Tag: high school

Going BIG in Cedar Rapids

September 30, 2015 by

iowa bigCedar Rapids is only twenty minutes down the road from Iowa City, a center of the educational curriculum and assessment industry (ACT and Pearson both have offices there), but feels like a journey twenty years into the future. I had a chance to meet with Cedar Rapids Associate Superintendent, Trace Pickering, and visit Iowa BIG thanks to an introduction from Sandra Dop, competency education guru at the Iowa Department of Education.

In 2008, a devastating flood destroyed Cedar Rapids’ downtown and many residential areas. Community members came together and realized that rebuilding the city provided an opportunity to completely rethink how they did things, including redesigning education. As part of the planning process, community leaders conducted what they affectionately, but unofficially, called the “Billy Madison Project.” Adult community leaders attended high school to see how they would experience it with the hindsight of their own education, life experience, and knowledge of the skills actually needed to be successful in a career. They realized how ridiculous it seemed to ask students to sit through lectures, with bell schedules and silos between subjects. They agreed that the following key elements would be necessary in a new school model:

  • Focus on kids’ passions: because most successful adults have passion for what they’re doing;
  • Get kids out doing real work: the community has more problems and opportunities than the adults can address on their own. The Cedar Rapids area has 7000 high school students—an untapped resource for the community;
  • Make sure kids are learning content in an integrated way: academic rigor is essential, but it must be relevant.

Iowa BIG was founded as a result of these findings and the superintendent agreed to include it in the district’s portfolio of educational opportunities. (more…)

Going Deeper with New Resources

September 23, 2015 by

It’s helpful to read all the papers that get released on competency education and other related efforts…but they never totally help you understand how to do something. Thus, I keep my eyes out for resources that allow you to go deeper more easily.

There are two new resources that I think could be helpful to educators – Making Mastery Accessible by reDesign and Illuminating Standards at the Center for Student Work. And if you know of others that you have found helpful to you in your work, please pass them on.

redesignMaking Mastery Accessible was developed in partnership with Springpoint and is supported by Carnegie Corporation as a follow-up to Making Mastery Work. It can help you navigate terminology and there are lots of resources from other schools so you can see how they have organized their schools, what they have developed as overarching competencies, and access lots of teaching resources. There are also tools developed by reDesign to help you think about your process of conversion. For example, there are a number of design tools including readiness, adoption process, and grading policies.

snakes are born this way

From the video Snakes Are Born This Way

Illuminating Standards is a project to help people see how they can use project-based learning and performance tasks to help students meet the standards set out in the Common Core. It’s been developed through a partnership with Expeditionary Learning and the Harvard Graduate School of Education (check out the home page, as there are a lot more resources available there). There are great videos about how to teach standards using project-based learning and student voice/choice. You will also find projects and examples of student work at each grade level.

Both sites have a lot of material, so you might want to dedicate an hour or have a team of people look through to find out what might be most useful in your work right now.

See also:

A Conversation with Buddy Berry in Eminence Kentucky

September 21, 2015 by

eminenceI had a chance to visit Kentucky last month when I participated in a meeting of the Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative/University of Kentucky Next Generation Leaders Academy. Before I headed south to Hazard, I veered north to visit Eminence School District, one of the ten innovation districts.

Eminence is a small, rural district of about 850 students located forty miles east of Louisville. Superintendent Buddy Berry is a fourth generation alumni of Eminence. Five years ago, Eminence was facing declining enrollment and funding. Since they have started down this path to personalization, the tide has turned and enrollment has nearly doubled.

Eminence is taking a different path toward competency education than other districts I have visited, so for us to have a meaningful conversation, Berry and I first had to spend a bit of time unpacking the language of personalization, standards-based, competency-based, mastery, and proficiency, as they can easily become buzz words that lose their distinct meaning. Once we got ourselves comfortable with the language each of us was using, we had a tremendous conversation. Here are a few of the highlights.

Starting with Students: Berry explained that to launch their effort, they wanted to create a culture where staff listened to students and students had a sense of agency that they could shape the world around them. They organized focus groups of fifteen students and interviewed every student in the district, asking them to share what they didn’t like about school and what they wanted it to be. Based on the specific feedback they received—such as limited choice, no opportunity to feel really challenged, and lack of technology—the district made a number of changes: expanded electives, additional AP and honors courses, and laptops students could check out in the library.

