Category: Reflection

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…)

Recommended Action: Replicate NESCC’s Collegiate Endorsement in Other States

September 8, 2016 by

CollegeWe are in the midst of our annual reflection on the field of competency education – What is changing? What is working? What are the big issues that are emerging? In what is the field getting stronger or not?

Our field, that set of organizations and people that support or influence states, districts, schools, and educators in advancing competency education, continues to get stronger. There are more organizations every year that are doing work in the arena of competency education, although sometimes clumsily (I just read a short piece by McKinsey on personalization that seemed to confuse competency-based with online learning). We definitely want more organizations, especially organizations working within states and regions, to be joining the party.

However there are three downsides we need to watch out for:

#1 Limited Understanding: Organizations that haven’t taken the time to really understand competency education and offer a contorted or shallow view. (We love it when organizations bring new insights and depth and push our thinking on competency education.) To avoid this, we have to stretch ourselves to lend a helping hand to those organizations early on.

#2 Competition for Funding: It’s bound to happen when there are a lot of organizations working in the same field. So it’s very important that we address #1 i so that funders don’t invest in organizations that might lead us astray or cause unnecessary turmoil or confusion in the field. In addition, we need to make sure we are using funding as effectively as possible to clear the way for educators and tackle the big issues.

#3 Looking for a Way to Contribute: New organizations build capacity and then need something to do to make a contribution. No one organization can do everything, and we need to work together to make sure that we are tackling as many of the important things as we can. This requires some level of coordination and speaking with other organizations when creating a new project or initiative.

This brings me to my recommendation for a very important initiative that no one is doing right now, as far as I know. We really, really, really need state and regional organizations to replicate what the New England Secondary School Consortium has done in engaging institutions of higher education in making the proficiency pledge: 67 colleges and universities endorsed proficiency-based learning and pledged not to disadvantage students who went to proficiency-based high schools. They have cleared away a perceived obstacle: the possibility that students in proficiency-based schools might be less competitive in some way in the college admissions process. (This handout is a pdf file that explains the Collegiate Endorsement initiative.)

NESSC did this by convening representatives of higher education to talk about a proficiency-based transcript and diploma and then asking them to make a public pledge (below). They then had each of the college’s endorsements linked to their website for any school counselor to use when talking with students and parents. Brilliant! (more…)

Making Room for Hardship in Positive Youth Development

August 31, 2016 by

ExclamationI had the chance to re-read the design principles from Carnegie Corporation’s Opportunity by Design and its partner Springpoint Schools the other day. And once again I find myself a bit in awe of the depth of the principles and the implications for how we think about what secondary schools might look like. The first principle is integrates positive youth development to optimize student engagement & effort. We don’t talk about positive youth development much in education – instead we talk about engagement, motivation, and effort. ObD describes this principle as:

  • Caring, consistent student-adult relationships that communicate high expectations for student learning and behavior
  • Clear expectations for student competencies and standards of performance
  • Opportunities for students to contribute to the school environment and have a voice in decisions
  • Encouragement of student responsibility for meeting learning and personal goals
  • Openness to and encouragement of family participation Integration of community participation, assets, and culture

It all sounds great, doesn’t it? But something was gnawing at me as I thought about positive youth development. And then I realized what it was – sometimes discussions about positive youth development are just too positive.

By being so positive, they don’t create the room to talk about the real-life day-to-day hardships, challenges, trauma, and tragedies that shape the lives and development of adolescents. As Christina Rodriguez notes in Responding to the Student’s Dream: Lessons Learned from Positive Youth Developers in New Mexico, “A lot of our schools don’t seem to recognize the variety of students and what students need. There’s not a one-size-fits-all option.” The lives of our students vary – some may face discrimination because of the color of their skin, their accent, or a disability. Some may experience violence or abuse in their homes or in their neighborhoods. Many will hold fear close to their heart as they listen to parents worry about where the next meal with come from, how to pay for school supplies, or where they might find housing next month. (more…)

Speak Like You Are Right; Listen Like You Are Wrong

August 30, 2016 by

TeamRecently, I found myself stumbling out of a hotel and into a parking lot. My eyes were glassy and my gait was erratic. No, I had not been drinking. Instead, my lack of clarity was caused by something far worse; a parade of lawyers. I had just finished the end-of-year rally with the school lawyers. The way it works, we hear from fifteen lawyers, each given ten minutes, to share everything we need to know about changes in State or Federal laws. This was not drinking from a fire hose. This was drinking from the discharge viaduct of the Hoover Dam! From rental contracts, to special education, to collective bargaining, and everything in between. It was all laid out for us.

