Connecticut: Making Room for Innovation

February 9, 2017 by

connecticutThis is the eleventh post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

In Connecticut, superintendents are among the strongest advocates for a personalized, mastery-based system, as they believe it to be the best way to help each and every student reach college and career readiness. Across the state, communities are raising expectations; providing opportunity is no longer adequate, they want greater accountability that districts will fully prepare each and every student for college and careers.

In 2009, a group of Connecticut Association of Public Schools Superintendents (CAPSS) members realized that the traditional system was not designed to offer the level of personalization necessary to reach this goal, so they began studying the issues and creating the vision for personalized, mastery-based learning. They brought in experts, read articles, and began to outline their vision. In 2011, CAPSS issued its first report, NextEd: Transforming Connecticut’s Education System (2011), followed by A Look to the Future: Personalized Learning in Connecticut (2015), which was published in partnership with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE), the Connecticut Association of Schools (CAS), and, most recently, with a series of recommendations in the 2016 NextEd: Next Steps.

These publications were a major impetus in creating the policy environment for the legislature to pass the 2013 Connecticut’s Act for Unleashing Innovation in Connecticut Schools. The legislation enabled mastery-based learning by giving districts the opportunity to use credits based on the demonstration of mastery. In 2015, with support from Great Schools Partnership (GSP) and the New England Secondary Schools Consortium (NESCC), the Connecticut Department of Education (CDOE) issued Mastery-Based Learning Guidelines for Implementation. The guidelines are organized in three sections – community engagement, policy, and practice – with suggested steps in each. The section on equity identifies several important issues and suggests mitigating steps. (more…)

On Scaling Competency Education: Equity, Quality, and Sustainability

February 1, 2017 by

This is the tenth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

The early lesson from New England is that the scaling strategies for competency-based education require a combination of schools and districts that have the courageous leadership to convert to competency education and state leadership willing to commit to goal-oriented policies supported by long-term capacity-building strategies. Again, over time and as more states move forward, we are likely to learn about where there might be additional issues that need to be addressed. In particular, districts and states need to consider equity, quality, and sustainability.

Equity

amy-allen-quoteEven though equity resides at the very heart of competency-based education, it still requires an unrelenting commitment to challenge institutional patterns, individual bias that creates lower expectations, and strong management practices that can lead to much greater responsiveness. The focus on equity should be found in the accountability designs within school, district, and state systems and processes as well as the schoolwide instructional philosophies and strategies.

Although states are trying to increase responsiveness through embedding expectations that schools and educators respond to student needs, conversations with educators across New England suggest that courageous leadership is still needed. Under the pressure of the end-of-year accountability exams, too many schools and educators, even in the most developed competency-based districts, are still providing grade-level curriculum to students even if they have already learned the content or are lacking the prerequisite skills. In addition to leadership, we will need to engage a broad range of expertise, both practitioner and leadership, to identify the best ways to help students fill skill gaps without falling back into the trap of tracking.

Quality

The field is currently challenged by not having enough research and evaluation on the quality indicators for competency-based districts and schools to determine the elements that will lead to a high-quality model or effective implementation. This task is further complicated by what might be called waves of innovation that take place once districts become competency-based: As educators and schools become more intentional about what they want students to know and be able to do, there are efforts to build assessment literacy; build the capacity for performance assessments to support the development of higher order skills; develop stronger instructional strategies based on learning progressions; introduce practices that support student agency, voice, and choice; integrate more personalized learning practices; and introduce digital tools and online learning. Thus, schools and districts are taking different paths with different sequencing as they build the full range of capacities needed to operate a high-quality competency-based system. (more…)

We Have a Proficiency-Based Diploma. Now What?

January 27, 2017 by

This is the ninth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

rihs-diplomaThe trust in the conventional education system has been undermined by the tradition of awarding diplomas to students who do not possess the skills needed for college and careers. It has been possible in many districts to receive a diploma even though students are still reading at the elementary school level. In order to eliminate this practice of passing students on without the necessary skills, states are introducing policies that set the expectation that students will demonstrate proficiency at an agreed upon performance level in order to receive a diploma (i.e., a proficiency-based diploma).

The proficiency-based graduation policies developed in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont appear to be high-leverage in terms of engaging districts; however, the diploma policy cannot stand alone. It is one thing to say that a diploma must be proficiency-based and an entirely different thing to create a system that will ensure students are making progress toward a diploma throughout each year of school. Even with proficiency-based diploma policies, states will find that they need to take additional steps to fully engage and support districts in ensuring that students can actually reach graduation-level proficiency.

