Author: Chris Sturgis

Juarez Community Academy: When Big Schools Become Competency-Based

April 25, 2017 by

Principal Juan Carlos Ocón

This is the seventh post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

There are always exceptions, and Benito Juarez Community Academy (Juarez) in Chicago is one of them. At CompetencyWorks, we tend to advise against using grading as the entry point into competency-based education. It can create confusion and anxiety, especially in high schools, before the full competency-based infrastructure has been put into place. Yet Juarez successfully moved to standards-based grading, having used the practice for the last seven years, and is now ready to move to a fuller competency-based model. Actually, I think they have already taken the substantial steps to restructure their school as competency-based.

When Juan Carlos Ocón became principal, Juarez had been on the list of the forty worst schools in Illinois. In 2010, it jumped off that list. In 2008-2009, principal Ocon and his team began a deliberate and strategic shift from a content-based curriculum to a standards-based curriculum. This was a necessary shift that allowed the school to focus on what students should know and be able to do. In the spring and summer of 2010, Juarez adopted the College Readiness Standards. In 2011, Juarez continued to develop a schoolwide shift from what teachers teach to what students learn. Ocón explained, “After analysis and research on instructional and grading models, we needed to shift our focus from what teachers teach to what students learn. That is how we were going to improve rigor in the classroom. Benchmarking, therefore, is a system of instruction that is focused on student assessment and skills mastery.

At Juarez, we had a lengthy conversation with about fifteen teachers and administrators. I apologize, as I was unable to put everyone’s names with what they said as I normally try to do. Next time I visit Juarez, I’ll do better so that readers can get to know the leaders, administrators, and teachers there.

Background

Serving 1,600 mostly Hispanic students, Juarez is a neighborhood school offering an IB program and 5 CTE programs. There is a strong college counseling program that includes resources for DREAMers. In 2008, they began to introduce standards-based grading (SBG) with school-wide implementation in 2010.

They are now in a process of preparing for the transition to competency-based education or what they referred to as “resetting.” Principal Juan Carlos Ocón explained, “Moving to competency-based education is forcing us to revisit our core values.” The leadership team, including teacher leaders, organized a retreat with Camille Farrington and members of the UC Consortium on School Research to clarify their philosophy about education and equity.

Juarez is part of the high schools organizing the pilot under the state’s Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program. (See CBE in Chicago for more information.) (more…)

Servant to Two Masters: Balancing Skills and Content at Lindblom

April 20, 2017 by

This is the sixth post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

I met with several teachers at Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy (Lindblom) to discuss their experience in PBL. Three years into implementation, they estimate that about 90 percent of the teachers believe in the principles of PBL and about 50 percent have implemented strategies to match those principles.

Changing Practice

Casey Fuess, high school choir and teacher representative on the local school council, said, “Without clear learning objectives, teacherspurposefully or not—focus on engaging students for the sake of order and discipline. Instead, PBL leads teachers to plan the instructional environment to meet specific learning goals. PBL pushes teachers to think about how to intrinsically engage students with relevant material and the opportunity to see themselves getting better over time. Our students know that success is possible. PBL shifts teachers practices – we are always asking, ‘What do you want students to know, where is each student in their learning, and how can we create engaging projects that will help them get to the next step?’”

Nell Kemp, biology and biotech, explained, “Teachers need to have confidence in their practice and in themselves as learners. PBL can be difficult if teachers haven’t embraced the philosophy or don’t have a love of their content.” In hindsight, Kemp wished she had been able to take a full year to think about what proficiency-based learning looks like in the classroom.  

Supporting New Teachers

Everyone agreed that new teachers need support on classroom management – no matter what kind of classroom management. Schools need to build in support for teachers to use the classroom management practices designed around student agency and personalization. Molly Myers, AP geography, explained that professional development from Doug Finn of Marzano Research Labs was instrumental in learning how to organize classroom structures and procedures to support greater agency and personalization. The teachers are also exploring how to have more metacognitive reflection so students can better manage their learning processes. Myers emphasized, “Just let the experienced teachers who love their content go. They will create wonderful learning opportunities for students.”