As I drove home, finally regaining my breath, I began to ponder how I, as a single individual, finishing my first year as superintendent, can get this done. Even with more years of experience, it seems daunting. How can I monitor all the things I need to monitor while also helping to lead the district to a learner-centered, proficiency-based system? I needed to buy land for a new school. I needed to sell the budget so it would pass referendum. I needed to hire new principals who could lead and also manage our schools as we continue to improve. I needed to… My heart rate increased again and my breath became shallow. Where was my brown paper bag? (more…)

Engaging Others: A Short Reflection on Leadership

August 5, 2016 by

ConversationI’ve been thinking about leadership a lot recently. Just about every technical assistant provider and intermediary I speak with refers to two challenges they face working with districts: lack of capacity and lack of leadership. The former is a phrase so general it lacks meaning except to reinforce the existence for the TA provider. We know that implementing competency education puts everyone outside their comfort zone to some degree. We know that everyone is climbing steep learning trajectories to build out the skills to better meet student needs. The phrase lack of capacity echoes a fixed mindset – as if people do not have the capacity to learn rather than a need to build specific knowledge or skills.

The latter issue is problematic as well. First, it is difficult to separate a leader from leadership skills. Obviously positional roles such as school board, superintendent, and principal means that there are leaders in districts in schools. So this must be referring to leadership skills. Second, it is not clear if it is inadequate leadership skills or the wrong type of skills.

  • Managing Personalized, Student-Centered Organizations: We know that district and school leaders need to tap into both leadership (motivate, inspire, and nurture culture) and management (plan, coordinate, monitor, and develop employees) skills, sometimes using both at the same time. It is very difficult to manage something if it is totally new to you, which is the case when we are in the midst of the conversion process. So this might be referring to leaders who are learning and need to become more adept to be able to manage new technologies, new systems, and new metrics. In addition, if we want schools to be more responsive to student needs, leaders will need to learn how to manage an agile organization – an entirely different approach from managing a bureaucratic one.
  • Paradigm Shifters: We believe that in order to fully and effectively implement competency education, the community, students, educators, and staff need to become comfortable with a new set of values and assumptions, including growth mindset, strategies to develop intrinsic motivation, cultural responsiveness, and empowering students (student agency). Neither a memo nor a speech will help people jump from one paradigm to another. There needs to be dialogue, experiences, and reflections as they understand the implications of the previous values and seek understanding of the new ones. Thus, leadership draws on facilitative approaches that can create experiences for others and nudge people toward new values, navigate the blindspots, move past discomfort and fear, and nurture leadership in others so that they might take active role in helping colleagues and the community embrace the new values.
  • Leadership that Engages Others: Perhaps the concern of lack of leadership means that leaders are using traditional leadership approaches when what they need is a different approach. It is going to be nearly impossible to introduce and guide the conversion to personalized, competency-based education using the traditional, hierarchical leadership styles based on the deployment of positional power over those lower down in the organization. In talking to leaders in competency-based schools, the concept of shared leadership is often raised. Leadership strategies that create shared leadership, including distributive, adaptive, and transformational leadership. These strategies depend on engaging others in solving problems. They are also very aligned with the values and assumptions that form the foundation of competency education. Thus, a very cohesive organization can be formed. Engaging others can also include engaging the community in on-going inquiry and dialogue. Continuous improvement means learning never ends.

(more…)

Organizational Position Matters

August 1, 2016 by

DeskIs competency-based education just for high schools or is it what you want for your entire K-12 system?

States and districts need to think about this question early on – what is the end goal? It is easy for state policymakers and districts to interpret that the policy for proficiency-based diplomas only applies to high schools. New Hampshire’s first step was to change time-based credits in secondary schools to competency-based followed by regulatory changes for the entire education system, from kindergarten through graduation.

Districts might respond by placing the leadership for the conversion to competency-based education with someone overseeing high schools, such as an office of post-secondary readiness. If states have the leadership placed in a department that oversees high schools, it sends a clear message that it competency education is a high school reform.

The problem with doing this is two-fold: (more…)

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…)

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