Author: Chris Sturgis

Casco Bay High School: The What and HOW of Learning

November 23, 2015 by
From the Casco Bay HS Website

From the Casco Bay HS Website

This post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine. This is the third of a four-part look at Casco Bay High School. Read Part One for Tips and Takeaways and Part Two for Learning as Exploration

Casco Bay High School in Portland has developed a strong standards-based grading system built upon several principles (below). It seems to me that it would be a good exercise for any and all schools to be able to identify the principles that drive their grading, reporting, and extra support/extra time policies. Can you imagine trying to do that for A-F, time-based systems?

Principle: Grades should clearly communicate what students know and are able to do in each class.

Practice: We report on student mastery of specific skills and concepts within a course (called “course standards”); traits like participation and effort are reported on separately.

Principle: Students should have multiple opportunities to show what they know and can do.

Practice: We ask students to build a body of work to demonstrate their mastery of each course standard.

Principle: Schools should support students in acquiring all of the essential knowledge and skills in a course versus just a portion of it.

Practice: To earn credit, all of the course standards must be met.

Principle: Academic knowledge and work habits are both important to acquire for college and life.

Practice: Students receive both academic grades (based on course standards) as well as habits of work (HOW) grades for each class.

Principle: If students are working hard (as shown by their HOW grade) to meet standards, they deserve more time and support to learn the material.

Practice: Students receive additional time after the term has ended to meet course standards if they have a “3” or above in Habits of Work.

Principle: All students should have the opportunity to excel.

Practice: Achieving “with Honors” is an option for all students in all courses.

Principle: Regular communication with families about student progress supports deeper learning.

Practice: We formally report progress ten times a year through report cards, progress reports, and conferences. Infinite Campus, our online grade book, is updated frequently by teachers and is always open to parents.

Principle: Learning cannot be averaged: students need time to practice and learn from mistakes.

Practice: We determine trimester grades based on trends, and take more recent performance into account. Trimester grades reflect a student’s current level of achievement.


Casco Bay High School: Learning as Exploration

November 18, 2015 by

MapThis post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine. This is the second of a four-part look at Casco Bay High School. Read Part One for Tips and Takeaways. You can also read about Casco in Making Mastery Work and Inside Mastery Based High Schools: Profiles and Conversations.


From start to finish of my day at Casco Bay High School, the overwhelming feeling was one of fun. Or perhaps it is really an all-out pervasive joy of learning. I saw it in the students gathering together in the Great Space before the start of the school day, the group conversations among students, the discussions with teachers, and the knock-me-over-I-was-laughing-so-hard game of Your Greatest Fan with the staff and visiting educators from Chicago at the end of the day. (You can get a taste of FUN at the video Movin’ On Up – the celebration when students get accepted to their first college.)

Before I dive into describing the proficiency-based system (remember Maine uses the term proficiency-based), it is important to understand the overarching design of Casco. It’s not easy, as Casco is what I described as an integrated model. The pieces all work together – take away one element and it will have direct implications on the rest of the model.

1. Size and Student Population

Sharing space with the Portland Arts and Technology High Schools, Casco serves, at its maximum capacity, 400 students with about 50 percent FRL. It is one of three public high schools in Portland and has a large number English Language Learners, many of whom are from the over ten African countries for which Portland serves as a refugee settlement city. With a waiting list, students are admitted to Casco based on a lottery weighted for Free and Reduced Lunch, special education, and ELL. Given that refugee families are in the midst of many changes as they create new lives, mobility is an issue. In addition, Casco accepts students in all grades throughout high school.

2. Expedition, Community, and Adolescent Development

Casco is an Expeditionary Learning school with an emphasis on achievement, character, and meaningful work. (If you haven’t visited it yet, check out the Illuminating Standards that has been developed by a partnership between Expeditionary Learning and Harvard Ed School.) Again, Casco is so integrated that any activity is designed to build on all three components.

