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Episode 41: Grow the Flame—Accelerating Learning in Secondary School

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

Preview of Episode

Person: Think about you as a student, and then think about your academic challenges and your successes. And think about where you are now. And if someone had to paint a picture of you when you were in the sixth grade or seventh year eighth grade, would they have written the same story for you where you're sitting right now? So it's very important that we learn the whole child if we really want to educate the whole child.


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.

In this episode, we're going to be discussing accelerating learning in secondary school, which will include middle school grade spans and high school grade spans. The first section of this episode is a continuation on accelerated learning discussions with Lisa Haberl and Mackey Pendergrast, who I talked with last episode. From there, I'll hold a discussion with Erin Murphy-Richardson, whose clip I featured at the beginning of this episode. We'll be discussing what her school, Barack Obama Green Charter High School, has been doing as a Lighthouse awardee to increase success and access for students when it comes to accelerating learning.

As a reminder, we are going to be holding our #NJEdPartners Twitter chat to talk about this topic on May 17, 2022. I hope that you enjoy these discussions and the ways that my guests are thinking about accelerating learning in secondary schools. Thanks for tuning in.

Interview 1: Lisa Haberl and Mackey Pendergrast, New Jersey Department of Education

Ken: Welcome, Lisa. Welcome, Mackey. Can you just tell me a little bit about yourselves and your work here at the Department as of late?

Lisa: My name is Lisa Haberl and I am the Acting Director of the Office of Standards. And my recent work at the Department is really working on designing supports for the New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS)  in all levels and working with colleagues across offices and divisions to try to figure out how we can cohesively best support the field.

Mackey: Good morning. My name is Mackey Pendergrast. I'm Assistant Commissioner for the Teaching and Learning Services Division. And we're working on all the above related to teaching and learning, which is pretty vast. Right now we've been engaged in all sorts of conversations, from standards to assessments, to innovation across the board. Very energizing work that we're doing. So it's been exciting.

Ken: Awesome. And I'm so energized to talk with you today about accelerating learning, and looking specifically at the high school level to think about how districts and schools can look at high school—and also junior high/middle school, as well—and that whole process of transitioning from being in a K–12 system to really thinking about the future after the K–12 system, and what comes next.

So what are some big ideas that you're thinking about in terms of giving students access to success for their middle school, their high school, and then looking at their post-secondary experience?

Lisa: I'm always going to go back to the Learning Acceleration Guide. And so one of the foundational principles—principle 2—of the guide is, we're looking at improving equitable access to grade level content and really making sure that every student has access to high quality resources. And so thinking carefully about what that looks like in practice. One thing that I always tend to focus on, especially at the secondary level, is trying to determine who has access to advanced coursework and who may not have that access as readily. So many districts, when they took a look at the guide, had conversations around unintentional barriers that exist. So whether it's prerequisite courses that are required or assessments, you know, tests that that may appear or just not having scaffolds in place to help support all students having access to this really exciting coursework. And when I say advanced coursework, we're not just talking AP {advanced placement}, IB {International Baccalaureate}, we're talking about really enriching electives. We're talking about career and technical education programs. We're talking about all of the coursework that makes high school what it is and prepares students for that incredible post-secondary success that we hope that they achieve.

Mackey: Yeah. What a great answer. You said a lot there, Lisa. I think the question's a great one, right? Access—I think your words, Ken, were "access to success." That's a good phrase. I'm not sure if I've heard it said just that way before.

So like, "what gives them access to success?" Right? The science again is pretty clear. What gives them access to success are developmental, constitutive relationships. And that's kind of maybe ed theory term. What it means in terms of the bumper sticker is, these relationships that empower students, that make them stronger, where a student feels there's reciprocity in that relationship and there's trust and there's meaning and there's purpose.

When you look at the adolescent brain, it changes in adolescence, starting in middle school. We go through high school, and even into right young adulthood, that brain is actively changing. How do we want it to change? And so that really goes to your question well. What gives them access to success?

Another way of looking at that question is, "how do we want that brain to change so they can be successful?" And the answer to that is I think through these relationships where they feel trust and they feel purpose and meaning. And that can happen in the classroom. That can happen with other students. That can happen with adults. Our schools are set up where teachers have a 125 students. And so in some ways there it's more difficult to get to students.

So this brings up, to back to your question, "well, then how do we give them access to success?" And one of those ways is through co-curricular and extracurricular programs where kids can participate in areas where there's meaning, where they have mentoring with adults but also shared interests with peers. And they can develop. And that human development that takes place in that arena. And the research, by the way, is overwhelming and clear on this, that the reflection, the challenge that you put yourself, the executive functioning that you're learning in those extracurricular and co-curricular activities transfers to math, and history, and English. So if we want to accelerate learning, we want to accelerate, really, these relationships.

