CompetencyWorks is an online resource dedicated to providing information and knowledge about competency-based education in the K-12 education system. Drawing on lessons learned by innovators and early adopters, CompetencyWorks shares original research, knowledge, and a variety of perspectives through an informative blog with practitioner knowledge, policy advancements, papers on emerging issues, and a wiki with resources curated from across the field.

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The New Hampshire Learning Initiative: A Model for Catalyzing State-Wide Transformation

July 18, 2019 by

First NHLI Promotional PosterThe New Hampshire Learning Initiative serves as a catalyst to oversee and support scaling of New Hampshire’s work toward an integrated, competency-based education system. I recently attended their annual Powerful Learning Conference, where hundreds of school and district personnel attended keynotes, sessions, workshops, and daily “team time” (with school teams or groups of individual attendees) to advance their practices related to competency-based education.

The annual conference is one of many initiatives that NHLI provides throughout the year to support transformation at the school, district, and state levels. Their work is closely tied to New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) Pathways Network. PACE provides an opportunity for districts to administer locally developed performance assessments that support deeper learning. These assessments are designed to be a meaningful and positive learning experience for students—a key component of competency-based education. The PACE system is approved by the U.S. Department of Education through its Innovative Assessment Pilot program, section 1204 of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

NHLI is explicit that both their work and PACE are not just about assessment and accountability, however. As shown in the figure below, PACE also emphasizes project-based learning, teacher leadership, competency design, student agency, student exhibitions, extended learning opportunities (NH’s term for out-of-school learning activities), and work study practices (NH’s term for lifelong learning skills such as collaboration and self-direction).

NH PACE Pathways GraphicNHLI leads a diverse set of initiatives that provide a series of “on-ramps” to deeper implementation of each of these elements of quality competency-based education. Just as CBE promotes meeting students where they are, NHLI’s on-ramps meet educators and administrators where they are. And sometimes “where they are” includes being unclear on what performance assessments are, fearful of starting because of obstacles to full implementation, or concerned that not all teachers or school committee members are on-board.

The different on-ramps enable any school to become part of the PACE network regardless of where they are. This fits well with New Hampshire’s status as a national leader and innovator in competency-based education. Three of NHLI’s many initiatives are described below, and could inform efforts in other states seeking to deepen their competency-based practices. (more…)

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Celebrating Learning Can Be Moving and Uplifting, and We Need To Get It Right

July 15, 2019 by

Mastery Collaborative Students(This blog post began as a comment that Joy Nolan wrote on a recent CompetencyWorks post about recognizing outstanding student achievement in competency-based schools. Thanks, Joy!)

Celebrating learning can be moving and uplifting, and like all other aspects of education, we need to get it right, which may mean unlearning and improving upon ideas and practices that don’t serve our students (meaning: all our students) as well as possible. Chris’s ideas about honoring progress are cool, and so is the practice of sharing out and recognizing excellent project-based learning.

Schools are both places of learning, and issuers of credentials . . . and we need to be thoughtful about all aspects of practice.

One of the newer member schools in NYC’s Mastery Collaborative (www.masterycollaborative.org) recently realized they needed to rethink honor roll and start recognizing students whose mastery has grown most, as well as students who have reached high levels of mastery. Their thinking: Both are amazing and meaningful accomplishments, so let’s celebrate both—especially as this is a more equitable way to roll in a world (our world) that inequitably advantages and disadvantages students in many ways that can show up on transcripts.

NY Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education FrameworkIf our vision is genuine educational equity (aside: not everyone shares this vision, and some will agree in word and not in action), we need to be intentional and critically conscious to bring it about. We’re looking at you, beliefs, policies, and practices. We have much actionable, research-based and road-tested knowledge about what works to support learners and to bring about more equitable schools—yet we know we’re a long way off from this vision. Moving toward a more equitable steady state—a world we have yet to see— requires learning, unlearning, and collective action. We have our circles of practice and community, along with the principles of student-centered learning, competency-based education, and culturally responsive-sustaining education to guide us.

We know that learning is a cognitive process that is not most helpfully framed as a competition nor as a race. We know that ideally grades are neither rewards nor punishments, but instead messages about where a student is in terms of mastery of key skills and knowledge—at a point in time.

We know that mindsets for learning—growth mindset, and its less famous but powerful cousins, value mindset (“There is value for me in the effort and time I put into academic work”) and belonging mindset (“My school is for me; I am an important part of a community; it matters that I am there”)—are vital dispositions that power the multidimensional set of achievements every student must reach to graduate high school. Do we foster or discourage these mindsets by separating out a small number of students who “really” got there in some way that may have to do with technical aspects of credentialing systems, and a variety of answers to “What’s in that grade?” What aspects of learning are we valuing over others when we post honor rolls and choose valedictorians based on GPA?

