of many restorative practices, noting that restorative justice is in response to a harm done.  Restorative practices, on the other hand, are proactive and seek to build culture and community so as to avoid harm altogether.

Now, five years later, suspensions are extremely rare at Paladin.  Students still come to school with a host of issues they must deal with, but they are finding success.  “It’s not just because we aren’t suspending kids,” said Wait. “It’s because we get to the root cause. As a result, kids are growing.  We are helping them get to where they want to be.”

What is most compelling about Paladin is that students who’ve experienced trauma are finding a way to restore themselves.  They find their voice, they gain self-control, and they begin to feel empowered to make better choices.  At the same time, they learn how to contribute to a restorative community.  

Just how does a turnaround like this happen in a school with roughly 200 students ages 14-21?   

Wait explained.  “Instead of asking why did you do that or what’s wrong with you, we started asking, what happened – what’s going on with you?  What do I need to know that I don’t that maybe I should?” In short, they probed the behavior to get at the root cause.  Usually, he says, it can be traced to a prior event.  “There is always more story to the outburst. Finding out more, you will likely be surprised.”

At first, they started with restorative justice.  Staff also embraced a belief supported by research that a trusted adult in a student’s life can mitigate the impact of the trauma.  They wanted to be those trusted adults and help students find other trusted adults in their lives.  But they realized they were still doing things to students, not with students.  “That’s when the flip happened,” he notes.  “Now it [responsive practices] is a way of being.  It’s how we run our school; restorative practices happen everywhere.”  

The school recently reaffirmed their commitment to the work underway.  “Paladin Career & Technical High School seeks to inspire education systems to cultivate resilience in all students by engaging their strengths through innovative, individualized learning with a restorative and trauma-responsive approach.”  So says their newly minted vision statement where the reference to trauma is explicit.  

Their mission statement is equally clear:  “Paladin Career & Technical High School nurtures a learning community that empowers students in their pursuit of social, emotional, and academic growth, thereby creating a foundation for a successful future.”  To them, it’s all about equipping students with the skills to overcome the effects of trauma in order to live successfully in whatever future awaits.

A central component of Paladin’s restorative approach is circles.  “We are in circles all the time,” said Wait.  “Every staff meeting starts in a circle. Every school day starts in a circle.”  There are guidelines for circles even though some staff use a modified approach. But in all circles, participants are given a voice and choice.  This allows all voices to be heard, and people can participate in a way that feels comfortable for them. Participants practice listening skills when everyone has a chance to speak their truth.  Circles also create a space where students can feel safe and build confidence.

Paladin learned a lot about their progress in implementing restorative practices when a University of Minnesota graduate student, Jennifer Blevins, completed a case study of Paladin during the 2017-18 school year.  The study affirmed Paladin’s work in this area and contributed greatly to the growing body of research on restorative practices.  In her dissertation, Disrupting the Status Quo: Case Study of Paladin Career and Technical High School’s Use of Restorative Practices, Blevin stated in her findings that, “Paladin disrupts the status quo for students and staff by making the system fit the individual, not the individual fit the system, restoring self, strengthening interpersonal relationships, being a safer school, and focusing on solutions not suspensions (p. iii).  

Paladin’s success is good news for those seeking a different way to support students.  But by all accounts, restorative practices embedded in the system on a school-wide level is time and staff intensive.  Even Wait, as passionate as he is about restorative approaches, is honest about the challenge in taking on a whole-school approach.  “You can’t put restorative practices in a box,” he cautions.  “You can’t have a policy manual for it.  You have to treat each situation on a case-by-case basis.”  He went on to say it must be embedded into a larger strategy.  They talk about student strengths. They talk about and teach resiliency.  They help students see they have resiliency within them, all in an effort to help students confront and overcome the trauma they have experienced, rather than letting the trauma defining them.  

One has to ask, could a traditional school do what Paladin is doing to individualize support for students in a restorative as well as educational context?  Or is it reserved for smaller learning environments such as Paladin?  

“It would look different,” said Wait, who teaches restorative practices at the post-secondary level and is frequently asked to speak to schools on the topic. He is convinced that if more people were aware of trauma and how trauma comes out in behavior, teachers and administrators would start treating behavior differently.  They would come to understand how punishment re-traumatizes students.  “Suspension is easy.  It’s what we’re used to.  I’d like to see schools begin with learning about trauma-informed care, which everyone can do in their own classroom.  Being aware and understanding gives you the tools and the ability to dig beneath and understand the behavior and will bring you to a better solution than suspension.  Nine times out of 10, the story behind the behavior won’t make you angry; it will break your heart.”

Not surprisingly, restorative practice has its critics, too.  Some argue it is a soft and permissive approach to discipline that doesn’t hold students accountable.  Wait offers a different view. “If you do things to kids, that’s punishment.  If you do things for them, that’s permissive.  Do nothing at all, and that’s neglect.  But if you do things with them, that’s restorative.”  

Wait also challenges the traditional meaning of how to hold kids accountable.  “Being accountable literally means to hold one’s self responsible for one’s action.  There’s no accountability in suspension,” he insists. “Using restorative practices, we say to a student, ‘You caused this harm; what are you going to do to repair it?’  Kids hold themselves way more accountable than adults do.  If you did this, it would change your traditional school.”

