Author: Brian Stack

Competency Education Supports Both Traditional and CTE Learning

March 26, 2014 by
Sanborn Regional High Principal Brian Stack

Sanborn Regional High Principal Brian Stack

Amanda is a typical high school student who loves spending time with her friends, participating in a variety of clubs and activities, and doing well in school. Since a very young age, she has wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become an emergency room nurse. My school is preparing her for that demanding career with a competency-based model that has been designed to help her master a series of academic competencies, academic behaviors, and college and career-ready skills. Our competency-based model engages Amanda in her learning in ways that traditional high school models never could.

Five years ago, the administrative team in my school district and I began suggesting that our school make the move to a competency-based grading and reporting system. We knew that was going to be a monumental shift for some of our elementary and secondary teachers, but that it wouldn’t be such a bold move for others. The career and technical education (CTE) teachers and administrators who work at our regional CTE center, for example, applauded our efforts to move the school district to the model that they had always used to define their work. (more…)

Deadlines Matter: Debunking the Myth That Standards-Based Grading Means No Deadlines

January 6, 2014 by

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I have a very compassionate boss. I spent several weeks working on my school’s budget for the upcoming year and I had been sending her updates on my progress throughout. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, though, that on the week that the budget was due my high school had a series of unexpected student issues that consumed most of my time and resources. As important as that budget due date was, I knew I just wasn’t going to make the deadline. As much as I hated to admit defeat, I made the call to her on Friday afternoon to ask for an extension (or at the very least, forgiveness). She was quick to respond to me with this: “Brian, I know it has been a tough week for you. I know through our check-in meetings over the past few weeks that you have been actively working on it. It is ok if you need a little bit more time. Could you have it to me by the middle of next week?” As she uttered those words I could feel the weight of the world lifting off of my shoulders. “Of course I could, thank you for your flexibility!”

What happened between my boss and I that day happens in all aspects of our lives as adults. It is normal behavior to expect that every once in a while people are going to miss a deadline. In the classroom, we as teachers know that students will miss deadlines from time to time. When they do, we do what any normal teacher would do—we become compassionate and flexible. Just like in real life with adults, we only start to worry about the behavior of missing deadlines when it goes from once in a while to chronic. (more…)

How Competency Based Grading Has NOT Changed Our School’s Transcript

December 13, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 7.49.30 AMMy school district implemented a K-12 competency-based grading and reporting system four years ago. The implementation included the adoption of a set of common competency-based grading practices that all teachers use in their classrooms and competency-based report cards that measure student progress toward mastery of course-based competencies. As the building principal, one of the most common questions that I am asked by students, parents, and even administrators from other schools who are considering this model for their school, is how our transcript has changed. They are surprised to learn, in fact, that little has changed about our transcript.

The purpose of our high school transcript, just like any other high school transcript, is to provide a final record of a student’s performance at our school. Our transcript lists each course a student took, their final course grade, and how many credits the student earned. Other information, such as:  Class Rank; Grade Point Average (weighted or non-weighted); Attendance Information, and Diploma Type are optional features that can also be printed on a transcript as needed.

Our transcript explains to the reader what the final grades of E (Exceeding), M (Meeting), IP (In-Progress), and LP (Limited Progress) mean. It also explains what it means for a student to get a code of NYC (Not Yet Competent) or IWS (Insufficient Work Shown), both of which result in no credit awarded for the course.

Our school has identified six school-wide 21st century learning expectations. These include a student’s ability to effectively communicate, creatively solve problems, responsibly use information, self-manage their learning, produce quality work, and contribute to their community. Since each teacher in each course at my school assesses students on these expectations, the transcript provides a summary of these grades so the reader can see a student’s progress in mastering them over the course of their high school career. (more…)

Reassessments and Retakes: A Necessary Part of a School-Wide Grading Policy

October 21, 2013 by

“Lawyers who finally pass the bar exam on their second or third attempt are not limited to practicing law only on Tuesdays” – Wormeli, 2011

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Rick Wormeli

We allow people to retake their driver’s license exam as many times as they need to in order to demonstrate competency. The same is true of other professionals such as teachers, lawyers, doctors, and electricians who are required to pass a certification/licensure exam. Reassessment is a part of our real world. I find it ironic, then, that, as educators, we cringe at the thought of allowing reassessments in the classroom in an effort to “prepare kids for the real world!” I held this belief until a few years ago when O’Connor and Stiggins (2009) and Wormeli (2011) helped set me straight. Reflecting back, I now cringe at the harsh reality that, from 2001 to 2006, I sent hundreds and hundreds of students into the real world without the opportunity to reassess to solidify their learning.

