October 7, 2014 by Chris Sturgis
This is a two-part series on RSU2. Come back tomorrow for a conversation with Virgel Hammonds on leadership.
I crossed paths with Virgel Hammonds, Superintendent of RSU2 in Maine, on a Digital Promise call about competency education. We hadn’t had a chance to talk for a while, so we scheduled another quick call. I asked Virgel about what they had been learning and how they had been enhancing their proficiency-based approach (Maine uses the term proficiency-based learning). Some of the changes are evident on their website, such as replacing the term “school” with “learning community.” Knowing the strength of the team at RSU2, I knew that there would be valuable insights or new approaches that we could all learn from.
Hammonds reminded me of the elements that they have implemented throughout their school district:
- Shared vision emphasizing student voice and choice, development of strong habits of learning, variation in how students learn, and development of higher-level skills.
- Transparent measurement topics and learning targets. (Measurement topics are the standards for learning. They are the curriculum frameworks that guide teachers in their instruction and lesson planning. They are the standards that all students must achieve.)
- Shared understanding of proficiency within school and across schools.
- Information system (Educate) to support and provide transparency for tracking student progress and pace.
Three areas of insights and advancement are described below.
Aligning Instruction and Assessment to Higher Levels
Hammonds explained that a big aha! for educators at RSU2 over the past year was the importance of aligning instruction as well as assessment to the specific performance levels in the knowledge taxonomy. RSU2 uses the Marzano taxonomy (Retrieval, Comprehension, Analysis, Knowledge Utilization, Metacognition, Self-system thinking). At RSU2, learning targets identify at which performance level students need to be able to show proficiency based on Marzano’s taxonomy and assessments are aligned accordingly. Over the past year, teachers had realized that their instruction was sometimes lower than the performance level, and they’ve been working to improve their instruction so it fully aligns with the learning targets. (more…)
July 10, 2014 by Chris Sturgis
Designing for Autonomy
I’ve been hearing this question by foundations that are excited about competency education but are focused on investing in solutions for big districts in order to reach the most low-income students. (Interesting that Puerto Rico is the third largest school district and I don’t know of any foundations investing there.) “Urban” can be a code for students and families with brown and black skin that don’t have much in the way of financial assets. For those who need proof points that CBE works for “urban students”, the Barack Obama Charter School in Los Angeles is one. (Read the CompetencyWorks blog about it here.) I believe in this instance, however, the concern about competency education’s workability in urban districts is more about the size of the districts and the difficulty of introducing reforms.
My first advice to foundations that want to support big districts is to expand their boundaries. There has been a demographic shift over the past 20 years, with poverty slipping into inner ring suburbs. Adams 50 is an example of a suburban district at the edges of Denver that decided they had to do something different as they realized that the traditional system was in their way of responding to a changing student population. (Read the CompetencyWorks blog about it here.) Foundations can take advantage of this “opportunity” by investing in the neighboring smaller districts that are trying to find responses to increasing poverty in their communities. Not only will you create a proof point for the surrounding districts, you will also begin to build a cadre of educators that can easily train others or even take on leadership in the large districts. (more…)
June 24, 2014 by Chris Sturgis
I always save an hour or two on Friday afternoons to read about things I don’t know much about. It’s a practice I started years ago as program director at Greater Boston Rehabilitation Services as I needed to be comfortable talking about issues through a broad spectrum of perspectives. There was always more to be learned. In fact, it was where I was first came upon the work of Peter Senghe and the concept of personal mastery.
Increasingly, I find myself reading anything and everything about education through the lens of competency education. What would be the implications if systems were competency-based? How might we think about these issues if we consistently placed student agency, student learning, pace and progress front and center to all decisions?
Last week I dived into A Framework for Selecting Quality Course Providers at Competitive Prices from Digital Learning Now. State contracting for online courses is a topic I know nothing about but care about deeply, as it is imperative that students in rural communities, alternative schools or any small school have access to a much wider set of courses, especially where there is a dearth of teachers (Advanced Placement physics, for example). It is also going to be an essential capacity if schools are going to lift the ceiling and let kids fly beyond their grade level.
