Two Schools Pursuing Learning Profiles

by Carol Ann Tomlinson

The principals at Conway Elementary School in St. Louis, Mo., and Colchester High School in Colchester, Vt., support their teachers in developing an understanding of potential learning preferences and ways to address those preferences in the classroom.

Whether the students are kindergartners or high school seniors, the administrators and teachers find students benefit from instruction that invites them to master content in a variety of ways.

In both settings, though, a learning profile is just one of three kinds of student needs to which administrators and teachers attend. Both schools have moved to schoolwide differentiated instruction over the last seven or eight years. Now teachers throughout the schools plan for student variance in readiness, interest and learning profile.

Recrafting Plans
As part of their work on differentiation, teachers and administrators at both Conway and Colchester ensure clarity about what students should know, understand and be able to do as the result of each segment of learning — whether the segment is the school year, a course unit or a day.

Teachers in both settings regularly pre-assess students to determine their readiness levels relative to the essential knowledge, understanding and skill, as well as their interests and ways in which students seem to prefer to learn. They also regularly use ongoing or formative assessment to understand where each student is relative to the key learning goals and to hear from students which approaches to teaching and learning seem most helpful to them.

The teachers regularly re-craft their teaching plans to ensure students work toward the same critical learning outcomes and that they can do so with varied support systems, materials, timetables, personal connections and approaches.

In these two schools, leaders and teachers alike understand that teaching is not just about covering content, but that it also must be about ensuring students learn the content. The educators understand that seeing student success as the goal of teaching requires flexible planning, teaching and classroom management.

In both settings, planning for student variance in learning profiles is part of a comprehensive approach to making sure that each learner has maximum opportunity to succeed academically. Teachers begin by connecting with their students as individuals so they are better able to support their success as learners. When students sense their teachers know them and are attentive to their interests and needs, they are more likely to accept the risk involved in real learning.

Teachers work from a base of high-quality curricula, monitor student growth toward and beyond essential learning goals, use assessment information to modify teaching and learning plans, develop flexible classroom routines, and differentiate based on student readiness, interest and learning profile.

Student Benefits
Achievement outcomes for students across the learning spectrum have been highly positive. At Conway Elementary School, the number of students scoring below the 65th percentile on the state test in reading fell from 38 percent to 24 percent in the first three years of the differentiation initiative. At the same time, the number of students with scores above the 65th percentile in math rose from 48 percent to 66 percent.

At Colchester High School, 25 percent of students passed the math problem-solving portion of their state standards test in the year prior to the start of the differentiation initiative. Five years into the initiative, 52 percent passed that portion of the test in 2006. During the same period, math skills rose from a 44 percent pass rate to a 72 percent pass rate, reading analysis and interpretation scores rose from 51 percent to 66 percent passage, and writing effectiveness improved from a 58 percent pass rate to 75 percent passage.

In addition, student behavior — as measured by office referrals and expulsions — has improved markedly, student attitudes about learning are more positive, and teachers feel more professional. While learning-profile differentiation is one aspect of professional development and classroom practice at Conway and Colchester, it is only one. Learning-profile differentiation is part of a systemic approach to teaching and learning that attends to all of the critical classroom elements and the interaction among them.