New Jersey Department of Education

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Episode 40: Ecosystems for Growth—Accelerating Learning in Elementary Schools

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


Ken: Hi. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Dr. Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform where we highlight resources the Department has to offer, as well as the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for students across New Jersey. Thank you so much for joining us.

Hi, listeners. I hope that you have had a great month. I'm excited to share this episode with you about learning acceleration for students. Over the last couple of years, many students have had uneven learning opportunities. In this episode, we're going to be exploring how to approach learning in elementary school—from a philosophical perspective and from a practical perspective—to leverage all of the things at our fingertips that we can use to help students grow and accelerate to where we expect them to be based on grade-level standards. I'm going to open this episode up with a conversation between myself and two amazing staff members from the Department. And then we'll jump into a conversation with the Little Fall school district about what they've been doing as a lighthouse district to leverage data and foster student growth.

I trust that you'll have a ton of learning from this episode, and my hope is that you'll bring that learning with you to our third Tuesday #NJEdPartners Twitter chat this month. It's going to take place on April 19. Again, that's April 19 at 8:30 pm. Please mark your calendars and join us as a statewide professional learning network. Talk to you soon.

Interview 1: Lisa Haberl and Mackey Pendegrast, NJ Department of Education

Lisa: My name is Lisa Haberl. I'm the Acting Director of the Office of Standards. And I'd have to say my favorite part of working at the Department is my colleagues and the connections I've made. They're just extraordinary and I learn every day from them.

Mackey: My name is Mackey Pendergrast. I am the Assistant Commissioner for the Division of Teaching and Learning Services. I've been here three weeks and my answer is going to be similar to Lisa's. The people here are so intelligent and passionate and focused on serving the needs of the kids; that's my favorite thing. So it's just been a joy.

Ken: Excellent. Thank you so much.

So today we're going to be talking—in this episode—about accelerated learning in elementary school. And I just wanted to start big picture. So in terms of the big picture, what is learning? What is acceleration? And how can we get elementary students there?

Mackey: That's a pretty big picture. You know, what is learning is a great question. And I think that the public health crisis and everything that we've been through as an education community, that that question has risen to the top. And it's front and center: what is learning? And I think what goes along that is, "what is preparation?" Right? But I think that to answer that question we really can go to the science. There's so much science on this. And I think that's what's extraordinarily optimistic about that, actually that question.

I think a good question is, you know, what are the critical drivers of learning and development? What are their critical drivers? And I think…so to answer your question, you know, "what is learning," I think what the science tells us is that human development—child development, in this case we're talking about elementary students—child development and learning are the same thing. They are bi-directional, coaxial. It's not like one thing happens here and the other thing happens there. They are together. And so when you when you look at "what is learning," and you frame it in that way, that it is human development and academic learning all taking place at the same time, that has enormous implications for the classroom.

Lisa: I think there's that misconception out there that learning acceleration is delivering the same amount of content, just faster. And, you know, to the point that was just made is that we're really thinking about a whole system that supports learning and about every component. It's not—you know, as biased as I might be from the Standards office—it's not just about those expectations, it's really about the entire system that supports the students:

  • learning the conditions of learning that they're in
  • the depth of instruction
  • the quality of instruction, {and}
  • the engagement

All of those things really have to be considered when we consider how learning occurs.

Mackey: And, if I can jump in there, that the primary delivery method of everything that Lisa just said is through those developmental relationships and that happens primarily in schools, but it's a mistake to say classrooms. You know, it's classrooms, it's hallways, it's the after-school program, it's families. But the primary way that learning takes place is through those developmental relationships, those kids feeling safe and secure. They've got an all. Lisa said, you know, they're challenged. They're engaged. All those things all come together.

Ken: That's awesome. I love the synergy between this discussion and what we talked about last month's episode around SEL {social-emotional learning}, school climate, and joy and community. And all of those things are that they all have value alongside the standards and alongside of all the things that we talked about. Because children don't develop in a vacuum, right? Students don't develop in a vacuum where they all of a sudden are in a classroom and everything else outside of that classroom, all the relationships even inside the classroom, don't matter. It's just about the content. Right? It's all interconnected. And I love the way that you've set that up.

So tell me about what the Department is doing to help educators tap into the resiliency of elementary age students when it comes to accelerated learning, because in the past when the three of us have talked, we really talked about those strengths and the resiliency of students, and the importance of tapping into those when it comes to accelerated learning?

Mackey: Yeah. I think it's such a great question that if I could frame it around there's been a lot of discussion about what's been lost. Right? What loss of…learning loss. Of what's been lost. And I think what—going back to Lisa's comments a second ago — what has really—there's a lot of things that have been lost—but it's those relationships that have been lost: the opportunity for developing a positive relationship with a caring adult; the opportunity for being part of a community; the opportunity for developing positive peer relationships and discovery. And all those are losses, right, that go hand in hand.

