Category: Reflection

Beware of AnythingGoes-Ness and Bandwagonitis

May 25, 2017 by

It’s very clear to me that we, the field of competency education, are at a turning point in many ways. First, we have reached a place where there are lots of different organizations with enough knowledge about competency education that we are seeing very valuable reports and articles with important insights. (Just in the past week, three reports/articles were released that are worth taking the time to read, as they give a sense of some of the expansion and challenges: Competency-Based Education: Staying Shallow or Going Deep?; Policy, Pilots and the Path to Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape; and Why There’s Little Consistency in Defining Competency-Based Education.) There are other organizations – other than CompetencyWorks, that is – that are identifying and lifting up new innovators and new practices. We’ve worked hard over the past five years to support organizations and our colleagues so that whatever knowledge we were building was being transferred and embedded into other organizations. And I can really feel that it is paying off because I’m finding that I need to put time aside now to read, not just skim, many of the things being published because they are enhancing my understanding.

Second, the field is expanding at a steady pace, and with that comes a variety of new challenges. For a while, competency education was under the radar. The folks who knew about it were all leaders who had come to the same conclusion that we weren’t going to move forward if we were handcuffed to the ranking and sorting of the traditional system. Then there was growing attention as states began to introduce the idea in their innovation zones and to take the concept of college and career readiness a step further with the idea that credits and diplomas actually had to have meaning (i.e., proficiency-based diplomas). However, we are now nearing what I used to call the “fad” stage when I was a foundation program officer: People are hearing about competency education from different organizations and feel that they may want, should, or need to get on the bandwagon. In some ways, of course, this is great news but it also carries a number of new problems: (more…)

When Young People Had a Vote in Decisions about Their Own Programs

April 12, 2017 by

Although this reflection by AYPF’s Board Chair, Tony Sarmiento (first posted at AYPF on March 13, 2017), isn’t related to competency-based education, I think it is an extraordinary piece that allows us to learn from our elders to better respect our children and youth. As we open up what is possible in competency-based education with transparent continuums of learning, we also open up new doors to how we construct education. In re-posting this article, I’m not suggesting that we should run directly to created markets. I’m saying that we should look backwards and forwards to organize the very best of what we know works best for young people to engage, motivate, and support students. Listening to them and creating formal ways to guide them is always a strong first step.

Happy reading! – Chris

Tony Sarmiento, AYPF Board Chair

As I near retirement after working with older adults for nearly two decades, I was recently honored in a surprise reunion with former co-workers from almost fifty years ago, when we worked together at a neighborhood youth center in upper Northwest Washington, DC. While we shared hazy memories of dances, basketball games, and other typical summer youth center activities, all of us recalled fond and detailed memories of the youth center director, Pat McDonough, who in his late-20s hired, supervised, and inspired us. None of us had been in regular contact with Pat before his death a few years ago, but all of us acknowledged his lasting impact on our careers and lives.

The reunion reminded me of my employment during the War on Poverty as a youth worker in several of my home city’s neighborhoods. At that time, an official goal of the federal government’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was to insure youth involvement in planning, operating, and evaluating youth programs. This was consistent with the larger goal of “maximum feasible participation” by the community in all OEO programs. As stated in an official OEO Instruction, “Youth Development Program Policies,” (February 1970):

Every Community Action Agency and Delegate Agency must insure active youth involvement in all phases of its Youth Development Program. Applications which do not reflect this commitment will not be funded. (as underlined in the original)]In the District of Columbia, this mandate for youth involvement was achieved by partitioning the city into twenty Neighborhood Planning Councils (NPCs), which were administered by then-Mayor Walter Washington’s Office of Youth Opportunity Services (OYOS). Each NPC was governed by ten adults and ten youth (between 14-21 years old) elected in community elections. Every year, each of the twenty councils was responsible for developing, debating, and voting on their community’s year-round youth programs and program budgets, based on funding made available by OYOS. OYOS also provided technical assistance to the councils and monitored their compliance with OEO regulations.


