The Need for Student Agency
About five years ago, KIPP Texas-Houston found that, while 84% of its high school students matriculated into college, only 51% persisted to graduation.
In studying the root causes of this attrition rate with researchers from the University of Houston, KIPP Texas-Houston learned many graduates were not prepared for the rigors of college math coursework, and too often lacked the agency and self-direction to persist in a less structured college setting.
KIPP Texas-Houston’s leadership saw the 2015 Raising Blended Learners grant initiative as an opportunity to build a stronger foundation in math in the middle school years, as well as focus on developing student agency and ownership.
“The design of RBL was aligned to creating classrooms that would recreate experiences for students so that they could be ready academically for college and also be able to navigate the complexities of being students within a college environment,” explains Michael Norton, Manager of Digital Teaching and Learning for KIPP Public Schools. “We designed middle school classrooms so the students would have opportunities to make productive decisions about their learning while still being held to the same bar of rigor that we have for all of our students.”
Tai Ingram the School Leader at KIPP Liberation says, “There was an opportunity with blended to help show that my building full of brilliant brown and black children can learn in such a way that gives them voice, real voice, agency to make choices and good choices for themselves and their peers to ask questions, to push, to challenge, and adults to have to listen to those challenges.”
The pilot began at KIPP Liberation in 2016 – Pharen’s sixth-grade year – as a single flipped classroom in 8th grade Algebra I. Over the next two years the school’s leadership and teachers began scaling the principles of blended learning — personalized, data-driven, competency-based learning — to other classrooms and content areas.
Pharen fully benefited from this shift in the instructional model in her final year at KIPP Liberation. The direct, actionable feedback she received from teachers, combined with the freedom in pacing, allowed her to soar.
“Once we implemented blended fully and started moving at our own pace, I just saw a flip [with Pharen],” Mendoza says, “She started to get days and weeks ahead of her peers, and was doing really well with the content.”
Pharen became excited about learning in a new way, particularly in her English Language Arts class and volunteered to take on additional, self-driven projects, like writing a poem from the perspective of a character.
Mendoza welcomed and nurtured Pharen’s newfound interest to dig deeper into the content. Because Pharen and the rest of the class could advance at an individual pace, Mendoza found more time for one-on-one check-ins with students and to tailor content around their interests. He started seeing more student ownership, even in language students used. “I stopped hearing ‘Your class,’ and started hearing, ‘Our class,” Mendoza says.
Ingram marvels at the change across her campus, but particularly in Mendoza’s classroom. “You’d walk in his room and kids would be comparing texts from Shakespeare to Talib Kweli, or Drake, or another rapper. They were making connections on a high level, being able to express the theme as the authors might, using figurative language. Just having rigorous, enlightening, engaging, and joyful conversations was really unique.”