January 16, 2014 by Bill Zima
Lately, I have been reflecting on my past experiences. Not because of illness or a milestone, but because I read something in a Tweet. Seems as though some people are concerned about proficiency-based learning. The worry is that it can lead to the creation of “microstandards” which kill deep learning and replace it with simplistic, discrete tasks that students master and check off before moving on to the next. While I have seen schools take standards and create worksheet factories so students can demonstrate mastery of the standards by simply completing the packet, I do not blame the breaking down of the standards. I believe it is good practice to identify the foundational knowledge a learner needs to apply to demonstrate understanding of a learning target. Instead, I believe the issue lies in educators not putting the pieces back together.
This revelation is what has caused the flashbacks to my previous work experiences. I did not start out as an educator. Before finding my way to the principal’s office, I worked as an engineer, a research scientist, and an animal trainer for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Regardless of the special skills required for each job, I approached issues and challenges the same. I needed to know my intended outcome, identify from where I was starting, break down the gap to script the critical moves to get me there, execute the script, and then put the pieces back together. (more…)
January 14, 2014 by Jonathan Vander Els
Jonathan Vander Els
In our continued quest to gain more information about students’ learning, growth and progress, a standards/competency-based grading system has provided our school and our district with timely, detailed information regarding the specific competencies that students have (or have not) demonstrated proficiency in.
Our district transitioned to a competency-based grading system four years ago, and now that we are fully implemented, I can’t imagine assessing in any other way. However, this has been and will continue to be a learning process. There have been a number of bumps in the road during this journey, but the end result is that, as one teacher stated, we, “know more about our students now than we have ever known”.
There was a significant amount of discussion at the leadership level prior to moving to this system, and many questions had to be answered, like ‘should we do this by level (elementary, middle and then high school) or do we make the decision as a district to move to this system in grades K-12?’ A number of our staff (myself included) had the opportunity to see Rick Wormeli in Boston and the information gleaned and the resulting discussions began to pave the way for the work we were going to undertake. (more…)
November 4, 2013 by Bill Zima
Executive Director, Gallup Education
This August, the school year began with the staff watching and discussing a speech by Brandon Busteed, Executive Director, Gallup Education. We were asked to think about how his thoughts informed our work of creating a learner-centered, proficiency-based system. I had watched the video several times over the previous month to pull driving questions to guide the conversation. But on this day, in front of my colleagues, I had a thought that sparked like a transformer being hit by lightning. Brandon asked, “What is the ultimate outcome of education?” I paused the video and asked the educators to discuss it at their tables. I never thought twice about the response, “to create a love of learning.” That was until now. “That is wrong,” I heard myself say. “No. It is right,” I responded. “How can anyone argue against being a life-long learner?” Suddenly I had an argument so fierce in my neurons it was as if they were celebrating the Fourth of July again.
When my focus returned to the room, I was pleased no one had noticed my momentary, self-inflicted argument. Somehow, I managed to hold the outburst inside. As I continue to reflect on that day, I have become more convinced that preparing life long learners is not a role for education. Rather, a better response to Brandon’s question is, “The ultimate outcome of education is to nurture a student’s already implicit love for learning and keep them engaged in their formal education.” What I have come to realize is that humans naturally possess a love of learning. It is as intrinsic a quality to being human, as is having hair. In his book How the Brain Learns, author David Sousa argues that if schools stopped existing today, we would not have a land of thoughtless zombies tomorrow. Students will continue thinking and learning. He says educators should not worry about teaching how to think but about teaching how to think more efficiently. (more…)
September 18, 2013 by Brian Stack
My Uh-Huh Moment
Over the summer I spent the day with my math team as we prepared for the implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics into our school. We were working on an intense math problem when I had one of those uh-huh moments – the kind I used to describe to my students when I taught high school math in Andover, Massachusetts. The problem was a simple one to understand, but it had many layers of complexity to it for math teachers:
Imagine you are a peasant, and your ruler told you that you could have as much land as you could mark off by walking in one day. What is the most amount of land you could reasonably claim? Give your answer in square miles and be prepared to support and defend your work.
Among the questions that came to mind when thinking about how to solve this problem were these: How many hours can a peasant reasonably walk in a day? How fast can a peasant walk? How many breaks will the peasant need to take? Are there hills, mountains, or other physical obstacles that the peasant will encounter? What kind of tools will the peasant have to navigate with (i.e. a compass or a GPS)?
