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Kentucky School District Wants Project Based Learning to Outshine Testing

April 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A public school district in Danville, Ky., has turned its emphasis away from traditional testing in order to encourage creativity and let students learn by doing. NewsHour special correspondent for education John Merrow reports on "deep learning," and how it requires commitment from educators, students and parents.


GWEN IFILL: The cheating scandal in Atlanta is prompting questions again about testing and whether public schools are too focused on teaching to the test.

But some places are trying new approaches.

The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, visited another school district in the South to see its model.

JOHN MERROW: Odds are students in Danville, Ky., are attending classes that do not look like the ones you remember. They’re learning how to make a guitar, design a presentation, debate an argument, and more.

JADEN MAYES, Student, Danville High School: So, do you guys know what germs are?

JOHN MERROW: Jaden Mayes and her classmates created a project for their science class, using glitter to teach preschoolers how germs spread.

JADEN MAYES: So there are going to be our germs. You are going to act like these are germs, OK? So Haley sneezed in her hand, and now she’s — and she didn’t wash her hands, and now she’s going to shake hands with everybody. So shake Haley’s hand. Look at all the little germs.

JOHN MERROW: This is not just science.

JADEN MAYES: That’s why you got to wash your hands.

JADEN MAYES: These seventh graders are learning another set of skills: creativity, communication and teamwork.

So you weren’t just playing?

JADEN MAYES: No, we were actually teaching them a lesson in a fun way.

JOHN MERROW: Why make it fun?

JADEN MAYES: They would enjoy it more and it would stay in their minds because they would remember, oh, that was fun, I enjoyed that.

JOHN MERROW: This seemingly simple lesson is an example of something far more complicated called project-based learning. It’s one of many changes happening in a school district that wants to spend less time testing and more on what is now being called deeper learning.

Only about one percent of schools nationwide are committed to this approach. Danville is a small district with just 1,800 students, 60 percent of whom live in low-income households. But it’s got big plans. Danville wants to do something that few, if any, traditional school districts have ever done: transform teaching and learning in every classroom.

For this to work, everything and everyone has to change. Parents have to get on board. Teachers need to learn new ways of teaching. Students must adapt to new ways of learning. And test scores can’t be ignored. If they go down, the reforms won’t last.

Parents are often the hardest to convince that change is necessary, but not in Danville.

KATHY MERRYMAN, Parent: We were a part of a group of parents who came together and said, enough is enough. We want better for our students.

JOHN MERROW: School reform is usually a last resort. Things get so bad that schools have no other option. Although Danville’s test scores were below the state average, the state isn’t making them change. Danville wants to do things differently.

MICHAEL STRYSICK, Parent: The world is changing. And I think as — as our kids get older and then try to take on leadership positions, just knowing facts and information isn’t going to help them.

KELLY RANKIN, Parent: Teachers are — are taught, are forced to teach to the tests. I want my kids to do well on the SAT and ACT. I want them to be in the top 10. But what I really want, I want them to be successful after they get out of college.

JOHN MERROW: When we met up with Kelly Rankin’s son Jacob, he was learning to make a rocket.

JACOB RANKIN, Student: I love building. I love designing. And I might want to be an engineer when I grow up. I don’t know yet. I’m just a freshman.

KELLY RANKIN: It started out as a nice little project. But by the time he was done, he could tell me all the equations that went along with it.

JACOB RANKIN: There’s going to be problems that you would never even think of, and the teacher, he will, say I don’t know. What do you think?

KELLY RANKIN: Knowing how to solve a problem or take a project and say, I don’t know all the — the answers to this, but I know how to work with other people to come to a solution, that’s a life skill.

JOHN MERROW: Based on our quick survey, parents seem enthusiastic about Danville’s plan for reform. But how do teachers feel?

DANNY GOODMAN, Teacher, Danville High School: It’s fun. The kids like it. And the teachers like it. Being active, you know, the kids get to do stuff.

JOHN MERROW: Danny Goodman teaches high school physics.

DANNY GOODMAN: Today, they were doing math. They were calculating — we were talking about the standard frequency of a given guitar string. And then they have got to then calculate the different positions of the different frets in order to get different frequencies. So, hopefully, this feels like fun and they don’t even know they’re learning.

Are they learning? Yes. I feel like they’re probably learning more than they ever would just sitting there hearing me tell them about a certain section of the textbook.

JOHN MERROW: It may be fun, but it’s also a lot more work. Most teacher training doesn’t cover project-based learning, and so teachers like Andrew Groves are learning on the job.

ANDREW GROVES, Teacher, Danville High School: Project-based learning is something that I wasn’t as familiar with until I really came here. And as a new teacher, they said, well, why don’t you give it a shot? Make one of your geometry classes project-based. So I said, OK. Well, let me talk to some teachers who have done it.

JOHN MERROW: These 10th and 11th graders are creating city layouts and learning basic geometry in the process.

ABBY SALLEE, Student, Danville High School: We learned lines, like transversal lines, congruent lines, parallel lines. We also learned like slope, like Y=MX+B and how you have to graph that to get your city to come together.

ANDREW GROVES: Being able to demonstrate mastery visually rather than A-B-C-D on a multiple-choice test really shows that depth of knowledge. It pushes them to look for more real-world applications in mathematics.

JOHN MERROW: But coming up with content-rich projects that students like isn’t easy.

ANDREW GROVES: It’s a tough job. It’s something that I’m still learning. I’m learning as I’m going.

DR. CARMEN COLEMAN, Superintendent, Danville Schools: I think it’s fair to say everyone’s going to have to change, yes. And everyone has, to some degree, or some have gone.

JOHN MERROW: She’s not kidding. Since Carmen Coleman became superintendent in 2009, about 40 percent of the teachers have left the district, some by their own choice, some shown the door.

CARMEN COLEMAN: This is not for everybody, but this is the direction that we’re moving.

JOHN MERROW: It seems to be the right direction. Danville’s math and reading scores on state tests are up substantially. But Danville is not ready to celebrate.

CARMEN COLEMAN: We still are in this other system. And we have to follow the rules of the old system.

JOHN MERROW: That’s the fourth and final hurdle, the tests. Teaching and learning seem to be changing in Danville, but the state is in charge of testing. So Danville students are expected to work in teams, communicate effectively and learn to think critically, but still be able to do well on the state’s bubble tests.

DANNY GOODMAN: Tough to play both games. It takes a lot of time for kids to discover something. It’s very quick for me to say, this is what it is. Give it back to me tomorrow.

And so right now, the tests are built on a breadth of — you know, a wide scope of curriculum. If you’re going through that discovery method, where the kids are discovering it themselves, it’s going to take more time. And so you might not be able to get through as much, but you can get through it in more detail.

JOHN MERROW: The state tests breadth, but Danville wants depth.

Would you just as soon get rid of those state tests?

CARMEN COLEMAN: Yes, I really would.

JOHN MERROW: The district would rather be held accountable by its scores on the ACT, a national test similar to the SAT that’s recognized as a good measure of college readiness.

JOHN MERROW: So you’re really asking for your own set of rules.

CARMEN COLEMAN: We are. We are a little. We are asking for our own set of rules.

JOHN MERROW: That could happen. In the next few weeks, Kentucky may designate Danville a district of innovation, which could give it more say over how its students are evaluated.