With Much Sadness We Remember Diane Smith

December 9, 2016 by
Smith Diane

Diane Smith, Jan. 28, 1950 – Nov. 30, 2016

We lost Diane Smith recently, and the world feels very different. Diane was the Teaching & Learning Initiative Director at Oregon’s Business Education Compact, author of It’s About Time: A Framework for Proficiency-based Teaching & Learning and a valuable member of the CompetencyWorks Advisory Board. Her death came as a shock to all of us who cared for her, respected her, and were inspired by her never-ending enthusiasm to advance proficiency-based learning.

In preparing to write this tribute, Susan Patrick reminded me that we often turn to one of Diane’s statements, “Performance or competency based learning is fundamental to personalizing learning at scale and it challenges almost all of our assumptions about the present system.” That fact that we were forging into such new territory didn’t bother Diane at all. In fact she found it enthralling – she was simply an adventurer.

There is a passage in her obituary that I want to share with you, as I think it captures Diane’s entrepreneurial spirit perfectly:

Diane didn’t believe we needed to think outside the box with respect to educational reform, but rather asked attendees of her trainings, “what box?” She radiated joy and possibility that was contagious.

By now, you hopefully have a smile on your face thinking about her enthusiasm for learning and teaching.

Here are a few more memories of Diane from our colleagues:

I remember meeting Diane Smith and being amazed at the level of commitment and the span of influence of her work in competency education. She was an ardent supporter of examining systems change for competency-based pathways in partnership with local school systems and the state. Diane Smith was an early leader championing the need to move from a time-based system toward one that ensures mastery. She helped launch, drive, and support the work in Oregon over decades of sustained leadership. She was dedicated, passionate, and selfless with furthering the cause to ensure every student had the full range of knowledge and skills mastered for future success. She was kind and generously shared her knowledge broadly across the United States, taking lessons learned in Oregon with the state and with districts and working with others across the country to provide a pathway forward. She will be sorely missed by her colleagues and friends. – Susan Patrick, iNACOL, President and CEO

The world of competency education has lost one of its original innovators. Diane Smith, dear friend of Sandra Dop and I, died suddenly recently. Diane championed the work of teachers across the state of Oregon, creating models for all of us to follow. Sandra Dop, Diane and I were on speed dial with each other. Whether in a high level policy meeting, working with teachers, or having a problem presented to us, we knew we could count on each other at a moments notice. We valued our time together at national meetings and conferences. Whether sharing our love of Hallmark Christmas movies or helping to shape this new world of competency education as Coast to Coast pals, Sandra and I are honored to have called her friend. – Rose Colby, competency education consultant

With Diane’s passing I have lost a dear friend and colleague. Her work on personalized, proficiency-based education was an inspiration and a guide as we started personalized, competency-based education in Iowa.  As some of the early ones involved, we had few to call for help or just to talk through something. Rose Colby, Diane, and I called those calls the Coast to Coast Conversations. We called, texted, emailed anytime day or night and usually a response was there within the hour. We will miss you, Diane. Eventually that Coast to Coast will fill in as others join the movement, and those of us at the beginning of the journey will remember your dedication to the cause. Rest in Peace. Thanks for your friendship and hospitality–for the tour of schools in Oregon and the conference memories. – Sandra Dop, former consultant on competency education to Iowa Department of Education

Diane was always generous with her time and knowledge as an expert source as well as a mentor in providing tremendous encouragement and support for tackling issues in how to approach proficiency based learning and teaching. – Liz Glowa, consultant and author of Student-Centered Learning: Functional Requirements for Integrated Systems to Optimize Learning

Diane’s combination of professionalism and warmness permeated every room she was in. She could engage people in a conversation with ease and make them feel as though they had known each other for years, even if they just met. Her dedication to the students and teachers of Oregon was evident in the way her eyes lit up when she talked about her work. I will miss her kindness, and I will always be thankful for her partnership. – Anne Olson, Director of State Advocacy, KnowledgeWorks

Donations may be made in Diane’s honor by visiting or calling 541-979-2773. Your condolences for the family may be posted online at

Please, it helps all of us to remember her. We hope you will share your memories in the comments below.

