Author: Chris Sturgis

Constructing a Shared Journey of Inquiry, Shared Vision, and Shared Ownership

September 26, 2016 by

StudyThis is the fourth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

Transforming districts and schools starts by engaging in a period of study. The superintendent may engage the school board in a series of readings, discussions, retreats, and site visits. A leadership team involving key district personnel and principals will look more deeply at the issues to examine how other districts have proceeded and to reflect on options for designing a process for moving forward. Superintendents also begin to have initial conversations with stakeholders in the community to lay the groundwork for understanding why we need a more personalized system, the problems with the traditional system, and the benefits of redesigning to ensure students are learning. Principals will later engage educators in inquiry teams in a similar process and also begin to review research about how students learn, brain science, motivation theory, and grading practices.

District and school leadership will drive the study groups and conversation with a set of questions such as the ones below:

  • Why do we exist as a school? What is our purpose?
  • What do successful people have that we want our graduates to know and be able to do?
  • How will our children support the future growth of our communities, state, and country?
  • What are the values that will govern how we interact with each other?
  • What are the principles by which we will make decisions?

It is through this process of studying together, of no one having all the answers, of listening and respecting each perspective, that district and school leadership can begin to introduce a different leadership approach as well as the roots of a student-centered, problem-solving culture. (more…)

Hear Ye, Hear Ye: Upcoming Events on Competency Education

September 23, 2016 by

lemurThere are a number of upcoming events that you may want to consider in building your knowledge about competency education.

#1 As you may or may not know, Susan Patrick, CEO and President and iNACOL, and I co-founded CompetencyWorks five years ago. We each brought a very different focus to the work, and it has proven to be a wonderfully productive partnership. We branded CompetencyWorks as separate from iNACOL because we believed that competency education is a structure for districts and schools to use to focus more closely on helping students learn and progress. Before the launch of CompetencyWorks, we started with a scan of the field where we found that there were pockets of innovation. Next with CCSSO, we organized a Competency-Based Pathway Summit with 100 innovators where the working definition was developed. Every year since then, with the CompetencyWorks advisory board, we do a reflection on how competency education is advancing and how the field is doing to support it. (Here is last year’s blog post on the topic.)

On Thursday, September 29 2-3 p.m. ET, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) is hosting a webinar during which Susan and I will examine the current state of competency education and identify emerging issues across the field. We hope this to be a time to reflect with our colleagues and hear from different perspectives. Register here.

#2 If you live near Massachusetts, you might want to attend Perspectives on the Current Landscape of Competency-Based Learning Research sponsored by Northeast College and Career Readiness Research Alliance on October 6th. Paul Leather, Deputy Commissioner of Education, NH Department of Education will be a presenter with panelists including Erika Stump, PhD, Research Associate, Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation (CEPARE), University of Southern ME; R. Marc Brodersen, PhD, Senior Researcher, REL Central at Marzano Research; Savatore Menzo, PhD, Superintendent of Schools, Wallingford Public Schools, Wallingford, Conn.; and Aubrey Scheopner Torres, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Education, Saint Anselm College, Research Consultant, REL Northeast & Islands. Register here. (more…)

A Reflection on the Field of K-12 Competency-Based Education and Emerging Issues

September 22, 2016 by

webinarAre you new to competency education and want to understand the field? Or are you a long-term leader seeking an opportunity to reflect with other leaders in CBE on the challenging issues facing us?

Join iNACOL President Susan Patrick and myself, the co-founders of CompetencyWorks, for a webinar on Thursday, September 29, 2016 at 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. ET. (You can register here.)

We’ll take a bit of time to discuss what competency education is and how our understanding is developing. We’ll look back at where we started and where we are now. And then we’ll dive into the big issues that are confronting us. As always, we hope that the discussion in the chat room will be lively and invite you to raise differing perspectives so we can develop a deeper understanding of how competency education is advancing in K12 across the U.S.

This webinar is free to attend. Participants are invited to register here for final details and login information.

Webinar Title: A Reflection on the Field of K-12 Competency-Based Education and Emerging Issues

Who is Helping You Plan and Implement Competency Education?

September 21, 2016 by

One of the weaknesses we have had in the field is that we haven’t had enough technical assistance providers or Stepping Stonesenough models from which districts can choose. This situation, with its lack of documented results or research on quality indicators, has left us trying to learn from each other without knowing that we are actually learning from “best practices.”

I’m thrilled to say that things are getting a tiny bit better in terms of number of TA providers, and that some have also increased their capacity to better meet the growing demand. Only a few provide assistance on the transformation to a competency-based environment, but districts have mentioned the others because of targeted support that has been instrumental in their process. I’m sure this list (provided in alphabetical order) is not complete and does not include individuals…so please, please, please, add other TA providers you’ve worked with in the comments section and why you would recommend them. It’s also helpful to know about your experience with any of the folks listed below. Where are there strengths? What are the reasons you would recommend them?

