SALT LAKE CITY — Cassandra Kessler, a first-year high school teacher in Michigan, said she'd wanted to be an educator since she was 5 years old.
She saw an opportunity to make a difference with the Education Achievement Authority in Detroit, which uses individualized instruction and student-centered learning models in its efforts to turn around the city's lowest performing schools.
Kessler has seen incredible successes in her school and classroom, but only after some initial discouragement.
"All my hopes and dreams started to fall apart," she said of the first days and weeks of the school year. "We started getting all these naysayers."
Kessler, who teaches history and economics, slowly began implementing a student-centered curriculum. At first, she provided students with a "menu" of tasks to complete during the week, with several options for how to complete them.
As students bought in to the flexible structure and provided feedback, eventually they were given 100 percent autonomy to work at their pace, tracking their progress on a publicly posted spreadsheet.
"The growth that my students have shown through this new model is amazing," Kessler said. "My students are feeling success in school that they’ve never felt before."
She said students in her school, which operates on an 11-month schedule, have talked with her about how they never considered college as an option but do now as a result of their student-centered classes. In one year, most of Kessler's students have improved between one and three grade levels on assessments, which she attributes to level of choice and flexibility given to them.
"You have to give them choice," she said, "because that student you're lecturing to every single day doesn't want to hear that. Student-centered learning is definitely changing my classroom."
Kessler's comments came during the School Improvement Innovation Summit, held this week at the Little America Hotel. The summit gathered a group of state- and district-level educators from around the country for a discussion on topics like student-centered learning and teaching students in a 21st century classroom.
"What really drives us is our cause. It’s all about 100 percent of students being college- and career-ready," said Chet Linton, president and CEO of the School Improvement Network, which hosted the summit. "That cuts across all parties. It cuts across issues of race, (and) it cuts across issues of poverty because it’s really about every single student being able to perform and contribute, have a job, go to school and be ready for college."
Linton said the goal of the summit was to gather practicing educators for a discussion on integrating technology into the classroom and moving toward student-centered, or personalized, learning.
During the summit, administrators, school principals and teachers from the U.S., Canada and other countries shared the steps they have taken to move away from the "sage on a stage" style of education to being facilitators of learning.
"The emphasis is 21st century learning and how important it is for teachers to really be experts of 21st century learners," Linton said. "There’s going to be innovative ways to help teachers perfect their craft."
Alan November, an author and consultant in education technology, demonstrated an online video tutorial on prime factoring created and narrated by a 12-year-old student.
"Every teacher should look at kids as producers of content for the world," November said. "We have underestimated what kids will do."
Schools and teachers too often focus on teaching students how to be taught, rather than teaching students how to learn, he said. Technology, November said, offers new opportunities in the classroom to encounter, create and share information and should not be seen simply as a digital replacements for old practices.
"The real revolution is not technology," he said. "It's information."
Linton said that when discussing education, the concept that comes closest to being a magic bullet for improvement is the need for effective and prepared educators. He said all the reforms and programs currently being debated around the country — such as school choice, inverted classrooms, blended learning and the new Common Core State Standards — are only as effective as the teachers charged with using them to prepare children for college and careers.
The single biggest factor in improving education, Linton said, is investing in teachers to make sure they have the 21st century skills they need to meet the individual needs of today's learners.
"They are the creators of our workforce," he said, "and if we don't invest in them and help them get up to speed, then all this other stuff doesn't happen. People keep asking questions. They keep wondering, they keep bashing education because we haven’t given teachers the skills they need to actually do what they need to do."
Another of the summit's keynote speakers, Jim Mahoney, executive director of Battelle for Kids, also talked about the need to invest in teachers and teacher preparation. He used the example of the grass being greener where it is watered to illustrate how positive input can result in positive outcomes.
"If we name, blame and shame as opposed to uncover, recover and discover, we get something different," Mahoney said.
The summit comes just weeks after a scathing report on teacher training programs in the U.S. by the National Council on Teacher Quality, which described education programs at the country's colleges and universities as an "industry of mediocrity."
Linton agreed that there is room for improvement in teacher preparation, but he also expressed an optimistic view of education in the United States. He said there is currently an atmosphere of innovation in schools that is causing progress to move forward at an incredible rate as schools and districts have become laboratories of ideas and best practices.
"This is the most exciting time in the history of education in our country," Linton said. "We see more entrepreneurial attitudes among state-level administrators, district-level administrators, principals, teachers, business leaders, and the most important thing is we need to get everybody on the same page, drinking the same Kool-Aid."
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