Author: Chris Sturgis

Laying the Groundwork for Proficiency-Based Learning in Rhode Island

May 18, 2016 by

RI Strategic PlanThanks 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.

There are some sparks of proficiency-based innovation in Rhode Island, but I wouldn’t consider it a groundswell of interest yet. 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…)

A Conversation with the Two Mikes from Montpelier

May 17, 2016 by
Two Mikes

Mike McRaith and Mike Martin

The New England Secondary School Consortium’s March conference is becoming a must-go meeting for me – as a place to hear about how educators are talking about their competency-based/mastery-based/proficiency-based systems and to expand my network of educators leading the way. Last March I had the opportunity to talk with Mike Martin, Montpelier Public Schools’ Director of Curriculum & Technology, and Mike McRaith, Principal of Montpelier High School in Vermont. (You can learn about MHS at Edutopia.)

On the Value of Proficiency-Based Learning

Martin explained, “In Vermont, we are focused on two big changes that are deeply connected. We want our students to have more personalized experiences and we want to make sure our students can meet proficiency-based graduation requirements so we’re confident that they’re ready for college and careers. It’s relatively easy to create the personalized learning plans called for in Act 77, but flexible pathways pose challenges relating to equity, and proficiency-based learning is a heavier lift. However, it is also a door to personalization. Proficiency-based learning is the way to make sure that personalized learning plans and experiential learning lead to higher achievement. In our approach, transferable skills provide a common language to define proficiency, both in class and through real-world learning.”

“We had personalized learning plans in Montpelier in the late 1990s, but we hadn’t connected them to student learning in this way. We had created a false divide between personal learning endeavors and academics. Now we are thinking about personalized learning plans and student aspirations in the context of how they can be used to create learning opportunities that engage and motivate students.”

He outlined some of these plans for me. “In the coming year, we are focusing on seven transferable skills – reading, writing, communication, problem-solving, habits of learning, citizenship, and creativity – as the enduring understanding that we want our students to have,” he said. “It is the ultimate UBD. We are building back from graduation to develop the capacity of schools to provide assessments and effective feedback on the transferrable skills.”

“The state created a set of policies that are all around the same work,” he added. “The common theme is building student agency. We want our students to know themselves as learners, to have the skills to be successful learners, and to have opportunities to build the transferable skills all along their path from kindergarten to graduation. At each grade level, students should be able to speak to the questions, Who am I as a reader? Who am I as a communicator? Who am I as a citizen? etc.” (more…)

New Haven Academy: Pedagogy Comes First

May 16, 2016 by

new haven academyThis is part of a series on mastery-based learning in Connecticut. See posts on New Haven Public Schools,Windsor 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.

There is no mistaking New Haven Academy’s pedagogy and vision – it hangs from colorful banners above the school: Think Critically. Be Responsible. Get Involved. There is also loving attention to the social-emotional needs of students exemplified by the bulletin board in the main office:

Just remember it’s tough to enjoy life when you don’t like yourself. When you learn to succeed at being yourself, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying life more fully.

Don’t let the way another person treats you determine your worth.

Find something you like to do that you do well, and do it over and over.

Co-founders Greg Baldwin (principal) and Meredith Gavrin (program director) have an interesting story about how they came to the world of mastery-based learning. It’s a story shaped by how they operationalized the pedagogy at the center of the school and eventually came to the point where they had to make a full conversion to mastery-based learning, as grading and traditional practices of how students advance were just too out of sync with the rest of the school to ignore.

The good news – among the juniors who were the first class to use mastery-based grading, there is an increasing number of them achieving mastery in their courses. (more…)

How are We Doing Implementing Student-Centered Learning?

May 13, 2016 by

NMEFNellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) and the Donahue Institute at University of Massachusetts released a new report A Qualitative Study of Student-Centered Learning Practices in New England High Schools last month. Student-centered learning as defined by NMEF has four tenets: (1) learning is personalized; (2) learning is competency-based; (3) learning takes place anytime, anywhere; and (4) students take ownership. There are a number of findings that we should pay attention to:

How Can We Make Adoption of CBE Easier?

Finding: Schools tended to report that the adoption of competency-based learning (CBE) models is more challenging than implementation of other tenets. Educators and leaders face considerable barriers to successful implementation, such as expectations that students will advance at the end of each school year and community concerns regarding colleges’ views of competency-based transcripts.

Discussion: Based on my experience visiting schools, everything goes easier once schools embrace a new set of values and assumptions led by the number one tenet – Do What’s Best for Kids. (See Courtney Belolan’s article on culture.) Some people argue that we need discrete models with options for specific practices. What do you think would make adoption easier?

Do We Have Enough Results Yet to Begin to Determine What Works?

Finding: Every site visit school implemented a unique competency-based learning system. The lack of a proven competency-based model challenges schools to invent their own approach.

Discussion: I will still argue that we are early in the process of innovation and that we are still finding our way to figuring the “best models.” However, we are also now at the stage of districts and schools having several years of implementation. So we should begin to benchmark different models and practices that are yielding results?

