Northern Cass School District: A Conversation with Cory Steiner
Q&A 02 April 2019
By Cory Steiner, Northern Cass School District
I’m not only seeing kids own their learning, but I’m also seeing them start to advocate for themselves…I’ve seen kids begin to make connections between everything they are learning and how it links to broader skill sets.
Q: What path led you to working on learner-centered transformation at Northern Cass School District?
A: I went to a very small school in southwest North Dakota. I graduated with 12 other students. I had a traditional experience with wonderful educators—they were one of the reasons I got into education in the first place.
I initially got involved in coaching—thinking I was going to set the world on fire as a college or professional coach. I started to realize what I liked about coaching was working with kids, so I wondered, “What if I could do that all day long?” That led me to become a social studies teacher and eventually working in administration, which I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. I’ve worked as an Assistant Principal, Principal, Data Steward for the state, and for the last five years, as the Superintendent of Northern Cass School District.
Regarding what led me to the work I’m doing today, there are two important things to note. One, I work with a team at Northern Cass that has always pushed and strived to do more. They are always asking, “What’s next?” Second, I have this fundamental belief—and all the research tells us this—that every learner is different. I see it from my daughters, I see it from my siblings, and I see it when I walk up and down the halls. We have a system that doesn’t value that. I think it’s a moral imperative for our school districts to change the way we’re conducting business. The reasons for making these changes and what informs the actual changes we make should always be our learners.
Q: As you’ve explored learner-centered transformation, how have you enrolled educators in the process?
A: Our desire to transform was sparked after we had the opportunity to go down to Watertown, South Dakota. When my team returned from the visit, we said, “That’s something we’d like to do with our learners. And, it’s something we can do.” We thought our community would be supportive of it.
At that same time, we had educators engaged in a Teacher Leadership Academy on our campus—partnering with North Dakota State University. The administration co-taught the courses with a professor, which made the work directly linked to what we were trying to do in our district. When we talked about strategic planning in these trainings, we actually worked on the strategic plan for the district (not something only theoretical). Having that direct connection allowed our educators to see themselves and the district doing something really amazing. 20 of our educators—40% of our staff—got their master’s degree through that program.
Before this experience, I used to believe great professional development had to be guided by me with a very structured agenda. Now, I see that I need to (and do) trust my educators to develop their own personalized learning plans. We’re doing it for our kids, and we need to do it for our staff. The other part I realized is professional development has nothing to do with me. Our educators are our best professional development providers—they are best at supporting each other. Our model has shifted to: “You figure out what you want, and we have the experts in our building who can help.” We don’t do a lot of stuff outside the district anymore. It’s mostly internally led and focused on what best meets the needs of each individual educator.
One page can’t describe what a learner did in their four years of high school in terms of their learning.
One other important thing to note is the support we had from our Board of Education. They enabled us to bring on a Director of Personalized Learning, as they recognized the significance of having a person designated to guide this work for our district. This made a huge difference both in helping us get started and in giving us the time and capacity to enroll our educators.
Q: Have you been engaged in other conversations with folks in higher education?
A: We’re transitioning away from percentage-based grading and into a purely standards-based assessment system. This is changing our transcripts from representing what a learner did to what they have learned. One page can’t describe what a learner did in their four years of high school in terms of their learning. We have to find a way to get the transcript to be truly about the experiences they had, while being efficient enough for colleges to be able to go through and determine if the learner qualifies to attend their school.
We have to figure out what the breakpoint is—when there is too much information. We originally “created” a transcript that could potentially be eight to nine pages long, but we knew that wasn’t going to work.
Any of the universities we’ve talked to, we’ve heard zero resistance. They are very supportive of this work. One university we spoke to made a very good point. They said, “Cory, we accept transcripts from all over the world; I think we can accept one from the district that is 30 miles away.” That made perfect sense. They’ve also let us know they’ll need some explanations about what we’re choosing to show on the transcripts, which will likely involve us sitting down with the universities our kids are applying to and having a conversation.
Beyond the transcripts, the other interesting conversation we’ve been engaging with is: “How do you prepare future teachers for this work?” This work looks really different from the model they probably experienced growing up. Our partnerships with NDSU, Valley City State University, and Mayville State University have allowed for open conversations about what this new way of teaching looks like and how it must change the programs designed to develop our next generation of educators.
I think we’re finally seeing our kids shift from thinking that getting a grade or regurgitating information is what matters to focusing on the skills they are developing.
Q: What has been the biggest adjustment the young learners have had to work through during the transformation?
A: We’re a year away from full implementation, but to be honest, I don’t think you ever reach “full implementation” in this work.
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen has come from the youngest learners. I can walk into a classroom and ask if they can tell me what they are learning and it’s not “math.” Rather, they talk about the standard they are working on and how it fits within the bigger picture of where they are directing they’re learning. They’re able to articulate where they’ve been, where they’re at, and where they’re going, plus how it all connects. I hear so many of the learners saying, “Well, that’s what’s best for my learning.” Oftentimes, at the elementary level, you see kids so focused on doing what their friends are doing. Now, kids at all ages in our district see themselves as responsible for their individual path. We talk a lot about growth mindset in the education world, and I’m finally getting to actually see that in our learners.
