Author: Chris Sturgis

What Is Competency Education?

October 19, 2016 by

From KnowledgeWorks

There are lots of ways that the intermediary organizations working on competency education have been catalytic in supporting districts and schools. Communication has not been one of our strengths. Education leaders have been engaging their communities around the country on the need for a new way of organizing schools. And they’ve been doing it without adequate tools.

Part of the reason we don’t have effective tools is that many organizations try to simplify competency education into flexible pacing. They use phrases such as “students advance based on mastery of a given content, rather than based on credits or seat time.” This emphasis on pace misses the point entirely – competency education is a structure designed to ensure that students are learning and making progress. Accountability is embedded within the system through transparent, calibrated ways to determine proficiency and ensure that students are building and able to apply a wide range of skills (competency, not just standards). This emphasis on pace has created a new problem for us — people who are concerned about ineffective use of online learning have now targeted competency education as well.

Well, thanks to KnowledgeWorks, we’ve had a major breakthrough. They’ve created a video that describes a competency-based school with personalized support. They’ve done it with warmth, light-heartedness, attention to challenging racial stereotypes, and the inclusion of real teachers and real students. It’s the best I’ve seen and I think will be helpful to education leaders.

We at CompetencyWorks also tried to fill the gap of a lack of a primer on competency education. In the most recent paper Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England, we included a more extensive introduction to competency education with a section on why the traditional system is a barrier to greater equity and higher achievement. We produced the excerpt What Is Competency Education? separately for educators to use in discussions. (more…)

Constructing a Common Language of Learning

October 18, 2016 by

Art SuppliesThis is the tenth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. In this article, we continue to explore questions that districts consider when creating their instruction and assessment model.

What are the explicit and measureable learning objectives to describe what students need to learn on their way toward meeting the graduation goals?

Districts and schools start with a different mixture of concepts and create a variety of structures to define the learning continuum. It is important to take your overall pedagogical approach into consideration when shaping the overarching competencies. As Kim Carter, founder of Making Connections Charter School, explains, “Designing competency frameworks is a creative process. We gather together the tools we will need the same way a painter might choose brushes and paints.” For ELA and mathematics, most turn to the well-developed Common Core continuum of learning or their state standards. Others will start or embed the essentials of a discipline, asking, “What does it mean to be a mathematician, a historian, a writer, a scientist?” Still others may be designed around themes or career pathways that rely on a structure that starts with the needs of industry. In some cases, states may have even already set a broad framework within which districts and schools can further structure their learning.

There are five components that guide this work:

  1. Knowledge Taxonomy
  2. Structure and Characteristics
  3. Developing the Continuum of Learning
  4. Rubrics and Calibration
  5. Habits of Learning


Configuring the Instruction and Assessment Model

October 17, 2016 by

Clay HandsThis is the ninth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

There are several design decisions that need to be made to create a common language of learning, especially in the context of the district’s overall pedagogical approach and belief about motivation and learning. In addition to districts engaging the community in the process of developing a shared purpose and guiding principles, there are four core questions educators will need to drive the design and operations of any competency-based system:

  • What do you want students to know and be able to do?
  • Why is this objective important?
  • How are you going to know if students have learned it?
  • What are you going to do if they don’t (or they do)?

This article and the next four articles in the series will walk through the design decisions that will need to be made to answer the questions above. At this point in the development of competency education, there is no best model. Districts and schools are making decisions based on a number of considerations, including the availability of technology to support student learning.

Establishing Overarching Competencies and Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements

What are the overall sets of skills, content, and traits you expect students to have upon graduation?

The initial work to determine the desired skills, content, and traits is done in partnership with community conversations. Later, districts facilitate conversations with their educators to further develop the goals for their students. Those districts that have fully engaged their communities often have shared purposes that are broader than the current policy of “college and career ready.” The focus tends to be more on lifelong learners and preparing students for life. Thus, the set of learning continuums—the expectations for what students will be able to know and do—is much more comprehensive than just academic disciplines.

