Tag: school design

Gateways, Not Grades

April 2, 2014 by

This is the second of a two-part series on Making Community Connections Charter School. Click here for Part 1.

 In our traditional system, students progress in age-based cohorts, with most students progressing regardless of what they know and somej curve being retained to repeat a year.  Competency education expects students to get the support they need so that they are proficient, offering flexibility as needed, such as allowing students to continue to focus on gaps or areas where they are not yet proficient (i.e. competency recovery) in the summer or the coming school year.  The challenge for the school is to keep students on track AND provide flexibility to ensure they become proficient, which means rapid response when students struggle and more intensive interventions as needed.

Making Community Connections Charter School (MC2) has a different understanding of what it means to be on track. It’s not just an arrow, angling up at 45 degrees. It’s the J curve, which predicts that as students become more mature, with the habits to be successful learners, they will take off and learn on a much steeper trajectory. Under this theory of learning, how does MC2 make sure students are on track and progressing?  (more…)

Igniting Learning at the Making Community Connections Charter School

April 1, 2014 by

This is the first of a two-part series about Making Community Connections Charter School. Click here for Part 2.


“As a learner, I grew in the way a fire would if you sprayed gasoline on it.” – From a student’s graduation portfoliomc2

That’s what Making Community Connections Charter School (MC2) is all about –creating dynamic learners. At MC2, serving grades 7-12 in Manchester, New Hampshire, it feels like they wiped the slate clean of all the traditional ideas of what makes a school and started to design the school from scratch.  It’s deeply student-centered in its design and operations.  Its theory of change is built upon a deep understanding and appreciation of adolescent development, motivation, and learning sciences. MC2 is a model that will work for any student. At its center, it is designed around the kids who are educationally challenged (about 35% of MC2 students are classified as having special education needs), have already had a tough time in life by age 14, who have felt betrayed by the adults in their lives, and are drawing from their own reservoirs of stubborn hope that things can get better.

This case study on MC2 is broken into two parts. The first is on the design principles and the theory of action driving the school. The second is on how students progress and the implications for teachers. (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…)

A Visit to Cornerstone Charter School (Detroit)

October 30, 2013 by

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In the northwest corner of Detroit, Cornerstone Charter Schools opened Health High School in response to the beliefs, challenges, and dreams of the community. HHS is a new school in its second year of implementation and a good example of blended learning.  The elements of the school that are personalized or competency-based, reside in its rapid response to help students stay on track and complete their courses. Below are several of the design elements:

Character Education:  In the halls and classrooms you see reference to the traits that HHS expects the adults and students to demonstrate. Citizenship, patience, kindness, self-control, gentleness, goodness, faith, peace, and love.  The school is rooted in these values, weaving them and life skills across all content areas.

Designed Around Relationships, Relevance and Rigor: Teachers are called Rigor Managers using the face-to-face (F2F) time to supplement and expand on learning. Relationship Managers stay connected to what is happening with students in school and out, providing coaching and advocacy as needed. Students have a daily class called Relevance that is inquiry-based, interdisciplinary, and connected to the real world. The ninth grade this year is looking at how to address vacant land in Detroit, drawing on science, government, and writing. Another way HHS builds relevance is through a broad career theme offering low-income students access to powerful career development opportunities. HHS was developed in partnership with Detroit Medical Center and Beaumont Hospitals.


Carpe Diem: Integrating Competency-Based and Blended Learning:

September 11, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-09-05 at 11.48.54 AMAmerican Radio Works has released a great piece on digital learning One Child at a Time: Custom Learning in the Digital Age including case studies of the Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis and Mooresville Public Schools in North Carolina.  For schools trying to think about how to integrate digital learning into a competency-based framework the chapter  on Carpe Diem will give you lots of ideas. My guess is it could make a pretty good discussion tool.

The Carpe Diem case study raises lots of  design issues:

  • Students operating at a variety of levels: ” Some students are way ahead. One girl, a seventh-grader, started the year testing at a ninth-grade level in math. She ended the year at an 11th-grade level. The same student came in at a second-grade level in science. By the end of the year, she was testing at a sixth-grade level.
  • Mix of Traditional Classrooms and Online Learning: “When you ask students what grade they’re in, some of them will look at you funny. One student said: “Do you mean upstairs or downstairs?” Upstairs is the learning center where students work at their own pace on computers. There they don’t really think of themselves as being in a particular grade. Downstairs is different. That’s where students go for their classes, which are called workshops. There they are grouped together by the grade they would be in at a conventional school.”
  • Student Agency: “Kristina, who is shy and soft-spoken and wears a huge flower in her hair, says the difference between Carpe Diem and the school she attended last year is this: she feels in control at Carpe Diem. Every day she knows exactly how she’s doing; it says so right on her computer screen. At her previous school she would take tests and hand in assignments and sometimes wait weeks to get grades back. By the time she knew she was failing, it felt like it was too late to do anything about it.”

FYI — If you are really interested in learning more about digital learning so you can better integrate it into your competency-based school, check out MOOC-Ed. They are offering a course Digital Learning Transition to help you understand the potential of digital learning in K-12 schools, assess progress and set future goals for your school or district, and plan to achieve those goals. (They also have a course on Mathematic Learning Trajectories that looks really interesting!)