We are collectively engaged in deepening mastery-based, culturally responsive, and student-centered learning, so let’s use their equity principles to consider what honor-by-ranking traditions message to all learners in a school, including students who do not and will not see their academic efforts over the years recognized in these ways.

So how should we handle class rank and GPA? Scholarships are often based on these factors. My colleague Meg Stentz suggests that we use these documentations of achievement to the extent that they are keys to students’ accessing scholarships, selective colleges, internships, and other opportunities. That said, maybe we don’t need special tassels and bulletin boards for highest class rank, etc.—unless we are also doing special tassels and bulletin boards for other kinds of significant academic achievement.

It’s beautiful, positive, and energizing to lift up students’ worthy accomplishments. Focusing on practices that turn learning into a competition may clash with our efforts toward equity, student-centered learning, and mastery-based learning—and blind us to other aspects and stages of learning that are worthy of celebration—especially since access and opportunities are far from equally available to all students, the education system is not equally responsive to students of all racial and social identities . . . and these realities dramatically affect GPAs.

Students are energized and lifted up when we recognize their achievements—so by all means, let’s keep doing that, and be thoughtful about how.

Hoping for more ideas about how to honor learning in ways that do justice to the vital mission of a world where every student is able to confidently assume their school is “for” them, and to the principles of mastery-based learning. Great to see this conversation happening in the CompetencyWorks community. Thanks!

Learn More:

Photo of Joy NolanJoy Nolan is Director of the New York City Department of Education’s Mastery Collaborative program, a community of public schools across the five boroughs that are implementing culturally responsive, mastery/competency-based shifts. Joy also has a background and abiding interest in student-centered learning and curriculum design.

 

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Personalized Competency-Based Learning: Maybe Not Just for Kids

July 11, 2019 by

VPL Biennale Program CoverIt can be easy and comfortable to assume that our view of the world and the assumptions we make about it are the correct perspectives and others should follow our lead. This thinking can be personal, shared across groups, or even reflected in the policies adopted by whole countries.

Of course, such thinking is narrow and ego-centric. It can also be susceptible to challenge and change, if we are open to exploring and learning from the experiences and views of others. I had one of these experiences recently, and it has led me to think differently about our work with learners and learning. The experience also has expanded my thinking about how we view the potential contributions of informally educated populations, including those who come to our country as immigrants and migrants.

Two months ago I was invited to share the Institute for Personalized Learning’s work to develop the learning skills of young people at an international conference in Berlin, Germany. The conference focused on adult learning that occurs outside of formal systems and is not in pursuit of, or recognized by, diplomas or certificates. Forty countries were represented at the conference, with heavy attendance from western and northern Europe. I was the only attendee from the United States.

The conference, or biennale as it was called, was sponsored by Validating Prior Learning (VPL), an organization made up of a variety of networks, projects, and programs aimed at capturing, documenting, and honoring the growing collection of skills and knowledge gained outside of schools, universities, and training programs, which have historically gone unrecognized.

I was struck by how this group of educators, leaders of nonprofit organizations, governmental agency officers, and community advocates are working to uncover, develop, and honor learning from sources we too often ignore. While aspects of the work are altruistic, it is also driven by economic realities. Several European Union officials who addressed the conference framed the challenge in stark economic terms.

Most striking was the difference in thinking about immigrants and migrants. While the U.S. debates policies to keep people out of our country, other countries are exploring how to capture the knowledge and skills outsiders bring with them. Low birth rates are creating the need to engage workers from other regions and countries to maintain their economies. While the assimilation of immigrants is a serious challenge for many European countries, underutilizing the valuable knowledge and skills of immigrants is no longer acceptable. (more…)

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Recognizing Outstanding Student Achievement in Competency-Based Schools

July 8, 2019 by

Student in CornfieldCompetencyWorks recently received this inquiry from an administrator of a school that was working to deepen its competency-based learning practices:

One question we are thinking about is how to honor academic achievement and progress in proficiency-based grading/reporting. We are finding, for instance, that naming students to an “honor roll” for Quarter 1 is a difficult fit for a system that intentionally honors growth over time. Are there new or different ways of honoring academic achievement and progress that are emerging as schools transition to proficiency-based systems?

This is an important question that many people in the field are grappling with. The challenge is in part because “honor roll” feels like a vestige of the ranking and sorting mechanisms of traditional grading systems. At the same time, competency-based systems are developing ways for students to achieve and demonstrate deeper learning, as well as ways to recognize these achievements. The field doesn’t have a single way of approaching this, but there are some emerging strategies and ways of thinking about it.