Determining what a proficiency-based diploma means as opposed to one founded on time-based credits that have little meaning (and that require so many students to take remediation once they start college) is not an easy process. Is it a floor that everyone reaches and can go beyond? Is it a ceiling at which you have completed high school? Is there a point that it becomes personalized based on student goals? (more…)

Clarifying the Overall Pedagogical Approach

October 11, 2016 by

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

Some districts and schools may already have a strong pedagogical approach in place, while others may find they need to think more in-depth about motivation, engagement, instruction, assessment, and the role of grading. If there isn’t an explicit pedagogical approach in place, it should begin with a review of research and lead to the development of guiding principles about learning and teaching (as discussed in the section on shared purpose).

What are the research, beliefs, and assumptions that guide your pedagogical approach? Having a strong pedagogical approach isn’t the same as saying you want all teachers to teach in the same way. Instead, it is a set of general principles that help answer questions such as:

  • What do we know about the different ways to motivate and engage students?
  • Where does student agency fit in learning?
  • What role do habits of learning play, and how can they be developed in students?
  • What does the research tell us about effective instructional practices?
  • What are the types of assessment, and what role do they play in achievement?
  • What types of learning experiences are needed to help students reach graduation goals?
  • Given your current student population, their academic needs, and their life and learning experiences, how might this inform your school design or pedagogical approach?
  • What challenges and educational needs can online and blended learning help you address?
  • How do parents and the community at large think about these questions?

Lindsay Unified School District organizes beliefs and guiding principles to emphasize the growth of all learners, learning facilitators, and the overall culture of learning. (See their Guiding Beliefs.)

What is the role of the district in ensuring schools can offer a mix of instructional approaches and modalities? As you begin to think about the role and balance of direct instruction, practical application, group projects, project-and problem-based learning, independent learning, and real-life applications, you will find that school design and capacity issues begin to emerge, including those related to existing schedules, calendars, and partners for extended learning. This is the point where it may be worth spending the time to determine how blended and online learning can best support your students and teachers. Have you had difficulty serving some of your students? Are there some ways that blended and online education can help you strengthen the learning experience for them? (more…)

Investing in Student Agency

October 10, 2016 by

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

After the ramping up efforts have been put into place, the next phase of implementation is to re-engineer the learning infrastructure. The traditional system is based on three elements: a) time (days per year, hours per day, the time-based credit, semesters, agrarian schedule, promotion based on age); b) focus on curriculum and instruction; and c) A–F grading based on assignments, assessments, homework, and behaviors. If this system has been producing low achievement and inequity, what type of infrastructure and operations can be put into place to produce learning consistently with all students?

The following steps in developing what will be referred to in this series as the Instruction and Assessment model (I&A model) are not necessarily done in a linear fashion. They actually require an iterative approach so alignment can be developed within the learning infrastructure. Whether you start from scratch or draw from other districts, you will find that the discussion takes you deep into the core of learning. You may also find that once you remove the infrastructure of the traditional system, the experience is like trying to “organize spaghetti,” as described by Ty Cesene from Bronx Arena. The options will feel infinite as you begin to question the pillars, customs, and operational procedures that hold the traditional system in place.

Most districts focus on the core changes needed to create a transparent, coherent system that empowers students and teachers. They want to focus the attention on what is needed to ensure learning and progress, knowing that parents and communities are comfortable with the traditional understanding of how schools operate, and that some of the traditional structures still have meaning in today’s world. For example, in many communities, the agrarian schedule is now a tourist schedule in which employers rely on teenagers to join the labor market in the summer. Although this sounds like an adult issue, work experience is also a valuable component of helping students become college and career ready. Because each operational or policy change requires substantial leadership attention from district and school leaders as well as teachers, most of the districts that have converted to competency education continue to operate within a relatively traditional schedule for the first several years. It is later that they begin to move beyond the trappings of the traditional system.

