Author: Chris Sturgis

Buyers Beware

October 7, 2015 by

CautionI am getting a bit frustrated with information management systems that claim to be competency-based. They describe themselves in a number of ways – as LMS and as tracking systems – and I’m sure the names will continue to develop as we get a better grasp on the necessary functionality.

I’ve been spending time over the past year watching demos, visiting vendor booths, and trying to be open-minded about the fact that maybe I don’t understand the full functionality. Most of the time I’ve been disappointed.

So before you even spend time looking at a system, ask these questions:

Can it easily show the standards students are working on that may be different than those specifically in the age-based grade level? This is problem number one – most of the systems I have seen continue to use courses as the organizing structure. They load up the course with the grade-level standards, usually from Common Core,  for eighth grade math or ninth grade ELA. But what if a student is working on sixth grade math skills or is advancing to eleventh grade writing? There needs to be a way, an easy way, to show where students are on their learning continuum and for teachers and students to get “credit” for mastering skills even if it isn’t in the grade-level standards. One of the products drawing in a lot of funding requires teachers to add all the standards into their course if they have students working at different levels as an extra, burdensome step. This is one of the core problems of the traditional system – focusing on the curriculum instead of the students. You do not want to institutionalize this with your new information system.

Can I get a student profile that shows me how a student is advancing in all of the disciplines? When a system is teacher-centric, it only focuses on what a teacher needs to know. If it is going to be student-centric, then you should be able to customize student profiles that help students, parents, and advisors reflect on pace and progress. (more…)

Update from Iowa

October 6, 2015 by
Sandra Dop

Sandra Dop

Thanks to Sandra Dop at the Department of Education for helping me understand how competency education is developing in Iowa. However, any errors are all mine. We’d love to hear from others involved in competency education in Iowa so that we gather different perspectives and insights into your efforts.

The Iowa state legislature opened the door to competency-based education three years ago when they eliminated the Carnegie unit as the only way to earn credit in Iowa high schools and instructed the Department of Education to establish the Iowa CBE Collaborative to investigate CBE and develop pathways for others to engage in the transformation. The Collaborative has five years to complete two goals: establish Iowa demonstration sites and develop a Framework for Transformation to a CBE System.

The first year or so was spent with the ten districts of the Collaborative exploring together what it means to be personalized and competency-based. They brought in speakers such as Susan Patrick, iNACOL; Rose Colby, New Hampshire; Laurie Gagon and Gary Chapin, the Center for Collaborative Education; Kim Carter, QED Foundation and founder of Making Community Connections Charter School; the Reinventing Schools Coalition, and yours truly. The state provided resources such as Delivering on the Promise, Community-Based Learning: Awakening the Mission of Public Schools, Make Just One Change, and Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.

Districts developed a variety of pilots that emphasized different aspects of competency education: personalized, blended learning, and transparency of learning goals, rubrics, and progress. For example, Cedar Rapids moved well beyond the pilot stage when they developed Iowa BIG, which takes advantage of the competency-based structure to support students in taking on big, interesting projects while ensuring they are building their skills. Mason City started with one sixth grade math teacher engaging in blended learning and are slowly and purposefully expanding. Van Meter is investing in project-based learning, using twenty-first century skills as the framework to guide student learning, and is also remodeling their building to provide open space for peer and student/teacher collaboration. Spirit Lake started with a two-week project-based January term (J-Term) in secondary, and Franklin Elementary in Muscatine did a two-week intersession to connect their students to community mentors and real world projects. Each district is finding its own way into the transformation. (more…)

Calling All Ideas for Re-Thinking High School

October 1, 2015 by

rethinkThe Super School Project website is super-cool. But I’m always a bit suspicious of the super-cool stuff because it can be more hype than substance. So I searched and searched until I found out that the folks behind this project are super-strong advocates for equity and serving our most vulnerable young people. It ends up that Russlynn Ali (Ed Trust and Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights in US Department of Education) and Geoff Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone are some of the brains behind the Super School Project.

The Super School Project is designed to get ideas flowing about what school could look like. It’s designed to help us imagine beyond what we know. And they have $50 million to fund teams that come up with super-duper ideas for new schools.

I sure hope some of you will form teams and put together new school ideas that start with a competency-based infrastructure. Even if you don’t, I think you will find that the resources on this site will be helpful to you in engaging school boards, community members, educators, and students. The quick briefs (scroll down this page to find them) about the Science of Adolescent Learning, Youth Experience and Aspiration, Students in the 21st century, School Mission and Culture, Teaching and Learning, Networks and Partnerships, and the super-important Student Agency and Engagement will all be helpful to you in your work to ramp up and begin the conversion to competency education.

They definitely need one of the briefs on competency education to help others learn to think beyond the wrappings of the time-based system.

Education Re-Imagined

September 29, 2015 by

pic 1Convergence, a national organization tackling big social issues, released a fantastic report titled Education Re-Imagined today. The report “seeks to accelerate the growth of learner-centered education” by highlighting pioneers. Convergence defines a learner-centered education as having five elements: competency-based, personalized, learner agency, socially embedded, and open-walled.