As the paper was so accessible, the competency education lens flipped on immediately as I read about how states can structure a mix of base pay and incentive pay based upon completion. Completion? How exactly are states defining completion? In a competency-based state or district, completion with a C or D, i.e. with gaps in knowledge, isn’t acceptable. In competency education, completion equals proficiency. Will this mean that states will create statewide understanding of what completion means in terms of proficiency at a specific depth of knowledge in order to clarify contracts with online providers? (See the discussion in Idaho about whether states or districts should be determining what mastery is.) This could be an important state level function that is done in partnership with districts so that a shared understanding of proficiency/completion is created. (more…)
May 21, 2014 by Chris Sturgis
The Maine Department of Education has condensed their six case studies on districts that have embraced proficiency-based education into one article. Threads of Implementation: A Thematic Review of Six Case Studies of Maine School Districts Implementing Proficiency-Based/Learner-Centered Systems looks at nine issues: vision and framework; policy; leadership; teacher engagement; finance and professional development; technology; communications; pace of implementation; and cultural change. Given that it’s a concise summary, we’ve reposted it below.
Beginning in February 2012, the Maine Department of Education through its Center for Best Practice (Center) began publishing a series of in-depth case studies of school districts who were implementing proficiency-based/learner-centered systems. These districts were in very different stages of their implementation journeys. For example, the member districts of the Western Maine Education Collaborative (WMEC) were just beginning implementation while Poland Regional High School (of RSU 16) had been completely proficiency-based since it opened in 1999. Though each of the districts featured in the Center over the last two years took decidedly different paths on their way to change, there were common themes that emerged throughout the case studies. Their experiences serve as lessons for other Maine districts just beginning this transition in preparation for all schools in the state issuing diplomas starting in 2018 to students based on demonstrated proficiency.
Vision and Framework
All districts involved in making this change considered it vitally important to engage in a vision-setting process that made explicit certain assumptions. This visioning process came at different times for each district. For RSU 18, the visioning process – a Future Search – happened early. The school board invited 80 stakeholders to participate in a process that would answer the question: “What do great schools look like? And what should kids learn in great schools?” RSU 2 went through a similar process, but engaged in it after individual schools had been working on proficiency-based issues for years – in fact, their visioning process came only after a significant pushback from parents. The individual schools of RSU 20 had clear visions of their own, but the district as a whole did not. When the individual schools came together to form RSU 20, one of the early acts of the new school board was to approve a proficiency-based vision for the district (though individual schools were free to choose their own way to approach this vision). (more…)
April 25, 2014 by Chris Sturgis
A big light went on during a conversation with Anthony Kim of Education Elements:
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…)
April 22, 2014 by Roger Cook
This post originally published on EdSurge. Author Roger Cook is the Superintendent of the Taylor County School District in Campbellsville, Kentucky.
Imagine, if you can, a school where students do not have specific teachers assigned to them, nor do teachers have specific students on their roster.
Imagine a school where students come each day with a list of standards to work on and accomplish–right when they walk in the door. They can go to the teacher of their choice in order to accomplish the completion of these standards. Or, they can do them on their own in any setting they wish, as long as they maintain accomplishing the minimum amount of standards in a minimum amount of time. Some students, for example, may work individually in the media center not having to go to any classroom.
And last but not least, imagine a district at large where the dropout rate is at zero percent.
In this type of environment, students would come and go as they please, but would be required to prove the successful completion of work and pass assessments to demonstrate understanding.
Sound crazy? Not to educators in the Taylor County School District in Campbellsville, Kentucky. In fact, that is our district’s ten-year plan. (more…)
April 21, 2014 by Chris Sturgis
Adams 50 Superintendent Pamela Swanson
REL Central has organized a webinar Competency-Based Education Systems: One Colorado School District’s Experience at which leadership from Adams County School District 50, fondly known as Adams 50, will discuss their approach and lessons learned.