At my school, Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire, we believe in the concept of reassessments so much that we actually have a school-wide common procedure that supports its use in all classes. In fact, we have a number of school-wide common grading procedures that are designed to support our competency-based grading and reporting system, one that is now in its third year of implementation K-12 in our district.

In a competency-based system, reassessments are a necessary part of the learning process. “True competence that stands the test of time comes with reiterative learning. We carry forward concepts and skills we encounter repeatedly, and we get better at retrieving them the more we experience them.” (Wormeli, 2011). Making reassessments a school-wide practice changes the learning culture for students from one where they are trying to earn enough points to pass to one in which they are held accountable for everything they need to know and be able to do. Reeves (2000) describes the cultural shift that will happen over time as schools implement such a policy. “The consequence for a student who fails to meet a standard is not a low grade, but rather an opportunity – indeed, the requirement – to resubmit his or her work.” Indeed, that cultural shift is happening today at my school. (more…)

Competency-Based Grading and Common Core Math: A Perfect Match?

September 18, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2My Uh-Huh Moment

Over the summer I spent the day with my math team as we prepared for the implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics into our school. We were working on an intense math problem when I had one of those uh-huh moments – the kind I used to describe to my students when I taught high school math in Andover, Massachusetts. The problem was a simple one to understand, but it had many layers of complexity to it for math teachers:

Imagine you are a peasant, and your ruler told you that you could have as much land as you could mark off by walking in one day. What is the most amount of land you could reasonably claim? Give your answer in square miles and be prepared to support and defend your work.

Among the questions that came to mind when thinking about how to solve this problem were these: How many hours can a peasant reasonably walk in a day? How fast can a peasant walk? How many breaks will the peasant need to take? Are there hills, mountains, or other physical obstacles that the peasant will encounter? What kind of tools will the peasant have to navigate with (i.e. a compass or a GPS)?

Very quickly, a group of us began to debate these questions and create a list of assumptions that we would use to derive our answer. We debated what type of a shape would produce the biggest area. With some trial and error and use of some mathematical formulas, we agreed that a circle might be the theoretical shape that would yield the biggest area, but the square was the shape that would be easiest for the peasant to trace, assuming they had a compass or could make use of a reference point such as the sun for direction. (more…)

Changing To a Competency Based Grading System: A Student View

July 24, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 8.59.59 AMMy New Hampshire high school made the shift to a competency-based grading and reporting system two years ago. Educators who talk to me about that experience often want to know what that change process looked like from a student’s perspective. Surprisingly, most students were comfortable with the shift provided that they believed the school and teachers were effective at explaining how their grade would be calculated. The students who seemed most reluctant to change at the beginning were the ones who were already performing at a high level in the old system. These kids knew how to play what I like to call the grading game. They didn’t always test well, but they knew they could always compensate for that by doing all their homework, raising their hand every day in class, and bringing in canned goods on Thanksgiving week for extra credit points. The problem is that these behaviors made the assumption that, if students had good study habits, then they must have learned. When we think about it this way, it seems outrageous to support a system that doesn’t directly connect to competencies – the ability of a student to apply content knowledge and skills in and/or across the content area(s).

To help educators understand what I went through when my school made this shift, consider the following set of fictitious letters between a student and I. These letters are adapted from actual scenarios that I faced in the first year of implementation.

 

September

Dear Mr. Stack,

I am writing to you to express my displeasure that our school changed its grading practices for the upcoming school year. I have always been an “A” student. I do all of my homework, I always raise my hand to participate in class, and I always turn in my assignments on time. I am not; however, a good test-taker. In the past my teachers have always known this and they have compensated by giving me extra credit opportunities, making my homework worth more points, and giving me lots of participation point opportunities.

With this new grading system, it seems all the emphasis is being placed on doing well on tests. Homework is worth practically nothing. It seems due dates don’t matter. I am very concerned that I am no longer going to be an “A” student.

Why would our school change to a system that is going to hurt kids like me? I am very discouraged.