Many of the districts and schools promoted by Convergence are well-developed competency-based models, including Chugach School District (click here for CompetencyWorks case study), Iowa BIG (a visit to BIG by Maria Worthen will be published tomorrow), Lindsay Unified (click here for our case study), Making Community Connections Charter School (click here for our case study), Taylor County School District, and Summit Public Schools. Convergence’s profiles are short one pagers you can easily use with school board, community members, and parents.

The real power of this report is the advisory board, which includes John Jackson, President & CEP Schott Foundation; Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers; Becky Pringle, Vice President, National Education Association; Johnny Veselka, Executive Director, Texas Association of Schools Administrators; as well as principals, former superintendents, business leaders, and foundation leaders. You can use this report to demonstrate that these different perspectives and institutions are all “converging” on a common vision for education in America.

You might find parts of the reports helpful to your own communication efforts: (more…)

Innovation Springing Up in Springdale

September 28, 2015 by

Dr. Megan Witonski

When you talk to Dr. Megan Witonski, Associate Superintendent in Springdale School District (AR), it feels like she is just about to jump out of the phone, she is that full of passion, insightfulness, and the all-important we-are-going-to-make-this-happen-ness. I couldn’t but help imagine her with a superhero cloak.

Springdale, based in Northwest Arkansas, has 23,000 students, half of whom are English Language Learners. The district is entering their second year of implementation of a new 8-12 School of Innovation. The strategy doesn’t end with a new school – Springdale is personalizing their school district by having six of their schools approved (and the waivers that come with it) under the Arkansas Department of Education School of Innovation initiative. These six schools all provide students to the School of Innovation, led by principal Joe Rollins.

We’ve all seen districts start up new innovative schools but leave the others to stagnate. Not so at Springdale. For example, they found that advisories have been instrumental in the new School for Innovation in lifting up student voice, ensuring strong relationships are built with students, and helping to personalize instruction and support so they can be confident students are learning. As a result, they’ve already introduced advisories into the other middle and high schools.

What Inspired Springdale to Personalize: Witonski explained that there were several forces at work leading them to personalization. First, they wanted to make sure they were fully preparing their students for life after high school. They wanted to reach beyond the basic requirements for graduation. Second, with half of their student body learning English and needing help to fully build up their strength in the academic use of English, they needed a model that would ensure every student was fully engaged and able to get the support he or she needed.

Witonski said, “We were doing a great job for most students, but there is a population we need to seek out new approaches to reach and help build a wider set of skills. We began by looking at the most important ingredients for what students needed to be ready for college and careers. We wanted to make sure they had all the tools in their toolbelt to be successful. From there, we looked at what a structure could look like that would help them build those skills.” (more…)

Going Deeper with New Resources

September 23, 2015 by

It’s helpful to read all the papers that get released on competency education and other related efforts…but they never totally help you understand how to do something. Thus, I keep my eyes out for resources that allow you to go deeper more easily.

There are two new resources that I think could be helpful to educators – Making Mastery Accessible by reDesign and Illuminating Standards at the Center for Student Work. And if you know of others that you have found helpful to you in your work, please pass them on.

redesignMaking Mastery Accessible was developed in partnership with Springpoint and is supported by Carnegie Corporation as a follow-up to Making Mastery Work. It can help you navigate terminology and there are lots of resources from other schools so you can see how they have organized their schools, what they have developed as overarching competencies, and access lots of teaching resources. There are also tools developed by reDesign to help you think about your process of conversion. For example, there are a number of design tools including readiness, adoption process, and grading policies.

snakes are born this way

From the video Snakes Are Born This Way

Illuminating Standards is a project to help people see how they can use project-based learning and performance tasks to help students meet the standards set out in the Common Core. It’s been developed through a partnership with Expeditionary Learning and the Harvard Graduate School of Education (check out the home page, as there are a lot more resources available there). There are great videos about how to teach standards using project-based learning and student voice/choice. You will also find projects and examples of student work at each grade level.

Both sites have a lot of material, so you might want to dedicate an hour or have a team of people look through to find out what might be most useful in your work right now.

See also:

A Conversation with Buddy Berry in Eminence Kentucky

September 21, 2015 by

eminenceI had a chance to visit Kentucky last month when I participated in a meeting of the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative/University of Kentucky Next Generation Leaders Academy. Before I headed south to Hazard, I veered north to visit Eminence School District, one of the ten innovation districts.

Eminence is a small, rural district of about 850 students located forty miles east of Louisville. Superintendent Buddy Berry is a fourth generation alumni of Eminence. Five years ago, Eminence was facing declining enrollment and funding. Since they have started down this path to personalization, the tide has turned and enrollment has nearly doubled.

Eminence is taking a different path toward competency education than other districts I have visited, so for us to have a meaningful conversation, Berry and I first had to spend a bit of time unpacking the language of personalization, standards-based, competency-based, mastery, and proficiency, as they can easily become buzz words that lose their distinct meaning. Once we got ourselves comfortable with the language each of us was using, we had a tremendous conversation. Here are a few of the highlights.