Ken: So that's great. So I'm hearing themes of really removing obstacles, removing barriers, and also building relationships. Right? So if we're removing some of these obstacles, like prerequisites for a certain course work or, like, allowing them to, you know, have a wide range of co-curricular and extracurricular options. How do we go deep and help them go deep in this environment where there may be some sense of loss and some feelings of, maybe, inadequacy because they weren't able to experience some of the things that students have in the past.

Mackey:  We've got to make sure that what we're doing, it matches up with the student's brain. And so students and adolescents, they crave discovery. They crave purpose. They crave meaning. You're not going to get any of those things if you just go fast at everything. And so we have to be intentional and we have to really look at how we're developing relationships. Schools should be looking at how many of our kids are participating in co-curriculars and who's not participating and why. And maybe it's just something as, "well, they can't stay after school because they don't have a way home." But then the school really needs to look at, you know, how to provide busing for those kids. Maybe the obstacles there are other things, right? Maybe you can't do that so those clubs need to happen during the day. Maybe there needs to be, you know, greater support for kids in different classes.

But I think what we need to do is go slow and get a feedback loop. See how kids are doing and keep that S curve going as we keep responding to their needs.

Ken: I think that idea of not just going slow for slowness's sake, right? But going slow to observe, collect data, and ask, "is what we're doing working and how can we change it to make it better?" is so important, because there can be a lot of unintended consequences from just saying, "this is the program we're going to be doing and we're going to implement it," without looking at that feedback of what do students think? How does this impact them? What are some of the unintended consequences here? So that's great.

Mackey: So I'll just build on that. You've got…they've got to have greater voice, not just, like, at the student council or at the club, they have to have a greater voice in that class. They have to be able to provide feedback of, like, "well, here's what we should be learning. I'm not learning it. Here's why I don't understand this. Here's feedback."

There's got to be this reciprocity within that learning, within that classroom, but also in the whole, also the whole culture and environment of school. We elevate student voice. That's how you accelerate learning. That's one thing we all have to do.

Lisa: That's it. I think that's the heart of it.  You know, it's very easy to reduce learning acceleration to a cycle of formative practice and assessment, testing and learning, and testing and learning. But there's a reason why the guide has four principles. There's a reason why we're thinking about the whole student and the whole landscape of a student's experience.

And, you know, to Mackey's point, where the learner at this, at this age, is deeply committed to finding sense of self. Like their identity is forming. They're really trying to find their place in this world. And so when we think about those co-curricular activities, I think of myself, you know, many, many, many moons ago when I was a high school student. Like, I was a swimmer. I was a terrible field hockey player who, you know, loved to be on a team but, you know, wanted to be part of the process. I was in student council. I was, you know, part of Amnesty International. Like, I wanted, you know, I was an advocate for human rights at age 14.

So if you don't have access to these ways to try on these different identities and see yourself in these roles, it's a really hard to ground yourself. And so, you know, providing access to these kinds of programs, having them available, supporting students and not putting barriers to those programs. Like if a GPA {grade point average} is a requirement to get into a program that's engaging for students, we don't want to deter students from these experiences, these activities on their quest for identity and sense of self.

Transition to Interview 2

{background music}

Ken: At the New Jersey Department of Education, we believe that reflective practice, informed by both data that's quantitative—like test scores, like graduation rates—and also things like discussions with students, finding out about their interests, and looking at students as whole people. It's all so important in aggregate. And one thing that you'll notice about both the discussion that you just listened to and the one that you're about to listen to, is the focus on looking at students when it comes to learning acceleration as individuals who have interests and futures that may go beyond being defined by one specific attribute.

Interview 2: Erin Murphy-Richardson, Barack Obama Green Charter High School

Ken: So yeah, why don't you introduce yourself, name, title, organization and county.

Erin: So my name is Erin Murphy-Richardson, and I am the Chief School Administrator and Principal of the Barack Obama Green Charter High School, and we are located in Union County.

Ken: So we're going to be talking about learning acceleration, and I thought of your school, because as a high school, you're doing so many innovative things that I think we all can learn from. And so I'm really excited to talk through how you have approached this in the past, and what you're doing now to really accelerate learning as one of our Lighthouse awardees.

So how have you seen the centering of student voice as something that leads to learning acceleration?

Erin: So I want to look at voice as almost, like, if we can look at a metaphor like a flame, right? So once we ignite students to use that flame, it's really important that we pay attention to the colors of that flame when we actually get it lit. [Laughing] If you know what I mean. Think about a good barbecue in the backyard.