First, there must be a strategy to engage all the districts beyond the coalition of the willing. For example, until Maine engaged districts through a self-assessment of their progress in implementation and offered flexibility in setting their own deadlines within state guidelines, there were many that had not yet demonstrated a commitment to change. Second, states may want to expedite the process by helping districts understand the elements of personalized, competency-based systems and/or the implementation process. Maine provided training opportunities early on and Vermont has complemented their policy with training for supervisory unions. Rhode Island used a more prescriptive approach in requiring secondary schools to implement a set of practices. (more…)

Putting the Pieces Together to Build a Competency-Based Statewide System

January 25, 2017 by

This is the eighth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

New England states have a variety of reasons for turning to competency-based education: higher expectations than ever before, the demand for skills that prepare students for an ever-changing world, and an understanding that the traditional system has become a stumbling block to the future of their children and the strength of their communities.

Below are a few highlights of the statewide system-building efforts that are taking place in New England.

  1. Proficiency-Based Diplomas

cross-curricular-skillsThe proficiency-based diploma policies developed in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont appear to be high-leverage in terms of engaging 100 percent of districts; however, the diploma policies cannot stand alone.

One of the variations across states is the number and types of domains that are included in the diploma policy. Maine has specified that students must demonstrate proficiency within eight domains, while Vermont and Rhode Island only require six. All states have included set state-level cross-curricular skills and offered resources to districts to help them develop a structure and build capacity. (For more on proficiency-based diplomas, stay tuned for the next blog in this series.)

  1. Calibration

How can parents be confident that their children are making progress and becoming proficient in all the skills they will need to graduate ready for college and careers?

What needs to be in place within the system itself so that students, parents, college admissions, and employers can have full confidence in the diploma?

These are the types of questions that must be addressed in redesigning the education system. As discussed previously, one of the most important elements needed to create a competency-based system is to create mechanisms that can calibrate (also referred to as moderation or tuning) what it means to be proficient for specific standards and competencies and at specific performance levels. If teachers, schools, districts, and states do not have a shared understanding of what it means to be proficient, then variability and inconsistency will continue to corrode the reliability of schools and undermine efforts to eliminate the achievement gap. (more…)

Seven Key Questions for States Looking to Transition to Competency Education

January 20, 2017 by

This is the seventh post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

Competency-based education is expanding across the country under a variety of different terms, including mastery-based, proficiency-based, and performance-based. Educators turn to competency-based education when they realize the traditional system isn’t working for many students – and is never going to work for all students. Teachers are frustrated by a system that expects them to teach students grade-level standards even if they are missing years of prerequisite skills. Students are frustrated by a system in which some of them are passed along with Cs and Ds, unable to engage in grade-level curriculum, while others endure the boredom of doing seat-time because they already know the content.

For district leaders and policymakers seeking to introduce K-12 competency-based education within their states, there are key questions to consider when looking to begin this transition. Early on in the process, states need to make a few important decisions that will lay the foundation for the rest of their efforts. These decisions make a difference.

  1. michael-martin-quoteHow will the vision and direction be described/defined?

States vary in how they describe their vision. Vermont focused on a triad of personalization, proficiency-based learning, and flexible pathways. New Hampshire has stayed focused primarily on a competency-based system with a strong emphasis on creating a balanced assessment system. Maine’s vision was outlined in the strategic education plan and has been communicated as a proficiency-based diploma supported by a standards-based system.

  1. What is the theory of change?

What is the underlying theory of change of the state policy? As has been discussed in the earlier section on policy features, states will need to think beyond the specific authorizing policies to consider how to engage districts, schools, and educators in understanding the underlying values, building expertise in personalization and competency-based education, and initiating implementation.

  1. What is the implication of the strategy for engaging communities?

Community engagement—not simply marketing an idea and buy-in, but authentic and respectful community engagement—is an essential ingredient for effective implementation. It establishes dialogue and demonstrates respect, which are both important first steps in transitioning from the traditional values to the new values and assumptions that create the necessary culture for competency-based education. When done well, it can catalyze trust-building and create opportunities to experience the new values. It also lays the groundwork to help parents and the community understand why the transition to competency education is important so they are not taken by surprise when policies that are visible to them, such as grading policies, eventually change. (more…)

Three Lessons Learned from New England States Transitioning to Competency-Based Education

January 11, 2017 by

This is the sixth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

david-prinstein-quoteWhat can we learn about state-level strategies from New England states transitioning to competency-based education? At this point in the evolution of competency education, there are a few solid lessons to be learned from the New England region. It is helpful to compare and contrast the different approaches of the states, looking for powerful insights into the considerations of different strategies and approaches, as this provides deeper understanding and can shine a light on what is the best path for a state. Some states, such as Connecticut, may want to create enabling policies, while others, like Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, will contemplate bolder, more comprehensive steps toward transformation.

