Mount Abe teachers win $100,000 grant, Rowland Fellowships

BRISTOL — Two Mount Abraham Union High School teachers are the recipients of a $100,000 grant to further their research into new ways to assess student performance.
Science teachers Andrew Jones and Gabe Hamilton this month were selected to the 2015 class of Rowland Foundation Fellows. They plan to continue their work on standards-based grading, a comprehensive approach to student assessment that supplements final number or letter grades.
The Rowland Foundation since 2009 has awarded grants to Vermont educators who are dedicated to improving students’ performance, as well as school culture and climate.
“Essentially, the idea is to give teachers with innovative ideas and passion an opportunity to pursue those projects in a way that they typically can’t do,” Hamilton explained.
The grant, which is disbursed over three semesters, allows educators to take a sabbatical from the classroom to conduct their research.
“It’s pretty awesome that we have this in Vermont,” said Jones.
Standards-based grading, Jones explained, is a concept that has been debated in education circles for decades. He said the pair have a particular interest in the topic now, as Vermont educators, bureaucrats and legislators ponder how to reform the state’s public school system.
“It touches on a lot of different aspects of the education system, and can transform everything,” Jones said.
Hamilton said he is excited about the fellowship because it allows reform to occur at the teacher level, rather than a top-down approach led by administrators.
“This is an opportunity to work with the top to move (reform) from the bottom up, or at least collaborate more,” he said.
Hamilton also said that standards-based grading aligns with the vision of Act 77, the 2013 law that mandates that the Agency of Education adapt classrooms for the 21st century and provide students with multiple pathways to graduation, even if they are non-traditional.
He said standards-based grading paints a more complete picture of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, to give teachers a better understanding of how to improve educational outcomes.
“There’s more clarity in what students are coming to the board with, and allows you to look at the whole student, rather than just a traditional report of grades, that tell you very little about the student,” Hamilton said.
Jones said the new approach to assessment aims to improve clarity, coherence and consistency in evaluating students. Their research will not just focus on Mount Abraham or the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, but encompass other schools in Vermont and beyond.
“We’re going to look at systems in place that are all over the United States,” Hamilton said. “We want to look at other schools and understand all the barriers to implementing something like this, so we can implement it quickly and effectively here.”
Hamilton said that educators across Vermont look to Mount Abraham as a source of innovation, and noted that the school is a member of organizations like the Great Schools Partnership and League of Innovative Schools.
“These are schools that are at the vanguard of innovation in education, and we want to continue that trend in schools in this state and states around us, to help them transform,” Hamilton said.
As implemented, standards-based grading doesn’t aim to replace the traditional report card. But it would add more context to how students perform. Jones said that the new assessment system would include “learning targets” for students to reach. On their assessments, students could see how they performed in particular areas.
“When students get their grade, they can look at what they scored for that particular piece, instead of this nebulous grade,” Jones explained. “It breaks down the grade so students know where they’re at with regards to particular content knowledge and skills.”
While not abandoning the quarterly or semi-annual timeline by which students are evaluated, Hamilton said standards-based grading enables teachers to regularly assess students’ performance.
“It necessitates a very clear cycle of assessments, so you’re getting information on where kids are at all along the road,” Hamilton said.
A key benefit to standards-based grading is that it allows students who may not shine by traditional measures to still have the opportunity and tools necessary to succeed academically. The approach allows teachers to pinpoint where a student is struggling, and provide extra attention in that area.
“We embrace the philosophy that if a student’s not meeting the standard, we need to provide them with opportunities to learn that content,” he said.
Hamilton said he feels encouraged that the Rowland Foundation recognized his and Jones’ work, and said he looks forward to their upcoming research.
“This is the first time in my 13 years of education that I really feel optimistic about true education reform happening,” he said.
Jones said the pair’s work would not have been possible without the backing of their Mount Abraham colleagues.
“The culture of Mount Abe has been supportive of entrepreneurial and innovative education practices, which has helped us propel forward,” he said. “I think in a lot of schools that can be quelled, but here we’ve been supported every step of the way.”

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