Author: Chris Sturgis

KAPPA International: The Story of Angelica

July 28, 2016 by
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Principal Panorea Panagiosoulis and students at KAPPA International High School

This is the fifth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery CollaborativeThe Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, and Flushing International.

Story of Angelica

Angelica was a model student at KAPPA International. She had a good attitude, did her homework, always went for the extra credit, participated in class, and had a 90 in all of her classes. But then she failed the Earth Science Regents Exam. Assistant Principal Andy Clayman said, “We had been lying to Angelica. Her good grades were giving her misinformation about how she was doing. She is the kind of student who would do anything we asked. She needed to be working on her gaps in knowledge. But we weren’t giving her the information or the opportunity she needed. It was a lightbulb moment for us.” (It’s worth watching this video to directly hear from Angelica and the team at KAPPA.)

So began KAPPA International’s journey to mastery-based learning.

It was a journey to a focus on learning, not requirements. Principal Panorea Panagiosoulis, who goes by Penny, explained, “Our students are very good at identifying what the state wants as far as minimum requirements. But we wanted to bring the focus back on learning. Instead of focusing on forty-four credits, we wanted students to be thinking about the skills and knowledge to be successful when they leave here.” Clayman expanded with, “It was a huge pedagogical shift to only focus on mastery in a student’s grade and to begin to work intentionally on building their work habits. We are seeking better and faster ways to help students develop their work habits because the connection between the habits and learning is so strong.”

Bridging the Gaps, Tightening the Curriculum

KAPPA has an interesting story. They launched in 2007 as an International Baccalaureate (IB) program because of the strong pedagogy and the dynamic role of assessment. Clayman explained, “AP exams focus on what the students don’t know as much as what they do know. But how much can you tell from an essay and multiple choice in a three-hour exam? The IB program gave students opportunities to show what they know and build the skills they would need to do well in college.” The curriculum of six academic areas, foreign language, and the arts – regardless of whether students passed and received the IB curriculum or the NYC diploma – would position students to compete for college admissions. (more…)

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

July 26, 2016 by
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Collaborative work on projects at Flushing International High School.

This is the fourth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery Collaborative and The Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria

Magic. I think magic happens at the International Network of Public Schools (INPS). How else can they take a group of ninth graders who have newly arrived to the United States – with a range of English skills and academic skills – and within four years have them speaking and writing English, passing the New York Regents with their archaic focus on content (they require students to learn and regurgitate content knowledge about the Byzantine empire in order to graduate), and completing all the high school credits?

So why would an International School that is already performing magic with students want to become mastery-based? Flushing International’s principal Lara Evangelista was perfectly clear on that point. “We started along the path toward mastery-based learning when we began to ask ourselves why we assess,” she said. “Why do we grade? We realized that every teacher did it differently. The transparency and intentionality of mastery-based learning makes a huge difference for our teachers and our students. Our teachers are much more intentional about what they want to achieve in their classrooms. It has also opened up the door to rich conversations about what is important for students to learn, pedagogy, and the instructional strategies we are using. For students, the transparency is empowering and motivating. They are more engaged in taking responsibility for their own education than ever before.”

How Mastery-Based Learning is Making a Difference

The value to teachers was very clear. Math teacher Rosmery Milczewski explained that she was unsure at first, as she wasn’t familiar with mastery-based learning. “The thing that convinced me is that in the traditional grading systems, when a student would come and ask how they could do better in a class, all I could really say was study more,” she explained. “The grades didn’t guide me as a teacher. There was no way to help students improve. With mastery-based grading, we talk about specific learning outcomes. I know exactly how to help students and they know exactly where their strengths and weaknesses are.” (more…)

Frequently Asked Questions

July 25, 2016 by

FAQPittsfield School District asked me to be interviewed on video. And I was nervous, as I’ve never done that before. And I know I make faces when I think about something. I was way, way, way out of my comfort zone. So I did a lot of preparation and wrote thorough notes for myself. As these questions are some of the same ones we hear over and over again, I though I’d publish them here in case they are helpful to you. And as always, we would love your thoughts about how to answer the questions more effectively.

#1 Could you explain what competency-based education is to someone who has never heard of it?

In the United States, one of the things that unites us is our common experience of the education system. We know it so well it’s hard for us to take a step back and think about its design. Once you do, it is clear that it was designed with the goal of providing a minimal education to everyone and then to rank and sort students. However it is absolutely impossible for schools to prepare all students for college and career readiness if the system is designed to rank and sort. When students are just passed on with Cs and Ds, they are going to struggle the next year and they are going to struggle even more the next year and the year after that.