Expedition: The concept of expeditions, or learning as an exploration, is constantly drawn upon throughout the school. Expeditions, all of which are interdisciplinary, can take place within the school, on Cow Island for outdoor learning, or in the community to look at topics such as sustainable foods. Each class has a major question guiding their year. This year, sophomores are exploring Africa Rising, juniors are looking at income equality, and seniors are learning about the Arab world with a final project of turning the school into a museum so others can learn as well. Freshmen and seniors have Quests, and the Junior Journey is a week of investigation, community service, oral histories, and video production on inequity in an American city such as New Orleans, NYC, or Biloxi. Here is a video about expeditions created by Edutopia in the Schools That Work series.

Another form for students to explore their passions, the world, and their own perspective on the world is through intensives. These week-long opportunities may include learning to swim, learning conflict resolutions skills, or embarking on career exploration. (more…)

Charleston South Carolina: Balancing Competency Education with Student-Centered Culture

November 17, 2015 by

CCSDI’m on my way to Charleston School District in South Carolina today after great site visits to Lake County in Florida and Red Bank Elementary in Lexington, SC. I can’t tell you how excited I am to see competency education growing with a deep grounding in personalized learning and student agency. After I finish getting everything I learned in Maine and Philly written up, I’ll be sharing everything about this trip through the Southeast.

However, I just have to share Charleston’s description of personalized learning right now because it is so strong. For those who work in the online learning world, I hope that you will think about this carefully because when a school embraces this philosophy, online learning can be easily integrated as a powerful tool to support personalized learning, but not as the source of personalized learning itself.

Personalized Learning in Charleston County School District is built upon the concepts of Competency-Based Instruction and a Self-Directed Learning environment.


Competency-Based Instruction

  • Students have an effective teacher who meets them where they are, fills their learning gaps and accelerates learning
  • Data, rather than seat time, is used to determine when a student is ready to move to the next concept
  • Students work with their teacher to revisit standards that haven’t been mastered
  • Students produce evidence of learning to determine proficiency
  • Learning is transparent for all students. They know what they have learned, what they are currently learning and what they will learn next
  • Students take responsibility for their learning, thereby increasing their engagement and motivation
  • Frequent formative assessments drive instruction; summative assessments are given when a student is ready
  • Focus is on student learning, not on test scores or grades
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support and feedback based on their individual learning needs and formative data



Calling All CompetencyWorks Readers


SixWe need your help! Although many of you were at the iNACOL Symposium, not everyone could make it. So please take ten minutes to answer six questions. By gathering the voices from all over the nation, we can build on our strengths, make sure we are doing the best job we can in curating resources, draw on knowledge in our networks, and make sure that we are focusing on the things you think are important.

  • What is your elevator speech?
  • What is your biggest AHA! (i.e., insight) about competency education and its implementation?
  • Who have you talked to or listened to who has influenced your thinking? (The question is based on the iNACOL Symposium, but don’t worry about that. We want to find out who is making a difference.)
  • What issue or topic do you think needs us to direct our collective knowledge and creativity as a field to figure it out so that we can unleash the full potential of competency-based education?
  • What resource, paper, video, podcast, or blog have you found particularly helpful that you would recommend for those just starting out on the path to competency-based education?
  • Educators, are you using an information system to support tracking student progress and standards-based grading? If so, what product and what are the strengths and weaknesses of the product?

Just go to Getting Smart’s Voices Hub and you’ll see a link for CompetencyWorks. Or you can go directly to the questions by clicking here.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Casco Bay High School: Tips and Takeaways

November 16, 2015 by

Casco Bay HSThis post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine. This is the first of a four-part look at Casco Bay High School.

I am so glad I had a chance to visit Casco Bay High School. I learned so much, and there is so much more to be learned from the incredible set of educators. I know the visit will continue to influence my thinking and understanding of proficiency-based learning along the way. Thanks to all the staff and students for sharing their stories and insights.

Two Big Takeaways

1. Putting it All Together: One of the things you can’t help asking yourself while visiting this school is, “How do they do all of this?”

I think the answer can be found in a few things. First, they are very clear about what they want for students and the strategies that will work best to get them there. Everything feels intentional and driven by clear principles. Second, there is a strong culture of learning. As one staff person said, “We are always under construction. We are always trying new things.” Third, there are strong rituals. Those rituals reinforce the culture, reinforce values, and often contain a number of activities wrapped together. Fourth, principal Derek Pierce uses a distributed leadership model. He is very comfortable engaging others in decision-making. A teacher remarked that few decisions are made by Pierce without substantial input. In fact, when they started the transition to proficiency-based learning, all the teachers were part of the leadership team. Now that they are operational, the leadership team is smaller, with one representative from each of the teams and one at-large representative. However, they still use protocols to make decisions that ensure input and participation. Finally, they all share in the joy of learning.