Lindsay Unified — Design Elements

June 17, 2013 by
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from LUSD website

We often think of innovation as an urban phenomena, a natural outgrowth of concentration of an industry, strong peer networks, and competition driving toward excellence.  However, Lindsay, California shows us that innovation can take place anywhere, even in a town of 12,000, beribboned by orange groves at the edge of California’s Central Valley.

The Lindsay Unified School District is well on their way to transforming their entire system to a personalized, performance-based system.  The conversations among district management teams vibrate with how they can fully implement a system in which all students are able to achieve.  Students are part of the process – taking advantage of the new possibilities and helping to solve problems as they pop up. The high school began implementation in 2009 and they are now beginning to roll it out to middle and elementary schools.

This case study will be in two parts. This initial post will be on the design elements and the second part will be on the big take-aways from my site visit.


Design Elements

Lindsay is partnering with the Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC), so many of the design elements will be familiar to those who have visited Maine or Adams 50.

Overarching Design: LUSD describes their system as performance-based: “In a performance-based system, students work at their performance level and advance through the curriculum when they have demonstrated proficiency of the required knowledge or skills.” LUSD identifies the following benefits of a performance-based system. Note they use the phrase “learner” instead of student and “facilitator” instead of teacher. (more…)

Should Every Student Be in A Competency-based System?

April 22, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-04-19 at 11.52.39 AMIn a discussion with Lilian Pace from KnowledgeWorks this morning, the fascinating question of whether every student should be in a competency-based system  or whether it should be an option for students came up.

This led to a discussion of whether competency education is a specific school design, instructional model or a systemic framework.  In a policy environment that encourages choice and personalization, we of course don’t want to establish one-size fits all school designs or instructional approaches. (And I certainly don’t think competency education is a school model or instructional approach). However, as a systemic framework, is competency education something we want for everyone?

The only way I know to answer this question is to walk through it step by step:

1) Should a student be provided with education that responds to where they are in their learning progression?

It’s the Goldilocks answer.  If the curriculum is too easy or too hard, frustration, boredom and disengagement occur. We want the curriculum to be “just right” – at and above the level where students are in their learning progression so they are challenged.  The zone of proximal development, if you will. (more…)


November 26, 2012 by

Thomas Rooney, Superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District

I have received three requests over the past week asking for evidence of success from competency education models.  The truth of the matter is that we are not swimming in proof points. And it is very, very important for our continued work to advance competency education that we generate them. They do have to be more than anecdotal. They don’t have to be a third party random assignment evaluation.

A further complicating matter is that our current approaches to accountability are not designed to easily pick up the fact that students may be getting the help they need to fill academic gaps. Thus an “11th” grade student working to strengthen elementary school level math skills may be “ not proficient” in state tests even if they moved up three grade levels over the year. Perhaps a growth model will pick that up, but what we are finding is that the horrendous gaps generated by passing students along unprepared often challenge the limits of our accountability and assessment systems.

I have collected the few examples of evidence of competency education adding value below. There are a few more that I’m following up on. Please send me any and all that you might have…That way we can keep pulling together a solid argument for competency education.

Chugach (From Delivering on the Promise)

In 1994, the Chugach School District, serving 214 students over 20,000 square miles in impoverished communities, began a fundamental redesign of how they would educate their students. With the courage to confront the fact that 90 percent of their students could not read at grade level and only one student in 26 years had graduated from college, Chugach focused their mission on ensuring that all students learn to high standards. (more…)

Online Learning Means Extended Learning Time

October 4, 2012 by

Today, I made a visit to New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (NH VLACS) in Exeter, New Hampshire.

As Richard Ayers from SERESC notes, “VLACS has thoroughly developed a profile for competency education that is far reaching and relevant to 21st Century Learning.”

Students can take all of their courses online at VLACS. They can enroll so they learn online for just one or a few courses at VLACS, take additional courses for acceleration, take courses that aren’t offered at their traditional schools, or recover units for credit through online learning to catch up and stay on track. There are more than 15,000 enrollments in courses with 100 of their own full-time students, thousands of part-time students, and even students over age 18 trying to re-engage in public education.

I was able to spend several hours talking to students, teachers, staff, and even a few of the board members.  The teachers remarked that they “purposefully came to VLACS” to do what they enjoy doing best– focus on teaching and instruction, working with students in a student-centered, competency-based learning environment.  VLACS has 126 instructors and 150 staff. All instructional staff are certified teachers, teaching online with the technology tools that enable high quality, personalized instruction that is designed to be competency-based.

Here are a few highlights of my visit:

Statewide Partnership: VLACS’ main focus is to partner with public schools around New Hampshire to create more opportunities for students, and they said that every high school in the state has engaged with VLACS.  Their mission is to provide high quality educational opportunities to ensure students are prepared for college, careers, and citizenship.


Reading the Pulse of Students at Boston Day and Evening Academy

June 20, 2012 by

Reading the pulse of students. That’s what Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) does exceptionally well—read the pulse of their students. They know them, they respect them, and they’ve got their backs. That’s where personalization always starts—by having respectful relationships between educators and students.

BDEA has been fine-tuning competency education for fifteen years, and they have a lot of insights to offer to schools that are transforming from a time-based system to a learning-based system. They now offer a Responsive Education Alternatives Lab (REAL) summer institute for interested educators. (more…)

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