Competency education asks the questions, “If we wanted every student to reach college and career readiness, what would it look like? How would we make sure every student builds the foundational skills and the higher order skills they need to be successful in college and in the workplace?” Competency-based education is designed to make sure students are proficient each step of the way.

In the conventional system, the focus was on equality – everyone getting the same curriculum and the same amount of time. In competency-based education, our focus is on equity. The learning experiences and the amount of instructional support may vary, but with explicit learning targets, we can make sure every student reaches proficiency. With a competency-based system, we can better personalize learning for students while still making sure students are all reaching proficiency at each step. (more…)

The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria

July 21, 2016 by
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Seniors at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria (known as “Twills”). Some of their school-wide outcomes are on display behind them.

This is the third post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and the second on NYC’s Mastery Collaborative.

The classrooms are buzzing at The Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria (TYWLS). It’s one of those schools that brings tears – tears of joy as students feel cared for, respected, supported, and challenged throughout their learning. It feels as if students and teachers alike are in what athletes refer to as the “flow state” or the “zone.” Everywhere you look is deep concentration, deep learning, and deep satisfaction.

TYWLS is using mastery-based learning to break out of many of the organizational structures that bind, and one could argue constrain, our education system. Thanks to Dr. Allison Persad, principal; Caitlin Stanton, arts teacher; Christy Kingham, ELA teacher;​ Scott Melcher, social studies; Katherine Tansey, math teacher; and Greg Zimdahl for sharing their insights and wisdom.

The Power of Performance Levels

The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, serving 600 students in grades 6-12, is ten years old. Watch the film to hear from the young women of TYWLS directly.

The Young Women’s Leadership School is focused on skills such as Argue, Be Precise, Collaborate, Communicate, Conclude, Discern, Innovate, Investigate, and Plan. These skills are the primary organizing structure for the school. ELA teacher Christy Kingham was the first to explain the TYWLS strategy. “We began to integrate project-based learning and performance tasks at the same time as we came to mastery-based learning,” she said. “We stay focused on helping students build skills, as those can be transferred into other domains. Content in each of the disciplines is very important, as that is what students use to engage in projects and performance tasks. However, we separate skills from content because of the importance of transferrable skills.” (more…)

Catalyzing Mastery-Based Learning: NYC’s Mastery Collaborative

July 19, 2016 by
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Mastery Collaborative Speed Rounds

This is the second post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways

How does a huge district open the door to mastery-based learning when the rest of the district is focused on other areas of improvement and innovation?

New York City Department of Education created the Mastery Collaborative to support schools that were ready to take on the new frontier of mastery-based learning. The Department’s policy for school autonomy has formed a strong foundation; however, schools need support as well. Led by an extraordinary group – Jeremy Kraushar, Joy Nolan, and Julianna C. Brown – the Mastery Collaborative is building a network of leader-educators, a knowledge hub, and a shared vision of what mastery-based learning can be in NYC.

“Speed round” conversations at a Mastery Collaborative meeting allow school leaders, teachers, and students from participating schools to “cross-pollinate” effective ideas, practices, and experiences about mastery. In the above photo, Justin, a 7th grader from Brooklyn, talks to Joaquin Vega, principal of Bronx International High School, about how students feel the impact of mastery-based grading.

 

The Collaborative is made up of forty schools: eight Living Lab schools and thirty-two Active Member schools (a list is at the bottom of this post with links to the articles written about the schools CompetencyWorks has visited). The Living Lab schools provide visitors with a chance to see what mastery-based schools look like and to talk to other educators who are experienced at working in a schoolwide mastery system. Living Lab schools also post resources in a shared wiki page so others can quickly look at different options regarding grading practices, design of competencies, or school policies. The Mastery Collaborative team works with the schools to set goals aligned to a shared community framework, learn from one another, and develop overall guidance documents. For example, they have developed a tool to evaluate LMS systems to expedite the process for schools to consider different products. They are in the process of working with DOE Central’s Office of Academic Policy to offer PD that will help schools develop fair, transparent, and comprehensive mastery-based grading policies and messaging for teachers, students, and parents.

Some of the schools in the Mastery Collaborative sought waivers through the PROSE initiative, a joint effort of the UFT and the Department that has offered opportunities for schools to become mastery-based. However, most of the practices within mastery-based schools do not require waivers. (more…)

NYC Big Takeaways

July 14, 2016 by

Selfie ShotThis is the first post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. 

