Category: Reflection

How I Learned What Proficiency-Based Teaching and Learning Really Means

May 9, 2016 by
Tony B and Wife

Tony Beaumier and Wife

It was bedtime on a winter evening in 2015. I was saying goodnight to my son Jay, a sixth-grader, when he asked me a startling question.

“Mom,” Jay said, “you give lots of presentations for your job, right?”

“Yes,” I answered.

Jay had a follow-up. “When you give presentations at work, what kind of feedback do you usually get?” It was not the kind of question I expected from an eleven-year-old. Although it reflected Jay’s thoughtfulness, it also reflected the journey that his middle school had been on for several years.

In the autumn of that year, after months of preparatory work, York Middle School had adopted a proficiency-based system. The teachers had worked together to identify a set of power standards and learning targets for each class, and a new reporting system had been adopted that would show each student’s progress towards these targets. The letter grades that had been used to describe student achievement were abandoned in favor of a new language – “Progressing,” “Meets,” and “Exceeds.” The school also instituted a new schedule which included a Targeted Learning Time every day, a block that students could use to seek extra help or make up work in areas where they were “Progressing” or where they had produced “Insufficient Evidence.”

For many parents, these changes were a disconcerting entry into unfamiliar territory; I, however, considered myself to have a strong understanding of proficiency-based practices. I had spent the previous few years as a teacher in a public high school that was implementing the same strategies, and I was currently employed as a school coach helping schools with various reform efforts, including the transition to proficiency-based and student-centered practices. So I figured I had mastered the change in worldview that proficiency-based education demands. It took my son to help me see how much I still had to learn. (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)

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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…)

Building a Movement from Within

April 26, 2016 by
Patrice Picture

Patrice Glancey

Within a system of standardized testing and teaching accountability based on student results, it’s understandable that teachers feel like they’re running an obstacle course instead of a classroom. And why wouldn’t they? Federal, state, and local standards are asking them to jump, dodge, and climb all while trying to cram years of content into 180 days. Add to that the paperwork and you get the burnout that we are seeing within our experienced teachers across the country.

It’s no surprise that when competency-education was introduced, veteran teachers rolled their collective eyes, closed the door, and continued on as usual: “This too shall pass.” However, it’s been seven years since New Hampshire included competency education in the Minimum Standards for Public School Approval. This change, which mandates students be evaluated on mastery of competencies, implies that this practice isn’t going away anytime soon. And to be brutally honest, we can’t go back to a one size fits all model; our test scores prove that it doesn’t work.

If I have learned anything about the implementation of competency-based learning over the past few years, it’s that the fire must start from within. Teachers are already feeling overwhelmed by top-down initiatives and they are beyond the point of being able to take in “another great idea.” Derek Sivers (2013) explains during his inspiring Ted Talk How to Start a Movement that every movement needs a leader to get it started. This leader can’t be administration, this leader needs to come from within. Further, Sivers explains that “a leader needs the guts to stand out and be ridiculed,” which not an easy task for most teachers. However, the best schools run on strong teacher leaders who have found success through working in environments that encourage them to take risks and promote “standing out.”

When I arrived at Newport School District this past summer, it resembled what I like to refer to as the “perfect storm”: a new set of administrators, a culture of teachers ready for change, and a budget requiring us to think outside the box. The competency framework had already been developed at various stages K-12 and the previous curriculum director had worked with the teachers to move in that direction. My job was to get the teachers back on track and build off of momentum that had already fizzled out. (more…)

Five Things for Big Districts to Think About

April 18, 2016 by

Purple FiveIt always happens. You finish a big report and then do a bit more research or have a few more conversations…and realize you didn’t get it quite right.

That’s what happened to me. I finished the report on Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders in June, and come November when I visited Lake County, Henry County, and Charleston County School Districts, I realized I would have organized that report somewhat differently if I’d had the opportunity to learn from bigger (these still aren’t the mega-districts) districts before I started writing.

Here’s the scoop – much of the first wave of districts making the transition to competency-based education have been small districts. They’ve been able to engage their communities at the district level. They often asked teachers to vote before they moved forward. It’s relatively easily to bring in the leadership from different schools to help co-design implementation. It’s been a powerful strategy for districts in communities without big employers, foundations, or intermediaries. But what about bigger districts? How do they think about getting going and scaling strategies?

