I’m not sure when I first heard about Lindsay Unified School District. Their work to shift towards personalized learning is often cited in broad reform conversations. Sometimes, the work in Lindsay gets reduced by media to the “system that got rid of grades.” Not exactly.
Today I finally got to visit Lindsay for myself.
There are a lot of things you could focus on when you come to Lindsay. Some are of the shiny and exciting variety. Open classrooms, proprietary learning software accessible across devices, and a just-published book by the Marzano Research Institute. As impressive as those features may be, what catches my attention are those foundational shifts that are harder to see. Here are three that struck me as essential.
Strategic Vision & Leadership Tenure
No big surprises here – Lindsay has had stable leadership at the superintendent level for a decade. That’s a characteristic of high performing districts that has been well documented, and it’s certainly the case in Lindsay. Furthermore, most of the leaders I spoke with, from district personnel to site leadership, were developed within the Lindsay system.
It was very clear that the starting point for Lindsay a decade ago was developing shared core values, guiding principals for learning, and clarity around the graduate profile. Those founding documents are often the first things that go out the window when there are disruptions in leadership. The stability of top leadership has allowed the vocabulary of the vision and corresponding strategic documents to seep deep into the professional culture. Nobody in Lindsay talks about students or teachers. They refer to learners and learning facilitators. The six word mission statement – “empowering and motivating for today and tomorrow” – has been a guiding statement for over a decade.
As one teacher we talked to more bluntly put it. “Lindsay is stubborn. Our board and superintendent are stubborn. Unlike every other system I’ve worked in, they developed a vision and keep at it. You can’t escape it. If you don’t like it, you leave, because it isn’t going away. And I believe in it.”
Aligned Curriculum System
In terms of teaching and learning, Lindsay has shifted to a truly transparent, standards-based curriculum. That’s easily the feature of the Lindsay story that was most impressive to me – because as a teacher and administrator myself, I know how hard that work is. Really hard.
Each class is defined by a set of learning targets, pegged directly to the standards, that outlines the learning that is expected. It has taken Lindsay Unified several years to outline the evidence that they want to see in order to certify that students have demonstrated mastery or proficiency of those targets. I’ve rarely walked into a high school where every course has a clear standards-aligned syllabus that was accessible to students. At best, these types of planning documents exist behind the scenes as teacher artifacts that don’t carry real meaning to students. At worst, there is no deliberate connection between the standards and what happens in the classroom. If Lindsay Unified had done nothing beyond ensuring a high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum across their 4,000 student system, it would be considered a success.
You really can’t talk about shifting ownership of learning to students when it isn’t clear where the path goes and what success looks like. And the details matter. I refer to those details as the three pillars of competency-based learning: standards-aligned targets, high quality assessments, and accessible content. I think Lindsay has the targets and assessments to a high degree, and they are constantly trying to build their capacity to discover and design the content.
Systemic Willingness to Learn
There is a fine balance to walk between stubborn adherence to core values and guiding principals, and stubborn unwillingness to change course when the data and lived experience suggest something isn’t working.
I heard some interesting quotes over the course of our visit.
“Those were some painful years.”
“We found that out the hard way.”
“It’s tough because a lot gets asked of us.”
Those are statements that reflect the reality of a learning organization. You are constantly leaning into the unknown.
Richard Elmore uses the sentence frame – “I used to think, but now I think…” to give space to the hard fought learning and insight that comes despite our original assumptions. I heard several examples of this during my visit to Lindsay. Both teachers and administrators referred to the original mantra “every student learns at their own pace.” The vision was oriented towards individual students progressing independently. You might have students all over the map in terms of their progress. That’s certainly the image that pops in my mind when I think of true competency-based learning.
Interestingly, Lindsay has adjusted their mantra. Now they say, “teacher pace or faster.” An acknowledgement that teachers can offer needed structure and accountability to move students forward, especially for those students who haven’t yet developed the motivation or executive functioning to actively monitor their progress. “Teacher pace or faster” may not be as attractive a slogan as “every student at their own pace,” but it’s a design principle that has emerged from real system learning.