I love my job – always learning, always meeting incredibly insightful, dedicated educators, always seeing new parts of the country – it’s just one big adventure. However, the most recent trip to New York City was also fun, fun, fun thanks to the incredible team at the NYC Mastery Collaborative: Jeremy Kraushar, Joy Nolan, and Juliana (Charlie) Brown. Natalie Abel, program manager at iNACOL and project manager for CompetencyWorks, also came along to get to see mastery-based learning up close. Add on seeing Hamilton, which helped to sweep out some of the webs of racial bias that seeps into one’s head, and this trip was by far one of the highlights of 2016.

I learned so much from this trip and have done my best to capture the depth of the conversations in each of the posts:

(more…)

Cumberland High School: Starting with Proficiency-Based Grading

July 13, 2016 by
Alan Tenreiro

Alan Tenreiro

I didn’t get a chance to visit Cumberland High School in Rhode Island, but I did have a fascinating conversation with Alan Tenreiro, CHS Principal and NASSP’s 2016 National Principal of the Year. “Standards-based grading is the linchpin, but transparency is what transforms the system,” he said to start out our conversation. “We began with transparency because you have to think about all the other pieces that have to be aligned behind the scenes to make it work. Transparency creates consistency while also creating autonomy for teachers. These are the elements that are going to create more equity for students.”

Proficiency-Based Grading

CHS has created a proficiency-based grading system that is based on student performance levels while transparently converting into a numerical grade. The performance level rubric is designed to create consistent scoring across all staff members, relying on moderate, strong, and distinguished command of the standard. Students receive feedback on how they can improve their performance.

CHS has also eliminated zeros and the D and F. A video on their grading policy describes how the rubric scores are then turned into the numerical scores used to determine A, B, or C.

Grading What? Measurement Standards

CHS academic expectations are organized around measurement standards. Students are assessed against them. There are about four to six measurement standards for each content area and teachers use common scoring guides. An example of a measurement standard might be demonstrating the use of evidence-based claims in a social studies course. Within the academic departments, teachers have worked to create learning progressions around sub-standards – what are the things students need to know and be able to do in order to meet the measurement standard? (more…)

Shaping Student-Centered Learning at Our Piece of the Pie

July 12, 2016 by

OPPThis is part of a series on mastery-based learning in Connecticut. See posts on New Haven Public SchoolsWindsor Locks Public Schools, Naugatuck Public SchoolsSuperintendents Leading the Way in Connecticut, and New Haven Academy. Connecticut uses the term mastery-based learning, so that will be used instead of competency education within the series.

“Our young people have already had the experience of being kicked to the curb. They are behind in credits and they are behind in skills. And there is no way for them to catch up in a traditional high school. Mastery-based learning offers a meaningful path to high school graduation. It is also effective in helping students strengthen the foundational skills they need for jobs and college. We are now pursuing dual enrollment with College for America. We can imagine a mastery-based pathway that focuses on building skills that can start in high school and move through college programs right into jobs.”

– Bob Rath

Bob Rath, CEO of Our Piece of the Pie®, Inc. (OPP®) in Connecticut, has dedicated his life to improving life outcomes for young people who have been slipping through the cracks of the public education system. OPP operates at the intersection of youth development, workforce development, and academics, serving young people who need help to finish high school, build post-secondary skills, or gain access to the labor market. At OPPortunity Academy and the other schools run by OPP, a mastery-based approach can further unify these approaches for students by focusing on what they know, what they can do, and what they need to do to advance.

Many thanks to Rath, Principal Rodney Powell, and Chief Operating Officer Hector Rivera for sharing their vision about how competency-based learning can form the backbone of multiple pathways to graduation and beyond for young people..

OPPortunity Academy

Bob Rath was one of the co-authors of Seizing the Moment: Realizing the Promise of Student-Centered Learning.

Bob Rath is open about the challenges of creating a comprehensive mastery-based model in an alternative school. “Student-centered learning and personalization have opened a door for engaging and teaching students who are over-age and under-credited (OAUC). To be stuck in a seat-time world is condemning them.” Rath explained that young people become OAUC in two different ways. Some have significant academic deficiencies – they are the victims of social promotion and fail a lot of courses, and suddenly graduation feels like an impossibility. For the second group, life happens. They move a lot, they end up in child welfare, they or their parents get sick, they have a child, or they get arrested. For students with complicated lives, attendance can be a problem. Rath noted, “Mastery-based learning allows them to pick up wherever they left off. It gives them hope. These two groups need different things; some young people need both. We are still working on finding the right model, the right mix of approaches.” (more…)

Harvard and Wellesley and Tufts, Oh My! (And Did I Mention MIT and Babson?)