And so the step to making sure that we help them with accelerated learning, accelerate their learning, is to listen to them. First thing is to let them know where they stand, right? I was a high school practitioner before I came on into this role. And I was, I say blessed, to teach the students who may have had some struggles to get to where they were. And the best thing that ever worked for me was to actually talk to them. A lot of the kids don't actually really know where they stand academically. And so just helping them understand that:

  1. Where you are; and then
  2. Once you realize where you are, now you need to speak up for it.

Right? I told you where you are. You know where you are, where we're gonna go from this. And when you get bumps in the road, tell me about it. I actually want to hear about it. Yes, it's going to give us more work here, but the more you talk to us

Ken: That's great. So I love that idea of really having students talk about what they need. As a school leader, how do you and your teachers talk through kind of fostering that and encouraging that in your school? What types of conversations do you have to really bring that flame up in in heat? Right? And get that flame even bigger?

Erin: So it used to be very formula, encouraging those data talks and then bring the talks to me and the PLC {professional learning community} and let's figure out, "what does this really mean?" Right? So it's very, very formula.

Now It's really organized chaos, which is amazing because this is academic talking all around. I really have an open door policy to the point where my hinges should be gone. [laughing]

And so when something interesting comes up in a conversation, or when we hear a kid come and advocate for themselves, it's literally, at that moment, nothing is more important than answering that question. So it's really literally a stop and drop, and "let me help you figure out what you need in order to achieve the goal you are trying to achieve that day."

So yes, it is it can be a little much of the movement. But this is their business. We work for them. And so, you know, in my business if I had a question for one of my colleagues, I'm going to go walk to that classroom. I'm going to ask a question. And I really encourage the same, because it is the same practice.

So, like I said, it used to be very formula. Now it's like, "hey, this person came to ask a question. I answered the question. Email to the team. Let me know let you know what the question was."

And so you may see those inquiry-based type of actions happen in your class because they're trying to figure out something. So it's really just we empower them to go get what you need, when you need it.

So we're adding a middle school next year. And so I may have to reevaluate that model once we get another 200 kids in here.


So hopefully not too much, but we may have to re-evaluate.

Ken: Thinking about scale is always something that is a fun challenge. So I'm excited to see how you still foster student voice in that new environment. That'll be great.

Erin: And I look forward to reconnect with you later and tell you how it works.

Ken: Yeah. I can't wait.

So your Lighthouse Award was given for increasing equity in AP {advanced placement} enrollment throughout your school, throughout your student population. So how can districts accelerate learning for students who are not meeting grade-level expectations—because you talked about that a little bit in your equity story—and simultaneously support their access to success, including advanced coursework and other types of opportunities?

Erin: So one of my closest colleagues, my mentee, who is getting her doctorate—so soon she'll be my mentor at some point—a long time ago, she helped me remember something, and she used this quote. In the quote, it's, "test scores and measurements of achievement tell you where a student is, but they don't tell you where a student can end up." Right? And just giving my life's philosophy around education and my experiences and where I grew up, I always, always kept that in the forefront. And I started to forget, and she said it to me. And I remembered again about 10 years ago. And I said, "I have to keep this in the forefront."

We measure three things. We measure literacy. We measure mathematical computations. We measure science skills. Those are not the only three careers we have in the world though, right? And so if we only use those three database sets around those same learning standards to determine whether or not someone's going to be successful in an advanced placement course that has nothing to do with those standards, we're not doing a good job. And we're really actually setting kids up for…not to be in an equitable situation.

That's why when I talked about my equity story, we talk about so many other points of data. What do you want to do? What do you like to learn? How do you like to learn? What courses are you interested in?

That's when we found out, like, "listen. Yeah, you're not doing too good in Advanced Calculus" or, "you're not doing too good in Algebra 2. But you are a heck of an artist. And you really need to sit in this advanced placement class because this place is gonna take you someplace."

So you really have to look at what you want to offer, why you want to offer it, the skill set that's gonna be needed to get a kid through that, and determine whether or not the data points up until that time were fair. Because we really can hinder someone's growth and opportunity.

And, you know, not to be too personal, but my son [unclear], my son, he…. I am, me and my husband, we are blessed to have a student with special needs. We are team IEP {individualized education plan}. [clapping]Okay?

And I've watched my son overcome obstacles over and over again. And with those obstacles you have challenges on certain standardized tests, just like him and hundreds of kids that look just like him. Right? My son is taking the AP Art exam. He just got accepted to art…he's going to Fashion College. He's an artist. His NJSLA-ELA {New Jersey Student Learning Assessment in English Language Arts} scores from fifth grade are not determined by the success right now. Right?

