Author: Chris Sturgis

Cleveland: Where Pedagogy Comes First

June 26, 2017 by

This is the first of a five-part series on competency-based schools in Cleveland Metropolitan Schools.

Starting up a school is challenging. No matter how much planning takes place, the first year is spent working out the design and operational kinks. Starting up a school that is mastery-based when no one in the district has had much experience in the model adds an entirely new level of challenge. But that’s what Cleveland Metropolitan Schools is doing (in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation and Springpoint) in creating new schools that are aligned with the Opportunity by Design principles.

Natalie Abel, program manager for CompetencyWorks; Ashley Jones, iNACOL communications associate; and I spent two days in Cleveland visiting schools in their first and third years to better understand how schools develop and fine-tune their models. We particularly want to thank Darcel Williams, Program Manager for New School Model, and Kristen Kelly, Mastery Learning Specialist, for hosting and organizing our visit. They were tremendously generous with time, insights, and experts.

From Teaching to Teaching and Learning

We started our visit to Cleveland with a discussion with Christine Fowler-Mack, Chief Portfolio Officer over New & Innovative Schools and Programs; Joseph Micheller, Executive Director of New School Development; Darcel Williams; and Kristen Kelly. It’s important to understand that Cleveland is using a portfolio strategy to improve their schools. In general, the portfolio strategy applies to high schools while the K-8 schools remain neighborhood-based.

For those of you not familiar with the portfolio strategy, it’s a school reform model that seeks to create choice among diverse, autonomous schools. The role of districts also changes, moving to managing a portfolio, including opening and closing schools, monitoring performance, and providing support. As part of this strategy, Cleveland has participated in Center for Reinventing Public Education’s network of districts using the portfolio strategy. Cleveland started down the path toward building a portfolio of high schools in 2006 using a set of design principles and building the district capacity to support the launch new schools. Among Cleveland’s 101 schools are four big comprehensive high schools and thirty-three small high schools.

Fowler-Mack explained that Cleveland is developing a district-wide pedagogical philosophy. It’s best explained as moving from a philosophy solely focused on teaching to one focused on teaching and learning. Similar to New Hampshire, Cleveland is turning to Elmore’s work on the instructional core to guide them.

Engaging Educators

Fowler-Mack explained that the reactions some educators demonstrated toward school improvement efforts were originally viewed as resistance. However, over the years her understanding has changed: She now understands it is as fear of effectiveness. “This isn’t about a clash of philosophy,” explained Fowler-Mack. “It’s about how we can evolve the practices educators use to help students. It’s about how we ensure that as teachers go through the journey, they have adequate support.” Williams continued, “There is always some organic learning in schools. Teachers are interested in learning about effective practices. But the learning curve is too steep to have everyone progressing organically in building their professional learning. We want to offer the right level of constructive learning.”

Fowler-Mack explained why the language of teaching and learning is more effective for them than personalized learning or competency-based education. “If we use the language of competency-based education, it sounds as if it is something totally new,” she said. “They don’t make the connections to sound principles of teaching and learning. We want teachers to see the similarities and build off their strengths.” They have learned that analogies and direct language about what they intend for kids to learn has been helpful.

Introducing a district-wide pedagogy within a portfolio district is a big, and very important, leadership lift. There are too many schools in our country that deliver curriculum without taking a step back to clarify their pedagogical approach and ensure that it builds on what research tells us about learning, motivation, and engagement. Fowler-Mack explained that it is important to have multiple strategies for engaging educators, “It is more important that we take into consideration what our educators need rather than to simply ask if they have bought into a vision. Some people believe in the ideas of personalized learning and thrive when given the opportunity. Some believe in the ideas but are not sure about what it looks like. And some people root themselves in what they’ve done because of their beliefs or because of fear. Under pressure, they can fight back.” Williams added, “When you ask people to change practices, you have to provide consistent and deep support. We can’t underestimate the change from, ‘I just taught it,’ to ‘Did kids learn it?’ Even really great, passionate teachers still have to learn to check in if kids are learning. They have to learn how to keep students engaged in the learning and to reflect on their own practice when they need to.”

