School selection to begin for new education program 

click to enlarge Joanne McEachen and Jane Davidson with The Learner First were in Oklahoma City last week to speak with principals about their work. - BEN FELDER
  • Ben Felder
  • Joanne McEachen and Jane Davidson with The Learner First were in Oklahoma City last week to speak with principals about their work.

Many school reformers warn of a lengthy process when it comes to turning around troubled schools. Joanne McEachen and Jane Davidson don’t have the patience for results that take years to achieve.

“I hear people say it takes three to four years to see any change, but what if that’s your kid?” Davidson said. “If that’s your kid sitting in that class, they need change right now so they can hit the ground running. They need to be massively accelerated so they are up-to-speed. We’ve got a real sense of urgency to it.”

McEachen and Davidson are with The Learner First, a Seattle-based education consulting firm that has been invited by Superintendent Rob Neu to work with a handful of schools in the Oklahoma City Public School District.

After visiting the district last year to gather data and develop a “district snapshot,” McEachen and Davidson were back in town last week to meet with principals in an effort to establish more than a dozen sites to launch their program next school year.

Because each strategy is tailored around the district and specific school, learning trends in the district is an important first step, McEachen and Davidson said. One of the things The Learner First has learned about the OKC district is the challenge of educating African-American students, who are performing behind the curve.

“A lot of people would say that the reason why African-Americans aren’t doing well in math, for example, is that a lot of them are living in poverty and there are factors in their home and community environment that are impacting their ability to achieve,” Davidson said. “Well, if that’s the case, then kids on free and reduced lunches, kids who are living below the poverty line, should be doing worse than African-American kids because some of those African-American kids are not living below the poverty line. But the reverse was true. You are actually worse off in this town being black than you are being poor.”
Understanding is the first step to implementing a strategy to reverse that trend, Davidson said.

“There is something going on, and there is an opportunity in the system to really shift things for a group of kids,” Davidson added. “[African-American students’] learning needs are not well understood in this district, and the system is not supporting their needs to allow them to flourish.”

By employing an Authentic Mixed Method Assessment, The Learner First uses a holistic approach to tracking student achievement that is individualized in focus rather than just relying on yearly standardized tests.

“You need to make measurable what matters,” McEachen said, “not worship what happens to be easiest to measure.”

When talking to Oklahoma City principals last week, McEachen offered the example of a doctor only using a patient’s blood test to make a diagnoses as what current standardized tests are like.

“The state is forcing schools to focus on this one data point,” she said, “but a doctor would never use one blood test to make a complete diagnosis.”

The Learner First approach is not just focused on specific mastery of curriculum but also helping teachers individualize lessons to specific students in an effort to make a subject more relevant. An example of this approach can be found in a soon-to-be-published mini book, Making the Important Measurable, in which McEachen and Davidson argue that current curriculum models do not take crucial information into account, such as what a student already knows, what is relevant for them and who they are as a person.

“Suppose you started by finding out what the students were in your class, what interested them and who they aspired to be,” McEachen and Davidson write in the book. “You may find students who are interested in pets, or building, or being a hairstylist, or a doctor or an entrepreneur.”

The Learner First advocates for taking those aspirations and tailoring lessons around them, such as having students who are interested in building calculate how much timber is needed to construct a shed, of having aspiring hair stylists work out volumes of hair color mix.

The approach is in line with a philosophy outlined by Neu since his arrival last year, when he said one of his goals for the district is to know each of its students on a personal level. The Learner First method appears to be an attempt to put flesh on that theory.

“I think people get frightened about being innovative because they’ve got successive legislation coming down on them and they’ve got things they need to achieve, so they end up being very responsive to the system instead of being responsive to the needs of kids,” McEachen said. “Schools are too often focusing on what the adults require instead of what the kids require. The minute you ask the kids what they need, you get a whole different mindset.”
The district hopes to identify several schools that will become sites for implementing The Learner First method, followed by teacher training this summer and an official launch next school year. Each school site will include specific goals that McEachen and Davidson hope to show improvement in after just a few weeks, along with larger improvement by the end of the school year.

“We have high expectations for seeing quick improvement,” McEachen said. “That’s because we’ve seen it in other schools.”

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