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.

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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…)

Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England

December 27, 2016 by

treesThis article begins the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England. On January 11th, CompetencyWorks is hosting a webinar to explore K-12 competency-based education policy and practice across five New England states: Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont (with a brief look at Massachusetts). Paul Leather of New Hampshire Department of Education and David Ruff of Great Schools Partnership will join Chris Sturgis in exploring lessons learned from New England.

Competency education is expanding across the country as a means to ensure that all students are mastering the skills and knowledge to be successful in college, careers, and civic life. In the New England region, competency education is developing and expanding at unprecedented rates: about one-third of districts in this region are planning or transitioning toward competency education. This series consolidates insights offered by the hundreds of policymakers and education leaders across the New England region who are leading this transformation and creating competency-based systems to better serve students.

This series begins by looking at why and how the New England region embraces competency education. It then turns to insights into the policy strategies being used across states and analyzes the impact of competency education on quality, equity, scaling, and sustainability. Throughout the series, we will add snapshots of the New England states.

Major Lessons Learned

There are three major lessons learned that need to be taken into consideration by anyone advancing competency education: (more…)

Reaching the Tipping Point in New England

October 4, 2016 by

screenshot-2016-10-06-07-29-30There is so much activity in New England regarding competency education (or proficiency-based or mastery-based) that we thought it would be valuable to take a deeper look to see what we might learn. Today, we’ve released Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England

Two other reports were recently released looking at competency education in specific states:

Reaching the Tipping Point opens with an introductory essay, The Every Student Succeeds Act: A Catalyst for Competency Education At Scale?, by Susan Patrick and Maria Worthen that everyone should read. We’ve also taken more time to describe what competency education is, as there continues to be confusion. Then the paper dives into:

  • an exploration of why the region of New England, with some of the most high-achieving education systems, has embraced competency education;
  • insights into the strategies being used by some of the states; and
  • a reflection on progress towards quality, equity, scaling, and sustainability.

In the appendix, readers will find a synopsis of each state strategy, complemented by short case studies of a few districts and schools.

The bottom line: The major lesson learned from New England is that it takes leadership at the district and local levels to venture forth to transform their districts and state leadership willing to create an enabling policy environment with a suite of supports. One without the other will only get us a bit of the way there.

I want to wrap up this post with a great big shout out to Great Schools Partnership, and the New England Secondary Schools Consortium. There is no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t have reached the tipping point without their leadership, networking, generosity in sharing knowledge, and willingness to jump into those really messy details. Thanks to David Ruff and the whole team at GSP/NESSC.

State # of Districts (State source or NCES) Number planning or implementing %
Connecticut 164 4 2%
Maine 254 229 90%
Massachusetts 409 1
New Hampshire 99 89 90%
Rhode Island 41 2 4%
Vermont: Half of the districts participated in a training this year. So we use 25% estimate to be conservative.  60 30 50%
1027 355 35%

 

See also:

Building Capacity to Serve Off-Track Students with the Barr Foundation

September 29, 2016 by

barr-foundationThis post has been updated with corrections.

Our country has been talking about ways to improve secondary education for at least thirty years: school-to-work, small schools, senior year transition, early college, project-based learning, service learning, online then blended learning, deeper learning, authentic learning, ninth grade transition, inquiry-based learning, community-based learning, portfolios, and exhibitions. In the last year, there has been a whole new push, starting with a White House convening on high schools and XQ. Now add the Barr Foundation’s courageous and insightful effort to build secondary school opportunities to better serve students who are missing the skills or credits they need to graduate, (i.e. they are “off track”).

One has to ask why hasn’t there been more progress or why these models and practices haven’t had more scaling power, more staying power. Of course our analysis at CompetencyWorks is that the traditional structure of education is going to be a significant challenge, if not a barrier, to any new educational strategies for the following reasons:

  1. Students are passed on even when they haven’t learned what they need to learn.
  2. Traditional scaffolding strategies usually fail to help students to actually learn and master the pre-requisite skills they need to engage in high school curriculum. We insist on grade level curriculum even when students need something else in order to succeed.
  3. Even with the highest engagement strategies, the traditional point systems and GPA only motivate the highest achievers.
  4. Students simply do not have enough information to know what they need to do to do better (and in many cases the teachers don’t know either) and don’t have the support they need.
  5. There is too much variability in how teachers determine proficiency.

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Can Melrose Go Deeper with Competency-Based Education?

June 1, 2016 by

Melrose Public SchoolsMassachusetts is often recognized as a leader in education – although that is not so in the case of competency-based education. Even though it is home to two of the early competency-based innovators – Diploma Plus and Boston Day and Evening Academy – Massachusetts to date has been slow to engage in making the transition to competency-based education.

That may be changing.

While I was in New England, I had the chance to talk with Melrose Public School Superintendent Cyndy Taymore and twenty or so others – teachers, principals, parents, union leaders, school board members, and special education specialists – involved in their exploration of what a competency-based system might look like. It was a wonderful experience for me, as I rarely get a chance to talk to districts in the early exploration stage.

It was also eye-opening, as they helped me understand that higher income and higher achieving districts might be interested in competency-based education as a means to introduce greater rigor and greater personalization into their system.

Why is Melrose Interested in Competency-Based Education?

Many districts come to competency-based education because of demographic changes that are bringing more low-income families into their communities and their realization that they need a better way to respond to greater diversity. Melrose is experiencing the opposite trend – it has been increasingly becoming more affluent, and parents are becoming more demanding that the schools provide high levels of rigor and more opportunities for their children. Melrose is considering competency-based education as a strategy that can benefit the traditionally high achieving student while opening the door for traditionally lower achieving students to thrive. (more…)

Empowering Youth to Chart their Course to Readiness

April 29, 2015 by

This post originally appeared at SparkAction, The Forum for Youth Investment, on February 12, 2015.

A post on the Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) Facebook page offers this student reflection: “At my old school: I was lost and confused and left behind. At BDEA: I get taught as an individual so I can get help with what I need.”

It is common for students talk about a “before BDEA” and an “after,” when describing their education. The school, which overlooks Dudley Square in Roxbury, Mass., is designed specifically for students aged 16 to 24 who are over-age for their grade level or have previously dropped out.

Students typically come to BDEA two or more years behind. Almost all have a spotty school history. Many have experienced deep trauma or personal crisis, and most have been told, directly or indirectly, that they were a lost cause.

By pushing the boundaries of traditional public education—holding some classes in the evening, grouping students by skill level rather than grade or age, replacing letter grades with a three-point proficiency scale—the school is able to support and graduate a population of students that other schools have failed to engage. A majority (85 percent) of students who enroll are still there six months later, according to the most recent assessment. 8 in 10 who complete five trimesters will graduate within three years. (more…)

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