Check Out What is Happening in New England

January 27, 2014 by

new englandI just took a peek at the New England Secondary Schools Consortium agenda for the conference High School Redesign in Action March 20-21. It is packed full of sessions on competency education (or proficiency-based if you live in Maine or mastery-based if you live in Connecticut) and personalized learning. Here are a few of the highlights – wish I could be there.

Agents of Their Own Learning: A District’s Proficiency-Based System Enters Maturity: District staff, principals and teachers from Maine’s Regional School Unit 2 will discuss what they’ve learned from several years of implementation, including structure, schedule, and other design elements that have empowered the district to dramatically increase personalization for students.

A Mastery-Based Lesson on Mastery-Based Learning is a look at how High School in the Community has advanced mastery-based learning to help all students take more responsibility over their own education, while they also address skill deficits, acquire college- and career-ready skills, and excel in their areas of interest. It is led by teachers Gail Emilsson and Adeline Marzialo.

Systematic Measurement of Progress Toward Competency

January 24, 2014 by


systematic jan24Our growing national commitment to early childhood learning success will probably continue to produce mediocre results.  Despite a greater awareness of the importance of early learning success, we still offer preschool and K-3 programs that are substantially the same as the programs which have led to present outcomes.  Most schools have not yet learned to use systematic measurement of progress toward competency in the essential outcomes which are the foundation of learning success for life.

Amazingly most schools don’t even try.  Schools were designed to deliver content, test kids, give grades, and allow less successful learners to choose to leave school for other pursuits.  We’ve increased the quantity of content we deliver (way too much).  We argue about the list of standards that we should “cover” (a huge distraction from more pressing issues).  We push forward with the delivery of content whether students are successful or not, without assuring that key competencies are achieved. Then we wonder and complain when students disengage from learning.

In a January, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, Bill Gates argued for the power of systematic measurement of progress: “Setting clear goals, choosing an approach, measuring results, and then using those measurements to continually refine our approach—helps us to deliver tools and services to everybody who will benefit, be they students in the U.S. or mothers in Africa.”

A poor rural school in Mississippi began implementation of systematic assessment toward essential early learning outcomes in 2008-09.  Using the Essential Skill Inventories they learned to:

  1. Clearly identify essential learning outcomes
  2. Use systematic measurement to determine the readiness levels of your students in relation to essential outcomes
  3. Offer responsive instruction and carefully monitor progress until these skills/objectives are deeply understood (competency)
  4. Allow students to move on to more advanced learning as soon as they are ready

In their first years of implementation at Simpson Central School, teachers reported struggling with knowing how to embed assessment opportunities into instructional design, and questioned their ability to use observational assessment to help measure progress.  They had difficulty staying on the schedule for updating their classroom skills inventory.  Some teachers reported that “covering lessons” was more comfortable than planning instruction around the complex learning needs of their students.  But with good leadership, they persisted. (more…)

Can’t Visit A Competency-based School?

January 22, 2014 by
ME Center for Best Practices

ME Center for Best Practices

There are more and more people wanting to understand what competency education is and what it looks like in a school and in a classroom. It’s not easy if you live in a place far from the most innovative schools. So here are a few ways you can learn more about competency education (or proficiency-based, mastery-based or performance-based approaches).

  1. Re-inventing Schools Coalition is offering a distance-learning course on how to create a personal mastery classroom. The course, Tools to Create a Standards-Based Classroom, will be taught by Greg Johnson from Bering Strait School District. The reading list includes:
  •  Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S., A comprehensive guide to designing standards-based districts, schools, and classrooms. (1996).
  • Delorenzo, R. A., Battino, W. J., Schreiber, R. M., Gaddy Carrio, B. B., Delivering on the Promise: The Education Revolution.
  • Tomlinson, C. A., McTighe, J., Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding Design.