So I think it's so important, as we move forward here, we have an asset-based approach. What are the strengths of the these children in this school community and this state community as educators. What are our assets? What are our strengths? And build from there.

And I really think it's critical that we are sending the message to our school communities, to our entire communities, that this has been an enormous challenge, but as a community we're strong. And we're moving forward. We're accelerating forward as a community. That's the key part, that we are strong as a community. And we have to be very careful of our messaging, I think. And I do think we've all been through a lot and we all—all humans—are fragile. But I think as school communities moving forward we can be very strong. So that's kind of the way I look at the question, I guess.

Lisa: I love that. I love seeing strengths in a community and that's something that I believe the pandemic has brought out. Community partners have come out to support schools in ways that we've never seen before. So whether we're looking at partnerships among local theater groups, or the YMCAs, or churches, all of those stakeholders in the community have come forward to support students learning and these students are intimately connected to their communities. And so bringing that strength and that partnership into the classroom, into the schools, has proven to have really fantastic gains early on. And so thinking about those partnerships moving forward, the fact that it brought such a traumatic event to bring everybody together in this coherent way, moving forward we can just see that this is the way that we will be working together. And I think that student resiliency is only going to increase and really going to drive learning forward when more partners are involved.

Ken: That's great.

So what resources has the Department created to help facilitate that, in terms of the work that you've headed up—Lisa, in in your office, and Mackey, as a division—what is the Department doing? What can people tap into— educators in the field, who are listening to this podcast.

Mackey: I do think, you know, revisiting and looking at…first of, all pausing for a second, as much as we can, and looking at that learning acceleration guide. Because there are some core principles in there that I think are really important in terms of how we move forward.

Lisa started by saying we have to be careful of that. Let's take all this information and content, and just dump it. That's not learning.

So we started with, "what is learning?" That's not learning. I think everybody knows that, right? But yet, there's this tendency of rushing because maybe something has missed. So we want to start…we look at that learning acceleration guide. There's a few principles in there. And one of the things that it points out, that I think is important, is that it does talk about don't try to rush through, you know, and be concerned about pace, but be focused on depth.

Learning takes place through developmental relationships, but through those developmental relationships we're engaging students to go deeply and be engaged and focused, and not just at surface level learning. And that's an important principle. But also making sure that we are integrating social emotional learning into every single interaction. I cannot emphasize that enough. It's great that we have "Mindfulness Mondays," for example, but it's really it's every single interaction and lesson, experiences of the kids where they are reflecting themselves and developing positive relationships and using strategies and planning and other types of competencies within the SEL mindset .This is all very, very important to moving forward.

That's in that guide.

Lisa: I think, you know, one really new learning for me is just the ways in which—so the guide was written last May— and after the release, the ways in which districts have taken it and really integrated it into their own system, into their own communities and gone way beyond what's in the text. And so, you know, as we connect with schools and we learn more and more about what districts are doing, and the ways they're meeting students' needs that are so unique to their own ecosystems, that's the learning that we have internally, you know, at the Department. We are just thrilled with every example that comes forward, and the ways in which they've taken the guide and just brought it to life in new ways. And so it's much more dynamic than this, you know, than 50 pages of text. It's really a living, breathing document that we learn from the field every day.

Mackey: Yes. It's such an insightful statement just made by Lisa. Really great stuff. Because in one school they really may have realized, "well, we don't have the high-quality curriculum materials that our kids need coming out of this." And then another school, they may have seen again focusing on the whole child and the whole bi-directional relationship of the kids and the teachers and the experiences. They may realize "our kids really need that after-school program where they're excited to be here and we can work on maybe some of their executive functioning skills in there in a fun way." So learning is nuanced and complex. And I think what Lisa just said is so spot-on and accurate.

[end of Interview 1]

Transition to Interview 2

Ken: In the interview you just heard, my colleague Lisa shared about the amazing ecosystems districts are building to support accelerated learning. In this next interview, you'll hear from colleagues in the Little Falls School District about how they have been enhancing and continuing to improve their ecosystem through the use of data and ongoing assessment of students. I highly encourage you to reach out to Little Falls if any of the ideas that you hear today resonate with you. Enjoy the interview.

Interview 2: Little Falls School District, Passaic County

racey: Okay. Hello. I am Tracey Marinelli. I am the Superintendent of Schools in Little Falls that is located in Passaic County

Nicole: Hi. Good morning. I'm Nicole Dilkes. I am the Principal of School Number Three in Little Falls, and also the Curriculum Coordinator for the district, in Passaic County.

