Huddled around a table during a recent math class at Lindblom High School in Chicago, one group of students used a card game to practice imperfect fractions. Nearby, a single student sketched out an algebra question on a whiteboard. And in the last corner of the room, a few students tried out a graphing project.
Welcome to the high school of the future — where students move at their own pace, each one learning something different. In a radical departure, this new model eliminates key elements of the traditional high school experience. Instead of requiring students to finish a set number of hours in class or a set number of courses, the focus is on personalized learning where students must prove what they know.
Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a high-performing, test-in school in Englewood, has been experimenting with this new way of doing high school for the last few years. And now, the state is piloting the model in 15 Illinois schools, including Lindblom and five others in Chicago, following a trend of schools around the country adopting it.
This model — known as competency-based or proficiency-based learning — is well established in some private schools but is relatively new to public education and is generating lots of buzz in Illinois and across the country. Alan Mather, a former principal at Lindblom and now a top Chicago Public Schools administrator, calls it “the most exciting in education” in decades.
But critics caution it pushes online learning so students can all work on different lessons at one time. They worry computers will replace teachers and wonder if it can work well for lower-achieving students.
High school of the future? The new model in place in schools across the nation eliminates the ways in which time — like hours spent in class — defines the high school experience. Instead, the focus is on what kids know and whether they can prove they know it. Students keep working on a skill, such as multiplying imperfect fractions, until they’ve conquered it. Then, they move on to the next skill.
In the past at Lindblom, all students studying English would do a unit on rhetorical essay writing, for example. They might practice their writing through several activities and eventually turn in a rhetorical essay for a grade. Then, the teacher and the class would move on, including those students who turned in weak essays.
Under this new model, a student could write the final rhetorical essay on day one. If it’s good enough, he or she could move to the next lesson. But if it isn’t good enough, the student would practice until he or she could do it well.
At Lindblom, the model also does away with required homework — students learn its value, hopefully, when they can’t master a skill without practicing it first. Students also can take test
or projects over and over again until they conquer a skill.
This approach discourages passing students along, its advocates say, and gives license to higher-achieving students to advance so they aren’t bored.
“As you master something, you move on to the next challenge,” said Bill Schmit, the teacher in that Lindblom math class.
This new way of doing high school breaks with the traditional focus in most public high schools on how time is spent in the classroom. Under that traditional model, students are required to complete certain courses and credit hours in order to graduate. But a new state law freed the 15 schools piloting this model from those mandates. Credit at the 15 schools will be based on proven skills, not time spent in a class.
In Chicago, the six pilot schools serve a wide range of students — moving beyond high-achieving schools like Lindblom. The six pilots in Chicago include an open-enrollment neighborhood high school, a school for students with developmental delays and a school for young adults in jail. Already, a small number of Chicago schools serving an array of students has been experimenting with the model.
“Personalizing instruction and moving students forward at their own pace can be applicable anywhere and at any time,” Mather said.
A whole new way of teaching
But implementing this, even in top schools like Lindblom, is difficult. Schmit said it is a dramatic shift from what he used to do.
This is how Schmit describes the old way: “I do it once. We do it together. You do it a bunch of times on your own.” Put another way: “Quiz, quiz, test,” he said.
Now, Schmit is working on all cylinders. He rarely stands in front of a class to deliver a lesson to all students.
Instead, the basics for most lessons can be found on the computer, either on videos created by him or others. His students use one online program, though Schmit said he isn’t satisfied with it or other programs he’s tried.
“A lot of the content is very much what I would call lower-order thinking,” he said. “A lot of just multiple choice questions and a lot of fill in the blank.”
Schmit supplements the online learning with projects that require students to show they’ve mastered skills.
But some educators worry what might work well at Lindblom, where students are generally motivated, might not work with less motivated students and weaker teachers.
And some critics wonder whether teachers will be able to tell why students are struggling — is it because they aren’t doing homework or because they just don’t understand?
Also, what happens when a student lingers on a skill for months at a time? Schmit said it is possible for students to end the year without mastering all the skills they need. However, he insisted this model gives teachers more time to focus on students who are stuck.
Lindblom freshman Tashai Johnson-Lewis said this model means she is not held back by classmates who may not understand something she already gets.
Students like Tashai, then, can get through algebra in less than a year and move quickly onto geometry. Ultimately, Mather said she could finish her high school requirements early.
“We don’t necessarily want students to run out of high school faster. That is not the goal of this,” Mather said. “It is to find other passions and to move forward.”
Sarah Karp reports on education for WBEZ. Follow her @sskedreporter and @WBEZeducation.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of teacher Bill Schmit.