  1. Great Schools Partnership offers a series of webinars. Coming up next:
  • February 11: Response to Intervention: Supporting Student Success. This is an important topic as many schools forget to build up their capacity to deliver supports the first year. Then find themselves with a lot of students not yet proficient at the end of the semester.
  • March 5: Proficiency-based Learning Simplified: Supporting Students with Disabilities with Kelley Rush Sanborn, Special Education Director from Mount Desert Island in Maine. (more…)

Oklahoma Considering Proficiency-based Promotion

January 20, 2014 by


270px-Oklahoma_in_United_States.svgWe knew once Robert Sommers became head of Oklahoma’s  Secretary of Education and Workforce Development that it wouldn’t be long until we started to see Oklahoma move towards competency education.  Here are a few of the highlights of the proposed changes in administrative policy that are open for public comment until February 5th.  Please note that Oklahoma – along with Maine, Colorado, and Oregon – uses the language of proficiency-based.

1)   Allowance for Time-based or Competency-based Credits

Oklahoma is upgrading its graduation requirements specifically stating the expectations for academic skills rather than how many units. For example, the proposed policy lists acceptable math courses including  Algebra, Trigonometry and Statistics rather than just describing three units of math. The proposed policy for college preparatory/work ready curriculum requires states: “ In order to graduate with a standard diploma from a public high school accredited by the State Board of Education, students shall complete the following college preparatory/work ready curriculum units or sets of competencies at the secondary level”.  Sets of competencies are defined as “instruction in those skills and competencies that are specified skills and competencies adopted by the State Board of Education without regard to specified instructional time”.  From what I can tell this opens the door to districts and schools that want to convert to proficiency-based models.

2)   Enabling Proficiency-based Promotion

There is specific language that allows students to be placed in courses and to advance based on proficiency-based assessments. It’s an interesting policy to lead with as it does allow students to “advance upon mastery” without having to “do their time” based on the Carnegie unit. This policy will certainly benefit “gifted” students, students who want to speed through their high school experience – which includes kids who just hate high school, who are clear on what they want to do in life, who need to work to support their family, and those who want to get away from their community or family – and students who are over-age, under-credited, and about to age out of the K-12 system.


Vermont Breakaway on Proficiency-based Policy

John Fischer, Deputy Commissioner, VT Agency of Education

John Fischer, Deputy Commissioner, VT Agency of Education

David Ruff from the Great Schools Partnership forwarded me Vermont’s Education Quality Standards or Rule 2000 recently adopted by the Board of Education. He had said that Vermont was barreling forward and he was right.

Here are a few of the highlights of the policy:

1) Definition:  This is one of the best policy definitions of proficiency-based or competency education I’ve seen. I would probably have used “unit” instead of lesson because we all know sometimes if you just keep moving forward while you are learning something, it just clicks! But that’s in the weeds.

Proficiency-based learning” and “proficiency-based graduation” refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level, or receive a diploma.

2) Graduation Requirements: Vermont makes it clear that graduation is based on proficiency.

A student meets the requirements for graduation when the student demonstrates evidence of proficiency in the curriculum outlined in 2120.5, and completion of any other requirements specified by the local board of the school attended by the student.

Later on it goes into more detail stating that credits must be proficiency-based and leaving room for schools to move to an entirely proficiency-based structure if they desire.  (more…)

Piecing it Together

January 16, 2014 by

piecing it together photoLately, I have been reflecting on my past experiences. Not because of illness or a milestone, but because I read something in a Tweet. Seems as though some people are concerned about proficiency-based learning. The worry is that it can lead to the creation of “microstandards” which kill deep learning and replace it with simplistic, discrete tasks that students master and check off before moving on to the next. While I have seen schools take standards and create worksheet factories so students can demonstrate mastery of the standards by simply completing the packet, I do not blame the breaking down of the standards. I believe it is good practice to identify the foundational knowledge a learner needs to apply to demonstrate understanding of a learning target. Instead, I believe the issue lies in educators not putting the pieces back together.