Center for Secondary School Redesign: CSSR has been a leader in helping secondary schools personalize their schools. They guide schools in reshaping the relationships and power dynamics by engaging youth in leadership roles throughout the school. They are familiar with competency education, but as far as I know, they do not have a specific model that they draw upon. They are well-known for the I3 network on personalization (lots of resources on personalization without using technology) in New England. They have consulted to Pittsfield School District in NH and Springdale, Arkansas.

Competency-Based Education Solutions: This is a new team of technical assistance providers led by Dan Joseph. Joseph was previously principal at James. W. Russell Elementary in Grey-New Gloucester Maine. You can reach Dan at djoseph (at)CBESolution (dot)com.

EL Education: EL Education (used to be Expeditionary Learning) does not specialize in competency education. However, schools are finding that their training can be helpful in developing a high-quality instructional model and aligned system of assessments. Windsor Locks and Kappa International both found their training on personalizing the classroom to be very helpful in making the transition to a competency-based school. (FYI – Casco Bay High School is an EL school that has successfully integrated a proficiency-based structure.) (more…)

Investing in Shared Leadership

September 20, 2016 by

LeaderThis is the third article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

The shift to competency-based education requires a personal commitment from superintendents and principals to develop collaborative leadership and management styles. Changing personal leadership styles means these professionals must undertake extensive study, solicit feedback for reflecting on their leadership, engage in dialogue with peers and colleagues, and even seek out coaching. Each leader will have a different journey toward developing leadership/management strategies that are effective in creating and sustaining empowering, learning organizations. In the following discussion, three aspects of leadership are discussed: the call for a distributed leadership style, the role of a culture of learning, and empowering others.

Distributing Leadership

Superintendents and principals agree that top-down management doesn’t work well in competency-based environments—or, for that matter, in any large district reform. The traditional education system operates on a set of rules for the delivery of education services that has tried to standardize the inputs so all students have the same exposure to the curriculum. In top-down systems, higher levels of governance set the conditions for each lower level, leaving schools and teachers with little autonomy or opportunity to inform decision-making at higher levels. Traditional leadership styles are often characterized by people turning to the managers above them to resolve issues or set the direction. Changes are often communicated through memo, where dialogue is limited, if not nonexistent.

The problems with this kind of compliance-oriented leadership style are three-fold. First, top-down approaches undermine any efforts to create an empowered staff who will take responsibility for ensuring students are learning. Top-down decision-making essentially undermines accountability. Second, when employees look to the next level up to answer questions and resolve issues, it undermines the culture of learning and is a lost opportunity for building problem-solving capacity within the organization. Third, no superintendent or principal can have all the knowledge or answers about how to best respond to students or address organizational issues. During periods of dramatic change, this becomes a risk, as the superintendent or principal is unlikely to be able to understand all the ramifications of every change. It requires collaborative, iterative processes to create the new operational policies and procedures needed to support a personalized, competency-based environment. Fueling a competency-based system requires the engagement and ownership of students, educators, and community members alike—an idea that will be explored in depth as the series progresses. (more…)

What Is Competency Education?


What Is CEThis is the second article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. For those of you who are new to competency education, you might want to start with this article explaining what it is. For those of you already familiar, jump to the third part of this series.

During the last few years, the phrase competency education has come into vogue. You may have heard it being used to refer to self-paced online learning or to describe innovations in higher education. This series is focused on the transformation of the time-based K–12 system where the focus is on inputs (seat-time, hours in the day, minutes in each class) to a system where the focus is on learning.

Understanding Competency Education

The power of competency education is in its system-wide infrastructure that creates the necessary feedback loops to ensure students are learning. The five-part working definition of competency education describes the elements that need to be put into place to re-engineer the education system to reliably produce student learning:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery;
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Competency education is often described with the phrase, “Learning is constant, and time is the variable.” We know that students learn differently, requiring more or less time for different reasons. They may be at different points along the learning continuum, each with a different set of skills. Students may have different approaches to learning, with some students preferring to take more time upfront to dive more deeply into learning to master new skills or content. Certainly the levels of academic support available outside of school differ. All of these dynamics lead to students learning at different paces. However, flexible pacing, or the concept that “students advance upon mastery,” is only one of the five elements of the definition. In competency education, timely, differentiated support is equally important, as that is what allows students to continue progressing without being left behind. Teachers work with students to ensure they are filling any gaps in foundational skills, and schools provide timely support so students can get immediate help when they are struggling. (more…)

Introducing Implementing Competency Education in K–12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders

September 19, 2016 by

Implementing Comp EdCompetency education, an educator-led reform, is taking root in schools and districts across the country. In some states, state leadership has cleared the path with policies to advance competency education. However, districts in Alaska, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, and South Carolina are transitioning to competency education with little or no supporting policy. Furthermore, innovative school models are popping up all over the United States, contributing to our knowledge of new ways to organize teaching and learning within a competency-based structure.

Nearly 90 percent of states have created some room for competency-based innovations. The leading states of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Colorado have started down the path to redesign personalized, competency-based policies and education by re-aligning their systems, creating proficiency-based diplomas, and converting credits to recognize skills learned rather than time in class. Arizona, Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio, Oregon, and Rhode Island have all established enabling policies to create space for districts to innovate. Idaho recently launched an effort with nineteen districts piloting mastery-based approaches. Utah, Nevada, and others are actively studying what it means to have a personalized, competency-based system. Others have created “seat-time waivers” that allow districts and schools to offer competency-based credits.