What’s his advice to schools that want to embed restorative practices in their school culture?  Wait urges schools to be realistic about the commitment they are taking on.  “It’s not a one-day training. Too many times schools grab on to the next buzzword and move on to something else.  You have to stick with it. This is a journey, and it will take time.”

But if schools are willing to go on that journey, Wait’s advice is simple:

  • Understand that it’s a way of being, not a program
  • Highlight the importance of trauma and start there, and
  • Look at your current approach and determine what needs to change

Most of all, Wait says, be open, not judgmental.  “If we’re curious about why a student acts out and not jump to judgment, we get more information.  With more information, we have more understanding.  With more understanding comes better resolutions and better outcomes.”

Maybe, just maybe, student discipline is less about what students do, and more about what the adults in your school do.  What do you think?


You can reach Brandon Wait at brandon.wait@paladincareertech.com or by calling 763.786.4799.  

Click here for an American Public Media podcast on Paladin’s trauma-informed approach.


Can Innovation and Redesign Start Small?

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Today on the blog we have another guest post by Bob Wedl, who offers some motivation for those of you starting out on your innovation journey in education. We hope you enjoy his thoughts on how to break through the doubts and start small.


Bob Wedl’s career in public education includes experience in both district as well as chartered schools, state department leadership and higher education. Bob served as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education in the late 1990’s leading Minnesota’s innovative standards and measurement initiatives, electronic data collection systems and new finance models including having revenue following students to the sites they attend. In the late 1980’s and early 90’s while serving as deputy commissioner of education, he was a leader in the development of much of Minnesota’s choice policy including open enrollment, post-secondary enrollment options, “second chance” programs and the nations first charter school law.

Bob served as the Executive Director of Planning and Policy for the Minneapolis Public Schools where he led the development of new models for serving students, expanded the Response to Intervention (RtI) model and assisted develop a “value-added growth accountability model.” He also provided direction to the district’s nine chartered schools and 33 contract alternative schools. Bob is an adjunct faculty member in the education administration departments at the University of Minnesota and the University of Saint Thomas. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Saint Cloud State University.

Can Innovation and Redesign Start Small?

By Bob Wedl

Indeed it can…and is actually the only way it will.  Win Wallen started his work on redesigning medical devices to treat heart disease in his Minneapolis garage.  Steve Jobs started Apple in his garage.  I’m not sure if Bill Gates had a garage, but the concepts behind MicroSoft started on a small scale.  Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook when he was a student at Harvard.  None of them had a support network behind them.  But each had two things in common: a vision and a strong drive to make that vision come alive.  Their vision was not to improve what already existed.  Rather, the vision was to redesign; to create new.

As a teacher, you too may have a powerful vision about what could be.  You may have said at a faculty meeting, “We could make learning just amazing.  What if….”  And the responses were, “We can’t do that.” Or maybe, “That’s not in the curriculum.” Or perhaps, “We have too many things on our plate now.  Don’t add any more.” Or, “How do you know that would work?”  So with a deflated ego you sat down.  Not to worry. It happens to all leaders of redesign.

Most redesign ideas have far more push-back than support.  The “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude is prevalent in most organizations and that status-quo mentality is not unique to public education by any means.  Clearly most everyone is supportive of improving what is currently being done.  But redesign is a different matter and the redesign’s are the big break-throughs in any field.  But because of cultural resistance to change, when companies want to make redesign changes, they frequently separate the part of the company working on redesign so those opposed to redesign won’t be able to sabotage the change.   When the Dayton’s Board started Target, they knew it had to be a separate entity so the Board appointed a president of Target rather than having Target report to the Dayton’s president.  Employees of Dayton’s were not supportive of Target because they saw it as competition and besides, Target sells cheap stuff and we are Dayton’s after all!  Educators think the same way.  That is why it is so difficult to start a new redesign school in the same building as a “traditional” school.  One teacher told me recently that when she decided to teach in the redesign school (in the same high school building) her colleagues accused her of, “Going over to the dark side.”

So what to do?  Maybe two or three teachers like the idea you proposed at the staff meeting and came up to you afterward and said, “We like your idea and have been thinking the same thing.  Let’s start having coffee on Saturday mornings to think more together.”  (You do not have to have coffee in your garage!)  So you develop your idea together and you boldly go to the principal and reminded of the reactions of other teachers when you brought the idea up at the staff meeting.  Or maybe your group knew the reaction of the principal would negative but you recall the new superintendent saying she wants new ideas so you decided to approach her instead. Pretty risky perhaps but innovators usually embrace risk as a natural part of the endeavor.  But alas, the response is, “Well that is very interesting.  Thank you so much for bringing that idea forward.  It is certainly something we will need to think about further.  But with the budget as it is right now….”

So now what?  Because “Let’s just forget it” is not in your vocabulary.  The group comes up with ways to implement parts of the redesign in your current classrooms.  The principal is ok with it “as long as you teach to the standards.” So the three of you begin implementation. You collect data and continue to refine the model. Student motivation to learn sky-rockets. The results based on your data are promising.  The next year’s results are even better.  Parents tell you their kids love school like never before. You present the data at staff meetings. Some teachers are impressed.  Others “considerably less so.”

Your team knows you are ready to expand to more teachers or maybe the whole school.  You know many students will fly if only they could have the opportunity to be with your team.  Not every student of course because you understand students learn in different ways.

You can write the end of this story…when you ask, “What if we….”

