Calumet New Tech High School & the power of PBL

November 25, 2016

by Rosie Clayton

My very last school visit on this education adventure was to Calumet New Tech High School in Gary, Indiana, earlier this week — a 700 student High School located in an urban fringe industrial community which faces a complex array of challenges: high poverty, low aspirations and opportunity, unemployment, extremely poor transport and other infrastructure connectivity, and high crime rates.

90% of the student intake is eligible for free and and reduced lunch, and the student community is also highly transient due to life instability with a large student turnover during the academic year, and cohort flux of around 25% at the start of each year. Creating a strong and stable school culture and learning environment is a continuous and ever evolving challenge.

The school transitioned to become a New Tech Network school in 2009/10, and was the first whole school transformation within the New Tech Network of schools. Through meticulous planning and capacity building over 6 years the school now operates a highly sophisticated mastery based 100% wall to wall PBL model, delivering a 96% student graduation rate and attainment of the Indiana Core 40 Diploma (College ready), which is quite remarkable.

The statistics from this school really speak for themselves as to the transformative potential and impact of project based learning methodologies.

So how do they achieve this?

1. Accountability & agency

At the heart of the school model and learning culture is a clear shift in power and agency to the grassroots, with students empowered to take responsibility for and control over their own learning. Success is defined and measured through growth across 5 learning outcomes — knowledge and thinking, written communication, oral communication, agency, and collaboration — and students set the frame for their learning across these 5 areas with peers and staff, and at both an individual and collective level. They are constantly held accountable for personal and group defined goals and expectations, which leads to a bottom up accountability dynamic.

Charlie Wierzbicki, one of the PBL trainers and coaches who I spent the day with, described this as especially important for the cohort of young people that this school serves, who not only often experience little agency or freedom in their personal or family lives, but have in the main become totally disheartened and disillusioned with learning and life. This model provides an opportunity for them to take control and make school work for them — as Charlie said, they are empowered to learn something, to have confidence in their ability to learn, and to show what they can do and find what they are capable of doing.

Agency is built through high level rubrics which enable growth in mindsets and facilitated by strong staff relationships. Staff skilfully scaffold capacity and agency building activities through projects, for example creating opportunities for ‘failure’ regularly, and pathways to learn from and overcome obstacles. Presentation, critique and evaluation at peer level is also embedded, and group work is assessed through individual and group contributions.

2. Their PBL model

Calumet New Tech’s PBL model is a highly collaborative and sophisticated instructional model, weaving together common core state standards so content rich, and competencies across the 5 New Tech learning outcomes, providing multiple opportunities for critique, iteration, presentation and reflection. Students present potentially up to 15 times a year on their learning. Charlie described this as multi sensory learning — seeing, hearing, manipulating, experiencing.

Projects are cross curricular and subject paired, and designed in short and tight project cycles across 4 week blocks and around 6 stages, covering skills practice, learning practice, application, evaluation and reflection, and relating to real world challenges and problem solving. Staff tend to construct the driving questions with students choosing their own guiding questions across multiple themes in small groups, and the evolution and delivery is fast paced with regular questioning around ‘show me what you know’, ‘likes’ and ‘wonders’.

Critical friends and peer support are an intrinsic part of the learning process at both student and staff level also. And individual assessment is framed through achievement and contribution within the group where everyone is responsible for each others learning — groups end up being their own task masters as it were within a project, and this dynamic drives collective learning. Assessment is also a collaborative activity between students and staff, with the emphasis on the student in critiquing and evaluating their learning, building agency.

3. Mastery and competency based learning

High level but clear, simple and flexible rubrics provide the framework for growth and mastery across the 5 New Tech learning outcomes, and are weighted for assessment towards grades: knowledge & thinking (which includes content standards) 50%, agency 20%, oral communication 10%, written communication 10%, collaboration 10%. Capability is broadly defined and measured. Each project is planned and designed to enable growth across these areas, and deeper learning through the acquisition of knowledge and high level skill development. Expectations, standards and processes are clear for both staff and students, and projects are typically planned a semester in advance, but with enough flex to enable elements of student co-construction and contribution.

The rubrics also help teachers frame the concepts and ideas that they want to teach, and are a tool for facilitating conversation as to where or what next, always promoting growth. Learning for every individual is evolutionary and a multifaceted process, and not limited by lack of ambition or low expectations, or pigeonholing. Success at school level is seen as mastery across the 5 New Tech learning outcomes, with all students expected to achieve 80% plus each semester.

4. Data driven — across range of performance metrics

Linked to this, there is a strong emphasis on data and evidence of impact, with subject assessments in addition to in-project assessments every 5 weeks, and critical analysis through data, observation, discussion, questioning and critiquing. Progress is tracked in depth and reviewed regularly through a network wide online learning platform, and regular staff meetings and performance review cycles. Technologies are also utilised to enable learning and tracking at subject level, with detailed in depth analytics.

5. Strong & dynamic professional learning culture

The professional learning culture across the school felt especially unique in the way it supports personal and professional development as well as wider learning. The learning process for staff mirrors that of student learning, so the whole organisation exists in sync, and the New Tech learning outcome rubrics provide the framework for staff development also.

The systematised processes overall, and focus on culture building and constant modelling, provide clear standards and expectations for staff as well as students. And given that PBL for most staff is a new teaching methodology, there are clear expectations for what a year 1/2/3 PBL teacher should look like and be working towards in the development of their practice. Staff also have critical friends and peer mentors across the wider team, and there are 6 NTN PBL certified coaches supporting staff weekly at an individual and team level.

Collaborative planning time is built in weekly, with critiquing conversations the norm — what does success look like, what is this data telling us, what is the quality of this student work telling us. Conversations are structured and purposeful, and observations are frequent as well as activity demonstration and modelling – model, playtest, observe, feedback and reflect, iterate.