However, context matters: considerations need to include public demand and level of public trust, what is already in place, the degree to which districts and schools have already embraced some or all of the elements of competency education, level of consensus among leadership, competing agenda items, and the structural and financial issues that shape schools, such as district consolidations, funding, and political turmoil.

Three Important Lessons Learned

  1. Educators turn to competency-based education because it makes sense regardless of the state policy. Given the strong state leadership in establishing comprehensive competency-based policy in most of the New England states, it would be easy to think that state policy is always the first step in making the transition to competency-based education. However, there are innovators and schools considering competency-based education in Massachusetts with little encouragement from state leaders. In Maine, one of the original sources of early innovation were the districts that formed the Maine Collaborative for Customized Learning.
  2. Policy is important, but not sufficient. Establishing high-leverage policy such as proficiency-based diplomas or credits will direct districts toward competency education. However, it doesn’t mean they will move quickly to implementation or that they will implement it effectively. Creating innovation space doesn’t necessarily produce a groundswell of innovators. Statewide change requires a combination of innovation space, support, networks, and political coverage. Maine provided upfront training to a “coalition of the willing” before passing a policy that created proficiency-based diplomas. Vermont and New Hampshire have extensive support strategies, although they are very different in design. Most importantly, community engagement strategies need to be deployed to provide opportunities for shaping the vision of the district and schools as well as to learn about competency-based education practices.
  3. Walk the talk by using similar guiding principles as those found in personalized, competency-based districts. It isn’t going to work for states to use traditional change and communication strategies if they want to move beyond the traditional system. For example, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to implement competency-based education through compliance strategies. Compliance assumes that the state knows exactly what should be done when, in fact, there are many ways to design personalized, competency-based models. The paradigm shift is too important to the process of transformation—educators and community members need the opportunity to learn, to reflect, and to decide that this is what they want to do. In addition, the large systemic changes have many implications to be considered. Co-design or collaborative processes that draw on multiple perspectives is a much stronger strategy.

(more…)

A Timeline of K-12 Competency-Based Education Across New England States

January 10, 2017 by

This is the fifth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

The New England region stands out for its early innovations, bold vision, and high percentage of districts becoming competency-based. Yet, a quick glance at the timeline shows that the earliest models popped up on both sides of the country – in Boston and Anchorage – around 1995. So why is it that competency-based education has taken hold in New England with such momentum?

timelineLet’s take a look at a few of the possibilities.

A Good Idea Creates Continuity

The New England states have not had continuity in leadership. Governors have changed, as have the Secretaries of Education and other key personnel. Complicated budget issues, volatile political dynamics, and redistricting have demanded attention. Yet competency education has continued to be a major priority. Why? Because there are enough people in influential positions who believe in it. Some have argued that because students in New England states are relatively high-achieving, there just isn’t any other way to generate improvement except to create a more personalized, flexible system. Moreover, many educators will vouch for it, affirming that once you understand what competency education can do, there is no going back. With strong local control, this makes it harder for state leadership to change course because the policy is perceived as beneficial to students and educators. (more…)

The Trouble with Prescriptive Policies When Paradigms are Shifting

January 9, 2017 by
david ruff

David Ruff

This is the fourth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England. For a more in-depth look at this issue, join David Ruff of Great Schools Partnership and Paul Leather of New Hampshire Department of Education on January 11th for a CompetencyWorks webinar to explore K-12 competency-based education policy and practice across five New England states. Register here.

How can a state bring about a much-needed change when the only way to ensure effective implementation is for educators to want to make the change?

This is what some might called the paradigm-changing policy paradox shared by the New England states and most states across our country. This tongue-twisting, profoundly complex paradox is created because of two dynamics. First, given that competency education requires a paradigm shift or a change in values and assumptions, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to implement effectively without educators embracing those values. When the policies and practices of competency education are placed upon the old values of fixed mindsets and compliant students, classrooms become overwhelmed by linearity and checklists as students tediously climb a ladder of standards. It is very difficult to mandate or require people to believe differently or do something they don’t think is valuable. There has to be an opportunity to engage, reflect, and learn. Second, the states in New England (similar to most states across the country) value local control and are resistant to policies or regulations that feel like a mandate. Thus, prescriptive policies are unlikely to engage districts, schools, and educators and may even produce substantial pushback.

ellen-hume-quoteGiven that it is impossible to mandate that people accept new values and beliefs, state policy to advance competency education will not immediately translate to transformation of the education system, regardless of how bold, intricate, or high-leverage it is. What are state policymakers to do? How can they drive toward a new education system while not actually mandating that any school change? If competency education is more easily and effectively implemented by educators who have come to their own conclusion that it is needed, how do you engage districts and schools through state policy to want to convert?

