CompetencyWorks is an online resource dedicated to providing information and knowledge about competency education in the K-12 education system. Drawing on lessons learned by innovators and early adopters, CompetencyWorks shares original research, knowledge and a variety of perspectives through an informative blog with practitioner knowledge, policy advancements, papers on emerging issues and a wiki with resources curated from across the field. CompetencyWorks also offers a blog on competency education in higher education so that the sectors can learn from each other and begin to align systems across K-12, higher education and the workplace.

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Casco Bay High School: Tips and Takeaways

November 16, 2015 by

Casco Bay HSThis post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine. This is the first of a four-part look at Casco Bay High School.

I am so glad I had a chance to visit Casco Bay High School. I learned so much, and there is so much more to be learned from the incredible set of educators. I know the visit will continue to influence my thinking and understanding of proficiency-based learning along the way. Thanks to all the staff and students for sharing their stories and insights.

Two Big Takeaways

1. Putting it All Together: One of the things you can’t help asking yourself while visiting this school is, “How do they do all of this?”

I think the answer can be found in a few things. First, they are very clear about what they want for students and the strategies that will work best to get them there. Everything feels intentional and driven by clear principles. Second, there is a strong culture of learning. As one staff person said, “We are always under construction. We are always trying new things.” Third, there are strong rituals. Those rituals reinforce the culture, reinforce values, and often contain a number of activities wrapped together. Fourth, principal Derek Pierce uses a distributed leadership model. He is very comfortable engaging others in decision-making. A teacher remarked that few decisions are made by Pierce without substantial input. In fact, when they started the transition to proficiency-based learning, all the teachers were part of the leadership team. Now that they are operational, the leadership team is smaller, with one representative from each of the teams and one at-large representative. However, they still use protocols to make decisions that ensure input and participation. Finally, they all share in the joy of learning.

2. The Power of the HOW: Casco has created a balance of a number of principles that have contributed to a sophisticated use of HOW (habits of work). Just think about it – Habits of Work are HOW we learn. First, they are dedicated to making sure students can participate (a good principle for anyone interested in creating an equitable culture). Second, they want to make sure students have ownership over their learning and have the skills to succeed. Third, they want to make sure everyone succeeds.

In ensuring students can participate and get more time for learning, they each have to demonstrate a 3 on the Big 3. The focus is on making sure students are putting in the effort, not whether they have mastered every skill or standard.

This got me to thinking: The GPA is supposed to be a powerful predictor of college success because it indicates that students put in the effort. It’s not much of an indicator of what you know, as schools have offered such a wide variety of content in their courses. Couldn’t we replace the GPA with the HOW? Couldn’t a 3 or more indicate that you have built the necessary skills to be an independent learner? (more…)

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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Deadlines and Redos

November 12, 2015 by

Real WorldThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on September 28, 2015. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

One of the goals of learner-centered proficiency based education is to create authentic, real-life experiences for our students. Traditionally, the way school has been structured does not really mimic the experience people have outside of school. Do you categorize tasks into subject specific chunks? When is that last time you did just “math?” Have you ever said to yourself, or someone else, something like “Hold on, I’m doing science right now. That writing will have to wait until later.” I doubt it. How strange would that be!?

Or how about other real-life competencies? What happens when you are planning a group presentation, and one member doesn’t do their part? The presentations stinks, or is clearly lopsided. Perhaps the group members get annoyed with one another, and the slacker never gets invited to be a part of that kind of opportunity again. Maybe your supervisor expresses disappointment, and now you feel extra pressure at work. What about if you are late paying a bill? Maybe now you have to pay more. Depending on who you owe the money to, it can be a real hassle to correct the late payment. On the whole, however, we always have a second opportunity or a chance to fix the problem in real life. Even if we mess up royally and end up in prison, there is typically a way to work towards fixing the issue and getting back on track. What generally motivates us to do our best work, and get things paid on time is the hassle involved if we don’t.

If we want to create some of the real-world-esque scenarios around things like deadlines and retakes, we have to start thinking about setting up comparable hassles for our students. Giving students multiple opportunities to show what they know means giving second chances, maybe even third chances, but not without some work on their end. Here are two ways to build the hassle in so that students begin to learn that doing it well, and on time, on the first chance is worth the effort:

1. Require students to do an error analysis before resubmitting work, a project, or an assessment. In an error analysis, students need to identify what they got wrong, why they got it wrong, and then do whatever it takes to show they can do it. Here is an example of an error analysis for a math assessment:


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‘Student Agency’ Is Not Something You Give or Take

November 11, 2015 by

StepsThis post originally appeared at EdSurge on October 16, 2015.