“Teachers need to be reflective,” added Myers. “We have to own our failure as educators. We have to use them as an opportunity for learning to improve our skills.” (more…)

Getting Results at Lindblom

April 18, 2017 by

This is the fifth post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy (Lindblom) is relatively new to proficiency-based learning. They are in the third year of implementation; year one was spent introducing new practices, which were then introduced school-wide in the second year. The structures they have put into place include vertically aligning a transparent set of academic standards, introducing habits of learning, developing strong flex schedules, and implementing four-year looped advisories, universal revision policies, and standards-based grading. They are a school that is constantly trying to figure out what works best for students and is sustainable for teachers.

Getting Results

Lindblom is seeing results with the introduction of proficiency-based learning structures and practices. These results include higher on-track indicators, increased GPA, more scholarships being awarded, and an increase of selective college admissions. Scholarships have increased from $15 million to $55.5 million. The rate of students going to highly selective colleges increased from 15 to 30 percent, including two students going to West Point and one to Stanford. As Principal Wayne Bevis explained, “These are life-changing colleges for minority and low-income students.”

Lindblom Before & After PBL Implementation
Data Point Before PBL Today with PBL
Freshmen On-Track 83% 99.3%
Unweighted GPAs 2.4 3.0
Highly Selective Colleges Acceptance     17% 31%
Scholarships $15,000,000     $55,500,000


It’s important to understand the context of these results. A recent report from the 
University of Chicago looked at the question of whether selective schools benefit low-income kids. Their finding was that neighborhood schools were a better choice for highly skilled kids because they were able to generate higher GPAs that led to more selective colleges. Lindblom challenged that finding by putting into place proficiency-based learning structures that led to students building their skills and earning higher GPAs. (more…)

The Illinois CBE Initiative: Overview and Reflections

April 17, 2017 by

The Illinois State Board of Education has announced the districts that will be participating in the 2017 Competency-Based Learning Pilot for high schools: Chicago, East St. Louis School District, Huntley Community School District, Kankakee School District, Peoria Public Schools, Proviso Township, Rantoul Township High School, Ridgewood High School District, Round Lake Area School, and Williamsfield Schools. A quick overview of the pilots are below.

This is an exciting initiative although I do have a few concerns:

  • Some (but not all) of the pilots seem too small. At CompetencyWorks we recommend school-wide strategies. There will always be roll-out strategies, of course, but the goal is to have school-wide as quickly as possible. Some of these pilots look more like exploration than transition strategies.
  • I hope that the IL districts will take the time to learn from others around the country. There is a lot known already about how to design high quality competency-based alternative schools and how to help students build the skills for becoming independent learners (such as starting with a growth mindset). Based on the descriptions, there is a lot of emphasis on clarifying the standards (not sure if the focus is still on delivering grade level standards or meeting students where they are), creating flexible learning environments, and expanding formal pathways rather than on building strong cultures of learning, helping students build skills for owning and managing their learning, and supporting teachers in building their skills to personalize instruction.
  • It’s not clear that these districts or their school boards have actually made a commitment to competency-based education or have engaged their communities in defining what they want for their students. We’ve learned that any district taking CBE seriously is going to want to roll back to feeder schools pretty quickly. Once districts shed a light on the number of students coming into high school with gaps both big and small in their foundational skills and take the responsibility to actually help them build those skills and not pass students on, they are going to go downriver to created competency-based middle and elementary schools.

Reviewing these schools got me to thinking: Given that competency education is expanding, and possibly expanding in more programmatic ways, it may be time for us to create a way to categorize CBE in terms of scope; robustness implementation (clear pedagogy, CBE structure, personalized approach, strong culture of learning, etc); and fidelity of implementation. I don’t think we can expect that a CBE initiative aimed at helping students be better prepared for specific career pathways is going to produce the same types of outcomes as a district-wide commitment to a proficiency-based diploma and personalized learning approaches.

Illinois CBE Pilot Participating Districts

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Assessing for Equity

April 14, 2017 by

Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) is one of the most interesting, well-designed, and, based on the convening I just attended this week, best-managed initiatives I’ve seen. Kudos to NGLC, 2 Revolutions, and Center for Innovation in Education!