Districts have been the driving force for the conversion to personalized, competency-based education. Groups of visionary teacher-leaders may introduce competency education into a school, and individual schools within a district may incorporate standards-referenced grading or a competency-based program for over-age and under-credited students. However, there are limits to being able to fully implement a school-wide competency-based system without a district authorizing school autonomy regarding assessments, grading, promotion, staffing, budgeting, and teacher evaluation. It is when the district leadership team, in partnership with school leadership, is humble and brave enough to admit that the traditional system isn’t working, that the foundation is laid for competency education. A systemic approach is the only way to ensure that students can fully advance upon mastery and for robust quality control measures to be established district-wide to calibrate rigor. (more…)

Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC Tour

September 15, 2016 by
mastery collaborative

The Mastery Collaborative

I returned to NYC to see what was happening and was deeply impressed by what I saw and the conversations I had with educators. NYC’s Mastery Collaborative is truly catalytic in engaging forty schools (nearly 10 percent of the NYC high schools) in making the transition to mastery-based learning.

You can follow the entire journey here:

The Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC Tour

Part 1 – NYC Big Takeaways

Part 2 – Catalyzing Mastery-Based Learning: NYC’s Mastery Collaborative

Part 3 – The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria

Part 4 – Flushing International’s Three Learning Outcomes: Habits, Language, and Academic Skills

Part 5 – KAPPA International: The Story of Angelica

Part 6 – North Queens Community High School: Blooming the Outcomes

Part 7 – High Expectations at EPIC North

Part 8 – Anchoring the Learning: A Discussion with Joel Rose at New Classrooms

Part 9 – Talking Equity with John Duval

And here are the schools I visited and lessons learned from my first trip to NYC:


On Our Way Toward Integrated Learning Systems

September 14, 2016 by

inacolWe have come a long way in terms of helping the vendors of information systems understand that we need “grading books” that will allow educators to monitor student progress on learning objectives that may be organized in a variety of ways. However, most still do not understand that what we want are student-centered information systems, not standards-based ones. We want to know what skills a student has, and we want to monitor their progress based upon both their own learning trajectory and grade-level standards. Yes, we want students to be on grade level, but if they are missing the important pre-requisite skills, then we want to work more intensively with them to build those skills. It’s a both/and situation.

Thus, it is over-the-top fantastic that the Nellie Mae Education Foundation has released an RFP for integrated learning systems. Here is the information below. Be sure to read the iNACOL’s Functional Requirements for Integrated Systems to Optimize Learning regardless if you apply or not. (more…)

Recommended Action: Replicate NESCC’s Collegiate Endorsement in Other States

September 8, 2016 by

CollegeWe are in the midst of our annual reflection on the field of competency education – What is changing? What is working? What are the big issues that are emerging? In what is the field getting stronger or not?

Our field, that set of organizations and people that support or influence states, districts, schools, and educators in advancing competency education, continues to get stronger. There are more organizations every year that are doing work in the arena of competency education, although sometimes clumsily (I just read a short piece by McKinsey on personalization that seemed to confuse competency-based with online learning). We definitely want more organizations, especially organizations working within states and regions, to be joining the party.

However there are three downsides we need to watch out for:

#1 Limited Understanding: Organizations that haven’t taken the time to really understand competency education and offer a contorted or shallow view. (We love it when organizations bring new insights and depth and push our thinking on competency education.) To avoid this, we have to stretch ourselves to lend a helping hand to those organizations early on.

#2 Competition for Funding: It’s bound to happen when there are a lot of organizations working in the same field. So it’s very important that we address #1 i so that funders don’t invest in organizations that might lead us astray or cause unnecessary turmoil or confusion in the field. In addition, we need to make sure we are using funding as effectively as possible to clear the way for educators and tackle the big issues.

#3 Looking for a Way to Contribute: New organizations build capacity and then need something to do to make a contribution. No one organization can do everything, and we need to work together to make sure that we are tackling as many of the important things as we can. This requires some level of coordination and speaking with other organizations when creating a new project or initiative.

This brings me to my recommendation for a very important initiative that no one is doing right now, as far as I know. We really, really, really need state and regional organizations to replicate what the New England Secondary School Consortium has done in engaging institutions of higher education in making the proficiency pledge: 67 colleges and universities endorsed proficiency-based learning and pledged not to disadvantage students who went to proficiency-based high schools. They have cleared away a perceived obstacle: the possibility that students in proficiency-based schools might be less competitive in some way in the college admissions process. (This handout is a pdf file that explains the Collegiate Endorsement initiative.)

NESSC did this by convening representatives of higher education to talk about a proficiency-based transcript and diploma and then asking them to make a public pledge (below). They then had each of the college’s endorsements linked to their website for any school counselor to use when talking with students and parents. Brilliant! (more…)

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