Ken: So excited to talk with both of you today. I'm so thankful for the relationship that the Department has with Little Falls as one of our amazing Lighthouse Districts. And I'm so excited for folks to hear about what you have to say related to elementary school and accelerating learning for students. It's going to be great.

So when you're thinking about accelerated learning data, formative assessment play a big role. And that's something that we have all talked about a lot as I've done work with your district. Can you discuss how you approach discussions about data and formative assessment? And how you make them fun and exciting in elementary school? 'Cause data is amazing and can do so much, but [laughing] it can be a little bit stale sometimes when we approach conversations about it. So how do you make it something that's fun and exciting for both staff and students?


Tracey: So we think data's always fun and exciting.

Nicole: [laughing in background]

Tracey: That is definitely a mantra here in Little Falls.

And one of the ways that we do that is by making sure that the students have a voice, that the students have a seat at the table. And that the students always have their hands on the data. So it's not administrators and teachers have the data and then they're telling the students what they need to learn, and how they're going to learn it. We make sure that the students have access to the standards, have access to their data and comparative data, and then they tell us what it is they need to work on, what they're doing well with, and what they still have to learn. And a really important culminating piece of that has been our student-led conferences.

So as early as kindergarten and right on up until eighth grade, our students run their own conferences with their parents and with their teachers. And they go through and talk about what it is that they're doing well, where they need some assistance, what they still have to learn, and how they've done that. And they do that while tracking their data. They have data folders that they keep in close contact to themselves. And so there's some personal motivated competitions where they try to beat themselves at things and accelerate their learning. There's class-wide competitions and some school-wide competition. So that's certainly how we keep it fresh and exciting with the students.

Ken: Nicole?

Nicole: Yeah, and their ownership, it motivates them to go further.

Tracey: [murmuring in agreement]

Nicole: So they goal set for themselves. They goal set with their class. And so it teaches them a little bit about, you know, what they're interested in, what they're good at, what they could set goals for. And then, therefore, further their learning even more and be able to, you know, become independent learners and learn a lot about themselves as learners and talk about their learning in that way.

Tracey: And I think for the teachers, really utilizing our ScIP {School improvement panel} teams has been so successful because it gives the teachers a voice. And then, in turn, they are working with each other instead of always bringing in outside professional development providers. We've done quite a bit of presentations on formative assessments where teachers are looking at their peers' and their friends' best practices, and we do the learning walks where they get inside each other's classrooms. And so we can really spread those best practices across the district.

Ken: That's great. I love how you leverage something that's existing, something that's required with the school improvement panels (with ScIPs), and you really take that and run with it in ways that help accelerate learning through data. And student-centered approach, really looking at students' assets and strengths and helping them build on that, is great too. So thank you so much for sharing that. Yeah.

So when it comes to learning acceleration and its importance, it can really be daunting for educators to tap into the resiliency and the strengths of their students to accelerate learning. So how do you create attainable learning acceleration wins for everyone? How do you get…help them kind of get those wins in an environment that can feel daunting, that can feel really, really weighty and really big?


Nicole: So…I think that understanding where the kids are and their needs is super important. And that changes every day. It changes rapidly, especially in the middle of a pandemic with students who are experiencing a range of emotions every day. So I think the first and foremost piece is the relationship that the teachers have with the students. Knowing your students inside and out. Having those relationships are super important so that you can see those little changes and those little nuances and their behavior and their learning.

But on the flip side of that, the other side, we've done a lot of work curating teacher teams that work really well together, and where each person on the team brings something different to the table. And [we] have brought PD {professional development} in for all of the different teams that we have, especially our inclusion pairs.

So that's kind of the thing there; the teachers need to have a lot of plans in place. Like you said, it's heavy work, it's daunting work. But the support…having the support of teams and putting those teams together well, and really establishing those strong relationships with the students, with the families, but also the teachers on the team, really helps to kind of leverage all of that work.

Tracey: [murmuring in agreement]

Nicole: And then leveling the the needs of the students becomes a little bit easier because it's all hands on deck and we support that culture.

Ken: Tracey?

Tracey: We talk a lot about working smarter, not harder. And a lot of the PD early on, with this data shift that we saw in our district, was really educating teachers on what to do with the data. It's that…that's always a big piece, too. So now you have the data in your hands, what's next? So, you know, learning how to develop those different plans is definitely a big piece of the, you know, bottom layer that needed to be constructed.

To go back to the original question, a lot of it is with formative assessments. Right? So we had a really mind shift to "not everything is a Friday assessment. Not everything is a summative assessment." It's doing those quick formative assessments so that you can have data at your fingertips all the time, and really look for those changes and look for where students need to grow. Where they're going. What changes need to be made to the instruction? What is a change that may be unique to one or two students in the class? Or maybe a shift that needs to be made for whole class?