For example, Williams explained how effective assessment for learning strategies are helping students to learn as well as educators, “We are entering a new phase of understanding the relationship between assessment and accountability. As we think about students demonstrating what they’ve learned and having multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning, we move beyond the ideas of one final test or annual state tests.” She explained that students at Lincoln West Global Studies had just completed their Exhibitions of Learning, complete with transparent rubrics, presentations to community members, and authentic feedback on their performance tasks. She emphasized, “It was amazing to see the growth in the educators in the school as well as the students. It gave me hope for a first year school to grapple with what it means to use exhibitions as a form of assessment.”

As Cleveland moves forward in this transition using a strategy to introduce a framework for teaching and learning, there are likely to be important lessons for other districts. (more…)

The Summit Starts Today

June 21, 2017 by

….and I’m thinking about all the incredible educators I’ve met over the past seven years and about all the bright and shiny faces of children I’ve seen enjoying and valuing their learning.

I’m also aware that our decision to only have 100 people (because it is a good size to bring in a diversity of perspectives while also small enough for people to feel safe to share and explore ideas and feel listened to) also leaves out so many of you, who would make invaluable contributions and benefit from the leadership development that takes place at these types of working meetings. Many of you participated in the Technical Advisory Groups, and we are forever grateful – they way-exceeded our expectations. Honestly, we never could have developed such rich ideas in such a short period of time on our own. Truly, the power of collaboration and collective knowledge can never be under-estimated.

So…I wanted to share two small things that can help you feel as if you are in Denver with us. First, we are using #CBESummit17 as our hashtag. Second, participants contributed to a playlist organized around the question, “What music captures your feelings when you think about competency education and making sure that students are learning?” The playlist now on Spotify is just so fun and upbeat – I had to share it right away. If you want to add songs, leave the artist and song in the comments!

Charting the Course for High Quality Personalized, Competency Education

June 14, 2017 by

This is the eleventh blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field.

At the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, we hope to advance ideas around quality in competency-based systems and lay the groundwork for what needs to happen to build high-quality personalized, competency-based systems every time. The purpose of this blog is to gather and recommend ideas for action steps to advance an understanding of high quality, personalized, competency-based systems and strategies to accelerate the design and implementation of high quality district systems and schools. We encourage you to brainstorm and prioritize recommendations for educators, school and district leaders, state and federal policymakers, funders, intermediary organizations, and technical assistance providers and any other key organizations. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

As you review the following, consider these questions:

  1. How might you change or strengthen these ideas offered below?
  2. What other projects, initiatives, or recommendations are needed to advance quality in competency-based systems and schools?
  3. Of all the projects listed here and discussed, which are the 3-5 most important ones to take on now?

A. Providing Exemplars in Each of the 4 Components of the Quality Framework (Structure, Culture, Pedagogical Philosophy, and Learning Experiences) to Support Early Stage Design and Implementation

Exemplars are essential in order to help people from across the field develop a vision of what CBE is, believe that it is viable by understanding key implementation steps, and build a sense of how competency-based education can reinforce student agency, personalized learning, and deeper learning. Even with the substantial documentation at CompetencyWorks about school models, there is a need for districts and schools to have a more close-up understanding of competency-based structures and their implications. This could include funding positions at districts with the most mature systems to coordinate site visits, funding travel for site visits, creating detailed documentation (written and video) of the models, and developing more detailed guidebooks. (more…)

How Could We Build a Shared Understanding of Quality in Competency Education?

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This is the tenth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field.

In the previous articles, we’ve shared our best thinking to date about the structure and features of what would make up a high quality competency-based structure. This is a good start but there are a range of strategies for defining quality and the processes that we as a field might develop to help districts and schools strengthen their competency-based structures. This blog will introduce four approaches to how initiatives could be structured to begin to build a formal understanding of quality. As you consider the approaches described below based on outcomes, design, processes, and quality reviews, consider how each approach will be most helpful in the following:

  • Does it Drive Equity? How valuable and viable are these approaches in helping districts and schools create equitable systems that effectively serve students, particularly those who have been historically underserved?
  • Does it Make the Case for Expanding Competency-Based Education? In what ways can these approaches demonstrate that competency-based education is a better option than continuing with the traditional structures? How do they also build capacity within districts and schools to implement effective competency-based education structures? Are there any other approaches that should be included in the approaches described below?
  • Does this Contribute Meaningfully to the Field? What is the the best strategy to advance our understanding of how high quality, personalized, competency-based districts and schools are designed and operated? How might the field move forward in defining high quality in the medium-term (2-10 years) or long-term (10 years or more)? Are some strategies more useful than others at building capacity within districts and schools to design competency-based structure with quality?