What Will It Take to Increase Expanded Learning Opportunities?

Finding: Anytime/anywhere learning practices lag behind the other SCL tenets. Teachers and administrators face an array of challenges to implementing approaches within this tenet, such as establishing community partnerships, transportation, and budget. Some schools appear not to realize the full educational potential of such practices. (more…)

Superintendents Leading the Way in Connecticut

May 12, 2016 by

NextEdThis is part of a series on mastery-based learning in Connecticut. See posts on New Haven Public Schools,Windsor 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.

Why is Connecticut turning to personalized, mastery-based learning? Because superintendents had the courage to be honest that there wasn’t any way to reach the policy goal of every student ready for college and careers within the traditional, one-size-fits-all, time-based system. As Larry Schaefer and Janet Garagliano of the Connecticut Association of Public Schools Superintendents (CAPSS) explained it to me, “Superintendents came to the conclusion that they couldn’t guarantee that all kids are going to be college and career ready without some major changes. The best way to reach our goals is through a personalized, mastery-based system.”

Sometimes superintendents are seen as holders of the status quo. However, when the superintendents released their first report NextEd: Transforming Connecticut’s Education System in 2011, they demonstrated forward-thinking leadership. They demonstrated that they were innovators, not the barriers to change. With over 150 recommendations, the report explained step-by-step how once you put students at the center of the system, just about every aspect of the system had to be re-adjusted. Personalization wasn’t a new program, it was re-engineering the system.

CAPSS also engaged other educators in creating a vision. In the next report, A Look to the Future: Personalized Learning in Connecticut, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) and the Connecticut Association of Schools (CAS), with principals as their members, co-created the vision for a personalized, mastery-based system. At the end of March, CAPSS released a more detailed plan called NextEd: Next Steps, which is filled with action steps. (more…)

Update on Maine’s Proficiency-Based Diploma Policy

May 11, 2016 by
Maine State House

Maine State House, Wikipedia

To refresh your memory, Maine had originally set a policy that students would be expected to demonstrate proficiency in all eight domains to get a diploma. Under pressure of trying to get all students to reach proficiency in all eight domains, districts asked for more flexibility. The first ideas considered were much lower expectations of proficiency in math and ELA being used as a graduation requirement. The final policy sets a series of phases and also includes students being able to choose one or more of the domains they need to demonstrate proficiency.

B-1. Phase in the following diploma requirements from the 2020-2021 school year to the 2024-2025 school year:

(1) For a student graduating in the graduating class of 2020-2021, certify that the student has demonstrated proficiency in meeting the state standards in the content areas of English language arts, mathematics, science and technology and social studies;

(2) For a student graduating in the graduating class of 2021-2022, certify that the student has demonstrated proficiency in meeting the state standards in the content areas of English language arts, mathematics, science and technology, social studies and at least one additional content area of the student’s choice;

(3) For a student graduating in the graduating class of 2022-2023, certify that the student has demonstrated proficiency in meeting the state standards in the content areas of English language arts, mathematics, science and technology, social studies and at least 2 additional content areas of the student’s choice;

(4) For a student graduating in the graduating class of 2023-2024, certify that the student has demonstrated proficiency in meeting the state standards in the content areas of English language arts, mathematics, science and technology, social studies and at least 3 additional content areas of the student’s choice; and

(5) For a student graduating in the graduating class of 2024-2025 and for each subsequent graduating class, certify that the student has demonstrated proficiency in meeting the state standards in all content areas.

(more…)

Naugatuck Public Schools: Making Meaning for Teachers with Mastery-Based Learning

May 10, 2016 by

NPS

This is part of a series on mastery-based learning in Connecticut. See posts on New Haven Public Schools,Windsor 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.

Scroll to the bottom to see an example of Naugatuck’s curriculum framework for math.

“As a teacher, I couldn’t get traction. If mastery-based learning isn’t the district’s vision, how much can a teacher accomplish?”

I like to stay in touch with competency education leaders as they move from one position to another, from one organization to another. One might think of a bumble bee pollinating ideas – each idea become a richer hue as it interacts with other ideas, other people, and new applications.

Thus, during my trip to Connecticut, I visited Caroline Messenger, Curriculum Director, Naugatuck Public Schools, who had previously been a teacher at the high school. (Messenger has also been a writer at CompetencyWorks. See Learning My Lesson and How Do You Measure Competency? Curriculum Can Help Guide the Way.) I was interested to find out how her perspective had changed from being a teacher to being part of the leadership team. The conversation was quickly focused on instructional strategies, proving to me once again that mastery-based learning can create the conditions for lifting up the teaching profession from the narrow role of delivering curriculum as structured in the factory model to the astoundingly challenging and meaningful role of teaching children to learn.

