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Performance-Based Learning, Strategic Compensation Keep My Eyes on Mesa 51

When it comes to K-12 education, I tell you a lot about what’s going on in the Denver area and along the Front Range. That’s where most people in our state live. But Colorado is a big place, and it’s good for me to keep expanding my horizons.

One of those places is called the Western Slope. The largest school district out there is Mesa Valley 51. A lot of times it’s just hard for little me to get a good look at what’s taking place on the other side of the mountains.

I appreciate the big step ladder provided by the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, which includes an Emily Shockley article yesterday that points to big things happening in Mesa 51, namely a forward-thinking system of competency-based (or “performance-based”) learning. It will launch in seven schools this fall:

The demonstration schools will start with a few philosophical changes, develop a common vision and adopt some practices common in a performance-based system. That includes having students set learning goals, encouraging students to “take ownership” of their learning, and letting students know about a concept called growth mindset, which teaches that any student is capable of doing well in school.

Mesa 51 is very consciously gleaning a lot of ideas and lessons from the Lindsay United School District in California, which started its own transformative process back in 2009. While the Western Slope school district will have to roll out big changes like this one deliberately, they are hoping to speed up the process somewhat from Lindsay’s six-year incremental implementation.

An Ed Surge column by Christina Quattrocchi, written exactly one year before the Sentinel story, demonstrates how students advance at their own pace as they master material. According to the column, Lindsay Unified has made small gains academically, but major improvements in school culture:

Since implementation of the new model, suspension rates have dropped by 41% and gang membership has fallen from 18% to 3%. District officials see these metrics as indicators that students see school as a place for opportunity, support, and hope.

Of course, for my familiar followers, Colorado’s own example of this type of system is the Adams 50 School District in Westminster. Their Standards Based System started about the same time as Lindsay, struggling in the early years. With new leadership and a new focus, however, the high-poverty district has started to show significant learning gains, though is still fighting to get off the state’s accountability clock.

Performance-based learning is not the only big new development in Mesa 51. The district also has plowed forward with a strategic compensation plan for teachers, a big part of what the Grand Junction Sentinel described as “seismic change” in a May 24 article. It may be a little overstated, but it’s a sizable step forward:

Now teachers will be able to earn “stipends” when they choose training or classes aimed at shoring up weaknesses or improving instruction in their subjects. And if they collect enough credits in a year and earn an evaluation of partially effective or better, the stipend will be replaced with a step up in salary.

Naturally, the devil will be in the details, but there is great reason for optimism. More than a year ago, my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow mentioned Mesa 51 as a site ripe to make performance-based changes to teacher pay.

The kicker? As the Sentinel noted, the local union affiliate, the Mesa Valley Education Association, is on board. Ninety-six percent of MVEA members voted to support strategic compensation, and they’re also backing performance-based learning.

Though it’s hard to say where things in Mesa 51 will go from here, the future looks bright. Whatever the case, I think I’ll keep that step ladder for awhile to keep watching what’s taking place on the other side of the mountains.