Opinion: A new year of learning in Mesa County | PostIndependent.com

Opinion: A new year of learning in Mesa County

School District 51 is excited to welcome students, parents, and staff to an exciting new year of learning! Each year, it is the students who return to school to gain a fresh layer of knowledge, but parents and staff also learn new things along the way. This year, we want the parents and staff to learn as much as the students.

In 2015-16, School District 51’s communication focus will be on the changing graduation guidelines coming from the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and on performance-based learning. Both topics are essential to our transformation into a modern school district and key to improving the learning experience for students. While students spend the year on their own challenging curriculum, we invite parents and the community to join us in discussions on the new graduation guidelines and performance-based learning.

Graduation Guidelines

In recognition of rapidly changing economic conditions, the CDE is changing graduation guidelines. In the past, these guidelines were typically expressed as credit hours in specific subjects. The new guidelines are a chart of options beyond credit hours that demonstrate student proficiency in a subject. Though rather straightforward, it’s important for everyone to understand why the changes are necessary and which of the options work best for our community. Collectively, we will discuss the economic changes, the type of graduate we want, and how the two overlap.

Performance-based Learning

Performance-based learning is more complex than the graduation guidelines. The CDE, along with education leaders across the entire nation, also recognize that the century-old structure of education is out-of-step with how today’s students learn. A substantial amount of recent research on learning tells us there are different and better ways to help children attain knowledge. The most significant, research-based method is performance-based learning. School District 51 is pioneering this model of instruction in select schools over the next decade.

The change between how we teach now and how we will teach with a performance-based model is subtle but powerful. Now, we divide a complex series of learning expectations by years of school. Knowledge builds through the years by increasing in complexity and depth until culminating in a high school diploma. Borrowed from factory models of the Industrial Age, the process is akin to building a complex product where the assembly line is 13 years long. Rather than attaching nuts and bolts, we’re imparting knowledge based on time spent with content.

Performance-based learning divides the same content into learning modules instead of years. Students become responsible for their own learning with the assistance of teachers and curricular resources. Once a student grasps a concept and can demonstrate it, they can move on. Students demonstrate mastery through performance, not time-in-seat. Structurally, this subtle adjustment changes everything. What students learn remains constant – the Colorado Academic Standards. How teachers provide instruction is what changes.

The problem with the current system is it treats all students the same and does the best at preparing the average student. Performance-based learning, on the other hand, tailors the learning experience to individual students rather than averages.

Performance-based learning is the biggest, most transformative advance in education in over a hundred years. Consequently, we’re starting with communication and preparation. The student experience for this school year won’t change much. Most of the changes will be behind-the-scenes with teacher training and the conversion of the curriculum into learning modules. The District will be hosting community meetings to discuss the exciting details of pioneering this method of instruction. We are leading the state on this initiative and building a model for other districts.

Other Improvements

Beyond the changing graduation guidelines and performance-based learning, we have other substantial improvements to share this year. R-5 High School and The Opportunity Center will be getting a new campus. Our technology infrastructure will continue to expand. We will continue to benefit from alternative energy sources, including solar and propane. And, most importantly, we will continue to see the community’s students excel in school, in athletics, in activities, and in life!

We have an exciting year of instruction, social activities, athletics, and club activities planned for students of all ages. It truly is a great time to be a student in our Grand Valley! Our teachers and support staff look forward to welcoming the community’s children back to school. Please look for opportunities to join us, to volunteer in your schools, and to support our students. Best. Year. Ever. That’s what we want!

Free Press columnist Dan Dougherty is director of communications for School District 51: Mesa County Valley Schools. Comments and feedback are welcome at dan.dougherty@d51schools.org.

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