Students in hundreds of classrooms across North Texas could find teachers trying to amp up the ambiguous and embrace fun as a pathway to more effective education this fall.

Students in hundreds of classrooms across North Texas could find teachers trying to amp up the ambiguous and embrace fun as a pathway to more effective education this fall.

Project-based play? Maybe. Give kids access to Google during exams? Could be. Eliminate grades for class assignments? Already being tried.

Each of these were ideas presented at Allen High School this week during the second annual conference of the North Texas Regional Consortium.

The consortium is a loose confederation of nine districts that came together in 2012. Its initial impetus was a pushback against what its superintendents considered too much emphasis on standardized test results. The idea was to create a way for the districts to share innovative ideas.

Last year, more than 1,300 school administrators and instructors assembled for the consortium’s first big meeting. The event was considered such a success that the second was held, drawing at least as many people from the Allen, Coppell, Frisco, Highland Park, Lewisville, McKinney, Plano, Northwest and Richardson school districts. Those districts serve more than 260,000 students.

This year’s event included three keynote speakers and dozens of smaller sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday where local educators played show-and-tell for their colleagues about teaching experiments that ranged from subtle to radical.

The consortium is maintaining momentum despite the fact that all but two of the founding superintendents either have or will shortly have left those positions. The new school leaders say they’re as interested in continuing the work as those they’ve replaced.

"We are at a moment when we have to re-create. We are at a crossroads in the consortium," said Frisco ISD superintendent Jeremy Lyon, who took over there in 2013.

Dawson Orr, who is leaving the top spot at Highland Park in a few days, has been one of the informal leaders of the consortium; there are no officers. He starts as an education professor at SMU in the fall,but he will continue as facilitator for the consortium, he said.

One of the speakers, who talked about what he called a "not yet" grading system, was digital ethnographer Michael Wesch, a professor at Kansas State University.

He told the educators in the crowd they had to inspire wonder in their students in order to get them to learn as much as possible.

Low standards or high stakes are "the opposite of what you want."

George Couros was another keynote speaker. He’s a division principal back home in Canada. He’s also a blogger and author who pushes creativity in public education with an emphasis on taking advantage of digital tools.

He told the conference that it’s foolish to deny students use of their smartphones in the classroom — and even on exams. In 2015, being able to figure out what information is relevant is more important than memorization when most facts are a click away, he said.

A principal and two teachers from Coppell Middle School East were among several speakers at the conference offering radical alternatives to traditional grading, such as detaching grades, points and percentages from learning.

Students get assignments, of course. And they are expected to complete them. In fact, they are required to master them. So kids who might have been happy to get the equivalent of a C on an assignment in another classroom would be required to work at it until they hit the level defined as "mastery." And the teachers keep track of whether the students have succeeded, whether they’re turning work in on time and whether they are responding to feedback.

At the end of every six-week period the teacher and each student have a one-on-one where the student is asked to come up with a grade. Many are too hard on themselves, the teachers said. Some are too easy. In any case, the teacher and student have all the data in front of them and arrive at a number.


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