Starting with Students: Berry explained that to launch their effort, they wanted to create a culture where staff listened to students and students had a sense of agency that they could shape the world around them. They organized focus groups of fifteen students and interviewed every student in the district, asking them to share what they didn’t like about school and what they wanted it to be. Based on the specific feedback they received—such as limited choice, no opportunity to feel really challenged, and lack of technology—the district made a number of changes: expanded electives, additional AP and honors courses, and laptops students could check out in the library.

Berry identified two important lessons learned through this process. First, student agency isn’t just about listening to students. After students realized they were being given a voice, they brought out every complaint, expecting the adults in the system to fix it. Thus they jumped from empowerment to entitlement. Eminence took a step back and set the expectation that everyone is part of the solution. Students could still bring forth problems, but they also had to bring ideas for how to solve them. (more…)

Competency-Based Learning Assessments Coming Soon to North Carolina?

September 16, 2015 by

NCWe were delighted to see that the North Carolina budget conference report published yesterday indicated their interest in competency-based education. As I understand it, there is no budget attached to their intent to transition to a “system of testing and assessments” for K12 that “utilizes competency-based learning assessments.” As you can see from the text from the report below, they are using the five part working definition of competency education to define the system.


SECTION 8.12.(a) It is the intent of the General Assembly to transition to a system of testing and assessments applicable for all elementary and secondary public school students that utilizes competency-based learning assessments to measure student performance and student growth, whenever practicable. The competency-based student assessment system should provide that (i) students advance upon mastery, (ii) competencies are broken down into explicit and measurable learning objectives, (iii) assessment is meaningful for students, (iv) students receive differentiated support based on their learning needs, and (v) learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include the application and creation of knowledge.

SECTION 8.12.(b) In order to develop the use of competency-based assessments for all elementary and secondary public school students in North Carolina in accordance with subsection (a) of this section, the State Board of Education is encouraged to evaluate the feasibility of integrating competency-based assessments for use in local school administrative units and as part of the statewide testing system for measuring student performance and student growth. The State Board may examine competency-based student assessment systems utilized in other states, including potential benefits and obstacles to implementing similar systems in North Carolina, and the relationship between competency-based assessments and innovative teaching methods utilized in North Carolina schools, such as blended learning models and digital teaching tools.

We’ll share more information on North Carolina’s interest in competency education as we gather it.

It’s Time for Mid-Course Corrections in K-12 Competency-Based Education

September 15, 2015 by

RocketOur reflection on how the field of competency-based education is developing has resulted in a number of emails raising other concerns and opportunities. It’s clear to me that there are at least four issues that need more attention and discussion…and likely mid-course corrections if we are going to get this right.

Failure is Not an Option: When Susan Patrick and I wrote the scan of competency-based education, we had used the title Failure is Not an Option to capture the spirit of competency education. That’s right, equity was at the very heart of competency education, where rather than have an open system in which students can be passed on with Cs and Ds (or even drop out before graduating), we would develop a closed system in which the system itself changes when students aren’t learning. However, a very silly organization that had trademarked the phrase Failure is not an Option sicced their lawyers on us, and we didn’t want to boogie with such a goofy gang of folks (the phrase has been used for a book about Apollo 13). So we used Success is the Only Option instead, but it’s just not as effective a phrase to get the big idea of what competency education really is. The result is that most conversations are about pace and flexibility rather than how we need to redesign the infrastructure and schools so that failure really and truly isn’t an option.

Mid-Course Correction: Start the conversation with what it will take for us to have every low-income student, every student with a disability, every child regardless of the color of their skin, and every student learning English for the first time learn, thrive, and soar. Pace and flexibility will come naturally out of that conversation. But if you start with flexible pace first, you miss the big idea of what competency education is all about. (more…)

It’s Time to Vote…So Someone Can Win $100,000 from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation

September 14, 2015 by

voteStudents at the Center is hosting the Lawrence W. O’Toole Award, “given out each year to an individual, organization, school or district exhibiting great leadership through innovation or courage in moving student-centered approaches to learning forward in New England. The winner will receive a $100,000 grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.”

It’s a great group of people, districts, and organizations doing great work. Two of the nominees are recognized for their work in competency education. Readers of CompetencyWorks will be delighted to see Sanborn Regional School District on the list of nominees for its leadership in competency-based education. (You can get a chance to talk with their leadership team directly at the pre-conference workshop Implementing Competency Education: Insights from Local Leaders at the iNACOL Symposium.) Molly Heath is a teacher at Burlington High School, and is recognized for her development of proficiency-based approaches within the classroom.

Two of the nominees specialize in engagement of youth – Pious Ali from Portland Empowered (who also specializes in community engagement) and Youth on Board. We know that this expertise is instrumental in re-shaping school districts to embrace the values of competency-based systems, including developing student agency. Shawn Rubin from the Highlander Institute is recognized for his expertise in blended learning. Finally, the Hartford Journalism & Media Academy has been nominated for its community partnerships and emphasis on deeper learning.

Time to cast your vote!

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