Getting Started and Scaling Competency-based Education

January 3, 2014 by
Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 8.40.55 AM

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
Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 12.55.12 PM

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…)

Iowa Competency-based Task Force Release Report

December 13, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 8.26.48 AMIowa has released the final report of the Competency-based Task Force. To remind you, in 2012 Iowa’s state legislature passed legislation (Senate File 2284 and House File 215) to study competency-based instruction and develop a strategic plan. It’s an easy report to review and provides insights into how a state can move forward in competency education. (For those of you who haven’t read it, Necessary for Success provides an overview of how states are advancing policy to catalyze, incubate and support competency education as well).

Below are some of the highlights of the 13 recommendations from the Task Force for the legislature, Department of Education, and other institutions.  It’s helpful to know in reading the recommendations that Iowa has established 4 principles for competency-based education (CBE): (1) Students advance based on proficiency;  (2) Competencies include explicit, measurable, and transferable learning objectives that empower students;(3) Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and (4) Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge along with development of important skills and dispositions. (See Department of Education’s Guidelines for PK-12 Competency-based Pathways.)

  • Expand competency-based credits: Allow students younger than ninth grade to earn credit in any curricular area toward graduation if they complete the requirements for the credit. Current code specifies that such credit can be earned before ninth grade, but only in the curricular areas of English or Language Arts, mathematics, science, or social studies.
  • Model competencies: The Department of Education, the Iowa CBE Collaborative, and other state and national experts should write model competencies that align with the Iowa Core and the universal constructs. In the preliminary report, the Task Force developed a Competency Validation Rubric to help districts develop competency frameworks. (more…)

How Competency Based Grading Has NOT Changed Our School’s Transcript


Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 7.49.30 AMMy school district implemented a K-12 competency-based grading and reporting system four years ago. The implementation included the adoption of a set of common competency-based grading practices that all teachers use in their classrooms and competency-based report cards that measure student progress toward mastery of course-based competencies. As the building principal, one of the most common questions that I am asked by students, parents, and even administrators from other schools who are considering this model for their school, is how our transcript has changed. They are surprised to learn, in fact, that little has changed about our transcript.

The purpose of our high school transcript, just like any other high school transcript, is to provide a final record of a student’s performance at our school. Our transcript lists each course a student took, their final course grade, and how many credits the student earned. Other information, such as:  Class Rank; Grade Point Average (weighted or non-weighted); Attendance Information, and Diploma Type are optional features that can also be printed on a transcript as needed.

Our transcript explains to the reader what the final grades of E (Exceeding), M (Meeting), IP (In-Progress), and LP (Limited Progress) mean. It also explains what it means for a student to get a code of NYC (Not Yet Competent) or IWS (Insufficient Work Shown), both of which result in no credit awarded for the course.

Our school has identified six school-wide 21st century learning expectations. These include a student’s ability to effectively communicate, creatively solve problems, responsibly use information, self-manage their learning, produce quality work, and contribute to their community. Since each teacher in each course at my school assesses students on these expectations, the transcript provides a summary of these grades so the reader can see a student’s progress in mastering them over the course of their high school career. (more…)

Getting Up to Speed on Grading

December 11, 2013 by
Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 3.37.17 PM

Susan McCray, a Humanities Teacher at Casco Bay High School, talks with a student

We are getting ready to release a paper on competency-based grading in January. In the meantime, I know that lots of districts and schools are trying to figure out how to revise their grading system. There is a lot written on the topic but nothing like a video to help spark discussion and give you ideas about how to communicate the need for redesigning grading. So here are some of my favorites. You can also find examples of grading systems from four different school models at the Competencyworks wiki.

The Problem with the A-F Grading Scheme: Doug Reeves talks about zeros and the relationship to disciplinary issues, trending rather than averaging, late work and getting the work done, and teaching children resilience in Toxic Grading Practices. My favorite quote: How many have heard these words from a student: Just give me the zero. The operative word being “give.” Because they’re used to simply getting by and maybe a little smiley face will get them a D or something. No. You want to do something really scary? Get the work done. And I’m quoting this one young man now because his words were so persuasive to me: “It is such a hassle in this school man. You try to turn in this stuff in and she gives it back to you. You miss it, she makes you do it again. You can’t even get a D. It’s such a hassle in this school, man, to get a C. You might as well get a B.” Whereupon we have the wonderful spectacle of whining adolescents belly-aching all the way to the honor roll.  (Go to 5:27 – 6:06.)

Standards-Based Grading: There are books and books and lots of articles written about standards-based grading, but there are limited video resources.

On Five Musts for Mastery

December 10, 2013 by

Are there other articles or essays that you’ve seen about how technology can be used to respond to students and personalize classrooms in a competency-based environment?

There is a rapid conversation going on across our country to better understand how blended learning and education technology can support students and help them stay on pace and make progress in competency-based schools. Catlin Tucker’s Five Musts for Mastery in the EL issue on Getting Students to Mastery gives us a start in thinking about this – using technology to offer more opportunities for creativity and play; more voice and participation (what she calls student-centered learning); more choice; and timely feedback.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 1.17.24 PM

Catlin Tucker

Tucker describes shared goal-setting as one of the musts. This is a must whether teachers do it with technology or not.  In almost every competency-based classroom I’ve been in there are shared vision statements, co-developed with students and the teacher, about how the classroom community will operate.  There are some fears, not shared by me, that competency education will become entirely individualized undermining the importance of helping students develop the skills and values of community-building.  However, the importance of creating shared vision or goals, a collective activity, sets the stage in competency-based classrooms that we are all in this together, supporting each other in our learning regardless of where we are starting on our learning progressions or our tempos of learning along the way. (more…)

WordPress SEO fine-tune by Meta SEO Pack from Poradnik Webmastera