Dr. Oliver Grenham, Chief Academic Officer and Dr. Pamela Swanson, Superintendent will present the district’s instructional model for all learners (including instruction and assessment) and discuss particular concrete examples. The presenters will also discuss challenges and steps they have taken to address the challenges as they have strived to implement a competency-based system.
The webinar is May 14, 2014 from 1:00-3:00 pm MST. You can register here.
March 21, 2014 by Dan Joseph
Last December I was at a conference sponsored by the Maine Principals Association and the keynote speaker was Dr. Anthony Muhammad. The topic was building and changing your school culture. As I listened to his presentation, I realized that when building leadership capacity for transformative change, two variables must be acknowledged to better identify and mobilize the ideas and people who are a part of the change process.
First, the technical changes that occur become the tools and structures for learning. Second are the “cultural” pieces, our beliefs, practices, behaviors and norms within and across the organization. Philip Schlechty offers this perspective of the interplay between structure and culture: “Structural change that is not supported by cultural change will eventually be overwhelmed by the culture, for it is in the culture that any organization finds meaning and stability.”
This is where many school officials and reformers fear to tread, but it is the place that holds the biggest keys to unlocking the potential for real change in our schools.
It reminds me of a staff meeting that I had as we began to really push ourselves and our thinking around teaching and learning. I placed a statement on the wall, “All students can meet high standards regardless of their home situation or the teacher they are assigned.” Needless to say, we had a very powerful conversation that afternoon. This is where we pushed our shared vision of all learners into a covenant of collective responsibility. We had adopted a set of values that supported professional development, a sense of responsibility for student learning, and a positive, caring atmosphere. The old model of compliance was being dismantled, as opportunities to enter the realm of collaboration, support and transparency increased. How was this different than before? We had PLCs, staff led committees, and individual goal-setting. (more…)
March 14, 2014 by Chris Sturgis
Thanks to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the Maine Department of Education was able to conduct a number of case studies on district implementation. The studies are great reading and raise a number of issues about principal leadership, community engagement, continuous improvement, and implementation planning. However, it’s hard to find the hour or so it takes to nestle in with each of the case studies and do the necessary reflection needed to learn from them.
So that’s why its so great that the Maine DOE Center for Best Practices did the work for us with the Threads of Implementation: A Thematic Review of Six Case Studies of Maine School Districts Implementing Proficiency-Based Systems.
It will only take you 15 minutes or so to read this summary, which includes sections on vision and framework, policy, leadership, teacher engagement, finance and professional development, technology, pacing, communications, and cultural change. The review is even more valuable as a discussion tool for district teams thinking about converting to competency education. Use each of the segments to help you devise your strategies and implementation plan, learning from the successes and stumbles of these districts.
Thanks to the state leadership in Maine – they are walking the walk when it comes to creating a learning culture.
March 12, 2014 by Chris Sturgis
Last week I had the opportunity to meet with part of the Adams 50 leadership team: Oliver Grenham, Chief Education Officer; Jeni Gotto, Director of Assessment and Instructional Technology, and Steve Saunders, Communications Director. Our conversation, summarized below, touched on the results they are seeing, the big implementation issues they have faced, and the new ones popping up. Check out their incredibly great wiki to understand their design and implementation, as well as the new video describing their competency-based system.
1. On An Uphill Trajectory, or Getting Out of the Red
Grenham was adamant: “Is our competency-based system making a difference in achievement? Absolutely.”
The graduation rate within Adams 50 continues to increase (the high school is now 74% for the traditional four-year rate, while the most recent districtwide five year rate is 75.4%, which is expected to be higher next August). This in a district with 81% FRL, 45% ELL, and about 39% student turnover per year (18% by Colorado’s newly implemented school-year based calculations). It’s great news.
In terms of school performance, out of Colorado’s four-category accountability system, Adams 50 moved all their schools out of turnaround status (they are marked red on the state reports), with only four schools (two middle and two elementary) in priority improvement. Of the remaining schools, half are in improvement and the other half in performance. (more…)