Student Advisories:  Forging A Different Path Forward

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Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her thoughts on the benefits of multi-age advisories and how they work at Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Special thanks to NWPHS and Peter Wieczorek!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


Student Advisories:  Forging A Different Path Forward

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro


What if schools in America had never been?  Imagine how they might be today if we were creating them for the first time.  Would they look very different?

It’s hard to say.  Tradition wields a mighty stranglehold in education.  But the fact is, our centuries-old approach to schooling falls short of what today’s world demands and is well-behind what research tells us we should be doing.  In the digital age, an unconventional, highly personalized journey is fast replacing an outdated curriculum that has been both time and space-bound. Despite annual school improvement efforts, schools find it hard to keep pace with change.  

Perhaps the future begs a different path.  Instead of trying to make the old model better, what if we set out to create the kind of schools kids need?       

Northwest Passage High School, a charter school in Coon Rapids, Minnesota did just that when they broke with tradition 15 years ago.  Originally designed as a school for credit-recovery, they could have stayed the course and did what many alternative schools do.  They could have dished out packets of work to complete while counting down seat time until students amassed enough credits to earn a diploma.  But they listened when their students told them why and how school had failed them.

Peter Wieczorek has been an employee at the school for 15 years.  For the first eight years, he was a biology advisor (teacher). For the last six, he has served as its director.  Having been there while the school experienced its transformation, he’s also part historian.

According to Wieczorek, when the school first opened, students said they loved its small environment and the intimate class sizes.  But most of all, they valued the connections they were making at the school. “Having someone who was looking out for them, someone who connected with them personally was what they had missed in previous settings.”  Students insisted that if they had experienced this type of program earlier in their school career, they would not have failed and would not have had to rely on credit recovery.   

Research supported what their students were telling them.  “Teenagers need strong mentors and role models besides their family,” notes Wieczorek.  “We knew and believed in the power of small groups, and we wanted to create that.”

To the staff, it has been a hero’s call to action ever since.  With an inspiring mission statement to guide them, bit by bit, they’ve built a project-based program where students take responsibility for their own educational plans.   

Student advisory groups serve as the foundation for keeping things up close and personal at Northwest.  Advisory groups are not a new concept in education. They’ve been around for decades. Unfortunately, in traditional secondary schools, most have devolved into brief study halls with little purpose.  Not so at Northwest Passage High School. At Northwest, students’ entire educational experience stems from their advisory program.

First, advisories are used to set the culture.  From the start, they were always multi-age. “We wanted to strip down the hierarchy of traditional school models,” says Wieczorek, “and get away from the idea we had to separate students by age and grade.  Instead, we wanted a learner-centered model.”

Second, staff knew they wanted to focus more on project-based learning, which is highly individualized.   They wanted students to earn credits based on their interests, not what grade they were in because of their age.  Advisories became a natural drive wheel for personalizing the curriculum.

One reason multi-age advisories work so well at Northwest Passage High School is that students can enroll at any time in their high school career.  In fact, roughly two-thirds of students enroll in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade. Grade levels no longer serve a purpose. There is no stigma of what grade a student is in.  If it takes less time or longer than four years to graduate, that’s okay.

“Our approach has freed students up to really focus on their goals,” says Wieczorek.  “Students are often surprised when they dig into it [the curriculum] and they aren’t labeled by grade.  And they look at each other as individuals, not around labels and grade-level stereotypes.”

How Northwest organizes their multi-age advisories is not left to chance.  Students new to the school are carefully placed to ensure a cross-section of experienced students are available to teach and mentor new students.  As the director, Wieczorek does an intake meeting with each student and family.  In it he listens for the student’s interests, their prior learning experience, what has gone well, and what has not so he can match the new student with the right advisor or group.  Students stay with the same advisor for the entire time they are enrolled, which further builds a sense of belonging within the school community.

One would think advisory is for a period of the day, but here again, Northwest Passage breaks with tradition.  After 45 minutes of schoolwide silent sustained reading every morning, advisories open with announcements and other routine check-ins, but from there it can go a variety of directions.  

Morning advisory sets the tone for the day.  Advisors intentionally engage students in the group experience, which never exceeds 15 students.  Seated in a circle, sharing begins. Questions may be asked, topics may be explored, or the conversation may go organic based on what’s on students’ minds.  Yet advisors carefully guide their group to ensure connections are made.

According to Wieczorek, “Advisors get students to talk about what’s going on in our kids’ world.  This approach really helps personalize and humanize everyone there. We’ve found it helps to reduce things like conflict and bullying.  Kids get to know the people in their advisory as a person.” Advisories also create an identity, something that ties the members together.  This further builds group cohesion.

Beyond their morning meeting, advisories are not defined by time.  Students could be in their advisory all day long working on their individual projects.  Or they move around the school as needed for projects that require certain spaces, such as a science lab.  There are also numerous student committees where students take an active role in democratic forms of student governance.  What better way to enlist the commitment of students?

It’s not only about forming relationships at Northwest Passage.  As of last year, the school converted fully to a project-based model.  The advisor plays a critical role in helping students create their individual projects.  “They are the front line,” Wieczorek says. “The student drives the process, but there is a lot of teamwork between the advisor and each content specialist to create the student’s personalized learning plans.”  This ensures state standards are met and competencies are formally assessed. A student’s advisor signs off on each project.