July 11, 2016 by

College LogosI didn’t think I’d ever see the elites take a stance regarding proficiency-based learning. Thanks to the leadership of New England Secondary School Consortium, sixty-seven colleges and universities in New England have “provided statements and letters articulating their support for proficiency-based learning and stating – unequivocally – that students with proficiency-based grades and transcripts will not be disadvantaged in any way.”

Check out the NESCC website – you can find the list of institutions of higher education within each state and link to their signed letter with their pledge that students with proficiency-based transcripts will not be disadvantaged in any way.

NESSC highlighted some of the themes that came out in the conversations with the colleges and universities:

  1. Admissions offices receive a huge variety of transcripts, including transcripts from international schools, home-schooled students, and a wide variety of alternative educational institutions and programs that do not have traditional academic programs, grading practices, or transcripts.
  2. Students with non-traditional transcripts – including “proficiency-based” or “competency-based” transcripts – will not be disadvantaged in any way during the admissions process. Colleges and universities simply do not discriminate against students based on the academic program and policies of the sending school, as long as those program and policies are accurately presented and clearly described.
  3. As long as the school profile is comprehensive and understandable, and it clearly explains the rigor of the academic program, the technicalities of the school’s assessment and grading system, and the characteristics of the graduating class, the admissions office will be able to understand the transcript and properly evaluate the strength of a student’s academic record and accomplishments. In short, schools use so many different systems for grading, ranking, and tracking students that a school’s system can only be properly understood when a transcript is accompanied by a comprehensive school profile. A class rank or GPA, for example, doesn’t mean much unless the admissions office also has the “key” (i.e., the school profile) that it needs to understand the applicant’s academic accomplishments and abilities in context.
  4. All the colleges and universities we spoke with strongly support public schools that are working to improve student preparation for postsecondary learning and success, including instructional strategies that equip students with the essential knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits they need to thrive and persist in a collegiate academic program and earn a degree.

(more…)

When Tears Don’t Stop Flowing

July 8, 2016 by

I can’t stop crying this morning.IMG_0073

For the Dallas police officers who were killed and their families. For Philandro Castile and his family. For Alton Sterling and his family. And for all the police who live in more fear today and for African-Americans who live in fear every day that they or someone they love could land in jail or worse be killed by someone who has made an oath to protect them.

I don’t know what to do to stop this slippery slope into violence, fear, and anger that is tearing at our country. And I don’t know what to do to scrape out the racism that is in every nook and cranny of our society. But I can talk about what we at CompetencyWorks are trying to do in our small piece of the puzzle.

Get the Values Right: The more Susan Patrick, co-founder of CompetencyWorks and President/CEO of iNACOL, and I talk about competency education, the more we understand that the traditional system is based on sorting students and that the fixed mindset can also be a racist mindset. We have heard comments along the way that make us realize it isn’t just that some students can’t learn as well as others. There are those who believe that some students shouldn’t learn as much as others as it reshapes the educational and economic playing field.

We’ve been talking to educators across the country to try to deeply understand the culture and values that are needed to make competency education effective and to ensure that personalized learning will result in greater equity. In mostly white communities we hear discussions about the growth mindset, transparency, empowerment, and responsiveness to students. In communities with rich racial diversity, there are others values. At Merit Prep, we heard about safety and making sure students feel valued. In New York City, there is discussion about cultural responsiveness and making sure students feel respected. These values are important because the lives of African-Americans, Hispanics & Latinos, Asian-Americans, and new immigrants are tremendously different based on the color of their skin, their language, or their clothes.

Now, we really do need to think about this – the color of skin is no different than the color of your eyes, the shape of your nose, or the length of your toes in terms of who each of us are as a human being. But in our America, we have made the color of skin the thing that shapes our lives and our identities. Whites who haven’t schooled themselves in white privilege might not understand how much being white shapes their identities and their lives. But deep inside they worry – maybe I haven’t deserved everything I’ve gotten. And therein lies some of the fear.

A few days ago, in a conversation with Susan about how to strengthen the list of values we raise as conditions for competency-based education, I raised the question of whether it was better to describe the value as “cultural responsiveness” or “students feel safe, respected, and valued.” Her reply? Both. We need both. I agree. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of ridding our schools of patterns of institutional racism and ourselves of bias.

Thus, here is our updated list of values needed in a competency-based system: (more…)

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