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…)

Whose Classroom Is This? The Importance of Students’ Voice in Creating a Writer’s Workshop

January 9, 2014 by


To reach as many students and skills as possible in a given Unit of Study, and to allow kids time to write and practice, Language Arts teachers at MAMS employ a mini-lesson model. By teaching one 10-12 minute mini-lesson each 50-minute block, students are allowed to dedicate much of their block to writing and teachers are able to confer with students individually or in small groups. The topic of the mini-lesson is determined by the needs of the students in the class, and individual work-time helps teachers work with students who may be working on the lesson topic. (more…)

Curriculum Models Need to Preserve Standards, Not Break Them Apart

January 7, 2014 by

Core Curriculum DesignIn a recent article in Educational Leadership, Grant Wiggins writes about a definition of mastery that holds students to high standards through authentic, challenging assessments that demonstrate the effective transfer of learning. In order to do this, he says, curriculum design cannot support the creation of “microstandards” – the practice of breaking standards down into “lists of bits” that actually prevent students from developing fluency and skills in authentic work. These “bits,” according to Wiggins, actually prevent deep learning.

And Wiggins is right. He even warns that it is a “peril” of curriculum development and design. What some don’t see is that standards don’t need to be broken into small chunks – they need to be attained. The skills students need to attain the standards are another story. Skills need practice and sometimes we even need to isolate parts of a skill in order to develop it and improve. It’s like hitting a baseball: we know we have to watch the ball, step forward and swing the bat. If the standard is to hit the ball, then the skill required to attain the standard is all in what we do when we swing.

Wiggins cited an interesting analogy: microstandards are like twigs; while twigs come from trees, you cannot use twigs to make a tree, but you can use twigs to burn one down. Breaking apart standards, therefore, renders them useless.

Another pitfall of “microstandards” is “micro rigor.” When we pull the standards apart, we decrease the rigor. For example, if we want students to write a clear, focused essay that contains insightful evidence and well-articulated ideas, do we get there by breaking down the standard to only encompass clarity? And once they have clarity, do we then move on to focus? The result is lots of students who know how to write a thesis statement, but few who know how to actually use one in their writing. (more…)

Deadlines Matter: Debunking the Myth That Standards-Based Grading Means No Deadlines

January 6, 2014 by

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I have a very compassionate boss. I spent several weeks working on my school’s budget for the upcoming year and I had been sending her updates on my progress throughout. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, though, that on the week that the budget was due my high school had a series of unexpected student issues that consumed most of my time and resources. As important as that budget due date was, I knew I just wasn’t going to make the deadline. As much as I hated to admit defeat, I made the call to her on Friday afternoon to ask for an extension (or at the very least, forgiveness). She was quick to respond to me with this: “Brian, I know it has been a tough week for you. I know through our check-in meetings over the past few weeks that you have been actively working on it. It is ok if you need a little bit more time. Could you have it to me by the middle of next week?” As she uttered those words I could feel the weight of the world lifting off of my shoulders. “Of course I could, thank you for your flexibility!”

What happened between my boss and I that day happens in all aspects of our lives as adults. It is normal behavior to expect that every once in a while people are going to miss a deadline. In the classroom, we as teachers know that students will miss deadlines from time to time. When they do, we do what any normal teacher would do—we become compassionate and flexible. Just like in real life with adults, we only start to worry about the behavior of missing deadlines when it goes from once in a while to chronic. (more…)

Getting Started and Scaling Competency-based Education

January 3, 2014 by
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Andrea Stewart

Iowa is a state no longer content with the status quo perpetuated by an antiquated educational system. Recent legislation and the work of an appointed state task force comprised of diverse stakeholders have unlocked the potential in proficiency-based learning for Iowa’s students. Inspired by the opportunity to change the nature of learning, ten school districts have joined the Iowa Department of Education and representatives from higher education and Area Education Agencies (AEAs) to engage in collaborative learning, to implement competency-based education (CBE) pathways in their districts, and to develop a state framework for CBE implementation.