In the paper In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System, we delve into these approaches in greater detail, examining the opportunities and challenges each presents, as well as examples. (more…)

Nine Structural Domains of Competency Education, Part II

June 13, 2017 by

This is the ninth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field.

In this article, we describe the nine domains of a competency-based structure (remember: this is a draft and we want ideas about what is missing and what shouldn’t belong) and key questions that could open the door to discussions about quality. In the paper, you can also find exemplars and ‘look-fors’ – and we want to collect the best examples we can find over the next month.

WHAT IS THE WORK?

Structural Domain 1. Mission-Driven Districts and Schools Dedicated to Preparing Each and Every Student for Life, College, and Careers

Description of Structures – Beliefs, Policies, Operational Processes

One of the most powerful leverage points that states, districts, and schools have to transform their schools is the opportunity to expand expectation of student success. Success in college and careers takes much more than comprehension of the core academic subjects. Students need to become self-directed, lifelong learners with critical thinking and problem-solving skills to address challenges and take advantage of opportunities. They will also need skills such as communication, collaboration, and cultural competence to help them work in ever-changing, diverse workplaces. In order for students to develop these skills, they need to be actively learning, with opportunities to apply their skills in new contexts.  

Key Questions to Ask in Self-Assessment or District/School Reviews

  • What is the definition of school success or graduation outcomes that shapes the school mission and guiding principles?
  • What role have the community, parents, and students had in shaping the vision and mission?
  • How is the the mission actively referenced as a guide to make key decisions?
  • In what way is the district and school designed to help students develop all the skills identified in their graduate profiles or graduation expectations, including lifelong learning skills, higher order skills, and academic skills?
  • How will the community know if the district and school are achieving outcome goals for students? How will they know if the outcomes are equitable?  
  • How is the use of resources (facilities, money, staffing, and time) aligned with the mission and learning goals?

WHAT IS THE STRATEGY OR THEORY OF CHANGE? (more…)

Nine Structural Domains of Competency Education, Part I

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This is the eighth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field.

The contribution of the participants of the Technical Advisory Group on quality was so powerful that we ended up moving far beyond our expectations in terms of the development of defining competency-based structures and what high quality would look like. In this article we explore a a way to think about what structure in schools and districts mean. This afternoon’s article will then highlight the features of quality we might look for.  As always, we really want your feedback on these ideas. We are particularly interested in ways that we might integrate the ideas introduced in the paper In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency-Based Education into the quality framework.

Developed by 100 innovators in 2011, the working definition of a high-quality competency-based education was designed to build a shared understanding of how a competency-based system functions. However, it does not precisely describe what the competency-based structure (beliefs, policies, and operational mechanisms) is that would replace the traditional structure. In this section, we hope to outline the specific structures that districts and schools should have in place while still highlighting the innovations and variations developed by districts and schools. At times, structures that are considered “must-haves” or “non-negotiables” are identified.

What are the Structures that Make Up a Competency-Based District and School?

Think of the structure as the architecture of a house. It’s the foundation, frame, and load-bearing walls. This paper organizes the structure of a district and school into nine domains, with each domain made up of the beliefs, policies, and processes that support learning and teaching. The way that the structure operates is likely to be shaped by policies and funding established by outside entities, including state or federal government, as well and the broader education system, including accreditation bodies and vendors.

Making the transition from the time-based system to a competency-based one requires the process of deconstructing the traditional structure and constructing a new one with great intentionality to ensure that it works effectively. To understand a structure, it is helpful to think about them as a mix of beliefs, policies, and operational processes.