We do a lot of plotting and data to see is it a district-level issue and we need to change platforms, change curriculum pieces, change strategies. Is it building specific? Is it classroom specific?

So really working through all of those formative assessment pieces and having more shorter types of data that you can act immediately [snapping fingers]. That's been the biggest piece.

Nicole: [murmuring in agreement]

Tracey: Not something that needs to be scored three days after it was taken and then you put that into place five days later. Now you lost two weeks. So, it's "I can do a formative assessment during my first 40 minutes in class and act on it in the afternoon section."

Ken: That's….that assessment piece is so big and, I think, just as important as the curriculum piece. Right? So how do you work with staff to build units and lessons that help accelerate learning and the foundational concepts that students need to access grade level standards? So how do you approach that through curriculum and unit planning?

Ken: Any thoughts on this Nicole?

Nicole: So, like, we've been talking about, we do everything with data. [laughing] Every decision is made, you know, with the data behind us. So we start and we end with data.

Tracey: Mmhmm.

Nicole: We have no time to lose and we want to make sure that we're assessing as quickly as possible and in multiple ways, so that we know the whole story of what the child needs.

Tracey: Uh-huh.

Nicole: We use formative assessment. We use exit slips. We use LinkIt. And LinkIt helps us to assess, and also warehouse our data.

So we make instructional choices and intervention plans based on what the data is telling us, which we keep an eye on every day, every week, you know, throughout the year, throughout the months. Because we don't want to waste a single minute teaching something that the kids don't need, or teaching it in a way that they may have misunderstood. So it tells us where they're struggling, and then we modify our units and lessons accordingly.

And like Tracey was saying before, we work very well in teams, on many different levels, to make changes to the curriculum if we need to make changes to any programming.

Ken: Tracey?

Tracey: It also helps, too, when we use this data and have these conversations, to make district-wide decisions. So, for example, a couple of years ago we noticed that based on the formative and summative assessments, there was a significant issue with reading level from students district-wide going from grades two to three. So we decided to build into our curriculum having every staff member K through four trained in the Orton program {Orton-Gillingham}. We brought in a reading specialist.

So we really take the data from student level and branch it all the way up and out through the district level, making decisions from right within each individual classroom, to the school, and then to the district.

Time is key building in that PLC {professional learning community} time—grade level time and content area time—into the schedules, to make sure that these deep-rooted curriculum and data-driven conversations can happen with an administrator present most of the time.

Ken: This has been an awesome discussion. I'm so excited to share it with folks.

Is there anything that you just want to share with the educators out there who are listening that we didn't get to, related to accelerated learning or related to anything else?

Alright, let's start this with Tracey.

Tracey: I just…we always say it here, "data is your friend." You know, we don't…it could be very scary. Sometimes folks are afraid of what the data is going to show. Or don't really understand how to tackle it. Or think it doesn't have a place, especially in primary grades. But it could be so useful. And it could be so fun. And really, once you engage with it and master how to utilize it, it really can help you grow in leaps and bounds.

Ken: Nicole?

Nicole: It doesn't always have to be the hard data from benchmarks and state assessments. And you know, sometimes when I sit in an IR&S {intervention and referral services} meeting, I say, you know, "give me the facts. Give me the data."

Tracey: Mmhmm.

Nicole: And the teachers are able to tell me all of the numbers, but they're also able to tell me, "you know, he's been absent a lot." Or "he's been sick a lot." Or "mom is struggling at home." Or, you know, those are all data pieces too. And putting all of those pieces together, it's like a puzzle that tells you the story of the child. Once you know the story of the child, you can fix it. You know, this is, what we're trained to do.

So once you know the facts, you can then make decisions, better decisions, from there.

Tracey: And don't underestimate the data of "how many smiles you count when you walk down the hallway"

Nicole: Uh-huh.

Tracey: That's an important data piece too.

[end of interview 2]


Ken: Thanks for listening. I'd like to also thank all of my guests, as well as Elizabeth Thomas for transcribing this episode to make it accessible for all.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple podcast app or wherever else you listen to podcast, so that you can get new episodes when they are released. Also, please leave us a review through the Apple podcast app on your iPhone; it is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education nor its officers, employees, or agents specifically endorse recommend or favor views expressed by those interviewed. Discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

NJDOE Resources/Programs Mentioned in Episode

  • Learning Acceleration Guide: This guide, found on the Learning Acceleration webpage, summarizes the developing base of literature on learning acceleration approaches and shares promising practices from New Jersey schools.
  • Lighthouse Award: Launched in 2017, the Lighthouse Award recognizes school districts and charter schools in New Jersey for illuminating the path toward educational improvement and equitable outcomes. Lighthouse districts are listed on the Lighthouse Awardees webpage.

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