Category: Reflection

Get the Culture Right: The Most Important New School Factor

July 27, 2016 by

GS1This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on June 28, 2016.

“Attend to your culture,” said Jim May who supports about 25 new schools each year for New Tech Network. “From certificates of occupancy to emergency plans to hiring, the list of operational realities that must be addressed when starting a new school is immense. Thus, it can be easy to overlook the importance of your staff and student culture during those early days. However, it is imperative that even amidst the swirl of starting the school that you are intentional about establishing a strong set of cultural norms and rituals that can animate your work in the coming year.”

What’s most important when opening a new school? I asked 20 experts who have collectively opened more than a thousand schools. They shared 70 hard-won lessons and it’s clear that getting the culture right is the single most important factor in the long-term success of a school.

Opening a great school is an enormously complicated project. It involves real estate, construction, financing, logistics and marketing, which most educators don’t initially know anything about.

“Most of us who want to start schools because we like instruction, but the one thing no one tells us is that when you start a school, 90% of what who do early on has nothing to do with instruction,” said Dr. Nicole Assisi, Thrive Public Schools, who has opened five southern California schools. (more…)

Will Eliminating the “F” Eliminate Bad School Design?

July 9, 2016 by

F GradeThis post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on July 6, 2016.

The dreaded “F” is going out of vogue in schools. This week’s Washington Post article, “Is it becoming too hard to fail?”, chronicled a host of K–12 school systems that are moving away from the age-old tradition of failing students whose work doesn’t cut it, in hopes of keeping students motivated and on the road toward graduation.

The article, however, does not answer the most important question that these new policies must consider: by eliminating the “F,” are students in turn less likely to fail?

There is an obvious tautology to this question. The answer depends on how we measure failure, if not by letter grades. The reality is that in our current system some students may not master a semester’s worth of Algebra or social studies in the time allotted before a final exam determines their grades. Simply eliminating bad grades does not minimize that fact. Commentators like Mike Petrilli are right to point out the risk, then, that making it impossible to fail reeks of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

But skeptics of eliminating failing grades must likewise acknowledge that our current grading system perpetuates school designs that are already failing to ensure students’ long-term success. Indeed, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, just 37 percent of high school seniors are prepared for college-level math and reading. These low levels of performance are disappointing but not surprising if we pause to think about the fundamental structure of our K–12 education system. By design, we move students forward grade by grade based largely on the amount of instructional hours they have spent in class—dubbed “seat time”—rather than their mastery of academic skills and content. This structure permeates even week-by-week instructional methods: as schools rush to cover the bevy of standards on state tests each spring, and as teachers instruct students spanning a wide range of mastery levels, classes tend to move forward to new course material regardless of whether students have proven that they understand the concepts covered in the days and weeks prior. (more…)

When Tears Don’t Stop Flowing

July 8, 2016 by

I can’t stop crying this morning.IMG_0073

For the Dallas police officers who were killed and their families. For Philandro Castile and his family. For Alton Sterling and his family. And for all the police who live in more fear today and for African-Americans who live in fear every day that they or someone they love could land in jail or worse be killed by someone who has made an oath to protect them.

I don’t know what to do to stop this slippery slope into violence, fear, and anger that is tearing at our country. And I don’t know what to do to scrape out the racism that is in every nook and cranny of our society. But I can talk about what we at CompetencyWorks are trying to do in our small piece of the puzzle.

Get the Values Right: The more Susan Patrick, co-founder of CompetencyWorks and President/CEO of iNACOL, and I talk about competency education, the more we understand that the traditional system is based on sorting students and that the fixed mindset can also be a racist mindset. We have heard comments along the way that make us realize it isn’t just that some students can’t learn as well as others. There are those who believe that some students shouldn’t learn as much as others as it reshapes the educational and economic playing field.

We’ve been talking to educators across the country to try to deeply understand the culture and values that are needed to make competency education effective and to ensure that personalized learning will result in greater equity. In mostly white communities we hear discussions about the growth mindset, transparency, empowerment, and responsiveness to students. In communities with rich racial diversity, there are others values. At Merit Prep, we heard about safety and making sure students feel valued. In New York City, there is discussion about cultural responsiveness and making sure students feel respected. These values are important because the lives of African-Americans, Hispanics & Latinos, Asian-Americans, and new immigrants are tremendously different based on the color of their skin, their language, or their clothes.

Now, we really do need to think about this – the color of skin is no different than the color of your eyes, the shape of your nose, or the length of your toes in terms of who each of us are as a human being. But in our America, we have made the color of skin the thing that shapes our lives and our identities. Whites who haven’t schooled themselves in white privilege might not understand how much being white shapes their identities and their lives. But deep inside they worry – maybe I haven’t deserved everything I’ve gotten. And therein lies some of the fear.