Diane, we are missing you.

#iNACOL16 Day Four Learnings on the Run

November 3, 2016 by

Jim Rickabaugh

Resetting the Classroom Power Dynamics: Every person I’ve met from WI is so visionary, so creative, so dedicated to figuring things out systemically. Every time I get a few minutes with Jim Rickabaugh, previously the director of the Personalized Learning Institute at CESA#1 (he’s still involved as an advisor — Ryan Krohn is now the director), I feel like he opens up door after door of insights. Here are a few:

  • Different Pathways: We aren’t ready to commit to one model or one best way of implementation. Our work in personalized, competency-based education isn’t mature yet. We may discover that there are very different pathways.
  • Learning Leaders: We focus too much on instruction and instructional leaders. We want our focus to be on learning and leaders who manage learning. “Learning leaders” have to think about the whole school, the entire learning environment, and what students are learning beyond school.
  • Learning Targets and Beyond: When we focus only on specific assessments, we are asking the question, “Did you learn this or that?” However, if there is robust, inquiry-based or “deeper” learning, then we should also ask the more open question, “What did you learn?” A good caution for us – we want to be intentional and we want to include learning beyond the anticipated. Deeper learning positions us to learn more about our own learning and to be generative in our learning.
  • Do Students Feel they Belong?: Disciplinary rates are an indicator of how engaged students are and how much they feel that they belong (in other words, how inclusive the school is). Robust personalized learning in a competency-based environment should be resetting the power dynamics in a school and in the classroom. In traditional schools, sanctions are compliance-based. In PL/CBE, our goal is to help students to commit to their own learning. So if students are resistant to power, then there is something going on and we need to listen to the students. When there is nothing to fight or resist against, because the goal is for you to take ownership of your own learning, then there is some other pain that needs our attention. Rickabaugh mentioned that he had heard of schools repurposing the position of assistant principal because discipline problems had so dramatically reduced.


#iNACOL16 Day Three Learnings on the Run

November 2, 2016 by

Well, actually, I’m not running anymore. I was able to catch my breath for the weekend before I head out to District 51 in Grand Junction to learn about their early stage implementation.

Here are some of my highlights from the final days of iNACOL16:


Sajan George

Productive Struggle: One of the reasons I think so highly of the Matchbook Learning team is that they are always trying to figure out how to meet the needs of students who have large gaps in foundational skills or are on a performance level that is below their grade level. (I apologize for the use of a deficit structure, but we still haven’t figured out a way to talk about students being at different levels that doesn’t use the grade level as a norm.) Sajan George described that they have concerns that leveling students and offering instruction that meets them at this level is not working the way they had hoped. Yes, it helps students build all the foundational skills they need, but it isn’t building other skills – specifically the skill and traits needed to productively struggle with challenging problems. One might think about it as the ability to apply learning, not just demonstrate the skills. Application requires us to think about which skill or approach can be helpful.


Dixie Bacallao

Later that same day I had a chance to meet Dixie Bacallao from reDesign. How to design for productive struggle was one of the many things we touched on. She cautioned that it is important to take into consideration where students are in their own learning and development (including social-emotional learning and relationships with peers) and how big the gap between performance and grade level is in designing interventions. In other words, there is no single best intervention. (more…)

#iNACOL16 Day Two Learnings on the Run

October 27, 2016 by

Well, I think it is safe to say the highlight of the Day Two was Virgel Hammond’s (KnowledgeWorks) keynote dedicated to helping all of us reduce our cool factor. His point is that for all of us to learn, we need to be vulnerable. We all need to be willing to take risks and get out of our comfort zones. He demonstrated this point by having Susan Patrick (iNACOL), Bill Zima (RSU2), Nick Namba (Lindsay), Dave Roberts (Fraser), and Steve Schultz (District 51) and yours truly dance our hearts out to silly songs such as The Twist, Greased Lightening, Thriller, Mr. Roboto, and Shout!