Beliefs

The beliefs that people bring to their work will have a powerful impact on the entire organization. There will be a formal set of policies and processes based on espoused beliefs and an informal one based on the actual beliefs brought to bear. Thus, understanding the beliefs underlying each domain of the structure is important in identifying strengths and weaknesses in the competency-based structure. There are two beliefs that are absolutely essential to a quality structure for competency-based education: 1) that all students can and should learn to high standards and 2) the role of the growth mindset, with adults developing it within themselves as well as supporting it in students. These two beliefs demand that adults in the system challenge assumptions and unlearn habits and practices built upon sorting students and the fixed mindset. (more…)

Exploring a Four-Part Quality Framework for Competency Education

June 12, 2017 by

This is the seventh blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field.

Districts and schools are complex organizations with a complex goal helping students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse interests, aptitudes, and skills become prepared for the transition into adulthood, defined as readiness for college, careers, and life. In preparation for the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, CompetencyWorks (in collaboration with thirty-some leaders from the field) developed a four-part framework to guide discussions around ensuring quality in competency-based structures: structure, culture, pedagogy, and learning experiences. We found that we needed some way to be able to talk about all the elements that make up competency-based, personalized systems that allowed us to look carefully at each piece and allowed us to see and explore the intersections.

This framework is obviously not inclusive of all the parts that make-up a district or school; human resources, budgeting, and the other areas of an organization that we refer to as administration are actually powerful ways that shape schools and the experiences of students. At some point, we need to begin to gather together the changes and practices that are happening within these parts of schools and districts and how they influence quality. (more…)

Three Driving Questions for Developing High-Quality Competency-Based Systems

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This is the sixth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field.

One of my big a-ha moments in the process of the Technical Assistance Group on Quality (thanks to all of you!) is that we couldn’t define quality until we were able to explain what a competency-based structure was more precisely. Remember, we take the position that the traditional system is a barrier to both equity and excellence, as it is designed around a belief that some kids are just smarter than others and there isn’t much to do about it, so part of the job of schools is to rank and sort students. If we are going to identify the parts of the traditional system that are problematic, we are going to have to replace them with something else. That something else is competency-based education. Thus, the efforts to define quality started with the question of what a competency-based structure is.

Below is the introduction to the paper In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System. Tomorrow’s article will begin to answer these questions. We are looking forward to your reaction.

Efficacy, the degree to which something is successful in producing a desired result, is at the heart of competency-based education. After centuries of educating America’s children in schools that are designed to sort students, we are shifting from the traditional one-size-fits-all system and replacing it with a system that personalizes learning within a competency-based structure to ensure that every student is making progress toward college and career readiness (academic, higher order, and lifelong learning skills). In other words, competency-based education seeks to create a system that effectively supports students to learn to high expectations not for some, but for every student.

In order to advance the field of competency education, it is important that educators and policymakers create a shared understanding of what a high quality competency-based system looks like. Beginning to define what quality means in a competency-based system based on practitioner knowledge can expedite the process of states, districts, and school adopting these new structures and approaches. This includes clarifying how the structures and approaches incorporate equity strategies to ensure historically underserved students will benefit and thrive.  More importantly, having a shared understanding of high quality competency-based schools will position us to better serve and educate students today and not postpone it until some future date. We simply cannot allow students to continue to be passed on year after year to the next grade without the skills they need to be successful.

Attendees at the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education will explore three questions related to defining what high quality means in a competency-based district or school:   (more…)

Charting the Course for Equity in Competency Education

June 11, 2017 by

This is the fifth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency-Based Education. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field.

By the end of the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, we hope to be able to provide guidance and/or recommendations for how we can ensure that equality is not just rhetorically at the heart of competency education, but actually producing greater achievement for historically underserved students and greater equity in terms of overall outcomes. Below are a few examples of actionable steps that are needed. It’s just a starting point – we know this needs to be strengthened.

We encourage you to share your reactions to the ideas below. What other steps can be taken? What is needed to turn them from ideas into action? Please leave your suggestions in the comments section below.

Design for Equity

  • Strengthen Equity Strategies in Models and Implementation:
    • School designers and technical assistance providers should be explicit about how their approach and model takes into consideration equity strategies.
    • Professional learning should provide an overview for designing personalized, competency-based structures that highlight embedding equity strategies into design. This can include school design, pedagogy, operations (scheduling and calendars), grading practices, and disciplinary policies.

Consistency and Reliability in Determining Proficiency

  • Calibration: Districts and schools should co-create mechanisms to calibrate proficiency on core academic skills and higher order skills.

Processes and Metrics (more…)

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