Category: Reflection

Stop the Nitpicking and Other Things We Are Doing that Are Undermining Our Efforts to Advance Competency-Based Education

October 13, 2015 by

Lock“We don’t share the details of our work anymore.”

I was more than a bit shocked and stopped taking notes. I had heard from a national organization that districts weren’t sharing very much information anymore. I had assumed that the leading districts were working so hard to get their systems right or that examples of their competencies, rubrics, and policies had been pulled off their websites because they were undergoing a revision process.

This very honest superintendent told me they didn’t share their artifacts and the details of their system anymore because so many visitors to his district nitpicked. They’d look at their standards and question why something was set as a kindergarten goal rather than second grade. Or they’d question whether something was really written to be measurable. Or they’d say these are written at lower levels of rigor – why aren’t you assessing for higher order skills?

He explained that their teachers work hard and are in a nonstop learning trajectory. They have been absorbing and transforming to personalized learning and classrooms, building growth mindsets for themselves and their students while shaking off the practices of the fixed mindset, learning about student agency, creating more opportunity for voice and choice in the school and the classroom, becoming comfortable with the Common Core State Standards, figuring out new ways to grade using standards, learning how to build relationships with students that have the strength to address behavioral issues (since points aren’t used as much), strengthening formative assessment and learning to provide more productive feedback, strengthening their instructional strategies, exploring how to use educational technology (including how to use data from adaptive software)…the list goes on. They aren’t prepared for the nitpicking by visitors who have rarely had experience themselves in trying to convert a district to a personalized, competency-based approach. They find it demoralizing and counter-productive. So they’ve just quit sharing.

His honesty helped me to understand the problem. And it sparked me to write about the other things that state policy leaders, district leaders, and educators have told me can be problems created by national organizations. (more…)

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 their 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…)

Why Making Meaning Matters for Student Ownership

October 5, 2015 by

EmpanadaThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on September 12, 2015. 

This weekend I decided to make empanadas. I looked to my Chilean cookbook for inspiration, but ultimately determined lard, hard boiled eggs, and raisins did not belong in my version. So, I started to play. I peeked inside the refrigerator to see what ingredients might work, scanned the pantry for additional items with complementary flavors and began mixing, chopping, measuring.

At some point during my experiment, as I was standing there making the empanada dough from scratch, rolling it out, kneading it, and forming it into a meal, I felt this sense of pride and satisfaction settle in over me. I wasn’t just a consumer; I became a creator. I didn’t just heat up a Hot Pocket, I made one. And it felt good.

Learning From Scratch

I think kids feel the same way. Our students learn best when they make the meaning, when they begin to own the learning. When students start to control things like pace, product, even the content, they make more meaning from scratch.

We are simply settling for a shadow of what learning can be when we, as teachers, provide answers too soon and grant little time for students to wonder and make.

Our students need to see-think-wonder their way through new ideas and concepts instead of being told the right answer. They need to use real tools, pull back the bark and discover what is hiding underneath.

Our students need us to stop taking over, grabbing the mouse, the iPad, the pencil, or the paintbrush to show them how it’s done.

Our students need time to think, explore, and be puzzled–time to not know on their journey to knowing. Time to struggle and experiment and test hypotheses.

Our students need to know we, as their teachers, value thoughtful questions over answers. (more…)

What I Learned From My Daughter’s First “C”

September 22, 2015 by

CThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on September 15, 2015.

It’s no secret that I’m an advocate for competency-based learning models. I’ve gone on the record lots of times as just that. I shared my thoughts on Montessori education as one of the original competency-based models and until very recently, I had two daughters who were learning in competency-based, Montessori learning environments.

This year our third grade daughter transitioned from the only formal learning environment she’s ever known–a no-grades, no-desks, pick-your-own-work Montessori classroom–to a gifted, STEM magnet in a large traditional urban school district.

We really sweated the transition, but it’s been mostly a breeze for us and our daughter. She bounces off to school every day, even though she has to get up more than a full hour earlier. She dutifully and cheerfully does her nightly (much more challenging) homework. She tells stories about how funny her teachers are and every day she mentions a new friend. She’s learning new things in new ways and even described her new school as “more like a Learning Camp” than a classroom.

In other words, all signs point to “happy, thriving, learning child.” So, why on earth did I let one grade, her first “C,” totally shift my perception of how she was doing in her new school? (more…)

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…)

Most Likely to Succeed is Almost a Great Film

September 3, 2015 by

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Class in language” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1904.

I had the chance to watch the film Most Likely to Succeed recently. It is a fantastic film in so many ways and is going to be so helpful in our efforts to engage parents and students…in some communities. It is also a deeply disturbing film in its white-washing of history, raising questions about the purpose of the filmmakers.