Lesson Learned: I’m too old (or perhaps I should admit just plain out of shape) to dance to Shout! anymore…instead of just twisting down to the floor, I found it more comfortable to just fall on my belly.

On a much more serious note, Todd Rose, author of The Myth of Averages, kicked off day two at #iNACOL16. If you haven’t heard him, it’s worth listening to one of his TED talks. His message is powerful – when you design for the average, we meet the needs of none. He draws on research and science to explain why we must root the design of the education system in the individual. We must figure out how to have more personalized systems of education. (more…)

A Better Way Forward for Competency-Based Learning

October 26, 2016 by

pencilsThis post originally appeared at New Profit on September 29, 2016. 

Over two decades ago, I served as an educational advocate for the State of Rhode Island. It was my charge to act as the parent for a caseload of about 80 youth who were wards of the State that either identified or were suspected of having special educational needs. My caseload was very diverse. Students had serious learning disabilities and/or behavioral issues. As wards of the State most were living in poverty and the majority came from what are often called minority groups. Despite the wide array of challenges, I ensured that the adolescents in my caseload all earned, and were granted, their high school diploma. This, despite the fact that these students often had not learned the things our society expects of a high school graduate. How was this possible?

The reliance on seat time for awarding course credit allows for any student who passes a class that meets for the required 120 hours of instruction to earn credit toward graduation. The 120-hour requirement was established by the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching over a century ago and still governs what a high school diploma entails in nearly every state in the union. Typically, students are required to pass 20-28 courses in order to earn their high school diploma. As an advocate for youth in State care, I made sure that schools were paying attention to each student’s transcript and awarding him/her the credits earned through sitting in class.

Did I do these students more harm than good? Over the past 20 years, I have pondered that question often. I was complicit in sending adolescents out into society with a diploma that didn’t necessarily reflect whether they had mastered the requisite education to become functioning adults in a democratic society. Despite my well-meaning advocacy, was I setting them up for failure? (more…)

#iNACOL16 Day One Learnings on the Run

October 25, 2016 by

Renee Hill

As you wander the huge halls of the San Antonio Convention Center, you can’t help but bump into old friends, people you wanted to meet, or people you didn’t even realize you need to meet. And each conversation has at least one “AH-HA” that moves understanding forward, deeper, or into altogether new directions.

How Districts Can Use Competency-Based Education Infrastructure Enables More Autonomy and Creativity in School Design: I was thrilled to bump into Renee Hill, Assistant Superintendent at Riverside Public Schools in California. They’ve been moving toward personalization with the assumption that schools need autonomy and room for creativity (as compared to a district model that is implemented in all schools). They are now putting into place the infrastructure of a shared vision of a portrait of a graduate from Riverside and beginning to build the set of competencies/standards that will be shared graduation expectations. Eventually, they will have an infrastructure that will enable school autonomy balanced with a system of accountability to ensure students are making progress and reaching proficiency.


Andrea Mulkey

Moving from Negotiated Alignment to Systemic Alignment: I also had the opportunity to meet Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Early College at KnowledgeWorks. We had an interesting conversation about how early college programs have always had to figure out how to align secondary and post-secondary expectations. However, instead of a defined set of competencies and standards, they’ve done it through well-developed relationships and negotiations.

This got me thinking – we need to get to the point where districts aren’t creating graduation expectations in isolation but actually developing them with colleges. This is going to be one of the key pieces of system-building. With our strong commitment to local control, I’ve been worried that variability in district graduation expectations will continue to be a problem. But it’s not a problem if we set the expectation that institutions of higher education have to sign off on how districts define what it means to be college ready. Think about it – colleges are going to want to set the same set of expectations across multiple districts. (more…)

The Hidden Goal that XQ Winners Share: Relationships

October 5, 2016 by

Graphic from original post

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on September 28, 2016.