Very quickly, a group of us began to debate these questions and create a list of assumptions that we would use to derive our answer. We debated what type of a shape would produce the biggest area. With some trial and error and use of some mathematical formulas, we agreed that a circle might be the theoretical shape that would yield the biggest area, but the square was the shape that would be easiest for the peasant to trace, assuming they had a compass or could make use of a reference point such as the sun for direction. (more…)
August 22, 2013 by Runjini Raman
Incorporating competency education into a school or district is a challenging task. With so many facets and steps to becoming a successful school, it’s definitely helpful to learn from those who have already started their journey toward competency education. Today’s post puts together some helpful posts by principals, both former and current, that have great reflections about competency education in their schools.
You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
August 6, 2013 by Chris Sturgis
This post was originally published on July 18, 2013 at the College & Career Readiness & Success Center
“College and Career Readiness”—you can’t read anything in education these days without this concept popping up. At times it can seem like a nebulous and ever changing term. For states, districts, and schools transitioning to competency-based education systems, what are the implications and opportunities emerging that may help us in managing the concept of college and career readiness for all students?
Here are a few of the things I see emerging:
1) Empowered by Students: One of the most meaningful parts of competency-based education is the transparency of the competencies and what proficiency looks like. Even in the most teacher-centered classroom, transparency has the power to open up the learning process for students. What might we expect as schools become increasing driven by students seeking new ways to learn and demonstrate proficiency? Will students seek out ways to earn credit and become credentialed outside of school? Perhaps districts will take a broader role in managing competency development across schools, organizing or purchasing online courses for a broader set of competency development than any one school can provide, or validating skills developed outside traditional academic courses.
2) Academics, Skills, and Dispositions to Dispositions, Skills, and Academics: We know that dispositions such as perseverance and problem-solving skills are equally if not more important to our success in life as academic content knowledge. However, our current systems emphasize academics over other aspects of development. As we begin to separate students’ progress on academic learning progressions from the skills and dispositions (keep an eye on Oregon as they roll out their new reporting expectations starting July 1), we are going to find ourselves face to face with the problem that our schools are not designed to help students build those skills and dispositions. Nor do we know how to assess them without bias. Certainly, performance assessment will increase in importance – that’s a no brainer. However, it’s possible that problem-based learning, project-based learning, and “leaving to learn” (have you read Elliot and Charlie’s new book yet? They push out the importance of students having real-world experiences including gap years while in high school) are going to increase in importance. (more…)
August 1, 2013 by Bill Zima
In earlier posts, I described a framework of leadership I believe is needed if the work of converting to a student-centered, proficiency-based system of learning is to be successful. I base my thinking on my own experiences and the tales of leaders gone before. The framework is built around four lenses. They are building a leadership team, action planning (both described in earlier posts), meeting facilitation, and culture. This post looks to further describe the lens of meeting facilitation.
I remember the excitement I felt the night before my first team leader meeting. I laid awake visioning different scenarios of how I should act. I could sit quietly and listen to the experts discuss teaching and learning. I could share some thoughts of my own? What should I share? What do I know? Would I say something stupid and lose their respect? Did I even have their respect? The night went on but sleep did not.
The morning came. I hurried to the meeting carrying my Team Leader Binder under my arm as though I was tasked with delivering the Magna Carta. I pushed the door open and found an empty room. I took my seat and waited. People trickled in like a slow drip from the kitchen faucet. They gave me a cordial smile and took their seats. With one minute to go, the assistant principal entered the room. She did not sit. Instead she stood at the head of the conference table and opened her binder like a maestro getting ready to lead the orchestra. She watched the clock. As the clock struck eight, she began.