Before beginning to design the infrastructure that will support your instructional model, take the time to consider the supports, the implications for student agency, your district’s overall pedagogical approach, and how you plan to support teachers through the transition. (more…)

Reaching the Tipping Point in New England

October 4, 2016 by

screenshot-2016-10-06-07-29-30There is so much activity in New England regarding competency education (or proficiency-based or mastery-based) that we thought it would be valuable to take a deeper look to see what we might learn. Today, we’ve released Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England

Two other reports were recently released looking at competency education in specific states:

Reaching the Tipping Point opens with an introductory essay, The Every Student Succeeds Act: A Catalyst for Competency Education At Scale?, by Susan Patrick and Maria Worthen that everyone should read. We’ve also taken more time to describe what competency education is, as there continues to be confusion. Then the paper dives into:

  • an exploration of why the region of New England, with some of the most high-achieving education systems, has embraced competency education;
  • insights into the strategies being used by some of the states; and
  • a reflection on progress towards quality, equity, scaling, and sustainability.

In the appendix, readers will find a synopsis of each state strategy, complemented by short case studies of a few districts and schools.

The bottom line: The major lesson learned from New England is that it takes leadership at the district and local levels to venture forth to transform their districts and state leadership willing to create an enabling policy environment with a suite of supports. One without the other will only get us a bit of the way there.

I want to wrap up this post with a great big shout out to Great Schools Partnership, and the New England Secondary Schools Consortium. There is no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t have reached the tipping point without their leadership, networking, generosity in sharing knowledge, and willingness to jump into those really messy details. Thanks to David Ruff and the whole team at GSP/NESSC.

State # of Districts (State source or NCES) Number planning or implementing %
Connecticut 164 4 2%
Maine 254 229 90%
Massachusetts 409 1
New Hampshire 99 89 90%
Rhode Island 41 2 4%
Vermont: Half of the districts participated in a training this year. So we use 25% estimate to be conservative.  60 30 50%
1027 355 35%


See also:

Creating the Shared Purpose

October 3, 2016 by

Core ValuesThis is the sixth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

Creating a shared purpose requires districts to develop their capacity for facilitated conversations (i.e., the ability to listen deeply to each other while driving for an agreed-upon vision, statement, or solution). Districts have used a simple set of questions that generate robust conversations. For example, Lindsay Unified School District in California invested in deep community engagement to launch their transformative process, beginning with the questions:

  • Why do we exist?
  • What are the values that will govern how we interact with each other?
  • What are the principles by which we will make decisions?
  • What is our vision for the future?
  • What is the description of our graduates?

The result is a mission of “Empowering and Motivating for Today and Tomorrow,” a set of core values and guiding principles that drive their instructional model.

In developing a shared purpose, Chugach School District had to engage communities from three different areas as well as a statewide homeschool community based all across Alaska. The resulting mission statement emphasizes student agency, mutual accountability, and cultural respect.

Bob Crumley recounts using the following process in meetings to initiate the Chugach shared purpose.

  1. Turn to a neighbor and tell each other your district’s shared purpose. Now, by a show of hands, how many were able to articulate our shared purpose? (In the beginning, there were few hands.)
  2. If, as leaders, teachers, and parents (depending on the group), we aren’t able to articulate our shared purpose, how are we going to work together to clearly articulate expectations and provide a roadmap for our students to achieve success?
  3. Ask students to think of a successful person (local, national, or international). Then begin a discussion on the following questions: What traits does that person have that helped them become successful? Which of those traits should we teach and assess to set all of our graduates up for success?
  4. Use the input to form the backbone for developing a draft shared purpose as well as informing student performance standards at a later stage.

Currently, Chugach School District operates according to the following shared purpose: (more…)

September CompetencyWorks Catch-Up

October 1, 2016 by

calendar-page-septHere are the highlights from September 2016 on CompetencyWorks. Happy reading. And let us know if you have questions you want us to delve into!


Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC Tour

Implementing Competency-Based Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders



Making the Case for CBE Programs: Setting a Firm Foundation for Evaluation


Laying the Groundwork for Proficiency-Based Learning in Rhode Island

September 30, 2016 by

RI Strategic Plan

This post was previously released and has been updated as Rhode Island moves towards a revised set of state policies to guide their Diploma System. 

Thanks to Lori McEwen, Chief of Instruction, Leadership and Equity at Providence Public Schools and Dana Borrelli-Murray, Executive Director, Highlander Institute for talking with me about how personalized learning, blended learning, and proficiency-based learning are advancing in Rhode Island.

There is a lot happening in Rhode Island regarding education. The communities in Rhode Island seem to be bustling with discussions about how to improve their schools, with much of it focused on personalized learning and blended learning catalyzed by the Highlander Institute. Much less so on how to create proficiency-based systems.

Rhode Island is an interesting case study as it has a thick policy foundation for a proficiency-based diploma and secondary school practices to support personalization, yet I couldn’t find any districts that were committed to creating a K12 proficiency-based system. There are certainly sparks of proficiency-based innovation in Rhode Island. For example, the Met, one of the early models of highly personalized competency-based learning, started in Providence. Blackstone Academy and Blackstone Valley Prep are both proficiency-based, from what I understand. Cumberland High School has made incredible progress by starting with the goal of creating a standards-based grading reporting system and then using it to put all the important pieces in place to ensure consistency and transparency. There are also efforts of after-school programs to use competency-based models to create credit-bearing opportunities outside of school as well as Big Picture Learning’s College Unbound. (It’s possible I just didn’t tap into the right networks. Please, if you are a school in RI converting to a proficiency-based system, let us know.) From what I can tell, this suggests that those districts and schools that want to become proficiency-based can within the state policy context.

Certainly, over the past twenty years, the state has been a leader in establishing a set of policies that support a proficiency-based system. These policies have now been re-organized into a set of regulations called the Diploma System, which emphasizes proficiency and personalization. However, few districts are taking advantage of this…yet. My guess is that we are on the verge of seeing districts in RI begin to realize that they can’t get all their students to graduation-levels of proficiency without increasing the personalization of their schools (focusing on what students need to succeed, not just digitalized content) and converting to a proficiency-based system that helps them monitor proficiency, progress, and pace of their students. (See the story of Connecticut, in which superintendents are the leaders in the effort to introduce personalized, competency-based systems of education.) (more…)

Building Capacity to Serve Off-Track Students with the Barr Foundation

September 29, 2016 by

barr-foundationThis post has been updated with corrections.

Our country has been talking about ways to improve secondary education for at least thirty years: school-to-work, small schools, senior year transition, early college, project-based learning, service learning, online then blended learning, deeper learning, authentic learning, ninth grade transition, inquiry-based learning, community-based learning, portfolios, and exhibitions. In the last year, there has been a whole new push, starting with a White House convening on high schools and XQ. Now add the Barr Foundation’s courageous and insightful effort to build secondary school opportunities to better serve students who are missing the skills or credits they need to graduate, (i.e. they are “off track”).

One has to ask why hasn’t there been more progress or why these models and practices haven’t had more scaling power, more staying power. Of course our analysis at CompetencyWorks is that the traditional structure of education is going to be a significant challenge, if not a barrier, to any new educational strategies for the following reasons:

  1. Students are passed on even when they haven’t learned what they need to learn.
  2. Traditional scaffolding strategies usually fail to help students to actually learn and master the pre-requisite skills they need to engage in high school curriculum. We insist on grade level curriculum even when students need something else in order to succeed.
  3. Even with the highest engagement strategies, the traditional point systems and GPA only motivate the highest achievers.
  4. Students simply do not have enough information to know what they need to do to do better (and in many cases the teachers don’t know either) and don’t have the support they need.
  5. There is too much variability in how teachers determine proficiency.


WordPress SEO fine-tune by Meta SEO Pack from Poradnik Webmastera