Berry identified two important lessons learned through this process. First, student agency isn’t just about listening to students. After students realized they were being given a voice, they brought out every complaint, expecting the adults in the system to fix it. Thus they jumped from empowerment to entitlement. Eminence took a step back and set the expectation that everyone is part of the solution. Students could still bring forth problems, but they also had to bring ideas for how to solve them. (more…)

Support for Teachers in a Competency Education School

August 13, 2015 by

LockersAs a high school principal who has worked for the past six years through a transition from traditional to competency education, I am often asked how our school district has supported teachers both in the past through the transition process and also currently as we sustain our competency education model. Our teacher support system has many layers, each designed to support teachers at different points along our journey.

Professional Learning Communities

Perhaps the single biggest investment our school district made prior to implementing competency education was to establish the Professional Learning Community (PLC) model in each of our schools. I keep this quote from PLC architect Rick DuFour on my desk to remind me what role PLCs play in our school’s teacher support system: “A team is a group of people working interdependently to achieve a common goal for which members are mutually accountable.” PLC teams, when implemented correctly, focus their work around four essential questions:

What is it we want students to learn?

How will we know when they have learned it?

What will we do if they haven’t learned it?

What will we do if they already know it? (more…)

More Schools Going Mastery

July 2, 2015 by

From the Young Women Leadership Academy Website

The Mastery Collaborative, a program based in New York City’s Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness, announced the eight schools that will be making up the Mastery Collaborative Living Lab for 2015-16. These schools are implementing (or enhancing) a schoolwide mastery system, and as part of the Living Lab will make their classrooms, resources, and expertise available to others interested in mastery-based learning.

The eight schools are:

Bronx Leadership Academy 2 HS (BLA2)

Carroll Gardens School for Innovation (CGSI) (here is a link to my visit)

Frank McCourt HS

Harvest Collegiate HS

NYC iSchool

Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy Int’l HS (KAPPA)

The Young Women’s Leadership School-Astoria (TYWLS-Astoria)

Urban Assembly Maker Academy


Summer Reading: What Does Competency Education Look Like?

June 30, 2015 by

Summer ReadingHere is a list of examples of what competency education looks like in different districts and individual schools (over-age/undercredit/high school/middle and elementary/online). My dream (which requires funding that is hard to come by, as we have so many organizations now supporting competency education) is to bring these schools together with a number of experts (assessment, engagement, motivation, learning progressions, design, student agency, social emotional learning, etc.) to try to understand the commonalities and unpack the differences. There isn’t any one right or better model at this point (it may still be too early to do that kind of evaluation…and again, we would need funding), so the best we can do is understand our options.

Please note: There are many more high school examples than elementary and middle school. This is partially due to the country’s focus on college and career readiness and big investments by big foundations into high schools, and also because high school raises some unique issues. Finally, I’m more familiar with high schools and deeply concerned about how we educate kids who are over-age and undercredited. I will do my best to focus more on the younger years to build up our knowledge there, but I need your help in identifying great examples of elementary and middle schools that are competency-based.

Please, please, please…leave in the comments any other great examples that you know about. Competency education is expanding rapidly, and it is very likely I am missing the best examples. Or there may be descriptions of schools that are missing from this list that will be very useful to others.


Chugach School District: One of the most developed districts, Chugach has figured out the ways to manage quality control and organize content and skills in ways that are meaningful to students and teachers without relying on courses. This is a seven-part series.

Lindsay School District: This district is shaping our understanding of competency education, as so many districts have visited them. They are on a rapid process of creating their 2.0 version with deep thinking about the competencies adults must have, lifelong learning competencies, and powerful information management systems to support pace and progress. We offer a five-part series about their process.

Pittsfield School District: This district began a transformation to become student-centered at the same time the state was advancing competency-based credits. The result is a strong infrastructure that supports high levels of personalization. Their four-series is listed here.

Sanborn School District: A district that has been consistently improving its capacity for instruction and assessment for over a decade, they are now participating in the powerful efforts in New Hampshire to establish common performance assessments and a new accountability model. You can hear directly from their leadership by going reading the pieces written by Brian Stack, principal at Sanborn Regional High School, and Jonathan Vander Els, principal at Memorial Elementary. There is also a three-part case study series outlined below.

School Models

Designed for Students with Large Gaps/Over-Age and Undercredited

Boston Day and Evening Academy: There has been a lot written about BDEA. The case study on CompetencyWorks is listed below. It is included in two reports describing competency-based schools: Making Mastery Work and Springpoint’s new paper Inside Mastery Based High Schools: Profiles and Conversations. It is also the focus of Jobs for the Future’s Aligning Competencies to Rigorous Standards for Off-track Youth.

Bronx Arena: This is a transfer school in New York City that is very comfortable breaking down the walls of the traditional system and re-constructing in ways that meet the needs of students.