It’s easy to see that at Northwest Passage High School, advisors are more than a teacher.  Because advisory groups are kept small, advisors have the benefit of seeing the big picture in each student’s life and get to know them on a deep level.  They are their students’ advocate, their life coach, their cheerleader, and the one ready to deliver tough love when needed. The role comes naturally to staff, says Wieczorek, because they believe in what they are doing.   

When asked what advice he’d give to schools that want to deepen the advisory experience, Wieczorek becomes reflective.  “In too many large traditional high schools, the connection between adults and young people has been lost. There are too many classes and too many students.  The relational piece has gone missing. People who want to teach want those connections too. The best way to support kids,” he says, “is to build long-term relationships with them.”  

That’s good advice.  

What will your advisories look like come September?  

You can visit Northwest Passage’s website at http://nwphs.org.

EdVisions Comprehensive Assessment Program

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Today on the blog we are sharing findings from the ECAP – EdVisions Comprehensive Assessment Program – which was completed over the 2017-2018 school year in coordination with eight charter schools. ECAP was lead by Dr. Ron Newell of EdVisions, Scott Wurdinger, PhD,professor of experiential learning and leadership studies at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota, and En Sun Kim, Experiential Education Graduate Student, MNSU, Mankato, Minnesota.

EdVisions Comprehensive Assessment Program

The Schools

The ECAP was presented at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year to schools in the EdVisions network of schools. Eight schools were chosen and agreed to provide data for us to attempt an assessment of four items, three of which are not typically assessed in middle or high schools. As the EdVisions network schools are charters, and have a distinctive program model, the alternative assessment program was intended to showcase what the personalized, project-based, teacher powered schools, can do for students in their care.

The eight schools are comprised of six charter schools in Minnesota and two charters in Wisconsin. All eight schools have been successfully operated for more than 15 years. They all started utilizing the Ed Essentials of creating small communities and full-time advisories; personalized, project-based learning; authentic assessments; and teacher ownership. As teachers in charters, they were in control of their own environment, and were accountable for their results.

The data from the six Minnesota schools compared to the state of Minnesota data in the following manner: both the EdVisions Schools and the state of Minnesota averaged approximately the same number of white to non-white, with white numbering 68% in EdVisions Schools, 67% statewide; they were also very close in the number of free and reduced populations – 40.6% to 37.2%. There is divergence in special populations, however – EdVisions schools averaged 35.8% special education students to the state’s 15.7%; EdVisions Schools spent on average 25.2% of their ADM on special education, where schools across the state spent 18.7%. Despite the large number of special education students, the ACT averages were quite similar – 20.73 to 21.77. College enrollees from EdVisions Schools consisted of 59% of graduates, 75% for the state; but they were again similar in the percentage of students who persisted into a second year and accrued credits, 70% to 79%.

What do we make of the above data?  The fact that so many special education students are flocking to charters ought to indicate the need for different types of schools. The small community schools that are made up of full-time advisories and personalized, hands-on, authentic projects, appear to meet the needs of students who learn differently, or do not fit in, or have been labeled, or who have been harassed.

As charter school enrollees come to the schools with more deficits than previously, the school personnel are taxed to their maximum capacity to achieve academic goals; yet they do so quite well. The reading proficiency of students in EdVisions Schools was 63%, and in Minnesota 60% in 2016. Not only do they educate the difficult to educate, but they also meet other goals, goals not addressed or assessed by the states.

Attention paid to the social-emotional state of students has gained credence within the educational community in the past 5 years. Our assessment program has looked at both the social emotional climate of the schools, and also the life skills students are developing. Those two elements are rarely, if ever, attended to in middle and high schools.

The Assessments

The social-emotional assessment used by EdVisions is the Hope Survey, which measures hope, engagement, autonomy, belongingness, goal orientations, and academic press. The surveys are designed to determine the level of hope and the level of engagement of the students. The rest of the surveys are intended to show a school whether their institutional climate is conducive to raising hope, and capable of reversing the national trend of a lowering of student engagement each year from 6th through 12th grades.

We chose to utilize NWEA’s Measure of Academic Progress for academic growth because all but one school gave the assessment twice a year. The RIT score from that assessment is a sliding scale number, as are the hope and engagement scales. RIT scores can be followed each year to see how students are progressing. The scores from 2017 to 2018 could be spring to spring, or fall to spring, depending on how the schools administered the assessments.

For life skills, we found that the eight Partner Schools had many forms of assessments of student growth in life skills. We chose to look at several rubrics used by the schools, pull out some basic elements from each, and to utilize nationally known life skill assessments.

In the end, we decided that we ought to minimize the number of traits and settle on two major concepts of life skills all schools developed in students; Self-directedness, and Collaboration/Interaction. These two traits were witnessed in schools with high levels of emotional engagement, autonomy, and mastery goal orientations. The project-based model, with full-time advisors who oversee all factors of a student’s development, generally produces a student that is an independent thinker, a goal setter, uses resources well, can manage themselves, has internal motivation, is reflective and can evaluate themselves, and is adaptable. Those traits were woven into a rubric.

Also, witnesses, and case studies of students from these schools, constantly referred to how well students could interact with each other and adults, noting how mature and respectful students were. As there were several local rubrics that included some aspects of these traits, we decided to include them as a second general area. The traits of a collaborative and interactive student include; has communication skills, has developed social skills, they exhibit responsibility and tolerance of differences, interact with peers and adults in mature and respectful ways, develop good presentation skills, and the exhibit skills as a organizers and leaders. These skills were also woven into a rubric.