A few days ago, in a conversation with Susan about how to strengthen the list of values we raise as conditions for competency-based education, I raised the question of whether it was better to describe the value as “cultural responsiveness” or “students feel safe, respected, and valued.” Her reply? Both. We need both. I agree. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of ridding our schools of patterns of institutional racism and ourselves of bias.

Thus, here is our updated list of values needed in a competency-based system: (more…)

Insights from the RTT-D Personalized Learning Summit

July 7, 2016 by

district reform support networkI had the chance to participate in the Race to the Top District Personalized Learning Summit sponsored by the US Department of Education last week. I learned so much and am quite honestly still processing all the conversations. However, given that we are wrapping up the equity series, I think it is important to share these insights about creating a more equitable system right now.

#1 Suburbanization of Poverty

If you have had a chance to visit NYC, San Francisco, Portland, OR, Denver, Boulder, or any other city with a strong economic base recently, the changes are absolutely visceral – more affluent people are moving into the city center, rents are skyrocketing, and the folks who work the restaurants, clean the apartments, and drive the cabs are all living an hour or more away from their work. Although this does not bode well for our country (one can’t wonder if we are going to look like South Africa with cities and townships one day if we don’t do something about this trend), there is a significant opportunity for competency-based education. The suburbanization of poverty means that there are going to be more and more medium- and small-sized districts looking for help to respond to a changing demographic, just as Adams 50 did seven years ago. However, we need to understand what needs to be in place to ensure that a competency-based district is going to generate more equity. We need to do that now.

#2 Moving Resources to Students Who Need the Most Help

One of the speakers said, “Once you start to individualize, every kids looks underserved.” Initially, I thought it was just a profound insight into personalization and all the ways we can personalize education so students are always operating in their zone and reaching their potential. As I thought about it more, however, I realized that a student’s potential isn’t a finite thing, as there are so many things to learn, so many things to know, and so many things to explore. So if every student is going to have unmet needs, how are we going to ensure that the disadvantaged students – those from low-income families, who have significant learning challenges (disabilities or language), or who have experienced bumpy lives that move them from school to school – are going to really get the help they need?

We know that the likely pattern will be to serve the students considered “at the top” first. Given that resources are more finite as compared to the potential of students, choices will have to be made. We need to figure out metrics, processes, and analytical tools to make sure that resources get to the students who have gaps in pre-requisite skills. For example, every educator I’ve spoken with about this topic says that given current practices, a growth rate of 1.25 is reasonable to expect for most students. That means for every four years (unless you start to use the summer time, as well), students can expect to gain a grade level. Thus, we should be providing adequate resources to make sure this is happening for students who enter below grade level as a minimum expectation. Our challenge is to see if we can do better than that as a common practice. (more…)

The Tip of the Iceberg

June 29, 2016 by

icebergAs our school has made the transition to a competency-based system, many educators I have spoken to over the past two years have asked me, “What is different about your school now?” This million-dollar question is one that I had not thought a lot about, as I was living the change, but I began to realize the answer through sharing our work with others.

Over the past year, our school has had a number of national visitors, ranging from the Chief Council of State School Officers to the United States Education Department’s Ann Whelan and Emma Vadehra. As I planned for, facilitated, and observed these visits, I began to realize exactly was different in Memorial School now as opposed to three to four years ago.

During any visit our school has, we make sure we don’t do any anything “special,” that we aren’t pretending to be someone we aren’t. We have typically had students (usually fifth graders) share their experiences about their understanding and knowledge of how skills and dispositions play a major role in their overall understanding of themselves as learners. In a competency-based system, reporting of progress in both academics and behaviors is done in a pure fashion (meaning they are separated, so as not to muddy what the reported grade represents), so students and teachers know exactly which competencies, academic and non-academic, students have mastered.

Additionally, we bring our visitors into a grade level to watch what we call LEAP (Learning for Each And every Person) to see our multi-tiered system of support in action. Providing and structuring these individualized opportunities for support or extension within the daily schedule is imperative in a competency-based model. Some have a very hard time visualizing what this might look like with five and six year-old students, so we tend to share Kindergarten LEAP, if it is occurring during the visit, so that we may demonstrate what it looks like to have an effective, differentiated structure of support and extension, even for our youngest learners.