Sincerely,

Nicole (more…)

Rethinking Teacher Evaluation for the Competency-based Grading & Reporting Environment

April 17, 2013 by
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from Making Mastery Work

Introduction:  Rethinking the Effectiveness of the Dog & Pony Show Model
During my first three years as a high school math teacher in Massachusetts back in the early 2000s, I had grown accustomed to having an administrator in my classroom observe as I taught a math lesson. As a new teacher I was required by district policy to be observed at least three times per year. Both my administrator and I knew how the drill worked:  We would pick a date and a class for me to be observed. We would meet in advance to talk about what I was planning to teach. During my observation I would make sure to use innovative teaching strategies or cooperative learning activities with my students. We would meet after the lesson to talk about what went well and where I could improve. The administrator would write up a narrative, I would sign it, and it would be filed away. The process would then repeat, and repeat, and repeat. Over my first three years I had nine observations. Once I reached my fourth year, I was considered tenured and thus my observations went down to one every other year. This means it would have taken me an additional eighteen years of teaching before I would have completed another nine observation cycles.

I don’t think my experience in this regard is unique, as many school districts used and still use a model very similar to this one. As I reflect back on that experience as a new teacher, years later, I don’t think I ever remember actually using anything that came from my evaluations as a way to improve my own teaching. Don’t get me wrong, my pre- and post-conferences always yielded great advice. My administrator and I always had great discussions about my lessons. We never really talked about my teaching. What I did on a day-to-day basis as a teaching professional to impact the lives of my students wasn’t easily observable during the dog and pony show, the name I had given for the act of preparing an observable lesson that would showcase all the innovative teaching strategies I could cram into a ninety-minute block. (more…)

Which Pilot Do You Want Flying Your Plane?

March 12, 2013 by

apLast week I had the opportunity to deliver the keynote to a large group of school administrators from Oregon at their 2013 State Proficiency Conference, sponsored jointly by the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators (COSA) and the Business Education Compact (BEC) in Portland. I began my talk by sharing with the group how I explained the idea of competency-based grading to a woman, Kathy, whom I shared a plane ride with on my way to Oregon. Kathy was very curious to learn more about competency-based grading. She is a mother of three and lives in the Portland area. Her oldest just graduated from high school and is now in the Air Force. She has another child in middle school and her youngest is in elementary school. As a result, she is very invested in educational reforms that promise to give her children a better future.

To help her understand the competency-based system, I asked her to hypothetically consider how the pilot school was organized that our airline pilot attended. We both agreed that in order to be able to fly our plane that day, he had to have been deemed “proficient” by his pilot school. We can only assume that his school taught him everything he needed to know about being a pilot. I offered her two hypothetical situations about the pilot school, and I asked her to then consider which school she thought was better. (more…)

The Karate Studio: An Excellent Example of a Competency-Based Classroom

February 19, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 7.27.02 PMAt least twice a week I have the opportunity to do a formal observation of the karate instructors that help my wife Erica and my two oldest boys, Brady (7) and Cameron (5), as they work towards their black belts. There are so many parallels between how their karate classes are structured and how we as administrators would like to see our teachers structure their twenty-first century competency-based classrooms. I think we can learn a lot from the karate studio environment. Here are some tips I have gleaned from countless karate classroom observations that I have completed:

1.    Embed the School’s Core Values and Beliefs Into the Classroom
As administrators we spend a lot of time working with our schools to develop documents that identify our school’s core beliefs and values and student expectations for learning. These documents are usually printed with catchy phrases or mnemonic devices on eye-catching posters and banners to help our staff and students remember them, but how often do our teachers refer to them in their classroom? At the karate studio, each class starts with everyone (students and parents alike) standing up to face the American flag and reciting the karate school’s core values and beliefs in unison. Throughout class, the instructors regularly refer back to these values as needed during instruction. There is no question that every stakeholder at the karate studio knows exactly what the school stands for and believes in. As a school administrator I am not suggesting that we make our own students recite our school’s core values statement each day, but I do think we need to find better enduring ways to embed these values into the daily fabric of our students’ lives. (more…)

Our Competency-Based System Has Changed the Face of IEP Meetings

January 24, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 12.53.06 PMCarter’s Story

This past week I had the privilege of attending an IEP meeting for Carter, a student that I have come to know quite well over the past three years. Carter has a learning disability and was diagnosed with ADHD back in fifth grade. School has always been a struggle for him, particularly the parts of school that require him to be focused and attentive in class and to meet assignment deadlines for his teachers in a timely manner. When he is focused, school comes relatively easy to him. With the help of his case manager and the support of his parents over the last two years, Carter has managed to earn all of his freshman credits and sophomore credits. The final course grades that appear on his transcript aren’t stellar, but regardless no one can argue with the fact that he reached proficiency for each of his course competencies and thus received credit for each of his courses. (more…)

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