This month, U.S. high schools got a healthy dose of innovation investment—the XQ Super School project announced 10 winners, each of which will receive $10 million to support their efforts to reinvent high school. Although the winners are pursuing a pretty dazzling array of approaches, all 10 are exploring ways to personalize high school in an effort to crack open the monolithic model of cohort and age-based instruction that undergirds traditional school.

But across their diverse models, there’s another common, if not subtler, effort afoot: to invest in students’ relationships and networks. As Eric Tucker, head of the winning Brooklyn Lab, said, “What we’re committed to doing is making sure that the school is the connector.” And as a school leader at another winner, Washington Leadership Academy (WLA), noted, relationships rank among the school’s top four values: “Building strong relationships between, staff, students, families, and our local and global community is core to our work at WLA.”

There’s a powerful message underlying this commitment: If high schools are going to step up to the 21st century and level the playing field of opportunity, then they can’t focus on students’ human capital alone; they have to invest in students’ social capital as well. Human capital refers to what people can do—their skills and dispositions—that they can, in turn, convert into labor market returns down the line. Social capital, on the other hand, refers to the reservoir of relationships that people can bank on for supports or opportunities. Social capital is not singular in its benefits. As MIT Professor and Ford Foundation Vice President Xavier de Souza Briggs aptly put it, “Individuals of all backgrounds need a two-sided treasure chest of social capital: access to social support that helps us cope with life’s stresses and challenges (‘get by’) and access to social leverage, the key to mobility or ‘getting ahead.’” In other words, people—especially young people—need relationships that provide critical care, supports and encouragement. They also need relationships that can connect them to new opportunities—like jobs, ideas and learning experiences—that are otherwise beyond their reach. (more…)

Why Aren’t We Talking about Culturally Responsive Education in Next Gen Learning?

September 13, 2016 by

StudyingThis post originally appeared at Next Generation Learning Challenges on August 4, 2016.

Those of us in the next gen learning space are ignoring a great opportunity. Something that could propel next gen learning to be the force we say we want it to be: one that fundamentally changes the life trajectories of the students we serve.

Culturally Responsive Education

I’ve been thinking a lot about equity in relation to next gen learning lately. I’m asking tough questions of myself, questioning assumptions in our work instead of letting them go unstudied, thinking about ‘user-centered design’ in a whole new light, and sitting with new information as I try to process and understand it.

The news of recent weeks has been heartbreaking. From the highly publicized police shooting deaths of unarmed Black men, to the shooting spree and deaths of police officers, to the White backlash against Black Lives Matter and, in the education reform world, backlash against empowering people of color to address systemic racism in education, the crack in race relations in this country is opening wider and exposing the problems I knew existed but swept under the rug and out of my consciousness.

My response to this heartbreak: lift up the rug, expose the crack, raise my consciousness, and work to understand what it is underserved students really need. (And, by the way, understand what it is advantaged students need. I wonder if educational equity wouldn’t be better served if higher-income White education reformers—and by that I mean, me—focused more attention on serving advantaged students through social justice education and helping them develop the skills of an ally.)

And then I stumbled upon this:

If students survive their educations, they potentially become widgets—unimaginative, obedient, conforming replicas of each other. Students who do not survive their widget-making education risk higher levels of lifetime poverty and incarceration, as well as poorer physical and mental health outcomes than students exposed to more student-centered educational interventions. —Diversity Challenge 2016: Race, Culture, and Educating Our Youths – Developing Whole People Not Widgets.

This! Yes! This is why the current system isn’t good enough. And this is why I am so passionate about next gen learning. I believe it can and will help us move away from the ‘lose-lose’ proposition of a factory model, widget-producing school system. It can help us move toward schools that honor students’ individuality and self-authorship by providing meaningful learning experiences that lead to richer, deeper, broader outcomes than proficiency on a test. (What’s the opposite of a widget? A work of art? Or, maybe we need to drop the metaphors and simply say that a student is an individual whose humanity and dignity is celebrated.)

I kept reading: (more…)

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