These first few portions of the visit are what I would refer to as the “tip of the iceberg.” They are interesting, providing examples of many of the important characteristics of great instruction and assessment practices within the classroom, and are examples of a highly functioning PLC. What comes next is hidden “under the surface,” but is truly significant. It’s what visitors to our school end up remarking about after… (more…)

What Does it REALLY Mean to Do Standards-Based Grading? (Part 2)

June 28, 2016 by
SBG

Click Image to Enlarge

Read Part 1 of what it means to do standards-based grading here

There is so much written about grading that I’m hesitant to offer my thoughts on what is needed to do it well. And this article is certainly not a “how to” step-by-step plan on implementing standards-based grading. I’m compelled to write about it because I keep hearing about districts trying to use grading changes as the entry point to competency education. If folks are going to do that, then this blog might be helpful. Just be mindful–most in the field will recommend that you do not lead with grading. (Please take the time to check out Part 1, where I do my best to differentiate standards-referenced, standards-based, and competency-based grading.)

What does it really require to implement standards-based grading?

From what I can tell based on my conversations with competency-based schools across the country, the following are the major activities, structures, and practices that need to be in place before you introduce new grading policies and practices.

#1 Provide Additional Time and Instruction to Support Students Who are Not Yet Proficient

If you are going to commit to getting students to proficiency on all the standards for a grade level or a performance level within a course or a school year, you are going to have to be prepared for those students who are going to be “not yet proficient.” One piece of that is to have ways to provide “timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.” (That’s the fourth element of the working definition for competency-based education.)

Many schools in their first year of conversion expect after school or lunch time to suffice for teachers to be able to work with students. However, they quickly figure out that isn’t going to work and begin scheduling for Flex Hours each day. Noble High School has taken this the farthest with fine-tuned operations and multiple opportunities to make sure students are getting exactly the help they need every week. From what I can tell, it is impossible to do standards-based grading if you don’t have really strong mechanisms for providing additional instruction for students who are not yet proficient. (See The Learning Edge: Supporting Student Success in a Competency-Based Learning Environment.) (more…)

What Does it REALLY Mean to Do Standards-Based Grading? (Part 1)

June 27, 2016 by

2016-04-13 11.11.40I read a lot of clips about how districts are advancing competency education around the country, and it always seems to me that when there are any negative reactions they are in response to new grading practices, usually referred to as standards-based grading. It strikes me that negative reactions pop up when districts either use grading as an entry point (which puts all the focus on the grading and not on why competency education is valuable) or they’ve put some of the pieces of standards-based grading in place but not the entire framework necessary to make it more trustworthy than traditional grading.

How does a district implement high quality standards-based grading, and when is the right time? I’ll do the best I can to synthesize what I’ve been learning from districts, but please do not hesitate to disagree or add more nuance to these thoughts.

Before I dive deep, allow me to once more review the three types of grading systems using standards (at least that I know about): standards-referenced, standards-based, and an emerging concept of competency-based.

What is the difference between standards-referenced and standards-based grading?

In his book, Formative Assessment & Standards-Based Grading, Robert J. Marzano explains the difference. “In a standards-based system, a student does not move to the next level until he or she can demonstrate competence at the current level. In a standards-referenced system, a student’s status is reported (or referenced) relative to the performance standard for each area of knowledge and skill on the report card; however, even if the student does not meet the performance standard for each topic, he or she moves to the next level. Thus, the vast majority of schools and districts that claim to have standards-based systems in fact have standards-referenced systems.”

(more…)

5 Reasons Why Competency Education Can Lead Us to Improved Quality and More Equity

June 21, 2016 by

Post 8Ensuring quality and equity is as the heart of the movement to transform education toward personalized, competency-based learning. By placing the student at the center of the learning process and re-engineering around learning, pace and progress (rather than time, curriculum delivery and sorting), we can create education systems that reach every student.

Competency education is a design strategy that best serves our lowest achieving students, including low-income students, minority students, English language learners, and those with special educational needs. Here are five reasons why:

  1. Competency education is designed to identify and address gaps in knowledge and skills. We will always have students with gaps in knowledge, whether because of poverty-induced mobility, recent immigration, military transfers, or health issues. When we identify and address gaps, students have a better chance at progressing. As Paul Leather, NH’s Deputy Commissioner of Education, has pointed out, “We learn by connecting concepts and building expertise over time. If we do not learn a concept, new learning cannot be built on it” (from Necessary for Success).
  2. Transparency and modularization are empowering and motivating. They are the ingredients for student ownership. Success begets success, as students see short-term gains and clearly marked next steps. Transparency also challenges bias and stereotypes that may contribute to lower achievement.
  3. The focus on progress and pace requires schools and teachers to respond to students when they need help, rather than letting them endure an entire semester or year of failure. Many competency-based schools organize flex hours during the day to make sure there is no excuse for students going home without receiving the help they need.
  4. Competency education is a comprehensive approach that benefits vulnerable students as well as those in gifted and talented programs. Schools don’t need specialized programs that label students. In fact, students may advance in some disciplines and not in others, as flexibility is built into the core school operations.
  5. Competency education creates powerful learners. We can’t underestimate what student ownership means in the hands of students who have been denied a high quality education in the past. Furthermore, it prepares students to explore their talents, interests, and the future that lies before them. Instead of differentiating students with a single number, their GPA, we see children differentiated by how they demonstrate and apply their knowledge.

