As the pandemic continues and we explore ways private schools are pivoting in teaching and adjusting to ensure their students are continuing to receive an appropriate education; we discuss the benefits of cohorting by instructional level rather than by grade or age.
Today we interview the Principals of John Cardinal O’Connor, a private school located in Irvington NY.
Can you tell me where this idea of grouping students by instructional level rather than by age or grade level came from?
At the John Cardinal O’Connor School, we generally group our students by instructional level for Reading/English Language Arts and for mathematics. This means that each day students typically leave their homeroom and travel to their instructional level cohort for 90 minutes of instruction in Reading/English Language Arts and 60 minutes of instruction in mathematics. By teaching students at their instructional level, we are able to target instruction to meet the needs of all learners while at the same time remediating specific skill sets at each instructional level. This allows us to help students progress by a year to a year and a half instructionally in reading and in mathematics. For the remainder of the subject areas, students are grouped with peers at their grade level and the curriculum is modified to the instructional levels of the students in each class.
However, when we began creating our school’s COVID-19 reopening plan this past summer, we learned of the requirement to keep groups of students in the same cohort or pod all day, every day. We immediately realized that this would impact our ability to teach students at their instructional level in reading and in mathematics because our students would no longer be able to departmentalize and travel to their instructional level groups for reading and mathematics each day. Since teaching students at their instructional levels is one of the hallmarks of our program, we had to “think outside of the box” to generate a way to place our students into cohorts that would best meet their instructional needs. Therefore, we decided that for the 2020-2021 school year, our students would be grouped by instructional level for the entire school day. This meant that we would be able to teach students at their instructional level not only in reading and in mathematics, but in all subject areas and that students would be able to spend even more time on the core subject areas of reading and mathematics each day. Our students now spend two hours on English Language Arts/Reading and 90 minutes of instruction in mathematics each day. The need to keep students grouped by cohorts turned out to be a “blessing in disguise” for us because it has enabled us to provide even more targeted instruction in reading, writing, and mathematics each day. Thus, our diagnostic and progress monitoring assessments are demonstrating even greater student growth this year than we have seen in previous years.
What was the impetus for John Cardinal O’Connor to make this change, and why now?
The impetus for The John Cardinal O’Connor School to make this change was the pandemic and the need to have our students grouped in cohorts or pods. We realized that the only way to make this model work for the students in our school would be to group them by instructional level so that the teachers would be able to customize and tailor instruction in all subject areas to meet the specific needs of the learners in each cohort or pod. This was a dramatic change from our previous instructional model because students would no longer be grouped by grade, but rather by instructional level. However, we firmly believed that this paradigm shift would enable us to provide even more individualized instruction than we had previously provided, and therefore, our students could potentially demonstrate even greater progress and growth in this instructional model.
How hard was it to make this change?
It wasn’t very hard for us to make this change because we had always been grouping our students by instructional level in reading and mathematics. Therefore, we utilized student data from i-ready diagnostic and benchmark assessments in reading and mathematics in order to place students into instructional groups. Once students were placed into instructional groups, we assigned each group of students a teacher. These groups were then referred to as “teams.” We have eight teams of students who are grouped by instructional level. The students in each team are being instructed across the content areas at their instructional level. This enables the teachers to customize and individualize instruction for each student. It was also important to explain the way that we were grouping students to families and to the students themselves. This was important because when students and families first learned their new class assignments for the 2020-2021 school year, there was some apprehension among students as to why they were grouped with peers who were not in their grade. After we carefully explained that groups were created based on instructional level this year rather than based on grade level, students and families felt much more comfortable about the groupings and the reasons for them.
Do you have efficacy data since you’ve made this change?
Since making this change we have i-ready progress monitoring data in reading and in mathematics. Students took an i-ready diagnostic assessment in reading and in mathematics on September 14, 2020 and September 15, 2020. They then took i-ready growth monitoring assessments in reading and in mathematics every six weeks thereafter. Based on the i-ready growth monitoring assessments, overall, students have shown an overall growth of 35% in reading and 29% in mathematics. We are also able to provide 33% more instructional time in reading for students using this year’s model of grouping students by instructional level and 25% more instructional time in mathematics for students using this year’s model of grouping students by instructional level. This is a significant increase in time on-task engaged in instructional activities for students.
How did the JCOS community handle this change?
We needed to educate students, families, and teachers about the instructional model that would be in place at JCOS this year prior to informing students and their families about their class placements for the 2020-2021 school year. By educating families about the model that would be in place prior to releasing information about class placements for the new school year, we were able to avoid a great deal of confusion and apprehension that might have taken place had we not educated the entire school community about the process. We discovered that the key to “buy in” and acceptance of this program by the school community is education about the process, how it will be implemented, and the positive impact that it will have on the instructional model.
What, if any, advice would you give other private schools who may be considering making a change like this?
When considering making a change like this, we would advise our private school peers to make sure that they have valid data about each student’s instructional level in reading and mathematics in order to be able to create the most appropriate and effective instructional level groups. We would also advise peers to provide a great deal of information and education about the change to all constituents in the school community. This would include teachers, parents, and students themselves so that all parties involved fully understand the reasons for grouping students by instructional level, the way that the instructional level groupings would be implemented, and the benefit that grouping students by instructional level would have on student progress and growth.
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