Before Marysville schools adopted personalized, competency-based learning in 2017, Makayla Tocci sometimes longed to skip school rather than review classwork that she had mastered but that classmates were still learning.
She couldn’t move ahead since classes were structured for everyone to learn the same lesson at the same time. Now, the Marysville Early College High School senior speeds forward at her own pace, taking as much time as she needs to master material, then immediately moving on to a new challenge.
Tocci is set to graduate with a diploma and an associate degree in science, putting her on track to realize her dream of being a nurse anesthetist two years ahead of high school graduates who didn’t take college courses. Was all the hard work a grind?
“After going to the STEM school, it made me learn to love school much more,” she said.
While Tocci is an exceptional student, she’s not alone in Marysville in moving from ambivalence to affection for her school. Nearing the end of the second year of employing personalized, competency-based learning, Marysville’s early returns are impressive.
Marysville is tracking progress by asking students to complete the Student Experience Survey. It tracks four metrics that traditional grades can’t capture: the degree to which students feel hopeful, engaged and able to self-manage.
In every category, students are reporting better results:
At the schools where personalized, competency-based learning has taken the most hold, the gains extend beyond a sense of hopefulness and belonging and into academic achievement. Students in grades three through eight at Mill Valley Elementary, Creekview Intermediate and Northwood Elementary are showing improvements in math and reading that parallel the increases in the Hope Survey.
For Robin Kanaan, a KnowledgeWorks teaching and learning director who has been working with Marysville educators since 2013, the drive in Marysville schools to see every student as “special” is remarkable.
“One of the things that I think that is so amazing in Marysville is that through the implementation of learner-centered practices and a learning continuum with competencies, they’re meeting the needs of individual students,” said Kanaan. “It really is a systemic approach that is showing gains not only across the district but in individual schools for individual kids.”
“It’s been really interesting and motivating to hear the dialogue shift among learners,” Ashley R. Thompson, TRI Academy principal and the district Personalized Learning Coordinator, said. “Kids have a real stake in their learning. Is the work paying off? Yes, in big ways.”
Camryn McGlenn, a Creekview Intermediate sixth-grader, has been a student in the school since before their implementation of personalized, competency-based learning, and she’s more satisfied now.
“I feel like we did most of the work altogether. Now, we work by ourselves more. It’s easier because we can go at our own speed,” she said.
But she’s not isolated, she stressed, thanks to group projects like the three-person project she joined to make a hydraulic arm operate.
“My teachers give us directions on a board, and then we have to figure it out,” McGlenn said.
After that, her team watched videos, read a directions packet and went to work.
“We have one arm that’s moving. We kind of got stuck on the directions and went back to videos,” she said.
Emily MacLaughlin, a Navin Elementary third-grader, said she has lots of energy and likes to move around. Before personalized, competency-based learning, she was stuck in an assigned seat, where it was hard to behave.
“We didn’t have flexible seating before. It gives me a chance to move more,” she said.
MacLaughlin, who wants to be a teacher for deaf people, said she’s a visual learner. The new format lets her learn from YouTube videos and other visual material. Bailey McGlenn, a Mill Valley fourth-grader, discovered that she is a tactile learner, so she gets to focus on hands-on lessons. Like MacLaughlin, she has a hard time sitting down for a long stretch.
“I don’t really like sitting,” she said. “Sometimes they let us stand in the back to do our work.”
Thompson, a veteran educator, said the new landscape for her school district was the right decision for a rapidly changing economy. Community partnerships became key to support not only students’ pursuit of their chosen futures, but also to enliven the region’s manufacturing base. When designing Marysville Early College High School, the district sought out critical partners, including Columbus State Community College, Ohio High Point Career Center and the local Honda plant. Together, they decided on and secured the necessary equipment for a manufacturing learning pathway at the early college and welcomed the first group of freshmen in the fall of 2014.
“Our graduates are going to have to have to create a personal mosaic, with self-awareness, self-reflection and the ability to market themselves,” she said. “The value is in kids who can solve problems efficiently and be creative.”
Thompson stressed that personalized, competency-based learning has sparked hope and optimism in students that they can tackle whatever life throws at them.
“Helping kids be okay with those uncertainties and changes in society and the is our goal. So much of that requires soft skills,” she said. “Our old systems just aren’t going to generate those needed outcomes.”
Cultivating a sense of hope, belonging and self-awareness are central to TRI Academy’s mission, and aligns with recent research that identifies a clear parallel between strong social-emotional well-being and future success.
A.J. DelaHostria, a Mill Valley Elementary first-grader, learns best, he said, “by trying it, and if it works I’m good with it. And if I fail, I try again. I’m happy when I get it right away.”
Successful transformation begins with a commitment from administrators and principals. Without buy-in from a building’s principal, Thompson said, it’s much more difficult to overcome resistance.
Heather MacLaughlin, Marysville K-12 Personalized Learning Coordinator, said some teachers feel like the old system was good enough, and she is working with them to help them find their own way into student-centered practice.
“We have five elementary schools in our district, and they’re all-in,” said McLaughlin, who sees learners as the best advocates for personalized learning. “I’m hopeful in a year or two our kids are going to demand a different experience.”
MacLaughlin said that state education leaders could help the cause by allowing more flexibility regarding reading and other standards so that teachers don’t feel the “tug and pull” of allowing students to learn at their own pace in their own way versus getting them to perform well on standardized tests. Greater flexibility would also support recent research that shows that a strong sense of hope and belonging and a focus on social-emotional health feeds academic success.
The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development was created to engage and energize communities in re-envisioning learning to encompass its social, emotional and cognitive dimensions so that all children can succeed in school, careers and life. From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope is the culminating report.
What’s significant about Marysville’s efforts to capture their student’s voices – and their support of teachers finding their own way – is recognizing that a successful implementation of personalized, competency-based learning is a process. It takes time, and it takes a consideration of both traditional metrics for success as well as those that aren’t as easy to measure but more accurately reflect what it feels like to be a part of a community that’s committed to growing together.