Grand County School District Superintendent JT Stroder is suggesting a radical change in the way students advance their education from the 7th grade to high school graduation.
It’s his answer to a question that most, if not all, teachers have faced at some point in their career. Variations of it go something like the one rhetorically asked by Education Week Magazine Assistant Editor Sarah Sparks in a 2015 article: “How can a teacher keep a reading class of 25 on the same page when four students have dyslexia, three students are learning English as a second language, two others read three grade levels ahead, and the rest have widely disparate interests and degrees of enthusiasm about reading?”
Stroder says differentiated instruction is a possible solution.
Stroder presented the idea during a workshop meeting of the Grand County School Board on Wednesday, Jan. 10. Simply put, differentiated instruction is an academic pathway that is determined by a student’s knowledge, rather than by age group. Put another way, it is instruction that is paced to the student, instead of the other way around.
Stroder, advocating for the idea, put it this way: “It really allows extra time for those kids who need extra time,” but also, “It really gives those kids who can accelerate an opportunity to move beyond just what they normally would do in high school.”
While the idea is very preliminary, Stroder outlined an example of how differentiated instruction might work. The middle school and high school would continue using the current trimester system. However, instead of six classes a day, the schedule would allow for five, increasing the time in each class per day.
“They would get more seat time than they would in one of our old semester courses,” Stroder said.
That would enable them to get a half-credit per class every trimester, rather than the one-third credit earned per trimester in the current system. Theoretically, that means a course that now takes one year to complete could be completed in two trimesters, or two-thirds of a school year. At the end of the course, students would be assessed to show proficiency.
Those who did well enough on the test would be able to advance to the next course, a full trimester early.
For students whose didn’t pass, said Stroder, “They would go back and, through differential instruction, they would get instruction in whatever they were weak in,” during that third trimester.
The goal is that those students would pass the course at the end of that third trimester, and thus continue to the next course at the beginning of the next year and remain on schedule for graduation with their peers.
Accelerated students would have more time by their junior and senior years for electives, or for advanced-placement or honors courses. Differentiated instruction would be offered in the core subjects of math, English, science and social studies.
Stroder was quick to recognize the idea would require a drastic shift to a “new paradigm.” Despite that, as well as other, more practical concerns, school board members and teachers who had been briefed on the idea seemed at least interested, if not outright enthusiastic.
“I think it’s absolutely worth looking at,” said Board Member Britnie Ellis.
Peggy Nissen, a former educator that is on the board, said, “It will be great if you can get over all the obstacles.”
One of the biggest challenges is a rule from the Utah State Board of Education that does not allow high school credit to be given for any course taken in middle school. That rule would have to be rescinded, or an exception granted, by the State Office of Education.
“That’s an old paradigm,” Stroder said. “The state is still stuck in the seat-time … Do you give credit based on seat time in a class, or do you give credit based on knowledge?”
Undeterred, Stroder and others indicated a desire to take the matter up with Grand County’s representative to the State Board of Education, Mark Huntsman, who also chairs the state board.
There are other, more localized concerns.
“The logistics is where it might get hung up,” Nissen said, agreeing with a concern that the plan would pose a “scheduling nightmare.”
Scheduling would have to be done a trimester at a time, rather than for an entire year at once, and those schedules could not be put together until the very end of each trimester, when test results reveal whether a student would advance or not.
“You have to be so intentional with every kid’s schedule,” said Taryn Kay, principal at Helen M. Knight Elementary School.
Staffing could also be an issue: Would there be enough teachers to provide for advanced as well as remedial courses during the same trimester?
“It’s not impossible,” Kay said. “It’s just all those variables. It’s worth looking at.”
And there could be pushback from teachers and students alike against the idea of going back to five periods during the day. Teachers may be leery of having to prep for longer class periods, and students likely disdainful of having to sit through those periods.
And, Kay asked, for students who don’t advance in a course, would there be a way for them to “get out of that trimester-behind track?” That problem has a parallel in the current system, too, said Sherrie Buckingham, the district’s special-education director.
“From a special-ed and intervention point of view, I’ve seen kids just get underwater and there is no way in the system for them to be re-taught,” Buckingham said.
Hank Postma, a CTE teacher and the president of the Grand County Educators Association, said something similar. “When we went to the six-period day … it really hurt a lot of our remediation ability. I think this solves it … right now, if they fail, the solution is dump them in credit recovery, which doesn’t work very well.”