ALP was designed to fund a wide-ranging set of initiatives about assessment as we begin to unlock it from accountability, where it has been held hostage for several decades, and return it to its rightful place in the learning process. The initiative is driven by a learning agenda that allows a series of very different projects to inform and inspire us – all exploring different aspects of assessment.

ALP Learning Agenda

The ALP Learning agenda is based on the following five questions:

  • How can assessment support a broader definition of student success?
  • What assessment practices most effectively empower students to own and advance their learning?
  • How can we most effectively build educator capacity to gather, interpret, and use evidence of student learning to enhance instruction?
  • How does assessment for learning inform broader contexts of accountability, policy, and system design?
  • How can we pursue equity through assessment for learning?

Each of these questions alone could be a full-blow learning agenda; together, they force us to take us a step back and really think about our assumptions underlying assessment. In listening to the conversations at ALP, a few ideas that have been percolating in the back of my mind jumped forward.

  • Assessment really does have a foot in both the cycle of learning and any efforts related to understanding the effectiveness of the education system itself (i.e., external accountability). The trick is to maintain its integrity within the cycle of learning while informing external accountability.
  • We talk about assessment as a noun when I’m becoming convinced it should be used as a verb. We should really be focusing on assessing as a process that students and teachers do to reflect on how students are learning and what needs to happen next. When we think of assessment as a noun it keeps us thinking about the tools of the trade, such as tests, when our primary need right now is to build our skills and clarify the processes used in gaining insight regarding what students understand, what they can do, and where there might be gaps, weak understanding, and misconceptions that need to be addressed.

Assessment for Equity

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Personalizing Learning at West Belden

April 13, 2017 by

This is the fourth post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

After the visit to Lovett Elementary School, our tour (sponsored by LEAP) headed over to CICS West Belden (K-8), a Distinctive Schools campus, for a quick visit. Ninety-five percent of students are low-income and more than 90 percent are Hispanic.

West Belden was an early adopter of personalized learning in Chicago, and the school is quickly becoming a national exemplar in the space with about seventy-five tours per year. Using a personalized approach supported by blended learning, they’re seeing substantial growth results.

To jumpstart their journey to personalized learning, West Belden competed and was selected for LEAP Innovations’ Breakthrough Schools program, which provides design support, access to national experts and innovative school models, and grant funding to school teams as they implement personalized learning school-wide. West Belden turned to personalization for three reasons: stagnation of student growth, desire for increased student engagement, and teacher readiness. West Belden is organizing their school around co-teaching, multi-age learning environments. They have two teams for first through third graders and two teams for fourth and fifth graders. Kindergarten and middle school all operate with single grade levels (with multi-age electives for middle school). Their definition of personalized learning includes: (more…)

Loving Learning at Lovett Elementary

April 11, 2017 by

Dr. Haney from Chicago Public Education Fund

This is the third post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

During my visit to Chicago, I joined a tour hosted by LEAP to Lovett Elementary School. It was a group tour, so I didn’t have the opportunity to dig in as deeply as I do with other school visits. Lovett is starting with personalized learning as their entry point. They have some of the things one would expect to see in a competency-based school but not all.

These are just a few highlights:

Lovett Elementary School vibrates with energy. Dr. LeViis Haney, principal of Lovett, explained, “A few years back, we came up with the tagline, ‘Love it at Lovett.’ The problem was the kids didn’t really love it at Lovett. So we asked ourselves, ‘How can we transform the environment so that kids really would love learning?’”

At the time, the school was very traditional, with thirty students “jammed” into classrooms with one teacher. Many of our students come “from down the hill,” referring to the income levels of the community. Nearly all students are on Free or Reduced Lunch. Many of our parents didn’t do well in school themselves and their opinions of schools and teachers were informed by their own less-than-positive experiences.