The scoring on the rubric was on an eight-point scale. Level one was where a beginner more than likely would have little awareness of how to manage the personalized, project-based system. In other words, a novice. Level 2 would be some awareness of what are the needs and expectations, and the student has attempted to meet some of them; a 3 is where students are advancing novices and demonstrate some items on the rubric, but still need prodding and coaxing; a 4 means an advanced novice who has inconsistently exhibited most traits; a level 5 means the student is becoming a strategic learner and demonstrates most traits with encouragement; a level 6 demonstrates the learner has demonstrated enough of the traits at a high level and would be ready for graduation; a level 7 means the learner needs little support and is an emerging expert; a level 8 means the student can function at a high level on their own, and is confident of their ability to succeed.

The rubrics were presented to each school via an online instrument called Qualtrics. The online system worked well, as we had 646 responses. Most assessors were comfortable with those concepts, and could utilize their own rubric assessments in scoring the rubric. We believe this system worked well enough in this study to not only continue to use it, but to broaden the assessments to more schools in the future.

Findings from the Surveys

The first item assessed was engagement. Engagement was measured by a self-perception survey embedded in the Hope Survey. Engagement is measured on a scale of -10 to +10. It is measured in two categories; behavioral and emotional. Any score under 0 is considered very low, low 1.00 to 1.49, moderate from 1.50 to 2.99, high from 3.00 to 4.49, and very high any score above 4.50.

These surveys indicated that the eight EdVisions Partner Schools were able to increase engagement in new students that enrolled in their schools in the fall of 2017, by 1.13 points in behavioral engagement, and 3.78 points in emotional engagement. Over the past two years, the schools were able to maintain high engagement in the schools (on average) of 3.59 points in behavioral engagement, and 3.74 points in emotional engagement. As both of those numbers are considered to be in the high range, and the fact that most of these schools maintain this high average across the grade levels, the model program using the Ed Essentials has proven to more fully engage students than is expected in most schools.

Engagement has been correlated to hope. “Hope” reflects an individual’s perceptions regarding their ability to clearly conceptualize their goals, develop the specific strategies to reach those goals (i.e., pathways thinking), and initiate and sustain activity based upon those strategies (i.e., agency thinking). According to hope theory, a goal can be anything that an individual may desire to experience, create, obtain, accomplish, or become.

Higher hope has been linked to student behavior, attendance, academic achievement, and increased confidence as achievers. Higher hope students set more challenging goals for themselves, and perceive they will be successful in achieving their goals. Higher hope students will have a greater chance of success in college and beyond.

It was the intention of the EdVisions Assessment Program to measure hope in students over the 2017-2018 calendar year to see if the 8 schools indeed raised hope and engagement. In a past study in 2007-2008, hope was found to have a high correlation to achievement in math and reading. This study intended to see if this was still true, and to include not only hope, but also a life skills assessment.

For this assessment, we wanted to have matched student-by-student scores. In the eight schools there were 604 students who took both a 2017 survey and a 2018 survey. The average level of hope for these students increased from 47.87 to 49.03, an increase of 1.15. This is considered a significant rise. The hope scale is a scale of 8-64, and 48 is considered an average score across the nation.

Many of the students come to EdVisions Schools with hope levels below 40. We also find that low hope students’ scores fluctuate more wildly than do higher hope students. If a school has significant number of low hope students (the average incoming student across the 8 schools is now approximately 44), then we have more students who have difficulty raising their hope levels. Moods affect them negatively and at times we see large drops in scores. We also see large gains, so they do even out. But we must remember, it is in raising hope that these young people will have a chance to be successful in their future.

The gain of 1.15 in hope was encouraging. If students can gain that much a year, it is possible for one scoring 44 upon enrolling to raise hope to 48 in four or fewer years. One discouraging note is that only 56% of the students increased their hope levels. Schools need to have a positive influence on more students than that in the future. This leads us to think that we must strengthen network schools by placing more emphasis on raising hope than on raising math and reading scores.

Historically strengthening hope and developing higher hope in students is done by paying attention to the other variables in the Hope Survey; engagement, autonomy, belongingness, mastery goal orientation, and academic press. We know that the Ed Essentials put into operation by skilled and caring advisors can raise engagement and hope. We also believe that higher hope in students will make a difference in their achievement, whatever a school sees as achievement.

This goal of this study was to see if the Partner Schools indeed did have high engagement, could raise hope, had good achievement results, and could assess life skills as part of that achievement. We have shown that engagement can be raised, and that hope was raised in matched students.

Other Achievements

The data from all assessments was downloaded and shared with Dr. Scott Wurdinger of the Experiential Education Department ay Minnesota State University – Mankato, and a graduate assistant researcher from the same university, Ms. En-Sun Kim. Together we crunched the numbers and analyzed the data.

The following chart indicates what we found:

N Assessment Score 17 Score 18 Change
604 Hope 47.87 49.03 +1.15
560 Math RIT 230.81 234.27 +3.46
550 Rdg RIT 224.72 226.73 +2.01
646 Self Dir. 3.55 4.58 +1.03
646 Coll./Int. 3.81 4.82 +1.01


The scores held some surprises, but generally the data indicates what we expected to see – a raise in hope, positive movement along the RIT scale, and an increase in life skills. One surprise was how well the schools did in raising math skills. This had been difficult years ago when these schools were previously studied. Because many students come to these schools behind, in math especially, the schools had to develop means of providing the necessary resources, time, personnel, and method to increase math skills. They are doing well in that area.

