Not that long ago, the high school in Pittsfield, N.H., had some of the lowest standardized tests scores in the state and was known as a dropout factory.
But over the past six years, the school district has overhauled its approach to education. Now in most classes, grades aren't used to measure progress.
And that is a relief to Jenny Wellington, an English teacher at Pittsfield High School, who says grades never really told her whether her students were actually learning.
"The old grading system allowed students to pass with a 65," says Wellington. "What does that 65 mean? You did the bare minimum? You showed up? You did some tests right and you failed some?"
Now she says she can tailor her lessons to each individual student: "I can say, 'You're doing really well in the writing, but your grammar is a little weak. We need work on that.' "
It's all part of an approach that Pittsfield, and a growing number of schools across the country, have adopted called student-centered learning. The idea is to ditch traditional classes (think: teacher lecturing from a rigid lesson plan at the front of a class to students in neat rows of desks) for a more personalized approach, where students have a much greater say in what they learn and how they learn it.
At Pittsfield High School, students make their own progress and won't get a grade until the very end of the school year after having multiple chances to demonstrate mastery. Wellington says that once her students realize they can make mistakes in class, they take more risks and further engage in learning.
In her classroom, the students come up with their own questions for the reading and even decide the format of the class. There is one student whose job it is to make sure that everyone participates in the discussion. Wellington sometimes sits in the circle with the students and other times observes from the floor, asking an occasional question.
"Part of student-centered learning is asking the class, 'What do you need to make this class work?' " she says. "The students are the ones telling me what works, and it's going to be different for every class."
"I love it," says Elisa Sullivan, who graduated last year. Before coming to Pittsfield, she went to a high school in Manchester, the state's largest city. "I didn't get much one-on-one time and here I just feel more included."
But do numbers show that personalized learning works? It's hard to say. In Pittsfield, test scores and graduation rates have greatly improved. One major study found big improvements in math and reading among kids who participated in personalized learning.
But there are few comprehensive studies. That is because there is no standard, yet. Each school, or district, will adopt its own version of the method, making it hard to measure.
Still, public and private funders across the country have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in student-centered learning.
This small district received more than $4 million in government and foundation grants to train teachers and add staff for the effort. And although the district is running out of the money that helped fund its conversion, administrators have been so happy with the results that the district has expanded personalized learning to its elementary school.
Tessie Simpson's son is 8 and at the Pittsfield grade school. She says he was "so frustrated that he was melting down" in his classes, but once he started personalized learning, "his confidence has changed. His confidence is different. He's really trying and maintaining focus, and last year, it wasn't that way."
As for Jenny Wellington, the high school English teacher, she says there's no other way she could teach but has seen that other teachers can find it hard to adapt to. "It has to be about you going into the classroom and letting go of your ego. It has to be about you seeing it as a collaborative effort." Along with low pay, that may help explain the high teacher turnover rate in the district.
"Teachers are not comfortable giving up power," she says. "But I don't see it as giving up power, I see it has shared power and that makes the job a lot easier."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
School districts across the country are ditching traditional classes - you know, desks in a row, rigid lesson plans, teacher lectures - for an approach where students have more of a say in what they learn and how they learn it. It's called student-centered learning. And in one New Hampshire district, it's having a big impact on test scores and graduation rates. Rachel Gotbaum has the story.
RACHEL GOTBAUM, BYLINE: Not that long ago, the high school in Pittsfield, N.H., had some of the lowest standardized test scores in the state and was known as a dropout factory. But over the last six years, the school district has overhauled its approach to education. Jenny Wellington teaches high school English here.
JENNY WELLINGTON: So in the past, you'd write an essay and here's your grade, and it's not ever going to tell me whether you learned anything.
GOTBAUM: And now in most classes, grades are not used to measure progress. She says the focus is on learning.
WELLINGTON: I can say, you're doing really well with the writing, but your grammar is a little weak, so we need to work on that. So I can separate all of their skills too as opposed to just, well, there's your essay, you got a 95, moving on.
GOTBAUM: Pittsfield is one of dozens of school districts in the country that has invested in what's called student-centered learning. At the high school, students map their own progress and won't get a grade until the very end of the year.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: What we came up with in our group was pretty much it's the dad...
GOTBAUM: In Wellington's class, students are on their own path to master skills like writing, research and literary analysis.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: And then Mrs. Clause is the mother and the elves, we figured, were the nurses.
GOTBAUM: On this day, Wellington students are discussing contemporary American poetry. They determine the format of the class and come up with their own questions for the reading. Wellington sometimes joins them and other times observes and gives guidance from the floor.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Ms. Wellington.
WELLINGTON: (Laughter) I have a question. Where does it say father in this poem?
GOTBAUM: Students in Pittsfield have a lot of say over how they learn and even how the school is run. Their government council presents directly to the school board, and they lead their own parent-teacher conferences.
ELISA SULLIVAN: I love it. I went to Central High School in Manchester, N.H. before.
GOTBAUM: Elisa Sullivan is in her last year here.
SULLIVAN: And it's a total different experience. I didn't really get much one-on-one time before. And here, I just feel more included.
GOTBAUM: The move to student-centered learning isn't cheap. This small district received more than $4 million in government and foundation grants to train teachers and add staff. Now test scores and graduation rates have greatly improved. And recently, the school district has expanded personalized learning to its elementary school. Before that, 8-year-old Zach was struggling, says his mother, Tessie Simpson.
TESSIE SIMPSON: Last year, I dealt with a child that every day, you know, crying in the morning that he was stupid or trying to do a homework assignment that he just couldn't do or didn't want to do.
GOTBAUM: Then, Zach enrolled in the new classes.
SIMPSON: His confidence is different. He's really trying and maintaining focus. There's just something different about the dynamic of that classroom and the way they're teaching.
GOTBAUM: But it's not clear whether this approach actually works better. One major study found big improvements in math and reading among kids who participated in personalized learning, but there are few other comprehensive studies. That's because there is no standard yet. Each school is adapting its own version, and that makes it hard to measure. Jenny Wellington, the Pittsfield high school teacher, says this is a giant paradigm shift. Not all teachers are suited to this new approach.
WELLINGTON: It has to be about you going into the classroom and letting go of your ego.
GOTBAUM: In Pittsfield, there's a high teacher turnover rate. Much of that has to do with the low salaries here, she says, but also because student-centered learning is not how educators are taught to do their job.
WELLINGTON: Teachers are not comfortable giving up their power, but I don't see it as giving up your power. I actually see it as shared power, which makes the job a lot easier.
GOTBAUM: She believes her students are more invested in their education and better equipped to adapt to an uncertain job market after they graduate. The school district is running out of the grant money that helped fund its conversion. But there are no plans to slow down. More student-centered classes will be offered this fall. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Gotbaum.
SIMON: And that story was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.