By Sue Moore
A common image of public education: classrooms of students seated at desks, all learning the same information from a teacher; finishing a semester having learned the material well, mostly well, or not very well, continuing until high school graduation, or dropout.
Competency-based education, being promoted by Michigan’s Department of Education, challenges that image. The challenge pushes project-based learning, often in a group, each student learning at the student’s own pace. And not always in a classroom. And more likely to keep learning until their competent.
The state has pushed this mode in recent years, and in 2017 pushed it further with grants totaling $500,000 to several school districts in the state. Schoolcraft was one, with a grant of $60,841.
Last month, state officials met with those districts in Schoolcraft for an update on uses, successes and failures of the grants. Two others, Tecumseh and Kenowa Hills, attended in person. Other districts were present electronically.
Under Matt McCullough, Schoolcraft’s director of innovation in teaching and learning, students have been engaged with project-based learning: Classrooms district-wide have been working with businesses and nonprofit organizations in the area. The goal is to solve an identified problem through team research and reporting recommendations that are worth putting to use.
The school district was already in the process of installing this kind of learning opportunity when the call went out to districts around the state to try competency-based learning. It was one of the recommendations in former Gov. Rick Snyder’s effort to make Michigan a Top 10 education state in 10 years.
Schoolcraft administrators and teachers went to work on several fronts to put the grant to work. McCullough was instrumental in contacting businesses such as Walther Farms, Chem Link, Concept Molds, The Dome and South County News. They have hosted students who have learned about their businesses, addressed an identified problem and tried to solve it with a project that involved real world experiences.
At the same time, High School Principal Ric Seager convened his teaching staff to consider reinstating courses scrapped from the school’s offerings. That led to the unbalanced trimester plan currently in place, with two 75 day terms and a May through mid-June 30 day mini-term. It offers over 55 course choices for students with an opportunity for credit recovery to enable a student to graduate on-time, Seager explained.
It will give students an opportunity to take less traditional courses in the 30-day period such as 21st century wars, aeronautics and aviation, creative writing, forensic science, algebra recovery, ceramics, food chemistry – and Costa Rican customs for two classes planning a trip to that country next year.
After two years of study and final recommendations from the teachers, Seager had 100 percent support by the time the trimester plan was proposed to the Board of Education. The Board approved it wholeheartedly.