Below are a few thoughts developed from talking with the incredible group of leaders from Lake, Henry, and Charleston Counties. I’m still learning, so my thinking is likely to continue to develop about how big districts can move forward toward personalized, competency-based education.

1. School Autonomy

In the same way we encourage schools to have developed PLCs before they get started, districts should evaluate how well they are doing in terms of enabling school autonomy. Is it okay for schools to try different strategies? How about if some move faster forward than others – are you going to hold them back? Can schools hire their own teachers? Create their own staffing patterns? Manage their own budgets and use resources as they see fit to meet student needs? Can schools design their own community engagement strategies?

Certainly, you do not want to make all the schools implement at the exact same pace – that’s the old way of doing business. And you certainly do not want to hold back schools that are ready and able to make the transition. Also the rationale and entry points may be different. Kathleen Halbig from Lake County explained to me that it is important to have community engagement at the individual school level because communities have different histories, different narratives, different concerns, and different appreciation about competency education.

2. Tight and Loose

Districts big and small will need to know what they want to hold tight and what is loose for schools to determine on their own. But do we know exactly what should be tightly held in a CBE district? Here are some starting thoughts. (more…)

An Opportunity in ESSA for Performance Assessment Literacy and Teacher Leadership

April 13, 2016 by

Ready for College and CareerThe hope of ESSA is that it will offer a rebalancing for our nation’s accountability principles by moving away from a fixation on high-stakes tests and sanctions. Many (for example, see iNACOL, KnowledgeWorks, and The America Forward Coalition) are advocating using the opportunity to foster greater innovation and implementation of learner-centered and personalized approaches to learning that focus on mastery in a competency-based environment. One key opportunity under ESSA is that seven states will be able to pilot new systems of assessment and accountability that, if designed well, have the potential to support strong, teacher-led practices that integrate teaching, learning, and assessment.

To achieve this outcome, districts will need to invest in their teaching staff, support purposeful inquiry to create cultures of growth, and think creatively about traditional barriers such as schedule and fixed marking periods. Before we know which states will follow New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) pilot or develop other models, states, districts, and schools can begin to lay the groundwork needed. Moreover, a good idea is a good idea, whether or not the federal government approves. Changes in practice and in the culture of teaching and learning take time. Even if a school or district doesn’t ultimately take part in one of the seven ESSA state-level pilots, investing in a strong local system of teaching and assessment aligned to principles of student-centered learning is a good idea. It allows the district to create schools that serve students well by preparing each and every student for success in college, career, and life.

Keeping Students at the Center (The Why)

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My Journey as a Self-Directed Learner

March 31, 2016 by

JVE-USCapitol-2There have been a number of recent studies completed that ask employers what their future employees need to know to be successful within their job. Their responses, although not surprising when you consider it, are not competencies that have been typically “taught” in schools. Overwhelmingly, these employers respond with things such as “Self-direction,” “Collaboration,” or “Ability to Communicate Effectively.” They follow up with, “We can teach them what they need to know to do their job, as long as they can do these other things.”

There has been a growing body of research related to the absolute necessity and import of these skills and dispositions within the overall learning process itself, with some suggesting that these skills are as important, if not more important, than the academic competencies we tend to focus on.

I consider myself a very self-directed learner at this point in my life, but that has not always been the case. Throughout my K-12 experience, I went to class, attained pretty good grades, and moved on to my next class. I was always able to communicate and collaborate effectively, yet never was really pressed to direct my own learning, as I moved from class to class, studying as I needed to and completing the requirements needed to go to college.

This inability to direct my own learning, however, caught up to me when I went to college. I was now expected and required to figure things out on my own, and I was unable to do that as effectively as I needed. It was no one’s fault but my own, but it resulted in learning a hard, yet incredibly valuable lesson. Ironically, I would learn this lesson from “teachers” and from an “education” that I still consider to be one of the most important ones I’ve ever had, and it didn’t occur in a school. (more…)

Dear Future Principal: Here is How You Can Positively Impact Student Learning

March 7, 2016 by

Time TravelThis past school vacation, I introduced my oldest two boys Brady and Cameron to the Back to the Future Trilogy, one of my all-time favorite movie series. Not surprisingly, they have now become obsessed with the fantasy of traveling back in time to connect with their younger counterparts to offer themselves advice on what their future might hold for them. Could they use this knowledge to improve their life? Could it help them avoid some major pitfalls? Like Brady and Cameron, I too dream about how my life might be different if I had knowledge of my future. What would I do differently at my school in my role as a high school principal, for example?

