The Questions I Ask

May 13, 2014 by
Chris Sturgis

Chris Sturgis

What is competency education and what isn’t it? It’s a question that is being asked a lot these days, especially as people try to sort through what it means to design for a school to emphasize personal mastery or student ownership of their learning, competency-based progression, issues of pacing, and how to respond to students that enter a classroom more than two grade levels behind.

Some folks have gotten caught up in the concept of “time is a variable” and talk about competency education as self-paced, forgetting that another variable is how we use instruction and supports to help students stay on pace. First and foremost, competency education is about designing schools and learning environments so that every student reaches proficiency, step by step, standard by standard. (Wait that sounds too linear — learning progressions don’t always have to be perfectly linear. We just don’t want to leave kids with gaps that are going to cause them to stumble on more advanced work!)

Today I was asked what types of questions I ask and what I look for when I do site visits, as a way of trying to better understand competency education.  So I jotted down the primary questions that help me filter quickly what is happening in a school. The questions aren’t usually asked in this sequence, as I think one way of learning about a school is listening to what they think is important.

1.     What is your overarching philosophy of education or theory of action?  

 I listen for:

  • Examples of a growth mindset;
  • A culture of learning that sees mistakes as part of learning and that adults are learning, too;
  • Starting where kids are, i.e. teaching kids, not curriculum;
  • Inclusiveness of students rather than segmenting. An example is honors level coursework rather than a class or track;
  • Asset-based;
  • Student agency and the importance of transparency;
  • Motivation and engagement strategies;
  • Focus on getting kids to proficiency and higher levels of depth of knowledge;
  • Flexibility in responding to kids – calendars, schedules, instruction, support;
  • Holistic approach to learning, such as emphasis on social-emotional learning , habits or lifelong learning competencies, or trauma-informed care. (more…)

Must Read: From Policy to Practice in New Hampshire

May 9, 2014 by
Julia Freeland

Julia Freeland

The Christenensen Institute just released “From policy to practice: How competency-based education is evolving in New Hampshire”. It is a fantastic paper, providing a comprehensive look at how New Hampshire is leading the way in competency education.

One of the things I loved in this paper is the opening section that recounts Steven Spears’ experience at one of the US’s big three car companies, highlighting that assessment can either be used as part of the learning process or as inspection. What goes unsaid in this story is that cars that don’t pass inspection in the traditional factory model still requires another step—they get fixed. In today’s top-down accountability model in education, we inspect—and then still pass kids on without getting them what they need.

The author, Julia Freeland, uses the working definition of competency education developed by innovators in the field (and the one we use here at CompetencyWorks) as an organizing structure for her interviews with 13 schools. This is helpful both in understanding how schools are implementing competency education as well as an overview competency education for newbies who are trying to get their head wrapped around redesigning district systems and schooling to focus on students and their learning, not the delivery of instruction. (more…)

Little Boxes: Common Assessments in the Age of Competency Education

May 8, 2014 by
little boxes

From Wikimedia Commons

I am a sucker for quality hip hop music and the art of sampling. There is something to be said about the rebirth of something into a new generation’s culture that allows the passing of the torch. Nothing can beat the opportunity to interpret the emotion and drive of the original artist’s rendition of a song and the context of the newer creation and compare how they used the same materials to paint, often times, two totally different pictures.

Personally, my respect for the art form of sampling allows me to see both sides of the coin. As I dig through old records at flea markets and basement shops or find those rare segments on YouTube, I gain a look into a time and place much different from now. I begin to appreciate the use of the same language and instruments to create scales and emotion that on the surface are quite different, but once dug into are, more times than not, closely related.

Not too long ago, I stumbled upon this little gem, Little Boxes. Some of you may recognize it from the Showtime hit show Weeds, but long before that, it was a folk jingle written and performed by Malvina Reynolds, describing an assembly line attitude toward life that involves cookie cutter education and living in “little houses made of ticky-tacky.” In listening to it, I found myself comparing the older version and the newer version that runs during the opening credits to the show. (more…)

Education Innovation Fellowship: Key Learnings from Some of Detroit’s Competency-Based Learning Models

May 7, 2014 by
Posted on April 29, 2014 @ blendmylearning.com.
detroit learning-fellows

The CityBridge-NewSchools Education Innovation Fellows for 2014.

For the past four months, the 19 public and public charter school teachers in the CityBridge-NewSchools Education Innovation Fellowship have engaged in an in-depth study of the most promising practices in blended and personalized learning, traveling the country and hearing from the leaders in the field. Recently, the fellows spent part of their spring break on a whirlwind tour of four public schools in Detroit that are budding laboratories in personalized learning.

Educators in Detroit’s public school system face a tough reality: Detroit Public School students are last in the nation among urban students proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and fifty-seven percent of Detroit children under the age of 17 live in poverty. Many public schools in Detroit are addressing this reality by measuring academic credit over mastery of specific competencies (also known as “competency-based learning,”) as opposed to the traditional practice of fulfilling seat-time hours. In all four public schools we visited, teachers leveraged competency-based learning models to meet the needs of their students, many of whom are years behind where they need to be academically.

How do teachers keep kids on pace after abolishing the traditional nine-month pacing guide? How do they challenge all students, and give them the freedom to work at their own pace? The key is to foster a strong sense of ownership in student work. Below you will find my key takeaways about how to make that happen: (more…)

The Advantage of Separating Behaviors and Academics Through a Competency-Based Grading System

May 5, 2014 by

If we were to return to giving grades that are a combination of academics, behaviors, and anything else a teacher decides to include, we, as educators would be remiss in our responsibilities.

As I watched one of our teacher’s training sessions this past Wednesday, I considered how far we had come in grading practices in a fairly short period of time.  Our school made the transition to competency-based grading four years ago, and despite some of “bumps in the road”, we really have never looked back.