There was an expectation that reading skills would grow at a greater rate than math, as that was the case in the 2008-2009 study. Sustained silent reading, with students reading what they wish to read according to a personal reading plan, generally helps students gain in skills assessed. This RIT gain was a bit less than expected, but still respectable.

We had no expectations concerning the life skill rubric – but where the numbers fell indicate that the average student (if there is ever such a thing) is in the middle of the rubric. The rise of over one point on the rubric for both skills assessed is, we believe, an expected change that advisors would see in their charges. As this was the first time such a scoring rubric was used, it will take more time to see trends and have expectations.

The Correlation Study

We did a correlation study to determine if hope was correlated to other achievements, and to see if there were correlations of life skills to reading and math. To determine a correlation between elements, a group of students that were assessed in all variables had to be found. A correlation study cannot be done with varying populations. Amongst all the students, we found only 252 that had all ten variables assessed.

This is less than half of those assessed in other areas, and is unfortunate. Because we only have these 252 responses on all items, we do not have a strong picture of how these items correlate. As will be seen when the data is studied, there are some differences in the changes from the chart above. There are differences in the averages in hope, for example.

Why were there so few in the correlation study? We found that there were many students who missed one assessment or another; a pretest or posttest, a survey taken in one year, but not the other, etc. Schools find it difficult in a highly mobile and transitory population to have all students assessed on every item.

The Findings from the Correlation Study

The following chart indicates the numbers in the variables, with pretest and posttest changes:

N = 252 Score 17 Score 18 Change
Hope 47.03 47.69 +0.65
Math 231.15 235.04 +3.88
Reading 225.33 227.69 +2.36
Self-Dir. 3.20 4.48 +1.28
Coll./Int. 3.50 4.73 +1.22

As can be seen by comparing the previous chart to this one, Hope was overall lower and raised less, and RIT scores went up more. Obviously, in this group of students, there is no correlation of Hope to RIT scores. And the derivation from the formula showed just that. This is different from a study done on EdVisions Schools 10 years ago, where strong correlations were found.

The numbers presented below are correlations between data for the 252 matching students from the 2018 data. The 2017 data showed very little difference. Take into account that a weak correlation is any number over .10 to .30, a moderate correlation is from .30 to .50, a strong correlation is anything over .50. So what did we find?

There was a weak correlation of Hope to Collaboration/Interaction (.23); and Hope to Math (.12). There was a moderate correlation between Hope and Self-Direction (.31); between Math and Self-Direction (.37); between Math and Collaboration/Interaction (.31); and between Reading and Self-Direction (.31). There were two strong correlations: between Math and Reading (.70), and between Self-Direction and Collaboration/Interaction (.86). Both of these are obvious and totally expected.

So what can we say concerning the correlations? We were disappointed that there were not strong correlations between Hope and anything else studied. But there is a positive in that Hope is moderately correlated to Self-Directedness, and has some small correlation to Collaboration/Interaction. Creating environments that encourage self-directedness, collaboration, and interaction skills is necessary for the well-being and success in the future. The growing of those skills and hope are worthy goals in and of themselves, never-mind the lack of correlation to math and reading.

In fact, taking in consideration the study done 10 years ago showing a strong correlation of Hope to Math and Reading, it could be said that paying more attention to the academic needs may have had an adverse effect on the growth of Hope! Having to pay so much attention to Math means less time on interest-driven projects, which may be more valuable to most students in that the build the life skills. Something to ponder.

The lack of correlation of Hope to academic achievement in this study is no reason to believe Hope does not matter. Hope is, in and of itself, a goal well worth attention. We took a look also at whether at students raised in hope versus those who had a loss of hope on the survey. There were 56% of the students who were assessed on all assessments who raised Hope – 44% that did not. Does it matter if students are scoring lower on the Hope Survey?

The changes are listed below:

Assessment Higher Hope Lower Hope
Hope +6.66 -6.87
Math +4.39 +3.00
Reading +2.58 +1.96
Self Dir. +1.43 +1.13
Coll/Int. +1.34 +1.11

Obviously the larger differential is in Hope. But the point is that if Hope is not attended to, students who lose Hope will not do as well on other assessments. The fact that the assessments show such gains, even those with lower hope, is a credit to the schools and advisors. And, of course, the students. But it is also obvious that you want to affect students’ concept of themselves as goal setters, positively seeing themselves as achievers. It would be interesting to see that if the percentage of students who raise Hope is over 60%, for example, what would happen to other assessment results?

A correlation study was done on these two groups. We will refer to the following chart:

Correlation Hope Increased Hope Decreased
Weak (.1 to .3) Hope to Self-Direction;

Hope to Collaboration/Interaction

Hope to Math;

Reading to Self-Direction;

Reading to Collaboration/Interaction

Moderate (.3 to .5) Math to Self-Direction;

Math to Collaboration/Interaction;

Reading to Self-Direction;

Reading to Collaboration/Interaction

Hope to Self-Direction;

Hope to Collaboration/Interaction;

Math to Self-Direction;

Math to Collaboration/Interaction

Strong Math to Reading;

Self-Direction to Collaboration/Interaction

Math to Reading;

Self-Direction to Collaboration/Interaction

Hope only appears as a weak correlation to the Life Skills among the hope increasing group. Apparently, as Hope rises, so will Life Skills to some degree. Or, as Life Skills grow, Hope may also be positively affected. But stronger correlations exist among Reading and Math with the Life Skills. To those whose Hope is rising, Life Skills apparently are tied to student’s skills in Math and Reading. This would appear to be logical, as does a small correlation to Hope. It is apparent also that Math and Reading skills went up to greater extent among this group than those who lost some measure of Hope.