As we build capacity in understanding CBE in our district and throughout the state, I am often approached with questions about how to get started or how to scale and sustain the work. I usually respond by asking how many days or hours the person has to engage in that conversation. We laugh, but nothing is further from the truth. The atomistic behaviorism that compels Westernized thinking is a limit to understanding CBE as a transformative systems change. Russ Ackoff believed that if we optimize the performance of parts of a system, we suboptimize the system as a whole. Peter Senge agrees that the leverage is in optimizing the interdependencies of a system. With CBE, the limits to growth are microcosmic and macrocosmic, which make them particularly difficult to recognize, map, and mitigate. As such, it is necessary to both take a balcony view and to roll up our sleeves for work in the trenches as Iowa embraces competency-based pathways.

Question 1: What do people who are new to competency-based education need to know or do?

  1. Start with the “why”—a compelling reason for change—and move out from there to the “how” and the “what”. In Muscatine, we talked about the following: need to disrupt the antiquated system so that it can adapt to 21st century demands; understanding that date of manufacture should not determine a student’s path through her or his education experiences; belief that our students need to be adaptable, entrepreneurial, and resilient, which demands a system that supports those demands and that growth. Spend time on the vision and create a theory of action.
  2. Create a common language through an extensive literature review. This includes definitions of terminology related to CBE as well as defining what CBE is not—deconstructing how this work is not just new terms for what our system has tried before (outcomes-based education from the 70s/80s, for example). This philosophy and methodology are qualitatively different from past paradigms—this needs to be explicated. (more…)

Competency Education: The Solution to Retention

December 30, 2013 by

ColbyRecently a group of teachers was working on performance tasks and assessments. They were aligning their units of study to competencies based on the Common Core State Standards. An interesting conversation erupted in the group.   It was clear that the performance indicators they were designing within their performance tasks represented a more rigorous approach than in the past. One teacher wondered what will happen to students who, by the end of the school year, do not demonstrate mastery of the literacy competencies. When I asked what happened in the past when students failed at the end of the school year, the teacher answered: “ Well, we retain them.”

As a former middle school principal, I know that decisions about retention are difficult.  In spite of knowing the adverse effects of retention on future success, educators and parents generally spend many hours considering interventions and social emotional issues before arriving at the decision to retain a child.

As we turn the corner in designing new learning systems, the notion of considering retention can now be safely set aside.  In a competency based learning system, no child is retained.  It is as simple as that.  Why?  Because with the design of learning progressions, mastery is also progressive.  Our students will move through our learning systems with forward progress at all times.  Some students will need more support, customization, and time to do so.  Educational leaders will have the ability to use resources within their organizations very differently. (more…)

What Can We Learn From Our Foreign Language Teachers?

December 23, 2013 by

I stumbled upon an article Proficiency-based assessment and personalized learning: What world language educators have known for years that described the process that World Language studies used as they moved toward a competency-based system over the past thirty years.

In 1993, four organizations (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the American Association of Teachers of French, the American Association of Teachers of German, and the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese) developed standards for learning foreign languages designed around five themes (Communication, Culture, Connection, Comparison and Communities). Click here for the foreign language standards and proficiency guidelines.

According to the author, embracing standards immediately challenged the notion of grade levels:

The most evident change to the foreign languages standards at that time was replacing grade-level standards with proficiency-level expectations. The proficiency levels are: novice, intermediate, advanced and superior. Additionally, each of these levels (except superior) was further subdivided into low, mid and high. The proficiency levels were defined separately by the ability to listen, speak, read and write in the target language. These new foreign languages standards were framed differently than standards in the past. A Novice Low proficiency level, whether taught to a first grader or a 10th grader, would contain the same standard content — gone were grade-level standards.

Forty states now base their state standards upon this framework. Yet they’ve been operating in the traditional world of Carnegie units and bell-curved grades.  Perhaps we can find leadership and expertise behind the doors of our foreign language classrooms. Perhaps competency-based foreign language teachers in states and districts with enabling policies can now unleash the power of time so that students can reach for higher achievement. Certainly, strong foreign language programs are important for recognizing the assets our ELL students bring to school, helping all of our students  compete for college and jobs, and for our country to navigate globalization.

A final thought — in considering the world language standards, perhaps if we apply competency-based instruction to ELL instruction, we might finally be able to open the door for students to fully access academic literacy across the disciplines. In January, I’ll be writing about how ELL in competency-based schools.