Terry Bolduc, a fifth grade teacher at our school, is also one of our training team members for our staff.  Terry was sharing with other classroom teachers at our Wednesday afternoon training session how her grading practices have continued to evolve.  This particular session was related to how Terry continuously assesses students on their behaviors or dispositions, both through daily assignments, and weekly formative assessments.  Terry was explaining that by doing this, there are a number of points of data that can support where a student is in each particular area.

These dispositions, or 21st Century Learning Skills, we assess our students on are based off of the Responsive Classroom’s CARES (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-regulation).  Each of these has indicators that teachers use to assess student growth.  What has typically happened over the past few years is that teachers have had minimal data in their gradebook related to CARES behaviors.  Academic areas had multiple assignments attached to standards, but the data related to our CARES was somewhat limited.  Most teachers were continuing to input a CARES assessment grade just prior to the distribution of progress reports and trimester report cards.  We have worked very hard to get away from “subjective” grading in academic areas, so why should work habits be any different? (more…)

The Oregon Shuffle

May 1, 2014 by

oregon-danceThe Oregon legislature is doing only what I can call a policy shuffle – a few steps forward, a few steps back. The recently passed House Bill 4150 has a number of fascinating pieces that are weaving together Oregon’s proficiency-based system.  Let’s start with the its step back:

Revisiting Grading: One of the big lessons learned for districts and schools in competency education is do not lead with grading. It may be also be a lesson learned for states, as well.

Oregon had taken a giant step forward last year with HB 2220, which required a form of standards-based grading report cards. Districts and schools were required to tell parents exactly how their children were progressing, based on standards and separating behavior from academic progress.

It seems to be a case of too much, too soon. Now they’ve taken a baby step backwards with this year’s  HB 4150, modifying HB 2220 to allow for but not require standards-based grading.  The Oregon Department of Education’s guidance states: (more…)

New Networks: Competency Education in Higher Education

April 30, 2014 by

higher edCompetency education is a hot topic in higher education. (No worries about varied terminology in higher education. Leaders in higher education in every state call it competency education.) I’ve even seen some private universities using the phrase competency-based in their television advertisements.

Two initiatives are now working with colleges and universities to support the development of high quality competency-based programs – Competency-Based Education Network and Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL)’s Jumpstart program. (See below for the list of colleges.)  Both networks are funded by the Lumina Foundation.

For those of us focused on advancing competency education in K-12 systems, it is important to stay on top of these efforts because if there is a competency-based district and a competency-based college program in your neighborhood, we could start to see amazing advancements.  Competency-based dual credit? Tuning or calibrating what college and career readiness mean so proficiency-based diplomas lead directly into college courses without falling into the remediation quagmire? Creating new opportunities for over-age and under-credited to take advantage of competency-based multiple pathways into college? Share competency-based badging systems to allow students to build those skills no one can agree on a name for (non-cognitive, soft skills, deeper learning, higher order, 21st century) as well as occupation-specific industry skills? (more…)

Counted or not, doing what counts in competency-based education

April 29, 2014 by
Eduardo Briceño

Eduardo Briceño

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
- William Bruce Cameron (and on a sign hanging in Albert Einstein’s office)

Competency-based education comes with the risk that we focus only on those competencies that can easily be measured and overlook other competencies that are also critical for success in today’s and tomorrow’s world. If we’re mindful of what students need and design our competency-based systems accordingly, however, we can make competency-based education all it can be.

How we can get into trouble

In a competency-based system, each learner focuses on knowledge and skills at the right challenge level, just beyond what is known, and progresses to the next level upon mastery rather than based on age or time. This makes a lot of sense. It’s how people learn. (more…)

Working in a Competency Education School: Hiring Tips for Potential Teacher Candidates

April 28, 2014 by

job_interviewWelcome to May, the month when most school administrators begin the process of filling open positions in their schools for the upcoming school year. Maybe my administrative team and I are getting picky as we mature as a team, or maybe we are just getting wiser, but we honestly believe that our hiring practices have changed dramatically since our school made the shift to competency education four years ago. For those of you who are thinking about applying to work in a school like ours, we would like to offer you some words of advice before you get your résumés and cover letters together for us.

 1. We need team players. In our school, very few big curriculum, instruction, and assessment decisions are left to teachers to make on their own. Most are made by teams of teachers as part of their Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). If you join our school, be prepared to share and collaborate with your PLC on just about everything you do. With your PLC team, you will build common performance assessments, you will administer them to your shared students, and you will analyze the data with your team. We strongly believe that PLC teams work far more efficiently than individuals ever could towards advancing our vision of learning for all. Our PLC teams are organized by grade level, not by subject area. This allows them to share kids and focus their work on student learning. At our school, there is no such thing as a traditional department meeting. (more…)

Building a Bridge Between Blended Learning and Competency Education

April 25, 2014 by

A big light went on during a conversation with Anthony Kim of Education Elements:bridge

WHAT IF… The process used by districts that already use blended learning to transition to competency education is different from the process used by districts with little ed-tech that start with competency-based in their journey to personalization?

Blended-first districts that have infused their curriculum, instruction and assessment with all that technology can do, are turning to competency education as a natural progression from the self-paced nature of adaptive software and online learning. There are specific aspects that competency education can provide – empowering students to own their education through transparent expectations, ensuring students can apply academic skills, focusing attention on habits or lifelong learning competencies, and strengthening college and career readiness by building the capacity among teachers to assess competencies/skills. And most importantly, creating the structure to support students  — students that are not yet proficient, students that are performing at academic levels 2+ years behind their grade levels and students ready to leap forward in their studies. (more…)

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