I feel strange saying that I, a Davidson College Junior named Andrew, have obtained ‘Student Agency.’ Does that make me a ‘Student Agent,’ a sort of James Bond of the educational Free Will? Does that mean I can drop out? Have I made it?

Well, no. I haven’t made it. Because ‘agency’ is a capacity that you never stop developing. You can’t obtain it and you can’t take it away. Education can encourage or discourage ‘agency,’ but education cannot eliminate or provide it. I make this point because ‘student agency’ is often paired with phrases like “the flipped classroom” and “active versus passive learning.” These phrases suggest that agency is a flippable switch: Yesterday, my professor was an onerous, tweed-coated, lecture-giver; today, with an iPad, and an unanticipated boost in self-discipline, I barely even need her!

We can’t continue to frame agency as something that educators give to students. That feeds into the old model of knowledge transmission, where educators stand up and give information to students. Developing ‘agency’, on the other hand, is a collaborative effort where both parties stand to gain (and lose). Collaboration, then, is fundamentally about a relationship between two (or more) equals. As such, ‘agency’ demands a couple of things: individualization, relationship, and equality.

This is important because it lets us see the revolution in education as something more than a couple of quick, life-changing clicks and tips. You can’t just flip the classroom. Developing a student’s capacity to be an ‘agent’ is a horribly difficult, complicated, and personal work. It’s unquantifiable and un-MOOCable. It’s very nearly an art; It’s almost moral; and I believe it is the central role of the educator.

So let’s say this moral, artistic, deeply personal act is part of the educator’s purpose. If it is, I’d like to speak to the way that a group of brilliant, revolutionary educators are cultivating ‘Student Agency’ in me: (more…)

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Non-Linear Progressions and Culture of Safety at Merit Prep

November 10, 2015 by
Sajan George

Sajan George

This post is the second on my visit to Merit Prep as I try to capture a couple of the big huge takeaways. (Click here for an overview of Merit Prep.) I really believe that schools like Merit Prep and Building 21 – schools that are student-centric, competency-based, and exploring how to use technology to support the learning process – are opening the door to models that will work for our most vulnerable students. I believe they are at the forefront of turning around education in communities shaped by a concentration of poverty. We aren’t there yet, but after visiting these schools, it’s as if a path opened up in my mind about where we are going. Being able to climb up and outside of the traditional box is the power of innovation, especially when it is designed around the needs of students.

Catching Kids Up Through Non-Linear Progressions

During my site visit, we had a fascinating conversation about how to respond to students who have huge gaps in their skills when they enter a school or have had difficulty keeping a pace that allows them to complete their work for a course. This is no different than a traditional high school when students enroll with elementary school skills, or when ninth graders don’t achieve all their credits, thereby creating a pool of over-age, undercredited students who need special strategies to help them complete high school.

In a competency-based school, the problem has to be dealt with directly, as we don’t pass students on with Cs or Ds. Our discussion touched on creating forcing functions early in the year so students must complete their work before being able to do something else, creating learning experiences that allow students to “double up on standards,” and establishing “competency or standards recovery” mechanisms that can be accessed throughout the year.

Sajan George, Founder and CEO of Matchbook Learning, explained that they are making a pivot on how they think about missing standards. Remember, they are a school that is designed to have students working at their own level. He said that it doesn’t always make sense to have a seventh grader who is starting at the fourth grade level to follow a linear path. He suggested that we need to think about non-linear paths that will produce greater growth, be engaging to students (can you imagine being a seventh grader who has to work through three years of standards just to get to grade level?), and be instructionally sound.

Matchbook has been looking at Jeff Baumes’ work on charting the dependencies of mathematical standards. (Please go to link before reading on.) Baumes has developed a way to visualize the prerequisite knowledge for any math standard and to look at a specific standard to see what other standards are built on that knowledge. When you move your cursor to a standard it turns green. Those standards that it depends on turn blue and those that are dependent on that standard turn red. (more…)

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Merit Prep: Where Students Feel Safe to Learn

November 9, 2015 by
Ron Harvey

Principal Ron Harvey

This is the first post taking a look at Merit Prep. For part two, visit Non-Linear Progressions and Culture of Safety.