2. The Power of the HOW: Casco has created a balance of a number of principles that have contributed to a sophisticated use of HOW (habits of work). Just think about it – Habits of Work are HOW we learn. First, they are dedicated to making sure students can participate (a good principle for anyone interested in creating an equitable culture). Second, they want to make sure students have ownership over their learning and have the skills to succeed. Third, they want to make sure everyone succeeds.

In ensuring students can participate and get more time for learning, they each have to demonstrate a 3 on the Big 3. The focus is on making sure students are putting in the effort, not whether they have mastered every skill or standard.

This got me to thinking: The GPA is supposed to be a powerful predictor of college success because it indicates that students put in the effort. It’s not much of an indicator of what you know, as schools have offered such a wide variety of content in their courses. Couldn’t we replace the GPA with the HOW? Couldn’t a 3 or more indicate that you have built the necessary skills to be an independent learner? (more…)

Non-Linear Progressions and Culture of Safety at Merit Prep

November 10, 2015 by
Sajan George

Sajan George

This post is the second on my visit to Merit Prep as I try to capture a couple of the big huge takeaways. (Click here for an overview of Merit Prep.) I really believe that schools like Merit Prep and Building 21 – schools that are student-centric, competency-based, and exploring how to use technology to support the learning process – are opening the door to models that will work for our most vulnerable students. I believe they are at the forefront of turning around education in communities shaped by a concentration of poverty. We aren’t there yet, but after visiting these schools, it’s as if a path opened up in my mind about where we are going. Being able to climb up and outside of the traditional box is the power of innovation, especially when it is designed around the needs of students.

Catching Kids Up Through Non-Linear Progressions

During my site visit, we had a fascinating conversation about how to respond to students who have huge gaps in their skills when they enter a school or have had difficulty keeping a pace that allows them to complete their work for a course. This is no different than a traditional high school when students enroll with elementary school skills, or when ninth graders don’t achieve all their credits, thereby creating a pool of over-age, undercredited students who need special strategies to help them complete high school.

In a competency-based school, the problem has to be dealt with directly, as we don’t pass students on with Cs or Ds. Our discussion touched on creating forcing functions early in the year so students must complete their work before being able to do something else, creating learning experiences that allow students to “double up on standards,” and establishing “competency or standards recovery” mechanisms that can be accessed throughout the year.

Sajan George, Founder and CEO of Matchbook Learning, explained that they are making a pivot on how they think about missing standards. Remember, they are a school that is designed to have students working at their own level. He said that it doesn’t always make sense to have a seventh grader who is starting at the fourth grade level to follow a linear path. He suggested that we need to think about non-linear paths that will produce greater growth, be engaging to students (can you imagine being a seventh grader who has to work through three years of standards just to get to grade level?), and be instructionally sound.

Matchbook has been looking at Jeff Baumes’ work on charting the dependencies of mathematical standards. (Please go to link before reading on.) Baumes has developed a way to visualize the prerequisite knowledge for any math standard and to look at a specific standard to see what other standards are built on that knowledge. When you move your cursor to a standard it turns green. Those standards that it depends on turn blue and those that are dependent on that standard turn red. (more…)

Merit Prep: Where Students Feel Safe to Learn

November 9, 2015 by
Ron Harvey

Principal Ron Harvey

This is the first post taking a look at Merit Prep. For part two, visit Non-Linear Progressions and Culture of Safety.

I am deeply grateful for the time the team at Merit Preparatory Charter School spent explaining their school, the model, their sparkling information system, their school culture, how to accelerate learning for students who have not been previously well-served by public education, and what they are learning about turning around schools. This post will be followed by another with some of my big takeaways.

Thanks to Laura Shubilla, a long-time friend, colleague, and co-founder of Building 21, for joining me on a site visit. Listening to her perspective helped me better understand Merit Prep, reminding me how important it is to do joint site visits.

