Monday, November 30, 2015

Chugach, Alaska

As reformy advocacy shifts toward promotion of Competency Based Education (or Proficiency Based Learning-- they have really got to settle on the set of buzzwords they want to use), we are going to hear now and then about a magical place in Alaska-- the Chugach School District.

Back in the nineties, when Objective Based Education (the previous iteration of CBE) was all the rage, Chugach signed up in a big way. They developed an OBE system that is now bills itself as the first competency based school district in the country.When edutopia visited in 2007, they found a system that was the pinnacle of performance-based learning. The district had over a thousand standards, and students had to achieve mastery of each before moving on to the next. Students also design their own projects and a "school-to-life" plan. And the Voyage to Excellence program is a self-directed process with a big vocational-technical flavor. The leader of the district during the switch repeated one of the mantras of OBE:

"Time was the constant and learning was the variable -- that's the old model," says Roger Sampson, president of the Education Commission of the States, who led Chugach's transformation as district superintendent in the 1990s. "We switched. What's constant is learning. Time is the variable."

Or as is noted elsewhere in the article:

Even as globalization and media propel our culture -- and our classrooms -- toward modes of production that are bigger, faster, and more alike, Chugach has refocused on an approach to education that is smaller, personalized, and variably paced. As Douglas Penn, the districtwide principal, explains, "Our kids graduate when they're ready. We're not pumping them out the door with D's on their diplomas."

And "graduate when they're ready" means just what it says. When the district won a Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award in 2001, the write-up noted that students might graduate when they fourteen or when they were twenty-one.

The accolades have been steady. Here's a piece from the John Hopkins School of Education, written by Wendy Battino, a teacher-principal with Chugach who went on to join the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (as well as a career as a life coach). Here's an edsurge paean. But, boy-- nobody loves Chugach like, which ran a five-part series in January of 2015 (here's part five).

In 2001, then-superintendent Richard DeLorenzo had this to say about the district's vision and their place in the educational firmament:

Education is in a crisis due to the fact that we must now educate all students regardless of their potential or socio-economic status to some degree of excellence. Relying on traditional methodology and practice will only lead to tinkering with mediocrity where we fail to meet the needs of individuals. In order to accomplish excellence we need to radically alter what we teach and how we teach. We at Chugach have undertaken this journey and have dismantled many of the barriers that were once thought unapproachable to reach excellence in education. We have endured many hardships and disappointments and yet we still proceed with this tiresome journey because every student deserves the chance to be successful and share the opportunity to reach their full potential.

So-- yay! Dismantling barriers. The end of "tinkering with mediocrity." I can see the appeal to reformsters. But after twenty years, the system seems to be working in Chugach Schools. Could it be a model system for the rest of us?


Here are some things to know about the Chugach School District.

* The largely rural district covers about 22,000 square miles, including some square miles which are islands.
* Number of students in the system has ranged from 150 to 300, depending. The district markets itself to students outside its geographical boundaries.
* 77% of the students are homeschooled.
* The district generally employs fewer than twenty full-time faculty.

Let's set aside the argument about "mastery learning" for a moment (at exactly what point does one declare that a student has "mastered" reading?). We'll also set aside some questions about whether Chugach really did involve all stakeholders as their Baldrige write-up suggests, or whether this researcher was correct to conclude that political maneuvering of a ham-fisted "visionary" drove the bus. Let's just check this idea for scaleability.

Let's imagine, for instance, Chicago, where students (public and charter) run around 400,000. Exactly what would a system where 400,000 students pursued 1,000 objectives independently look like? Would we, like Chugach, have 300,000 of those students home schooled, so that their families are responsible for making sure the student stays on task? Chugach requires students working on certain types of projects to contact and get advice from professionals. So if 25,000 Chicago students decide they want to do a photography project, where will all 25K turn for advice?

The system allows students to finish whenever they get there. How would that play out in a poor urban setting where there are already so many obstacles to school completion? What does a bright fourteen year old who has breezed through all the performance tasks and graduated "early" do next?

How does a staff of teachers monitor 400,000 students all working at their own pace? And how do parents react when they learn, as Chugach parents have, that at any given point, every child's report card may look different?

What does it do to the cohesion and culture of a school when students must choose between moving forward to their next standard and staying with their friends? How badly does it crush a child's confidence to be among those "left behind." I'm not asking because I'm afraid students might feel bad, but because I know these kind of blows to the ego and self really interfere with learning. With a predominantly homeschooled population, Chugach provides no window on how this kind of system affects the culture inside a building.

For reformsters who love CBE, Chugach is a model of how paradisey the competency based model can be. But to me, it's just one more example of how one size doesn't fit all, and that the continued search for a magical school approach that can be applied to any district anywhere is a fool's errand. Chugach is very unique system with very unique challenges that has landed on a very unique solution.

Chugach's approach may very well work for Chugach, a very rural district of a very few, predominantly home-schooled students.  But if someone starts telling me that Chugach is a reason to believe that CBE will be awesome everywhere, I'm going to assume that they are more interested in selling snake oil than helping schools.


  1. I agree that what works reasonably well for every student in a very rural and isolated school district is not likely to work better than what is possible in a very densely populated urban district for every student. I do think that it is very likely that CBE is likely to work very well with some of the students in the densely populated urban district, which is why I think that having students choose a school independently of street address is the preferable way to go in those densely populated districts.

    I also think you might want to ask how it impacts students if they are not allowed to move forward when it is appropriate. In my experience, they lose interest in schools that hold them back. One of my middle son's college classmates dropped out of high school out of sheer boredom and spent a year attending classes at MIT.

    1. What do you think about what Leila says in her comment to "CBE and the Data Bottleneck"?

  2. Rebecca,

    I think it is unlikely that all learning will take place in front of a screen because it does not work well for all subjects in every place for every student. Just as textbooks did not replace live teachers, computers will not replace live teachers.

    I think that for the foreseeable future computers will replace textbooks, not teachers. Computer testing will free up teacher time to concentrate on the important task of teaching rather than grading. It also helps the students by giving them instant feedback. You might want to look at an example of on online system: . Remember that none of the links here are live, so you need to copy the link and past it into the browser.

  3. I hope you're right, but proponents of CBE seem to think it could replace teachers. The computer program that my son had to use in college for homework was awful because of inaccuracies, and also because if you didn't guess exactly the format it wanted you to use it was marked wrong. It caused headaches for both the teacher and the students.