(more…)

Time Matters: How We Use Flexible Time to Design Higher and Deeper Learning

June 20, 2016 by

Post 7When learning is done on a deeper level, it takes longer to accomplish. Thus, learning experiences that allow students to delve into topics and apply their skills are often more complex to design. Schools must think about how they are structuring learning within the school day, semester, and year so they have more options for deeper learning with greater integration of standards and skills: formative assessment, complex tasks, project- or problem-based learning that is open-ended knowledge utilization (e.g., Webb’s Level 4), extended learning into the community, and capstone projects co-designed by students. Pittsfield Middle and High School has learning studios, Danville School District uses intersessions, Boston Day and Evening Academy offers month-long projects in December, and Casco Bay High School features intensives.

Although schools need to have a pool of performance tasks and performance-based assessments, deeper learning is most meaningful to students when it is authentically rooted in their own lives. Perhaps it is related to career interests, an illness of a family member, violence in their community, or a relevant international issue. Students at Chugach School District can co-design Independent Learning Plans to pursue building skills within the context of high-interest topics. ACE Leadership in New Mexico partners with employers to create projects based on authentic industry problems, allowing students to make the connections between their education and their future. Higher level learning is usually a combination of application of academic skills, application of communication skills, and demonstration of habits. Technical skills will also be included in projects that have a strong career and technical context.

Schools also need to consider the cognitive load (the level of intellectual challenge) of their curriculum. For schools that rely heavily on digital content, educators need to know the depth of learning and be prepared to supplement if it doesn’t meet the level of proficiency required by the standards. Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that all projects are not necessarily project-based learning. Deeper learning requires teachers to have expertise in assessing the application of skills and student habits. Given that the ability of teachers to design and assess more complex learning is dependent on their expertise, principals will need to provide ongoing professional development to build capacity and shared understanding, and ensure that their team of teachers includes those who can guide the more complex, longer projects as well as mentor other teachers. (more…)

8 Ways Blended Districts Can Implement a Competency-Based Structure

June 16, 2016 by

Post 6Districts that have introduced blended learning may share the common philosophy with competency-based schools that students learn differently, requiring schools to personalize the learning experiences of students. However, they’ve started with a different entry point by focusing on how technology can improve the delivery of instruction. They may not have yet made the shift to understanding that we need to reconfigure our education system to be designed for success, rather than the ranking and sorting of the traditional system that reproduces inequity.

Depending on the strategies they have used, this means that blended districts and schools may have already developed the essential leadership and management capacities required for introducing the changes involved in creating a competency-based system. Because they see flexible pacing as an element for supporting student learning rather than focusing on fixed time for delivering curriculum, the concept of progress upon mastery has already taken root. In fact, blended classrooms where both the digital resources and face-to-face instruction are providing engaging educational opportunities and encouraging a high level of rigor for students to demonstrate mastery may have already created the capacity and a rational transition point for fully moving to competency education.

The process of blended schools converting to a competency-based structure is just beginning. Below, I highlight eight ways blended districts can implement a competency-based structure, based on insights of technical assistance providers who are working with districts across the country.

1. Invest in Leadership: In the process of planning and implementing blended learning delivery models, most districts have already found that a top-down leadership and management approach has its limits. In competency education, top-down management is generally ineffective. Leaders in competency-based districts consistently raise the importance of developing a more adaptive leadership style, such as distributed leadership or middle-up-down management. Lindsay Unified School District has experienced this firsthand. Their first and most important step in the process of change was investing in school leadership and district staff. As a team, they began to reflect on their leadership styles and discuss how to build capacity to engage others in decision-making.

2. Re-Visit the Mission and Vision: Competency education rests on a foundation of transparency, empowerment, and shared purpose. If an inclusive process wasn’t used to develop the district’s mission, blended districts may want to revisit their mission and vision by engaging the community to ensure that it reflects a shared purpose (not one defined solely from the superintendent and/or school board). Inclusive engagement processes to create a shared purpose and vision is essential for sustainability and changes in leadership. Given that we are still in relatively early stages of understanding what competency-based districts might look like as the system fully develops, the shared ownership is a critical element in the implementation process. (more…)

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