This revelation is what has caused the flashbacks to my previous work experiences. I did not start out as an educator. Before finding my way to the principal’s office, I worked as an engineer, a research scientist, and an animal trainer for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Regardless of the special skills required for each job, I approached issues and challenges the same. I needed to know my intended outcome, identify from where I was starting, break down the gap to script the critical moves to get me there, execute the script, and then put the pieces back together. (more…)

Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education

January 15, 2014 by

CompetencyWorks - Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education - January 2014iNACOL and CompetencyWorks are releasing Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education today. Every school at some point will find that they are stumbling over traditional grading systems. This paper is designed to help you as your district or school prepares to create grading practices that reinforce the culture of learning.

If you want to get the big picture – Carve out an hour and dive into the full paper with sections on why today’s grading is undermining learning and school performance, the major elements of how districts and schools are designing new grading systems, insights into implementation as well as emerging issues.

If you want to cut to the chase and learn about the major elements of designing grading for competency-based schools read the Executive Summary.

If you want to see examples of how districts and schools are designing their grading policies, check out the wiki.

And, if you want to hear from principals and teachers about their experiences in grading, check out some blog posts and video resources:

We welcome your comments — especially if it differs from the ideas presented in the paper. We need to continue to push each other to find even better ways to support our students. We are also looking for folks who want to help us respond to other questions as they emerge, share their stories and insights of implementing new grading practices, and help us address many of the misconceptions and fears about competency education and its grading practices. This includes students — we’d love to hear about their experiences in moving from A-F grading to practices used in competency-based schools.

Our School’s Pathway to Competency-Based Learning

January 14, 2014 by
Jonathan Vander Els

Jonathan Vander Els

In our continued quest to gain more information about students’ learning, growth and progress, a standards/competency-based grading system has provided our school and our district with timely, detailed information regarding the specific competencies that students have (or have not) demonstrated proficiency in.

Our district transitioned to a competency-based grading system four years ago, and now that we are fully implemented, I can’t imagine assessing in any other way. However, this has been and will continue to be a learning process. There have been a number of bumps in the road during this journey, but the end result is that, as one teacher stated, we, “know more about our students now than we have ever known”.

There was a significant amount of discussion at the leadership level prior to moving to this system, and many questions had to be answered, like ‘should we do this by level (elementary, middle and then high school) or do we make the decision as a district to move to this system in grades K-12?’ A number of our staff (myself included) had the opportunity to see Rick Wormeli in Boston and the information gleaned and the resulting discussions began to pave the way for the work we were going to undertake. (more…)

Going Higher and Deeper

January 11, 2014 by

Developing higher order skills requires deeper learning. As schools implement competency education they realize getting to knowledDLmooc-on-g+ge utilization or extended thinking requires opportunity for exploration, project-based, problem-based or real-world learning. They realize that they need to be able to go deep.

To learn more about deeper learning, a Deeper Learning MOOC is being offered from January 27 – March 21. It’s free and as always with MOOC’s you can actually participate according to your own schedule. The Deeper Learning MOOC is a collaboration between High Tech High Graduate School of Education, MIT Media Lab, Peer 2 Peer University, and the Deeper Learning Community of Practice. This project is generously being supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Raikes Foundation.  

My advice: Get 2-3 other people to work together on the activities. It’s much more fun and meaningful. I’ve learned that I only do the full course if there is some mutual accountability as well as having the fun and support of a team.

Watch Out for Wyoming

January 10, 2014 by
Richard Crandall

Richard Crandall

Competency education is likely to take root in Wyoming over the next few years. The new Director at the Wyoming Department of Education, Richard Crandall, is a fan of competency education. Crandall worked as a state senator in Arizona to get legislation passed as part of the Move on When Ready initiative, which introduced the Grand Canyon Diploma.  A recent article in the Caspar Star Tribune reports that “Crandall said that by 2015 and 2016 ‘you will see a few of these national models popping up’ in the state.”

Given Crandall’s experience in Arizona it’s likely we will see Wyoming consider the Excellence for All model upon which the Grand Canyon Diploma is based. Arizona is one of the states participating in the National Center for Education and the Economy’s Excellence for All (EfA) initiatives.  EfA promotes aligned instruction and examination that allows students to advance to higher-level work once they pass the exams.  Schools organize around a lower and upper division, each with a selected instructional system.  (more…)

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