Haney described their previous top-down, compliance based-culture: “Everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing. Teachers were teaching the curriculum and kids were listening and receiving knowledge. Students went from one worksheet or workbook to the next. The problem was that all the instruction was just one-way without consideration of students’ needs.” The results were manifold: a high percentage of disciplinary office referrals and high suspension rates; teachers were isolated and only felt responsibility for their classrooms; technology integration was almost nonexistent and didn’t come with teacher training; and there were low rates of parent satisfaction and high rates of student apathy. (more…)

Leap Innovations – Learning Exponentially for Advancing Potential

April 6, 2017 by

This is the second post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago. Begin with CBE in Chicago.

Although only three years old, LEAP (Learning Exponentially for Advancing Potential) is already making a difference in the Chicago region and nationally. I had a difficult time finding LEAP Innovations in the old Chicago Merchandise Mart. Exiting the elevator, I followed the signs for the suite number. I found myself surrounded by very hip people half my age all dressed in black (although a few neon ties or scarves were to be seen), wandering around in intense conversations, eyes locked to their phones, or meandering dazedly toward the equally hip café in search of coffee. The receptionist informed me that I was, in fact, in the right place: LEAP is based within 1871, “the country’s largest tech incubator.” That explained it all.

The LEAP Framework

The most important thing to know about LEAP is its framework. It’s one of the best ones out there that can guide districts in understanding what a next generation model might look like. It’s powerfully written in that it focuses on the student experience.

The LEAP Learning Framework has four components:

  • Learner connected: Learning transcends location in relevant and valued ways, connected to families, communities, and networks
  • Learner focused: Understand each individual learner’s needs, strengths, interests, and approaches to learning
  • Learner demonstrated: Allow learners to progress at their own pace based on demonstrated competencies
  • Learner led: Enable learners to take ownership of their learning so that it can dynamically adjust to their skills, curiosity, and goals

You can listen in to CEO Phyllis Lockett and Chief of Staff Amy Huang talk about personalized learning on the Dell Foundation podcast. Chris Liang-Vergara, Chief of Learning Innovations, is leading the efforts to improve the framework. They are collecting feedback on the framework as we speak. A 2.0 version will be released soon.

Please Note: The third component (learner demonstrated) in LEAP’s framework focuses on flexible pacing. At CompetencyWorks, we don’t emphasize pacing. In fact, we believe that pace matters. We understand competency education to be a structure to replace the traditional structure. It is designed to make sure that students are successful. Providing students with more time really means providing them with more instructional support. 
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March CompetencyWorks Catch-Up

April 4, 2017 by

CBE in Chicago

by

This is the first post in a series covering my recent trip to Chicago.

Chicago perseveres. And it is paying off in education – most trend lines are going in the right direction. I started visiting Chicago to learn about their efforts to improve education over twenty years ago. It’s a huge city (the district has 516 district-run schools and 125 charters serving a student population with over 80 percent at an economical disadvantage) working within the context of historical racism that created rigid segregation. (Please put The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration on your reading list.) It’s obvious that these dynamics are still at play, limiting opportunity and sometimes breaking the social contract. Yet, there are hundreds of organizations and thousands upon thousands of educators who, day in and day out, are working to improve educational opportunity in Chicago.

In terms of competency-based education, there aren’t 1,000 CBE flowers blooming in Chicago…yet. There are shoots popping up in the city, school by school. I visited four schools on the move. Thanks to Amy Huang at LEAP and Alan Mather and Dakota Pawlicki from CPS’s Office of College and Career Success, I was able to visit Lovett Elementary, CISCS West Belden, Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy (Lindblom), and Benito Juarez Community Academy.

State Policy Context

In 2016, Illinois state legislature passed the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act, which included a competency-based pilot as well as an effort to begin the calibration process between graduation expectations in mathematics and freshman-year mathematics in higher education.

The IL Department of Education has launched the Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program for twelve districts to “replace high school graduation course requirements with a competency-based learning system.” The pilot only focuses on grades 9-12, although districts will quickly learn that they are going to want a full district system – otherwise there is a constant flow of students with big gaps in their learning, as students in the earlier years are passed on without ensuring they are mastering the fundamentals.

See articles on IL for more information: (more…)

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