No matter what, the film is a great way to engage communities, parents, and students in conversations about personalization, the purpose of education, traditional grading practices, and how college admissions processes shape our high schools (there is a great scene where a student says they would rather learn how to ace a test than learn). It will be invaluable in engaging parents and students who are successful in the traditional system (i.e., that group of students who are highly motivated by adding another tenth of a point to their GPA).

The film challenges the design of the traditional education system in today’s information-over-loaded world and makes the case that in today’s rapidly changing digital economy, many of the jobs college-educated young adults might seek are disappearing. It argues that those so-called soft skills of problem-solving, creativity, and collaboration are what is needed. It does a beautiful job at explaining the development of the education system from Horace Mann’s trip to Prussia and the roots of militarism of our school system, which resulted in organizing schools by age, subject, and ability. It also explains how the Committee of Ten created the way we organize academic subjects one hundred years ago that still remains today.

Focusing in on two students at High Tech High, it then explores how robust project-based learning helps develop those important skills — leadership, analysis, creativity, time management/professional responsibility and collaboration. The juxtaposition of the filmmaker’s daugher being asked to persevere through math classes when she doesn’t understand the content and isn’t receiving adequate support and that of helping a student whose vision is larger than his skills persevere through months of working to complete a project is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant!

My only concern with the educational message of the film is that it confuses fact with knowledge, thus under-valuing deep knowledge of the disciplines. Yes, more facts than we can possibly absorb are at our fingertips in the digital age, but understanding and being able to use mathematical and scientific concepts are equally important to any soft skills. If you use the film to engage your community I’d be prepared to have someone with high levels of credibility be able to speak to this issue so folks don’t walk away thinking that students don’t need to develop academic knowledge.

My big concern with the film is its shocking whiteness. In telling the story of the traditional education system, the filmmakers used historical clips of students in schools, people at work in fields and in factories, and an “average” family in the 1960s – all with white people. It feels almost tribal in its approach, as if the filmmakers can’t see any world other than a Caucasian one. All the experts interviewed are white, as well. They do a bit better later on in the film when it is based in High Tech High, but by that time I had started wondering: Is this film really just for white people and what they need to do in order to maintain their economic advantage? (more…)

What’s More Important, High Test Scores or Self-Direction?

September 1, 2015 by

Child StudyingThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on August 17, 2015.

The education technology discussion is fraught with false dichotomies. One that I find particularly troubling is the false choice between improving test scores and preparing for life and work in the 21st century.

The argument on one side is that the United States is falling behind other countries with evidence offered such as our 30th place showing in math on the PISA test. In order to be competitive, we need to increase our scores on such international benchmarks. To achieve this we should:

  • Shift the focus in schools from what content is presented by teachers to what content has been learned by students. In order to ensure that focus changes, teachers must be held accountable for actual student test scores rather than just presenting the curriculum.
  • Ensure students have technology available for digital learning and collect data for real-time feedback to focus more on the needs of each individual student.
  • Use technology and blended learning to enable students to move at their own pace and progress based on mastery rather than seat time.
  • Personalize learning by providing an optimal path for each student through the core content they need to know for college.

On the other side, the argument is that the focus on test scores is unbalanced and has replaced meaningful learning with the rote memorization of facts and procedures with little critical thinking involved. This has unintended consequences of hampering great teachers’ ability to teach, while driving the best out of the profession while failing to improve test scores. The reasoning is that such rote decontextualized pedagogy is ineffective because it is irrelevant to students and gives them no context in which to place the new information in order to both understand it more deeply and remember it more effectively. This leaves students unprepared for college, but more importantly unprepared for a constantly evolving workplace. To prepare students effectively we need to: (more…)

From Formative Assessment to Tracking Student Mastery: The Road to Competency-Based Instruction

August 20, 2015 by
Megan Mead

Megan Mead

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on July 16, 2015.

Once upon a time, classrooms were filled with students who were expected to learn the same thing on the same day. Students rushing to their seats at the first sound of a bell, sitting quietly, taking notes, practicing independently (struggling silently), proving understanding through end of unit tests, and awaiting for their instructors cue to move forward. If you walk into the classrooms of today, you may still see this scene. BUT, in more and more classes across the country, you will see something very different; you will see classrooms that are dynamic and increasingly next gen, classrooms that are breaking the mold in an effort to make the learning experience one that is both personalized and engaging for students.

Fundamental to competency-based learning and any attempt to personalize is mastery tracking, fed by formative assessment. In Formative Assessment to Initiate Learning, we touch on the idea that formative assessment is an ideal starting point on the path to personalization. Next, we dive into why using these results to track mastery is so important.

Learning Productively

Personalization and a competency-based model lead to learning more productively. Looking at a traditional school day, how much time is wasted? How much time is spent on efforts that do not link to directly to instruction? This is not to assume that non-academic events are all a waste of time, this is often where life skills are experienced and memories are made, SO lets focus on the actual instructional time, of instructional time, how frequently are all kids getting the right subject at the right time with the right support?