The Challenge

What is truly amazing about Merit Prep and the Matchbook Learning approach is that they are pushing hard to create a personalized, competency-based, blended model. And they are doing it with the most student-centered starting point…making sure kids feel loved, cared for, and safe. They are also doing it in an area of concentrated poverty in Newark, NJ, where kids face multiple challenges day in and day out. Matchbook began working to turn around Merit Prep last year, thus they are still in the process of reshaping the culture and expectations while simultaneously working to get the design of the school just right.

The Team

I met Sajan George at the Competency-Based Pathways Summit in 2011. I was instantly impressed by his commitment to finding solutions for our lowest performing schools in our most economically challenged cities. Soon after the summit, he launched Matchbook Learning, and I’ve been watching its development ever since. What was interesting in meeting the team of Merit Prep staff (Ron Harvey, Principal and Jason Lewis, Director of Culture) and the Matchbook Learning leadership team (George; Nithi Thomas, Director of Instructional Technology; John Polk, Chief Operating Officer; Laurance Specht and Tiffany McAfee, Directors of Personalized Learning; Al Motley, Chief Technology Officer; and Dr. Amy Swann, Chief Learning Officer) is that the same level of leadership, courage, commitment, and love of children is held by all. It was such a treat to be in a room of warm, brave-hearted people. As I told them, I think they are going to be leading the way to help us transform schools in big, broken-down districts.

Culture of Safety

The Merit Prep team takes culture-building very seriously. They start by ensuring that students feel safe and cared for, and that learning is at the forefront of any decision. Given that they are introducing an entirely new set of values, there is also an emphasis on high expectations and being “firm, fair, and consistent” to rebuild trust and respect. I’ll write more about their school culture in the second post on their school. (more…)

What Role Can/Should Assessment Play?

November 7, 2015 by

aflThis is a resource alert!

The Center for Innovation in Education (CIE), in partnership with Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) and with 2Revolutions as lead design partner, launched the Assessment for Learning Project with the release of a Request for Learning (RFL) for an initial round of grants totaling about $2M (made possible with the generous support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). The initiative will award twelve to fifteen grants for educators to fundamentally rethink the roles that assessment should play to advance student learning and to improve our K-12 education system.

The term “Request for Learning” was an intentional choice to signal that the effort strives to reflect the innovative thinking and action expected from applicants in order to embody the principles of formative assessment and support continuous learning, personalization, and innovation. Although the initial number of grants will be relatively small, this is a tremendous opportunity to harness the wisdom of educators and practitioners to gain a broader understanding of the innovative assessment work already underway and will also inform the next phase of this work. For more detail about the Request for Learning, an overview is provided below and all materials can be found on the NGLC website. Proposals must be submitted by December 10, 2015.

This blog has been adapted from resources prepared by NGLC and 2Revolutions.

It All Starts with Strong PLCs

November 2, 2015 by

BarbellJonathan Vander Els, principal at Memorial Elementary School, wrote a thoughtful piece about the power of professional learning communities in transitioning to competency education for ALLTHINGSPLC. In it, he described how the key questions guiding PLCs have shaped the progress of Memorial in re-tooling its system to ensure students are successful.

1.) What is it we expect our students to learn?

  • Our teachers are now crystal clear about what students are expected to know and demonstrate. This should never be a mystery, and through backwards design planning, the outcomes for any unit are established and made clear to learners.
  • Our teachers’ increased understanding of competencies ensures a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Our district has high-leverage competencies that guide the learning for our students. Underneath the umbrella of the competencies and within the assessment itself, teachers identify the leverage standards that will be assessed within each assessment.

2.) How will we know when students have learned it?

  • Team-designed rubrics outline precisely what students are expected to know. Competency is the ability for students to transfer their learning in and across content areas. Therefore, our teachers provide real-world problems and cross-curricular assessment opportunities for students to demonstrate this transfer of knowledge to other applicable situations.
  • Team-created common assessments are the driving force behind gathering data specific to each student’s progression of learning. This information is then collaboratively analyzed to inform the next instructional steps and learning pathways for each student.

3.) How will we respond when some students do not learn? (more…)

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