Proficiency-based Education Meet-Up in Oregon

December 18, 2013 by

Bea McGarvey

If you live in Oregon you should be putting March 6-7, 2014 on your calendar. The Confederation of Oregon School Administrators and the Business Education Compact are hosting the 2014 Northwest Proficiency/Competency Conference. It is THE meeting in Oregon for educators involved in implementing and expanding proficiency-based education to come together and learn from each other. You can register here.

Bea McGarvey, co-author of Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning will be the featured speaker. This is great news as many of the schools I visited had standards-referenced grading down pat but hadn’t quite figured out how to make their classrooms more personalized. McGarvey has been very influential in other parts of the country that have been converting to competency-education. So I can’t wait to see what happens once Oregonians, always innovating and pushing the envelope, begin to experiment with more personalized approaches.

Break out sessions include:
•    Assessment with Proficiency Strategies
•    Communicating with Key Stakeholders
•    CTE & Proficiency
•    Empowering Students
•    Grading & Reporting
•    Intervention Models
•    Outcomes with Proficiency Teaching Strategies
•    Proficiency and CCSS
•    Proficiency and Online Learning
•    Proficiency at the Elementary Level
•    Proficiency Models in Other States
•    School System Design Models
•    Technology & Proficiency
•    Transcripting Proficiency for Higher Education

If you are attending, please share your learning through Twitter (#cworks) and even by posting your big insights here.

Is Mastery a 3 or a 4 or Something Far Beyond That?

December 17, 2013 by
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Grant Wiggins

We hear the critique of competency education occasionally as a linear, rigid, boring process of students learning and testing, learning and testing. We also hear the concern about classroom instruction and software products that declare students proficient because they have done recall or basic skills. Certainly, we know that schools across the country are challenged by the higher expectations of the Common Core to upgrade instruction and assessments so that students can actually engage in learning at higher levels of learning (or some would say deeper).

In the EL essay How Good is Good Enough, Grant Wiggins takes on these issues, calling for us to “recalibrate” our understanding of mastery so that we can ensure students can apply the whole concept and not just the “bits.”

In the essay, Grant Wiggins proposes this definition of mastery: Mastery is the effective transfer of learning into an authentic and worthy performance. Students have mastered a subject when they are fluent, even creative, in using their knowledge, skills, and understanding in key performance challenges and contexts at the heart of that subject, as measured against valid and high standards.

But of course standards can vary. Wiggins argues that we must recalibrate our schools to external standards. He goes as far as to say that schools that don’t are not standards-based. That’s a big challenge to schools around the country saying that they are doing standards-referenced or standards-based grading. (more…)

APEX Academy: A Diploma Plus School

December 16, 2013 by

173339Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit with Alfonzo Paz, Assistant Principal at  Academic Performance Excellence Academy, better known as APEX Academy.

APEX is co-located in a large high school in East Hollywood with 330 students from a mostly Latino community with pockets of Armenian, African-American and Asian families. APEX is a Diploma Plus (DP) school, a model developed over 15 years ago. Interestingly, APEX, a charter school, started as a district-run school, but budget cuts began to impact the quality of their school — not so much because of reduced resources but because they ended up with teachers that didn’t share the vision of competency education. The underlying issue was with union policy that gave teachers the right to teach the way they want. How could they have a competency-based school if teachers refused to be competency-based in their instruction, assessment and grading?

I first learned about competency education when I was a program officer at the Mott Foundation during a site visit to one of the earlier DP schools (you can read more about Diploma Plus in Making Mastery Work). So I was thrilled to learn about how Diploma Plus had advanced during my visit to APEX.  DP is designed to work in a variety of educational settings depending on the focus, mission and need of the school or program. I’ve seen it mostly in alternative schools serving over-age and undercredit students.  However, APEX is what I call an “inclusive” high school – it is set up as a regular four-year high school but enrolls students no matter what their educational experience, including re-enrolling after dropping out. Here are a few of the highlights of my visit:

Structure: The DP model doesn’t have age-based grades. Instead it has three phases -  Foundation, Presentation, and, Plus. The Foundation phase is focused on getting students skills up to 10th grade level as many start with gaps in skills as far back as 4th or 5th grade.  Paz explained that APEX had split Presentation Phase into two sections as students were coming from so far behind and needed a sense of progress. Presentation is focused on helping students build up a portfolio of the work emphasizing performance tasks and assessments. Students in the Plus Phase participate in internships, college courses, and community action projects in order to support their successful transition to life after high school. (more…)

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