Thus, states are challenged to find ways to engage districts in the learning that it is needed to implement competency-based education. (By the way, this same paradox challenges districts, principals, and teachers as they seek to engage and motivate school leaders, other teachers, and students). (more…)

Five Drivers of Transformation in New England States

January 5, 2017 by

fiveThis is the third post in the series on Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

Competency education is advancing in New England through a combination of shared vision and values, mutual respect and collaboration, and courageous leadership that is motivated by a sense of urgency to do better for students, communities, and the economy.

The following five concepts are the core ideas that are driving change in New England at the school, district, and state levels.

  1. Theory of Change Based on New Values

In most of the New England states, competency-based education is advancing with a new set of values that are the foundation of competency-based education as well as being used by principals, districts, and even state policymakers to catalyze the transformational process:

  • A growth mindset that deeply believes that with the right conditions, educators can learn the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are needed to help every student succeed and to teach within a personalized, competency-based system.
  • A strong culture of learning and supporting communities of learners, which eliminates the culture of “blaming and shaming.”
  • Transparency and mutual accountability that builds trust and respect, establishes continuous improvement, and increases responsiveness.
  • Autonomy and empowering strategies that engage others in problem-solving and co-creating new systems and practices.
  • Personalization that responds to the unique contexts and needs of districts, schools, and educators rather than one-size fits all policy, technical assistance, and professional development.

These values are used to shape classrooms and the school day, upgrade district operations, and redesign statewide policies and structures. They are also driving the leadership approaches and change process needed to transform schools.

  1. Coalitions of the Willing

Working independently, courageous district leadership might have been seen as marshalling unique efforts. However, local collaboratives and regional networks such as the New England Secondary School Consortium amplified the lessons learned, created political coverage, and created avenues for communication with state leadership as well as other stakeholders such as parents and college admissions officers. Thus, the effort in New England to date has been driven through a coalition of the willing.

  1. From Compliance to Support

State leadership in these three states has begun to reduce the reliance of the state education agencies on compliance. Instead, they are seeking to provide more support to help create the conditions necessary for transformation. This is an important step in creating a statewide culture of learning and organizational agility so that districts, schools, and educators can be more responsive to students’ needs. To do so requires that state education agency staff become substantially more sensitive to the context in which districts operate and their long-term strategies. (more…)

The Every Student Succeeds Act: A Catalyst for Competency Education at Scale?

January 4, 2017 by
Susan Patrick

Susan Patrick

This essay by Susan Patrick and Maria Worthen was featured in the report Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

New England’s competency education journey is the story of how stakeholders, coming together to create a shared vision for student success, can move the needle on state – and ultimately federal – policy.

When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed in December 2015, it reflected the lessons learned and the advocacy of educators, superintendents, state leaders, and congressional representatives from New England to make room for systems that align to competency-based education. Congressional staff looked to states like New Hampshire to ensure that they could continue to implement innovative performance assessments for accountability purposes that also support learning.

The new flexibilities in ESSA did not appear out of thin air. They are the result of years of hard work by states who are getting results from competency-based education, but were unable to fully realize their vision due to the limitations of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The New England states featured in Beyond the Tipping Point: Insights in Advancing Competency Education in New England  are well-positioned to take advantage of ESSA’s opportunities to deepen their efforts in shifting to personalized, competency-based education.

What Are ESSA’s Opportunities for States?

recommended-reading-on-state-policyESSA, the new K-12 federal education law, shifts significant power back to states, with increased flexibility to rethink accountability, redesign systems of assessments, and modernize educator development. It provides a new opportunity for states to redefine what success means for students, beyond a single test score, and to align systems around this vision. It is now possible to design a more student-centered education system in which assessment supports learning and accountability enables data-rich, continuously-improving personalized learning environments in which students advance upon mastery. In this new era, states also have the opportunity to shape the future of the teacher workforce, building the capacity to take on the new roles required in a competency-based system.

Rethinking Accountability

Under ESSA, state accountability systems will now be required to include at least four indicators, providing a historic opportunity for states to rethink the definition of student success. These indicators include:

  • Grade-level proficiency;
  • English language proficiency;
  • Graduation rates; and
  • An indicator of school quality selected by the state, which could include student and teacher engagement, school climate, and non-cognitive skills.

States may include any other indicators beyond these four in their accountability system; however, all indicators must be disaggregated by student subgroup, and the first three indicators listed above must carry the greatest weight in identifying schools for improvement. States must identify at least the bottom five percent of the lowest performing schools in the state for comprehensive improvement, and the schools with the greatest achievement gaps for targeted improvement of subgroup performance. (more…)

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