I am deeply grateful for the time the team at Merit Preparatory Charter School spent explaining their school, the model, their sparkling information system, their school culture, how to accelerate learning for students who have not been previously well-served by public education, and what they are learning about turning around schools. This post will be followed by another with some of my big takeaways.

Thanks to Laura Shubilla, a long-time friend, colleague, and co-founder of Building 21, for joining me on a site visit. Listening to her perspective helped me better understand Merit Prep, reminding me how important it is to do joint site visits.

The Challenge

What is truly amazing about Merit Prep and the Matchbook Learning approach is that they are pushing hard to create a personalized, competency-based, blended model. And they are doing it with the most student-centered starting point…making sure kids feel loved, cared for, and safe. They are also doing it in an area of concentrated poverty in Newark, NJ, where kids face multiple challenges day in and day out. Matchbook began working to turn around Merit Prep last year, thus they are still in the process of reshaping the culture and expectations while simultaneously working to get the design of the school just right.

The Team

I met Sajan George at the Competency-Based Pathways Summit in 2011. I was instantly impressed by his commitment to finding solutions for our lowest performing schools in our most economically challenged cities. Soon after the summit, he launched Matchbook Learning, and I’ve been watching its development ever since. What was interesting in meeting the team of Merit Prep staff (Ron Harvey, Principal and Jason Lewis, Director of Culture) and the Matchbook Learning leadership team (George; Nithi Thomas, Director of Instructional Technology; John Polk, Chief Operating Officer; Laurance Specht and Tiffany McAfee, Directors of Personalized Learning; Al Motley, Chief Technology Officer; and Dr. Amy Swann, Chief Learning Officer) is that the same level of leadership, courage, commitment, and love of children is held by all. It was such a treat to be in a room of warm, brave-hearted people. As I told them, I think they are going to be leading the way to help us transform schools in big, broken-down districts.

Culture of Safety

The Merit Prep team takes culture-building very seriously. They start by ensuring that students feel safe and cared for, and that learning is at the forefront of any decision. Given that they are introducing an entirely new set of values, there is also an emphasis on high expectations and being “firm, fair, and consistent” to rebuild trust and respect. I’ll write more about their school culture in the second post on their school. (more…)

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What Role Can/Should Assessment Play?

November 7, 2015 by

aflThis is a resource alert!

The Center for Innovation in Education (CIE), in partnership with Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) and with 2Revolutions as lead design partner, launched the Assessment for Learning Project with the release of a Request for Learning (RFL) for an initial round of grants totaling about $2M (made possible with the generous support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). The initiative will award twelve to fifteen grants for educators to fundamentally rethink the roles that assessment should play to advance student learning and to improve our K-12 education system.

The term “Request for Learning” was an intentional choice to signal that the effort strives to reflect the innovative thinking and action expected from applicants in order to embody the principles of formative assessment and support continuous learning, personalization, and innovation. Although the initial number of grants will be relatively small, this is a tremendous opportunity to harness the wisdom of educators and practitioners to gain a broader understanding of the innovative assessment work already underway and will also inform the next phase of this work. For more detail about the Request for Learning, an overview is provided below and all materials can be found on the NGLC website. Proposals must be submitted by December 10, 2015.

This blog has been adapted from resources prepared by NGLC and 2Revolutions.

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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Readiness Levels

November 6, 2015 by

RaceThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on September 21, 2015. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

One of the biggest concerns about proficiency based, and learner centered instruction, centers around the idea of “students working at their own pace.” Education community members wonder: what about deadlines? what if a student’s pace is “do nothing?” who will teach them if the just keep going ahead? what happens if a kid finishes all the standards by the time they are 16? The questions go on, and on. Most of them are completely valid questions, and worth conversations about. A good place to start is to examine how the idea of a student’s own pace.

Instead of thinking of the word “pace” think of “readiness level.” A student’s readiness level is the point where they have the ability to be successful with whatever the current learning is, and stretch a bit into new understanding and skills with the support of a teacher. Readiness level is the same thing as the Zone of Proximal Development. So now, think about this new statement:

 In a learner centered system, students work at their readiness level.


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