To those who did lose some measure of Hope, their Hope was a stronger correlation to Life Skills than with those whose Hope rose. In other words, the fact that their Hope decreased, their Life Skills rose at lower rates. Reading and Math are more linked to Life Skills amongst those whose Hope increased; Math and Hope more linked to Life Skills amongst those whose Hope decreased.

Raising math scores takes a great deal of time and effort. Might it be that increasing Math scores had a detrimental effect on Hope and Life Skills (might they have raised at a greater rate if fewer students lost Hope)? What did Life Skills have to do with Hope decreasing? The data will probably not answer those questions, as those hypotheses were not really measured.


Summing all this up is difficult, but we have some measure of what is possible in schools that adhere to the Ed Essentials. First, Hope for over 600 students increased 1.15 points on the Hope scale, from just below average, to slightly above average, an increase of 1.8%. The Math RIT scores rose 3.46 points, an increase of 1.2% for the 560 students who had pretest and posttest data. The Reading RIT increased 2.01 points, an increase of .7%. The Life Skill of Self-Direction rose 1.02 points, for an increase of 12.9%; and Collaboration/Interaction rose 1.01 points for an increase of 12.7%.

RIT scores can be compared to national average gains –  the Math and Reading increases commensurate to the national average growth for 7th and 8th graders and well above the norm for 9-11th grades. We know that a Hope gain of 1.15 is quite significant, as we can compare to gains in past years. The Life Skills assessment was used for the first time, and it will take a number of more uses to establish norms.

Not having a strong correlation of Hope to other measurements is not terribly concerning – weak and moderate correlations were found. But we re-iterate the point that Hope is not just a corollary to learning – it is a core outcome, and paying attention to growth in Hope will benefit students in many more ways. The fact that schools can in fact raise Hope, especially when so many are coming to our schools with lower than average Hope, is gratifying; yet it is daunting, as well. We have to do more for students than ever – raising Hope for the future ought to be a goal, a mission. We must pay attention to the needs of children with little Hope.

We need to continue this kind of study – to see trends, gather data on more students and more schools, to see if different types of schools with different programs have different data, etc. EdVisions would be interested in any school community that would like to account for the social-emotional well-being of their students, and to see if that affects basic skills and life skills. Join us in assessing what really matters in schools; raising hope and developing life skills, while raising achievement.

Autonomous School Governance: Create a Culture of Commitment

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Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her thoughts on how autonomous school governance can create a culture of trust and commitment that is sustainable.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

Autonomous School Governance: Create a Culture of Commitment

By Nancy Allen Mastro

The school accountability movement began in the 1990s out of a growing fear that student achievement was edging toward the brink of disaster, especially when comparing American students’ academic performance to their international peers. With nothing but standardized test scores to defend or debunk the assumption, the conversation around schooling in the United States whipped into a political frenzy. Even before then, state and federal regulation had been on the rise. But when No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002, the focus on accountability reached new heights. Power shifted considerably from the local level to the state house, and judging a school’s performance almost exclusively on test results was here to stay.


Since then and multiple iterations later, policy makers have continued to focus solely on conventional solutions that include hundreds of pages of mandates prescribing what schools, teachers, and principals must do, all in the name of getting better student outcomes. The accountability movement could just as well be dubbed The Compliance Movement. Legislators have taken the stance that they know best, leaving those closest to the students little room for making decisions. Increasingly, schools don’t look and feel like places where practitioners are trusted or respected, and teachers are more frustrated than ever.  


But teachers are a determined lot. After more than three decades of being sidelined, some are taking matters into their own hands and acting on what they believe is best for students. Through autonomous school governance, an approach in which teachers design and run the school by making decisions together with input from students and parents, the landscape is changing.


Autonomous school governance increases everyone’s commitment. Decisions that affect students most are made by those who know them best. A clear and compelling vision drives teachers’ actions, which are guided by their combined professional knowledge, insight, and expertise. When teachers believe that what they do and how they do it makes a difference in how well students learn, they have collective efficacy. Collective efficacy is powerful because those who possess it are bound together by a shared sense of responsibility.  


Responsibility is different than accountability. Teachers have long argued they cannot be held accountable for student learning; only the student can be, and they are right. Accountability is individual in nature; one cannot be accountable for another’s actions or inactions. But responsibility can be shared, and teachers are responsible for creating the conditions for learning. Autonomous school governance places that responsibility squarely in their hands.


The idea of teachers governing their work is not new. Its roots can be found in past pursuits like site-based management, which goes back decades. Then, teachers were given more say, but they were not given the power to affect change. As a result, a massive amount of time was spent processing, but little actually changed. Autonomous school governance comes with a different promise. The distribution of power goes deeper, and teachers are given real authority to make decisions.


Perhaps the best known model for autonomous school governance in today’s terms can be found in the flourishing Teacher-Powered Schools movement. A total of 120 teacher-powered schools dot the national landscape in at least 18 states, and the list is growing. Their guiding question is, “How do we make school better for kids?” From there, all decisions flow.