“Mastery-based learning operates on a different set of assumptions,” Messenger reflected. “Even if you have two or three colleagues working together, it is difficult to bring mastery-based learning to life in the classroom without a district vision. As a teacher, you can focus on standards and develop your units around them, but there is no way to create a greater understanding of how the standards fit together to create a sense of purpose for learning if you are working in isolation. Teachers can organize their classrooms around standards, but we want so much more for kids. It takes a much broader vision. The vision of the district and the philosophy of the school shape how people relate to each other, determine what is important and where attention is directed, and sets the values.” (more…)

Meeting Students Where They Are: Academic Domains (Part 2)

May 5, 2016 by

Part 1 on this topicArrows focuses on accountability policies. This post looks at instructional strategies to meet students where they are.

Do Academic Domains Make a Difference in Strategies to Meet Students Where They Are?

Teachers have to make hundreds of instructional decisions each day. Based on conversations with practitioners, we have found that it is worth starting the discussion with how to best meet the needs of students who have gaps in skills within each discipline. We’ve been focusing the initial inquiry on math, ELA, and social sciences, but it would be just as important to consider this issue within the sciences, arts, health/physical education, and CTE as well.

Below are some of the insights from educators about how to meet students where they are without falling back into tracking or marching through the standards in a linear manner. Each of the strategies raised by educators to respond to students whose skills are at performance levels below their grade level take more time and more instruction. In a world where learning is monitored over a semester, some might call this students taking longer or learning at a slower pace. That is not the situation at all; if they need to loop back or do close reading, they are actually doing more learning. In fact, the rate of their learning measured by performance levels will likely be at a faster rate than those students with grade level skills. (more…)

Meeting Students Where They Are: Accountability Paradox (Part 1)

by

ArrowsPart 2 on this topic focuses on instructional strategies to meet students where they are. This post looks at accountability policies.

Across the country, educators are courageously recognizing that the only way they can help all students meet college and career readiness is to move beyond the traditional time-based system to create personalized, competency-based systems. Personalizing education starts with recognizing that every student has a unique educational pathway, entering school at different academic performance levels, at a different steps in their development, and with ever-changing interests and understandings of the world around them.

Yet many competency-based schools are continuing to teach students at their grade level with one-size fits all curricula because they feel it is only fair to “cover the standards” before students take exams for accountability purposes. Many educators have said that they would like to be able deliver instruction where students are but feel that they must “cover the standards.” Standards of course are a good thing. They bring an intentionality to instruction and clarity to assessment that our education system was lacking. Yet, covering them without also ensuring students are mastering them leaves us with the same problem of the traditional system — some students learn while others are left behind.

CompetencyWorks is delving into the issue of what it would take to meet students where they are so we can better meet the needs of students including those whose performance level is below grade level. In this two part-series, I’ll share some of the take-aways from conversations with educators and thought leaders. As always, I’m trying to understand so retain the right to learn more and change my mind.

Empowering Teachers

Every day teachers face the challenge of trying to teach students the grade level curriculum even though they know their students do not have the pre-requisite skills. The practice of always providing grade level curriculum means that some students with gaps in foundational knowledge go to school every day feeling stupid, some are bored because they aren’t allowed to move on to more challenging work, and teachers must carry the burden of knowing they aren’t meeting students’ needs.

Curriculum coordinator Patrice Glancey describes her district’s first steps of the transition to competency-based education. She empowered teachers to develop the instructional strategies and curriculum resources based on their professional judgment would be the most effective for students. The first grade teachers rejected the idea of an assigned reading program to try a more personalized approach. (more…)

Windsor Locks: Starting with Pedagogy

by
Susan Bell

Susan Bell

This is part of a series on mastery-based learning in Connecticut. See posts on New Haven Public Schools,Windsor 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.

“The real shift is in what is happening with our kids. ” – Susan Bell

Windsor Locks, located a bit outside of Hartford, Connecticut, didn’t have to make the move to mastery-based learning. As Superintendent of Windsor Locks Public Schools Susan Bell put it, “We did it because it makes sense to us. A D-minus and twenty-four credits is just not good enough. We drew the line in the sand. We are done working in ways that don’t make sense for our students.” (See Windsor Locks’ description of their mastery-based learning system.)

Why Mastery-Based Learning?

Connecticut has created innovation space for high schools to move to mastery-based learning. Windsor Locks decided it was an idea that is good for all students. In 2013, they set a deadline to have the fifth graders in that year graduate with a mastery-based diploma in 2020.

Bell explained, “We are focused on improving the quality of instruction by building a common belief system of what is good instruction and creating the instructional culture to support collaborative dialogue. The structure of mastery-based learning allows us to focus more closely on how students are progressing, allowing us to use instructional models that will work for students and provide more opportunity for them to be active learners.”

We all know there isn’t one perfect system of mastery-based learning…yet. Bell pointed out, “It seems we’re all waiting for the first successful model to be developed. But waiting meant we were delaying what we knew was good for students. So we took the bull by the horns and began the transition ourselves.”

The Path to Mastery-Based Learning

In 2011, the Windsor Locks School Board hired Wayne Sweeney as Superintendent, who Bell described as “a visionary leader who got us focused on the right things.” With Bell as Assistant Superintendent, the district began the journey with an extensive process engaging 400 stakeholders to create a vision of the system. They developed a long-range plan built upon the Nine Characteristics of High Performing Schools. (more…)

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