At the secondary level, I’m not only seeing kids own their learning, but I’m also seeing them start to advocate for themselves. I’ve had a couple of kids this year come up to me and say, “I’m passionate about this topic, can I take an online course on it?” My answer is, “Of course, and you need to complete your other courses.” They say, “No problem.” I’ve seen kids begin to make connections between everything they are learning and how it links to broader skill sets.
I think we’re finally seeing our kids shift from thinking that getting a grade or regurgitating information is what matters to focusing on the skills they are developing. It’s a slow process, but we’re making gains.
Q: What has communication with parents looked like throughout this process?
A: We have tried to be very purposeful when it comes to that. When the conversations first began amongst the administration about making this shift, word got out and parents immediately began connecting “personalized” with kids spending the entire day in front of a screen. Right away, we held two community forums. We talked about what personalized learning is, showing videos with examples. We also shared what we’d learned at various site visits and why we thought it was the right way to go. We told them why we felt it was worth tearing down our whole system: We had a system that had really good results, but we believed those results weren’t linked to the right things.
After those forums, we started a parent task force to meet monthly. The first thing we did was get teachers in front of that task force to explain what they were doing in their classrooms. During our two-hour meetings, the first hour is spent with teachers talking about their work. Our teachers are so passionate about what they’re doing, they enjoy the conversation. We’ve talked with the parents about what a proficiency-based transcript should look like and why we wanted to change how we graded learning. They asked if kids could get into college if they have no grade on their transcript. We actually had parents go down to Harrisburg, SD to see how Harrisburg School District is transforming learning. And, they came back challenging us to do even more. They have been great to work with, as they have challenged us to be transparent while asking questions which have led us to rethink elements of our implementation.
At first, I thought the task force would be a year-long thing, but I’m going to keep it going for the next few years. This helps us control the narrative and gives space for people to ask about the big things they’re wondering.
Q: We profiled Harrisburg School District a few weeks ago. What attracted you to work with them?
A: When we originally visited Watertown, SD, they told us, “We like what we’re doing, but you have to go down to Harrisburg.” We visited Harrisburg and spent time at the middle and high school. We really liked what we saw and sent almost all of our staff down there over the course of the past two years. We had great conversations with Travis Lape, Harrisburg’s Innovative Programs Director, who has agreed to consult with us as we transition. He has visited a few times this academic year.
The question everyone wants to know about this work is: “What does it look like?” What we learned from our visit and by talking to Travis is, “This is what it looks like in Harrisburg, but it’s going to look different for Northern Cass.” But, Travis has been able to offer us a lot of assurance that we’re on the right path when we’ve hit some roadblocks. He can say, “Oh yeah, we experienced that, too” or “we haven’t thought about that question, you’re ahead of us in that area.” It’s blossomed into this wonderful partnership. We’re also working closely with Lindsay Unified School District in California
When we began our site visits, we initially thought, “That’s exactly how we’ll do it at Northern Cass.” But, as we’ve done more of them, we have been able to say, “Here’s how that idea will work within our context.” I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. I don’t think we would have been able to be as aggressive with our timeline without those experiences.
Our why drives everything we do in this building. I wish people would take the time to figure that piece out. People will talk about how they already have a mission and vision, but people have to know their why before they engage in this work.
Q: When you were first exploring this, what were some of the “we can’t do this” items that showed up in your conversations before you started visiting other sites?
A: There are three things that immediately come to mind:
- “Elementary kids aren’t able to control the pace of their learning.” We found out very quickly that a second-grader (or even those younger kids) can do it if we give them the power to do so.
- “There’s no way to manage all of the different learner groupings.” When people think about personalized learning, they often think about 25 kids on 25 different paths with 25 different lesson plans. That’s not what it looks like. Rather than it being another thing added to an educator’s plate, it becomes the plate. This is what we do here.
- “It’s going to be really hard. Change is hard. Nobody else in the state is doing this.” We had to ask ourselves if we wanted to be the pioneers or if we wanted to wait and see?
Q: What do you wish people asked more regularly about your work?
A: Everybody is so concerned about the “how,” that I don’t think they spend enough time thinking about “why” we made the choice to begin our transformation. We have a why statement—“Every learner can change the world, therefore we must provide a world class education.” It was six or seven months of discussions about what world class means that led us to this change effort. Our why drives everything we do in this building. I wish people would take the time to figure that piece out. People will talk about how they already have a mission and vision, but people have to know their why before they engage in this work.
The other question I wish people would ask is: “What’s next?” People love seeing what’s happening now, and it gets them excited. We did it too when we first visited Harrisburg. When we visited Lindsay USD, they told us, “Yeah, we’re ten years into it, and when you come back in ten years, we’ll be 20 years into it.” You won’t ever be done with the work, so I’d love for people to ask, “What are you looking to do next?” This is not something you just implement and call it “done;” you always have to adjust based on your learners. This is truly why you exist—to serve learners.
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