Staff success is also defined and measured through growth, again reflecting practice development as an evolutionary process. And also reflective — how does my practice effect growth in my students. Staff are encouraged to constantly push and test their own thinking and experiment.

6. High productivity

One of the things that was particularly interesting to see with this model was that instructional time is exactly the same as in any traditional school, and teacher-student ratios are fairly standard 1:30/35, yet accelerated progress and growth is achieved through high productivity and pace, and the effective use and structuring of time — activities are tight and purposeful, and no opportunities for learning are missed. Charlie estimated that students are probably working up to 50% more productively under this model, but it’s a different type of learning to a traditional school model, with high variety and engaging activities which enable strong investment in and enjoyment of learning, and a clear sense of direction and purpose.

Economically the model is not significantly more expensive to operate, but requires a higher level of personal investment from all, as well as considerable staff training and ongoing professional development. In the early days staff are likely to have to invest additional time to develop their practice and plan, but as Charlie said, you get more bang for your buck so it’s worth it, and the model certainly delivers results.

Some thoughts on network effects & scaling

Earlier in this journey I met with Ted Fujimoto, one of the original founders of the New Tech model and network, and we discussed strategies for scaling school models in depth — see

Having now visited a New Tech Network school it’s clear that a number of things that we discussed — systematised processes and expectations including around culture and relationships, extensive planning and training, and rubrics with enough flex to allow each school model to adapt to local context, all calibrated, as Ted would say, through a cross network learning platform — are all part of the key to success.

So thinking about the main ingredients for scaling, you have:

  • culture, common language & agency
  • content standards
  • clearly defined learning process (PBL), and design frameworks and methodologies to support this — balance of rigidity and flex
  • clear and high level rubrics across their 5 learning outcomes for building skills and competencies, framing expectations and what success looks like
  • strong investment in, and design of, a professional learning culture and ongoing staff training and support, with in built collaboration time. Including across school, locality and wider network
  • online platform — helping to systematise processes, embed culture and expectations, and providing a focal point in creating a diverse and mutually supportive learning community

Process drives growth and progress, and one of Ted’s concerns when we met was that the majority of people working in education reform have little understanding of the level of process design and systematisation needed for scale, i.e. change management. Frameworks also need to be designed around minimal high level variables, otherwise process becomes too prescriptive and everything becomes standardised and impersonal — it’s a fine balance.

Enabling conditions

Linked to this, I think there are a number of enabling conditions needed to make PBL models successful more generally, for example:

  • strong leadership and clear institutional expectations, in this case through clear and systematised but flexible frameworks
  • strong buy in and investment from all adults, students, parents and partners across the school community
  • inventive use of time, space and technologies (timetabling/scheduling) — enabling productivity
  • intentional prioritisation and design of a professional learning culture, including staff training, leadership development and succession planning, with time for staff (and students) to design and collaborate.
  • school culture that promotes risk taking, challenge and experimentation – as well as strong relationships, trust and responsibility

Cynthia Trevino, the school Principal, gave me some insight into their journey to become a New Tech Network school, which was fascinating in thinking about school transformation journeys.

As mentioned Calumet became a New Tech school in 2009, driven by a need to do something radically different to provide better outcomes for the young people that the school serves. Cynthia and colleagues spent time scoping out different school models around the country and thinking about the best fit for their circumstances. They eventually decided on New Tech, feeling that it was most aligned with their philosophy and especially as they had already embraced many of the New Tech elements, for example around trying to embed technologies to accelerate learning, and experimenting with cross curricular projects.

Following a 2 year R&D phase, which included site visits and extensive planning across all elements of school design, they then worked on culture change, introducing new systems and process and capacity building from the ground up, and one cohort at a time over 4 years. For Cynthia, the wider network was vital in providing support and strength, and confidence in knowing that others were doing this and having an impact — wider collective accountability.

So what? And what next? (this was something of a mantra across the school)

It’s hard not to understate the importance and impact of the New Tech PBL model in this community, on so so many levels, and particularly in the building of personal agency, confidence, and mindsets.

But success in one sense has come at a price for Cynthia in terms of the challenges she now faces around staff turnover — with other local schools using her school as a training pipeline for recruiting highly skilled staff after their first 2 years in post, through offering enhanced salary packages, sometimes up to $20K more, which she is unable to compete with as they get zero additional funding reflecting their more challenging intake compared to other local schools. This leaves the school, and the progress and impact that they make, at constant risk of derailment.

We also discussed the paradox of system drivers around career and college readiness — how they are not comparative and what you need for college is currently not the same as what you need for many careers — and linked to this the need for really strong pathways into good and well paid careers for those that decide not to go to College. In this community around 50% of the graduating cohort are likely to go on to College, but around 50% will need find some kind of immediate employment to support their families due to poverty. And those roles are likely to be in trades or the steel industry, with limited access to other opportunities due to poor and expensive transport networks.

This is the reality of life in poverty for many right now, and no matter what amazing opportunities, qualifications and skills the education system provides, life circumstances will still present barriers to progression, and for many young people their only choice post school is to find local work (or become welfare dependent) following similar paths to their parents.

This was a timely discussion for me, as it’s been a prevailing feeling throughout this whole trip — that post secondary pathways are one of the most important areas for imagination and attention in current education reform debates. And how we need to think more creatively about how economic opportunities are distributed, or can be distributed say through flexible or remote working, to allow every young person to find rewarding and meaningful and well paid work, and undertake further education or training at points in life which are convenient for their circumstances, disrupting the linear educational process and expectations around progression which currently limits opportunity and life outcomes for many. And especially when you don’t have the resources of a City on your doorstep.

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