When I speak to school leaders about implementing a competency-based education model, I share a version of this story. In my version, I hypothesize about how the management of Blockbuster, one of America’s largest providers of home movie and video game rental services which reached its peak in 2004, would have played differently their decision to pass on buying Netflix for a bargain $50 million in 2000. “People will never want to order their movies online and wait for them to get mailed,” they might have said. “There will always be a need for a physical store where people can browse the movie and video game titles for themselves,” they might have added. Well, we all know how their story played out. If only they had knowledge about their future and how online subscriptions and streaming services would transform the media and entertainment sector in the first decade of the new millennium.

This year I will celebrate my sixth anniversary as Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire. Early in this role my administrative team and I imagined a new design for our school that would utilize a competency-based, personalized model to engage our students in learning tasks and performance assessments that accurately measure learning and mastery of competency. In the Back to the Future movie series, the main characters often sent themselves letters of advice in the future and in the past. Here is the letter that I would write today to my counterpart who was in his first year as a school leader in 2010 working with his staff on a new competency-education design: (more…)

When Red Bank Went to Lindsay

March 3, 2016 by

Lexington to LindsayMarie Watson, principal at Red Bank Elementary School, SC and recently profiled on CompetencyWorks, shared her reflections after visiting Lindsay Unified School District, CA with a team of her educators. I thought this would be interesting to share for a number of reasons, including taking a deeper look at what other educators note and see as important when visiting other schools. – Chris

Why Competency-Based Education is Important?

Dr. Tom Rooney, superintendent, was inspirational as he spoke about why Lindsay Unified moved to a performance-based system of learning (PBS). They call their system performance-based while others may refer to a competency-based system or a personal mastery system. To argue the difference with regard to implementation would be splitting hairs. Sometimes we spend too much time splitting hairs and arguing the points that, in the long run, don’t do anything except expend energy where it could be put to a measurable outcome.

Dr. Rooney described the experience of a new principal at Lindsay High School who was settling into his office space a few days after the high school graduation. As he was unpacking and deciding where to put his personal belongings in his new office, the secretary came in and said a parent was there to see him. Being new to the school, he couldn’t imagine why a parent wanted to see him, but with some apprehension, he told the secretary to bring him in. A father and his son walked into the principal’s office and the principal greeted them warmly and asked what he might do for them. The father put his son’s diploma on the desk and said, “This is what I want to talk about.” The principal saw the diploma, congratulated the young man, and asked what he planned to do next. His father, with a grave look of concern, replied, “That is precisely the problem. Will you please get that newspaper off your shelf?” The principal got the newspaper down and put it on the desk between them. The father said to the son, “Now, read that, son.” The graduate looked at the paper with his head hung ashamedly and there was an uncomfortable and tense silence. Then he replied, “Dad, you know I can’t read that.”

This father then relayed to the principal that his son had been cheated in “the system.” He had been put through the system and now had no hopes for any future because he could not read.

This riveting moment left the new principal with unrest. This father was right. Students had been pushed through the “system” of education and many had been robbed of their futures. At this time, about twelve years ago, the last ten years of valedictorians had attended college and had to take remedial courses. The system needed to be fixed.

Getting Started

Lindsay Unified started a proficiency-based system in 2009 with the ninth grade class. They met with all rising ninth grade students and held meetings with of their parents. They let them know that their students would be required to learn and that it may take less than four years or it may take more than four years…who said high school had to be four years anyway?

The district has been implementing this system of education for six years. They had been doing the work for well over ten years and they are still working out the details. (more…)

How Next Gen Learning Can Support Student Agency, Part 2

March 1, 2016 by

Students2This post is adapted from the Next Generation Learning Challenges‘ Friday Focus.

Happy Friday, everyone! Today I’m sharing with you more resources, information, inspiration, and awesomeness that came out of the December #NGLCchat on Student Agency. In this issue, I will tackle the ways that the next gen learning strategies of blended learning, competency-based learning, and project-based learning can support student agency. It’s based on what I learned from the guest experts and chat participants.

(The last Friday Focus synthesized what student agency is and what it looks like.)

Blended Learning & Student Agency

The participants view blended learning as a strategy that leads to student agency when it gives students choices about what, where, when, and how they learn. Blended learning leads to student agency when it…

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