“Looking at the agenda, we have picture day next Monday. Any questions?” She glanced around the room, but it was clear she was not looking for any. Instead we moved to the next item. “Grades will close on January 23. Any questions?” With the same interest in hearing input, she moved onto the next item, then the next. When all the agenda items were covered, she closed her binder and said, “See you next week.” Without even looking at the leaders, she vacated the room. The leaders followed, congratulating each other on finishing the meeting in under 15 minutes. I sat in my seat wondering what had just happened. (more…)
July 24, 2013 by Brian Stack
My New Hampshire high school made the shift to a competency-based grading and reporting system two years ago. Educators who talk to me about that experience often want to know what that change process looked like from a student’s perspective. Surprisingly, most students were comfortable with the shift provided that they believed the school and teachers were effective at explaining how their grade would be calculated. The students who seemed most reluctant to change at the beginning were the ones who were already performing at a high level in the old system. These kids knew how to play what I like to call the grading game. They didn’t always test well, but they knew they could always compensate for that by doing all their homework, raising their hand every day in class, and bringing in canned goods on Thanksgiving week for extra credit points. The problem is that these behaviors made the assumption that, if students had good study habits, then they must have learned. When we think about it this way, it seems outrageous to support a system that doesn’t directly connect to competencies – the ability of a student to apply content knowledge and skills in and/or across the content area(s).
To help educators understand what I went through when my school made this shift, consider the following set of fictitious letters between a student and I. These letters are adapted from actual scenarios that I faced in the first year of implementation.
Dear Mr. Stack,
I am writing to you to express my displeasure that our school changed its grading practices for the upcoming school year. I have always been an “A” student. I do all of my homework, I always raise my hand to participate in class, and I always turn in my assignments on time. I am not; however, a good test-taker. In the past my teachers have always known this and they have compensated by giving me extra credit opportunities, making my homework worth more points, and giving me lots of participation point opportunities.
With this new grading system, it seems all the emphasis is being placed on doing well on tests. Homework is worth practically nothing. It seems due dates don’t matter. I am very concerned that I am no longer going to be an “A” student.
Why would our school change to a system that is going to hurt kids like me? I am very discouraged.
July 10, 2013 by Bill Zima
In earlier posts, I attempted to describe an overall framework of leadership I believe is needed if the work of converting to a student-centered, proficiency-based system of learning is to be successful. I base my thinking on my own experiences and the tales of leaders gone before in both education and business. The framework is built around four lenses through which leaders’ practices must pass. When the lenses are aligned and what we do passes through, our work is focused on our vision. The four lenses of leadership are building a leadership team (discussed in an earlier blog post), action planning, meeting facilitation, and culture. This post looks to further describe the lens of action planning.
A well-built leadership team must identify and share what they will do. What actions will be taken to help our organization in the process of continuous improvement. In Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt states that actions are what give strategies traction. Without well defined action steps, you have wheel spinning.
In years past, my school’s leadership team met prior to the opening of school and set goals around how we taught, assessed, and supported our learners. The vision was of a school that asked the teacher to differentiate more and more while the system continued moving students in age-like cohorts whether or not they were ready for the next year’s curriculum. Once we realized this was not improving learning for all students, we created a vision of a school that included the statement, “Students working their way through a well defined continuum of learning using their passions to create a path and choose how they will demonstrate their understanding of the learning.” Borrowing a term from Switch by Dan and Chip Heath, this new vision became our “postcard destination.” Now we needed to identify and script the critical moves to make it a reality. (more…)
June 7, 2013 by Bill Zima
As my responsibility changed from a single classroom, to a team, to the full school, I attempted to be the expert in everything from assessment to ventilation. I assumed I was hired because I had the answers. I also felt responsible to get the work done. How could I ask others to do it if I was not willing to do it myself? The work and the stress piled up. The attempt to be the lone expert in each and every room began to deteriorate my energy, and worse, my working relationships with my colleagues.
Then I listened to Creating Magic by Lee Cockerell, the once Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World Resort. He suggested that the higher a person goes in an organization, the less of the actual work they do. He said leaders need to empower their direct reports by giving them a voice in how the job gets done. This allows for the innovative procedures and processes to be created.
Who were my direct reports? Schools are not designed as companies with departments with various levels of management. In my school, there are 61 teachers distributed amongst three grade levels: sixth, seventh and eighth, special education, and our Exploratories, with an assistant principal and a principal. Leadership teams in many schools are often constructed because someone fits a role instead of having leadership abilities. “The third grade representative is leaving, no one is interested, so I am going to do it” is not an uncommon statement. Another is, “Can we rotate the position for the year?” Both of these lead to a lack of consistency needed to build a well functioning leadership team.
I now find the leaders, and then have them assume the role. So my conversations might sound like, “Part of your responsibilities on the leadership team is to check in with the sixth grade teachers and see how they are progressing on our goals.” This also keeps the focus on the goals and the ownership of progress on the teams. (more…)