Recently I spoke to Alex Vitrella, Director of Network and School Support at Education Evolving. Vitrella is an enthusiastic advocate for teachers taking the lead. A former teacher in Minneapolis who was frustrated with what she was seeing in schools, she now sees great hope. Several years ago, St. Paul-based Education Evolving was seeking a way to promote student-centered learning. Intuitively, they knew it would require ways for teachers to work more autonomously. They decided to collaborate with the Center for Teaching Quality in Carrboro, North Carolina and together they launched the Teacher-Powered Schools movement in 2014. Vitrella joined Education Evolving four years ago and has been working with the movement ever since then.


Unfortunately, traditional models for school leadership can prevent teachers from having or feeling like they have autonomy. According to Vitrella, teachers don’t feel like they have the time or space to plan on a larger scale with their colleagues in the traditional arrangements offered, such as curriculum committees, site teams, and other ways school leaders attempt to distribute leadership. It can be difficult for communication to flow freely and effectively between the different layers of decision-making. Add to that the range of leadership levels within the system and you create the added potential for a breakdown in message and intent. This web of complexity, Vitrella points out, causes teachers to turn inward and focus on what they can control, which is what happens in their own classroom. Many close the door and keep doing what they’ve always done.  


By sheer virtue of its name, a teacher-powered school sounds like one in which there is no longer a principal. On the contrary, it doesn’t mean eliminating administrators at all, says Vitrella. “It’s about inverting the traditional hierarchy and moving those at the bottom of the triangle who know the kids and families best and giving them more of a say. That can be done with or without school administrators. Admin is still there and have an incredibly important role. It’s a way a lot of really good leaders lead. This [the teacher-powered model] formalizes that.”


Trust is foundational to the success of a teacher-powered school. Getting teachers to follow teachers means changing the culture. “It requires a lengthy trust-building process so that teacher feel like professionals and act like them too,” Vitrella states. A lot of time and energy is centered around building shared purpose. “This can be overlooked when it comes to running a school but it is so rewarding.”


One of the most important things that autonomous school governance offers is the ability for a school culture to sustain itself, even when changes in leadership or new teachers come on board. The culture is not dependent on one individual. It empowers all the individuals in the school. Stable cultures are good for everyone, especially students. In steady and secure environments, initiatives can be fostered and supported through the normal stages of development, thereby increasing the chances for success. What isn’t working at first can be gradually resolved, allowing the best ideas to take root and evolve in deep and meaningful ways. Add to that a continuous improvement cycle and you have a winning combination.  


When asked if there is a typical way in which leadership is organized, Vitrella says each teacher-powered school is arranged differently. “It depends on the culture. There can still be a principal, or there may be lead teachers, rotating leads, or the whole school makes the decision.” Teacher-powered schools are charter schools as well as district schools. Of the 120 around the country, about half can be found in each setting, meaning even a traditional school become a teacher-powered school. “It’s easier in a new school school because you get to select people who are passionate about the system you are building and are committed to its purpose. But there are schools in traditional districts who are teacher-powered, and the movement has seen quite a few of them successfully convert.” But, Vitrella admits, “it is hard to change an existing system. When it gets hard, people go back to what they know.” However, it can be done, as evidenced by schools finding success no matter their type.


The elephant in the room would seem to be teacher unions, but Vitrell insists they have found incredible support from local unions. “Teacher-powered schools transcend the traditional divides between management and union. It [teacher autonomy] is a concept everyone seems to be able to get behind. Unions see it as the next step in professionalizing teaching.” That said, having a formal agreement, a memorandum of understanding, or waivers with the local union is important. For example, in addition to selecting teachers, teacher-powered school leaders need to be able to deselect them when the fit is not right. This and other important aspects of the master agreement need to be fleshed out in advance for true autonomy to exist.  


The rewards of being a teacher-powered school are many, and Vitrella is quick to point them out. “Teachers feel respected; if they have a problem, they have to change it themselves. You don’t have the ‘water cooler’ complaining.” They have the autonomy, in fact the responsibility, to fix it. She also claims a lot fewer teachers leave teaching in a teacher-powered school because there is a much stronger shared purpose. Students and adults know what is expected. There are even rewards for the principal. “You get to lead in the way you had hoped to lead. Principals were former teachers who want to do this work. They did not want to be paper pushers. They like the collaborative model, and they don’t feel so alone.”


No matter how a leadership structure is organized in schools, one thing is for certain: Teachers need to have a voice. While this can be accomplished in a number of ways, we need to keep in mind that substance is more important than structure. Whether you are in a traditional school, a charter school, a private school, or some other configuration, ensuring a seat at the table for teachers that is a real, authentic, and impactful part of the power structure is important.


What does the leadership structure look like in your school? How are teachers given voice, what decisions do they make, and what do they see as their responsibility? If you have a union, how would it look upon granting waivers for schools wanting to assume greater responsibility for critical decisions? These are questions we increasingly need to ask.


If you are interested in finding out more about autonomous school government, considering visiting the Teacher-Powered Schools website. It provides an expansive and detailed guide for those who are ready to wade into the waters and start empowering themselves and those around them. Better yet, visit a teacher-powered school. You can find one close to you by checking out this list. There is even a national conference in November in Boston, which offers yet another way learn more.