Summertime Learning Opportunities

May 19, 2015 by

SummerAre you starting to think about how you might use your summer? Vacation? Summer camps for your kids? Creating a summertime learning plan with a list of books to read?

There are also four professional development opportunities available that might help you think more deeply about how you can transform your district and school to a competency-based model.

  • Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire is offering a Competency Education Design Studio on July 22 -24. This is a new learning opportunity that’s never been offered before. The facilitators include Rose Colby, Competency Education Specialist; Dr. Brian Blake, Superintendent of Schools; and Ellen Hume-Howard, Director of Curriculum. You’ll hear from district staff including Ann Hadwen, Donna Johnson, Sandy Rutherford, Brian M. Stack, Michael Turmelle, Jonathan Vander Els, and Ann Rutherford. Mariane Gfroerer, Supervisor NH Performance Assessment, and Paul Leather, Deputy Commissioner New Hampshire Department of Education will be there as well.  For more information, email Ellen Hume Howard at ehumehoward(at)sau17(dot)org.

If you go to one of these trainings, we’d love to hear about your three to five big takeaways! And if you know of other great summer learning opportunities, please let us know.

High Schools May Be Competency-Based Without Knowing It?

April 25, 2015 by

StudentsDoes your high school offer Advanced Placement or IB tests? If so, you may be participating in a form of competency-based education in the higher education sector.

In his The Landscape of Competency-Based Education: Enrollments, Demographics and Affordability, Robert Kelchen includes AP and IB as a form of Prior Learning Assessment. Kelchen breaks down higher education competency-based education into two forms:

  1. Well-established prior learning assessments (PLA), which grant credits for content a student has previously mastered; and
  2. Newer competency-based coursework, where students progress toward a degree as they demonstrate mastery of new academic content.

I want to emphasize that these two forms apply to higher education. In K12, we are seeing the phrase competency education apply to everything from self-paced online curriculum to the full structural changes as advanced here at CompetencyWorks, which are designed to correct the low achievement and inequity of the traditional time-based system. We don’t think about giving credits to kindergartners who already know how to count to fifty when they enter school, instead focusing on where they are on a very long progression and making sure they are learning in their “zone” (as in, the zone of proximal development). (more…)

Breaking Ranks Showcase Schools: Nashua High School North and South

April 13, 2015 by

NSDThis spotlight originally appeared in the CCSR Newsletter.

While they may be rivals on the athletic fields, the learning communities at both Nashua (NH) High School North and Nashua (NH) High School South are very purposeful about staying together as partners in education. It’s been over a decade since the district replaced the single high school with two campuses, but they have recognized from the beginning the power of synergy and collaboration. Both campuses are committed to moving forward together through collaboration and a focus on student outcomes. As Director of Curriculum Peggy Reynolds puts it, “they’re all Nashua kids, and we really feel that.”

The Nashua School District (NSD) has fostered this strong collaborative spirit through focusing on what unites them – the curriculum. Regardless of whether you work at North or South “the curriculum is the curriculum is the curriculum” says Reynolds. Teachers meet regularly both within their school, and across the two campuses to discuss the curriculum. Teachers are committed to developing the curriculum, and corresponding performance tasks, that they themselves wrote. They meet regularly to examine student work and calibrate those performance tasks to ensure they engage students in opportunities to explore greater depths of knowledge within the content. (more…)

It’s Definitely Warming Up in New England

April 8, 2015 by

NESCCThere is still snow on the ground, but people were on fire at the New England Secondary Schools Coalition High Schools in Action annual gathering. The sessions were relatively quiet, but the hallways were buzzing:

  • It is really hard to put down the red pen and stay focused on the few standards that are the goal of the learning.
  • We were told we were preparing, preparing, preparing…and then suddenly we were there. We were performance-based.
  • We learned that trying to mix grading styles was making students crazy. They were always trying to figure out the algorithms used in the computerized grading system. I could barely get them to talk about the quality of their work and accept that applied learning isn’t something you can always do quickly.
  • One of the hardest things for some of my students to accept is that they are expected to actually work hard in a proficiency-based system. For some, the traditional system was really easy – especially if they excel in short-term memorization. It is a shocker that they are expected to actually show they can use all the information they have memorized. They realize they have gaps, and that is scary.
  • Some teachers are still having difficulty with organizing their classrooms in a proficiency-based structure. It’s not based on age or length of time teaching – there is something about the mindset, the ability to move beyond what you experienced growing up and what you were taught to do as a teacher, that allows teachers to make the adjustment more quickly or need more time. (more…)
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