Realistically, 5% – 10% a typical day is spent on instruction that is targeted. What if we flip that so that learning at the right level in the right the way occupies the majority of the day? Then we optimize customization, increase productivity, maximize motivation, boost persistence — all while radically improving achievement.

Why Track Student Mastery

If we want all kids to reach higher standards faster, then learning productivity is key. We must understand who our students are as thinkers and where they are at academically in order to maximize a sequences of experiences that are tailored for them. If we can do this well, then we can get kids to succeed at higher levels. At the core of this is tracking student mastery. And here are 10 reasons why: (more…)

A Reflection on the Field of Competency Education

August 19, 2015 by

GraphEach summer, CompetencyWorks takes a bit of time to reflect on where we have come from, accomplishments, and emerging issues. Our advisory board is absolutely instrumental in this process, helping us to understand nuances and variations across states.

Below are the highlights of our discussion this year. It’s long, but I think sharing in detail is worth it, especially as each week people contact us seeking help in understanding the field. Please, please, please – we would love to hear your insights and understanding of where we have come from and what we need to think about in terms of advancing competency education. It’s the richness of multiple perspectives that allow us to be as strategic as possible.

I. How Are We Doing in Terms of Expansion?

When we wrote the first scan of the field in 2010, there were only pockets of innovation across the country, each operating in isolation. Five years later, eighteen states are actively pursuing competency education through a range of strategies including proficiency-based diplomas (ME, NH, CO, AZ), integrating competency education into the education code (VT, NH), innovation zones (KY, WI, CT), pilots (OR, IA, OH, ID), and task forces in partnership with districts (SC, WY, OK, HI, DE). Federal policymakers are now familiar with competency-based education in the K12 and higher education sector, with ESEA policy discussions considered pilots for new systems of assessments.

Districts are converting to competency education across the country, with or without state policy enabling the change. In addition to the northern New England states, which have strong state policy initiatives, districts are converting in AK, AR, CA, CO, CT, FL, GA, MI, and SC.

New school models are developing that push beyond the traditional organization of school to high levels of personalization, including those at Summit Public Schools, Building 21, Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, Boston Day and Evening Academy, Making Community Connections Charter School, EPIC North, and Bronx Arena. Schools for the Future has recently announced record-breaking results in its first year of operation.

Some people think the rate of expansion is too slow. Personally, I think we need to really “get it right” – robust competency-based structures, high levels of personalization so our most historically underserved populations of students are thriving, upgraded instruction and assessment aligned to higher levels of knowledge, and effective use of online learning – before we worry about the speed of expansion. Let’s practice what we preach. We are in the midst of huge learning as we deconstruct the traditional system and put into place a more vibrant, personalized system, and it may take us a bit of time. It took us well over 200 years to create the traditional system, and its rituals are deeply rooted into our own personal lives. I don’t think it is a problem if it takes us a few more years to get it right.

The Results from our Early Adopters: The early adopters are now three to four years into implementation (with the exception of Chugach School District, which has been using a competency-based model for nearly two decades). Many have developed the systemic framework within a traditional agrarian, course-based model, which means that at first glance, it appears there is little innovation…until one looks deeper to see the benefits of greater personalization, student agency/voice/choice, consistency of proficiency scales across the school, and greater responsiveness to students who are struggling. (more…)

What I Am Learning from Anthony Kim

August 14, 2015 by
Instructional Models

Click Image to Enlarge

Sometimes I’m a little slow.

I loved the ideas that Anthony Kim, CEO of Education Elements, put together in his post Interested in Innovative School Models? What to Consider to Make Sure They Are Successful – merging together 1) depth of learning, 2) acceleration of learning, and stages of student independence or student agency.

But it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to hear Kim present at the New Hampshire Educators Summit last week (click here for video) that I actually started to really comprehend what this all means. And honestly, my guess is that these ideas are so profound that I’m just starting a journey of understanding what this means for competency-based schools. (I might call these types of inquiries a “learney” – a journey of learning.)

One of my huge pet peeves is that a lot of writing about blended learning only talks about the tech part and fails to provide an overall picture. Rarely does it talk about what is needed for blended learning  to address the tremendous change that is happening with the introduction of the Common Core – moving from a focus on recall and comprehension, the first two levels in most knowledge taxonomies, toward the higher (and deeper) levels of analysis and application. Much of the knowledge base on blended learning focuses on models, products, and the necessary tech infrastructure….but not about what needs to be happening the rest of the time in the classroom to provide deeper learning.

Kim did not fall into this trap. Instead, he illuminated how blended learning can help us build capacity for deeper learning. By using the three-part axis of depth of knowledge (such as Bloom’s or Webb’s), stages of independence (students move dependent on direction from the teacher and toward self-directed learning), and acceleration (students start at different points and progress at different rates, meaning a student who is behind grade level may actually be learning at a much faster rate of learning), he provides a robust picture of what schools need to be able to do and how they can best do it using technology. (more…)

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