And we have to make sure we're doing things like that because we will end up, you know, really putting kids in a certain barrier. That's not fair to them .

Through this lighthouse opportunity—thank you—so many school districts have reached out to me to help them do the same thing. And they all are realizing that systems that were in place for years and years and years, and the data points that they were using, are the cause as to why they don't see the diversity they need.

So a child still may have a deficiency, right? They need some remediation. You do that, in the moment, though right? When I'm sitting and I'm following this AP curriculum, and I realize that,  whatever the course is, that you're not understanding that skill. The educators that we have here, we stop at everything because we can't move forward if we don't we don't fill that gap. There is no moving over. There is no, "we'll get back to it." There is no, "come see me after school."

No. Let's stop. Because if you have this question, maybe other people may have this question. And then that goes back to the voice piece.

Ken: That's great. And I love the way that you've really empowered your teachers too. Right? To have that discretion and be able to pause.

We've been talking —the last podcast episode and this one—where we're talking about learning acceleration, about accelerating learning doesn't necessarily mean fast, fast, fast, fast, fast all the time. Right? Sometimes it can be, "stop everything," for you to be able to accelerate in the future. Right? And be able to engage with this content. You need a deep understanding of this foundational concept right before we can move on.

So, you know, I really love the way that you've framed that in in terms of really equipping your teachers. So I want to hear about professional learning community. How are you building community with your teachers? What types of professional learning have your staff leveraged, have you worked with them on to accelerate student learning and really ramp that up as this school year has gone on?

Erin: So we've had a plethora of professional learning opportunities. But the most important pieces for this are pieces around growth mindset and pieces around closely responsive education. That's like the core at this point. Everything else when we, you know, use different models and all that. That's nice. But if you don't have your core as soon like, "okay, what am I going to do and what systems I need to dismantle in my own head," [laughing], "before I can really educate this group of kids that may not look anything like me or come from where I come from?" You have to do that work.

And so, I mean heavy work, because this is not a one-stop 9–12  in August. This has to be an ongoing cultural conversation, a continuous learning experience around mindset and just closely responsive practices.

So I think it's important that we tap into mindset as just a culture. When we look at numbers, right, we've always been told that certain numbers mean good, certain numbers mean bad. Right? And so, you know, automatically you think deficit. "Oh. I'm not right. Something's wrong. I can't."

"Can't"— that word. I hate that Word. I hate that word so much. Right?

I really, really, really work with the practice practitioners to remind them that there is no bad number. This number is a number that tells us where we are based off a scale that someone created, and where we need to go. And through there, we'll find things. So there's no good, nor bad, right?

So in that mindset, work, that kind of helps. Like, "okay. Yes. I'm okay with a student who may not pass the NJSLA being recommended for AP. I get where you're going now, Miss Richardson. It makes sense." Right?

So throw away bad numbers. We all are numbers. Let's figure out what those numbers mean and how they get our kids to success. And then culturally responsive piece, critical, the African-American and Hispanic students, based off our cultural archetypes that we— in our cultures—we are group people. We tend to learn from one another. Very anecdotal, folktale-type learning. Right?

And so if you walk into a classroom setting and you don't know anything about that, and you continuously try to talk at someone from a lens that they don't understand, in a lens you don't want to learn about, then you're not doing any work. You're not doing any work. You just spend 180 days talking at someone.

But if you really want to break those barriers and understand how they learn, to really educate them, you have to learn about culture. And so, for us to keep going—and yes, we have multi-tiers systems of success and we have PLCs and we have all those things—but if we don't start with mindset and culture, we're not going to go anywhere.

Ken: I love it. That's awesome.

So just, kind of to wrap things up, is there anything that you were hoping that I would ask about or that you want to highlight that we didn't get to talk about that you feel is important for folks to hear around this idea of learning acceleration, and, you know, a message that you think folks should  have and leave with>

Erin: So many. [laughing]

But the most important part is "don't ever judge a student by their data. Learn them. Learn them completely." If we're here to educate the whole child and learn the whole child, don't count anybody's child out because you wouldn't want anyone to count your child out. And also, think about you as a student and then think about your academic challenges and your successes. And think about where you are now. And if someone had to paint a picture of you when you were in the sixth grade or seventh or eighth grade, would they have written the same story for you where you're sitting right now? So it's very important that we learn the whole child if we really want to educate the whole child.


Ken: Such great insights from everyone that shared with us today on this episode.

I'd like to thank my guests. I'd like to thank you listeners for tuning in and making this possible. And I'd like to thank Elizabeth Thomas for transcribing the 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 Programs/Resources 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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