21st Century Learning | Feature

Addressing Chronic Underachievement: A Systemic, Technology-Based Approach

Gainesville City Schools in Georgia has dramatically improved student achievement by overhauling its approach to education based on a framework called a Unified and Comprehensive System of Learning Supports.

Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor, developers of the framework and co-directors of University of California Los Angeles's (UCLA) Center for Mental Health in Schools, said they believe that too many school districts are taking a patchwork approach to addressing chronic underachievement through a range of programs and initiatives. Some of those initiatives may be effective, but the lack of an overarching plan means programs may overlap or conflict with each other, while leaving gaps that fail to address some issues.

Adelman and Taylor's Unified and Comprehensive System of Learning Supports helps districts take a step back, re-evaluate their approach, and develop a plan that will help remove barriers to teaching and learning while making better use of precious school resources.

Gainesville City Schools did exactly that. Since beginning the process in 2009, the district has increased its graduation rate from 73.3 percent to 87.2 percent; improved student scores on SAT, ACT, and AP tests; reduced teen pregnancy rates by 40 percent; reduced excessive absenteeism (exceeding 10 days per year) from 21 percent to 5 percent; and increased parental satisfaction from 78 percent to 93 percent.

According to Jamey Moore, director of curriculum and instruction for Gainesville City Schools, to achieve these results the district focused on three main goals: access, engagement, and prevention. Access helps ensure that all students have equal opportunities to learn and addresses any barriers to learning. Personalization helps encourage student engagement by customizing learning materials so they are relevant to each student. And prevention helps identify areas where students are struggling before they fail. For Gainesville, technology was a key enabler for all three of these areas of focus.

Adelman worked with Gainesville as it implemented the framework. "What Gainesville has done is to move the whole school improvement process from focusing just on instruction and management to adding a third component, which is a component focused directly and potently in a unified way on addressing barriers that are getting in the way of kids learning and teachers teaching," said Adelman. "By doing that, they've shifted their whole policy for school improvement."

Eliminating Barriers to Learning in Gainesville
Blended learning, which combines online learning with traditional classroom instruction, is a key component of the district's unified and comprehensive system of learning supports. Before implementing the new system, the district was using blended learning strictly as a credit recovery tool for students. Students received traditional classroom instruction, and if they didn't pass the course, the schools rolled out the blended learning tool. However, many students in the district's high-poverty schools have responsibilities outside of school that make it difficult for them to attend class. Some are working to support their families or have children of their own.

After re-evaluating its approach, the district implemented blended learning using Edgenuity and Georgia Virtual School as the primary mode of instruction for some students and created a special school with non-traditional hours for those students who thought they would benefit from it. Students in the "twilight school" can access learning materials online when they're not in the classroom and attend class in the evenings for face-to-face support from their teachers. Following the success of the program at the high school level, the district has extended it to the middle school level.

"By looking through that lens of prevention, what was being used as a tool just for credit recovery became a tool that could meet students needs up front and remove those barriers to learning before they failed," said Moore.

Gainesville also identified barriers to learning in the transition from grade 5 to 6, when students went from having the same teacher all day with a single classroom as a home base to moving from class to class with a locker as a home base. Many students were struggling in the new environment and finding it challenging to submit homework to multiple teachers. The students at the school all had iPads, so some of the teachers implemented Dropbox. The teachers distributed all of their learning materials digitally through Dropbox, and the students submitted their assignments the same way, so they didn't need to go to their lockers for books or homework. "Everything was happening in this digital locker in the classroom," said Moore. "So it eliminated that barrier for students."

That simple change produced immediate improvement. "A lot of times you have to wait two or three years to see an improvement, but that change produced a one-year turnaround in student achievement," said Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville City Schools.

Another issue for some students was Internet access outside of school. At one of the district's elementary schools, very few of the students have access to the Internet at home, so mobile devices that need to be online are of little help to the students outside of school. The district is piloting a tablet called a KUNO for students in grades 2 through 5. When the students are at school, the KUNO syncs with the school and loads the tablet with all of the materials the student will need for the day and that evening at home, so they don't need the Internet at home to access their learning materials and do their homework.

The third area of focus for the district's unified and comprehensive system of learning supports was prevention. In the past, the district relied on specialized diagnostic tools, such as easyCBM, triand, and DataDirector. The district still uses those tools but now places greater emphasis on everyday educational tools for the classroom that have built-in diagnostics and can monitor the student's work to identify areas of weakness and adjust the learning materials accordingly to meet the individual student's needs.

Other educational technologies the district is using to remove barriers to teaching and learning include Educreations, which lets teachers record everything they do in the classroom, including their voice and whiteboard, so students can catch up on missed classes or review material. The district also uses the PowerSchool student information system to send text messages, phone messages, and e-mails to parents and community members. The district is starting to create its own textbooks using CK-12, and it encourages a bring-your-own device policy for students.

To support these technology initiatives, Gainesville has a technician at every school, as well as an instructional technology specialist, a regular teacher who receives an additional stipend to work outside of regular hours to provide other teachers with one-on-one support for using the educational technology tools.

"It's the Trojan Horse method of professional learning," said Dyer. "We found that teacher-to-teacher peer sharing is more effective than workshops at our district office. We offer those, but doing both has been much more effective."

The unified and comprehensive system of learning supports is helping the district save money. "By focusing on access, engagement, and prevention instead of reacting to things, more money is available on the front end than if we weren't doing these things," said Moore. "If we weren't doing these things and using these tools, we feel like more money would be spent on the back end than what we're doing right now using this comprehensive system of learning supports."

Implementing a Unified and Comprehensive System of Learning Supports
According to Adelman, implementation of the Unified and Comprehensive System of Learning Supports involves three major phases. Phase 1 is to train the administrators and leadership so they understand the framework. Phase 2 is to use that knowledge to implement systemic change. And phase 3 is to put the system to everyday use in the classroom and around the school.

To help districts with the process, Adelman and Taylor are working with Scholastic to develop a delivery system, called the Rebuilding for Learning Online Leadership Institute, much of which will be available online. "They've already got an introduction to this work online," said Adelman. "They've put together an online six-hour leadership institute. A lot of it's going to be about how to teach the professionals, the administrators, the leadership, and how to use technology to really make this shift because it's a really major policy shift without having the folks who have to carry it out understand it."

"Scholastic is putting together a package that districts can utilize to help get through the whole business of implementation, which includes some of what we learned from Gainesville," said Adelman. "We're working with Scholastic to develop the type of stuff they'll need to make those school districts successful in moving forward."

Currently, Alabama is in the process of adopting the Unified and Comprehensive System of Learning Supports statewide, starting with 10 school districts this fall, with additional districts to be phased in over the coming years.

"We're working with Alabama and other places around the country to make sure that shift in policy happens, so all of the focus on kids who are not doing well isn't put to the side as an afterthought," said Adelman.