Are You a Policy Wonk?

February 11, 2014 by

A_K-12_Federal_Policy_Framework_for_Competency_EducationIf you are, then you don’t want to miss the Wednesday, February 12th webinar about the report A  K-12 Policy Framework for Competency Education: Building Capacity for Systems Change. The webinar will be held from 2:00p – 3:00p ET. Please register here.

As lawmakers in Washington, DC craft a next generation Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), this report encourages them to take bold steps forward to allow students to advance upon demonstrated mastery and receive the personalized support they need, when they need it. Maria Worthen, Vice President for Federal and State Policy, iNACOL and Lillian Pace, Senior Director of National Policy, KnowledgeWorks will lead this webinar discussing the importance of this federal policy issue as well as how the U.S. education system can evolve to ensure all students succeed and graduate from high school college and career ready. The report’s co-authors will provide a comprehensive vision for supporting state and local efforts to implement student-centered learning. Their presentation will describe the barriers and opportunities within federal education policy frameworks and identify how the federal government is in a unique position to catalyze and scale student-centered learning approaches.

We hope that once again the chat room on the webinar will be a place that you all can meet each other, sharing your ideas and resources.

This webinar is free to attend.

Why My Competency-Based School Failed – And How It Can Help Yours To Succeed

February 10, 2014 by
Shearwater Graduates

Shearwater Graduates

In 2008 I was asked by the City of St. Louis Mayor’s Office to consider starting a school for youth who had dropped out. I agreed. These youth deserved a quality education. The school would be hard to build and harder to sustain, but worth a try. Given that our students were all over-age and under-credited, we knew that seat-time meant that many would age-out of the system before they could graduate. Hence, we decided to be competency-based. (Click here for the 21 by 21 model overview, FAQ’s, Youth Readiness Taxonomy and the Design Process)

Hundreds of local volunteers and over a dozen community-based organizations poured sweat equity into planning and start-up, pledging their ongoing support. A private technical college agreed to house us. The state declared us a needed demonstration project. We had mayoral endorsement and a sponsor.

Thus Shearwater High School was born. All signs suggested we would work. And at first we did. We had passionate staff, community support, private money, and resources. Youth applied, showed up, learned. Applicants bloated our waiting list. We worked tirelessly. Most of the time we enjoyed what we were doing.

If you had told me that just a few years later we would close, I wouldn’t have believed you.

So, what happened? Here are the four primary reasons that my school failed: (more…)

Recommendations for 2014 iNACOL Blended and Online Learning Symposium?

February 7, 2014 by

symposiumThere are only a few meetings each year to gather to learn from each other about competency education. Two are coming up next month — the Northwest Proficiency Conference for Oregonians on March 6th and the High School Redesign in Action sponsored by the New England Secondary Schools Coalition on March 20. To create an annual place for innovators to meet each other iNACOL created a competency education strand at its Blended and Online Learning Symposium. The next one is November 4-7, 2014 in Palm Springs, CA.

The opportunity to submit Request for Proposals for the 2014 Symposium is open until Wednesday, March 26, 2014. We hope that many of you will join us there and perhaps you will submit a proposal for a session.

It would be tremendously helpful, if you would let us know what topics you think are most important to cover at the Symposium as it relates to converting to competency education. That allows us to encourage people who are the most skilled in these areas to submit proposals. It is really important to us that the sessions meet the needs of the more advanced innovators as well as those just starting the journey to competency education. Please use comments below or email me at chris (at) metisnet (dot) net.

Do Learning Progressions Have to Be Linear?

February 5, 2014 by

learning progressionsSometimes in teaching we deal in “revelations:” big ideas that students are supposed to get at the end of a unit or learning progression. They are supposed attain these foundational concepts and understandings after progressing through a sequence that is designed to end at a particular point – a point we as educators decide upon when we create a unit of study or a curriculum.

According to Wiggins and McTeague, we are supposed to plan for the big ideas before we even start teaching. We are supposed to plan for where we end up before we even begin. And there’s a lot of good reasoning why. If we know where we’re going, then we can ultimately plan for how to best get there. But there’s a troublesome piece to that. Sometimes our “best” way to get there doesn’t suit some of the students in the room. And sometimes our endpoint is too fixed. Sometimes we create a round hole while students craft a square peg.

Are we right? Are they wrong?

A straightforward definition of a learning progression is to examine it as a “sequenced set of building blocks that students must master en route to mastering a more distant curricular aim.” (Popham, 2007)

Currently, the Common Core has replaced the teacher and the school as the determinant of when students should master concepts and skills. It is our learning progression and it has already determined our “distant curricular aims.” I know students should be reading at particular levels at particular times. I know students should have mastered persuasive writing by the time they come to ninth grade, so that my objective is to continue the work associated with argumentative writing. And educators involved with mathematics have their own timing issues as the Common Core has redirected particular math skills to brand-new points in time.

To say the path to knowledge and skills has changed would be a tremendous understatement. (more…)

A K-12 Federal Policy Framework for Competency Education

February 3, 2014 by

CompetencyWorks - A K-12 Policy Framework for Competency Education - February 2014Although there are few barriers to competency education caused from federal policy, there is certainly a lot it can do to enable and catalyze it. In A K-12 Federal Policy Framework for Competency Education: Building Capacity for Systems Change Maria Worthen, iNACOL‘s Vice President for Federal and State Policy and Lillian Pace, ‎KnowledgeWorks’ Senior Director of National Policy, explore the ways that federal policymakers can become partners in the effort to redesign our education system around making sure students reach proficiency every step of the way towards college and career readiness.

Maria and Lillian emphasize that federal policymakers need to think about themselves as partners in this work as they consider ways to remove barriers to competency education, provide funding incentives, and support the development of learning infrastructure. As a starting point, federal policymakers can support state and local innovators by establishing a student-centered federal policy framework that supports competency education, with four guiding principles in mind:

Greater rigor and relevance — Measurement of student learning should be based on ensuring that students are on track and held to high, rigorous standards and aligned competencies — from cradle to career — to be successful in college and the workforce. (more…)

Three Quick Thoughts About Personalized Learning Plans

January 29, 2014 by



Vermont Department of Education

Over the past few days I’ve received links to several resources on personalized learning plans including:

And it got me thinking about personalized learning plans…

  1. Different Ways to Personalize: The personalization of learning is a necessary ingredient if we are going to get all students to proficiency each step of the way in their learning progressions. However, there are many different ways to personalize learning, and each has a cost. Not every school is going to personalize in every way … at least in the short-run. Schools may focus more on providing students with the ability to choose how they learn and how they demonstrate learning, or they may focus on investing in expanded learning opportunities such as internships, real-world projects, and opportunities to develop students’ talents in music or sport. Perhaps it will be through a wide range of courses or opportunities to create projects. Blended learning is an important ingredient as it enables personalization in terms of pacing as well as structuring choice. And sometimes personalization isn’t about choice – it’s about having knowledgeable educators providing the right type of instruction, feedback, and interventions to help struggling students succeed (more…)

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.


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