The following quotation from Steve Lavoie, written while he was principal at Richmond Middle/High School in RSU2 in Maine, recognizes the tensions in transforming between traditional and competency-based practices. He wrote on CompetencyWorks,“Decide what issues are critical and that you’ll ‘go to the wall for.’ You will be faced with questions that tie to the traditional system. Expect them and decide ahead of time whether or not you are willing to ‘die on that hill’ prior to the question being asked. Questions relating to GPA, class rank, Top Ten, and honor roll should be anticipated. Your stakeholders may believe they are important components that should be retained. Issues like these feel like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, but they are not critical issues that should interfere with the implementation of the big picture. They can be made to fit your program. Be prepared to give in on some issues but stand firm on the critical ones like your core belief that all students need to demonstrate proficiency on all standards required for graduation. That would be the hill to die on.”

In the CompetencyWorks Issue Brief, Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education, Chris Sturgis wrote, “It’s unlikely that the need for ranking will ever be absolutely obsolete.
Highly selective colleges and those who want to attend them are going to want to be able to identify the ‘best students’ through some mechanism that recognizes distinction.” In the same issue brief, Brian Stack, principal at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire, asks, “Why not instead set a bar that you will use to distinguish an ‘honor graduate,’ and any student who is able to reach (or exceed) that bar gets the distinction at graduation. From year to year, the number of honor graduates will change, but the standard never would. Every student would have the opportunity to be considered an honor graduate, provided they meet the requirements.”

Here are a few examples of schools that use honor rolls within CBE systems: (more…)

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Innovative Scheduling: Digital e-Learning Days and Academic Support Periods

July 1, 2019 by

This is the fifth and final post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Farmington Tigers MascotInnovations in school scheduling are key elements in shifting to competency-based education. They can enable “anytime, anywhere” learning, ensure that students receive frequent personalized support, and support deeper learning such as high-quality, project-based work. Innovative scheduling is an essential component of increasing organizational flexibility, one of the competency-based education quality principles. Two scheduling innovations in the Farmington school district are Flexible Learning Days and Academic Support Periods.

Working from Anywhere But the School Building

Farmington implemented flexible learning days or “flex days” several years ago. On these days, students don’t come to school but are expected to work via the school’s digital platform. Teachers are available and provide online “office hours.”

One advantage is that school days that in the past would have been cancelled due to inclement weather can now be productive learning days that don’t result in disrupted schedules and extended school years. The district also believes that it’s a great way to learn. Executive Director of Educational Services Jason Berg explained, “Students need to learn how to manage their own time, so we have to set up some experiences to let them learn that—to see that they don’t have to be in school to do learning.”

Flex days aren’t just to prevent school cancellations, however. The district also has two scheduled flex days each year with activities that teachers set up and post online for students to complete on their own schedule. Students can reach teachers digitally during school hours, although they’re also free to complete the work on their own schedules. Some students do group work electronically, and some classes that require out-of-school work, such as a photography class, schedule special activities on flex days. If students have several different activities that they need to get done that day, it is up to them to develop a plan to get it done, with teacher support as needed.

To help caregivers plan for the two pre-scheduled annual flex days, the district announces the dates at the beginning of the school year. The community has also set up some child care opportunities for those days for families who need it, and some of the older students go to the community centers and serve as tutors. Students are not permitted to go to the elementary or middle schools on the planned flex days, but high school students who have work that they can only do in the building are permitted to come if they have their own transporation. (Buses are cancelled on flex days.) The Farmington website provides more information about their flexible learning days. (more…)

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iNACOL Releases Updates to the Snapshot of K-12 Competency Education State Policy Across the United States

June 27, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at iNACOL on May 30, 2019.

Today, iNACOL released the updated CompetencyWorks map for 2019, a snapshot of K-12 competency education state policy across the United States. The map was last updated in September 2018.

You can download a copy of the map here.

2019 Snapshot of CBE State Policy

We have categorized the states as “Advanced,” “Developing,” “Emerging,” and “Not Yet” on the map to signify whether the state has permissive, enabling, or comprehensive state policy to advance competency-based education.

“Advanced” means that the state has comprehensive policy alignment or has established an active state role to build educator capacity in local school systems for competency education.

“Developing” means that the state has open state policy flexibility for school districts to transition to competency education.

“Emerging” means that there is limited state policy flexibility and, usually, the state requires authorization for school systems to shift to competency-based education.

In the updated map, there are 17 “Advanced” states (in red), 14 “Developing” states, plus the District of Columbia ( in green), and 18 “Emerging” states (in yellow.)

Additionally, the 2019 map removes the shading that formerly designated whether a state was a part of the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Innovative Lab Network (ILN), which is phasing out this year.

Updates to State Categorization

This month, two states have moved up one category on the map, in recognition of new developments in state policy or leadership that create more conducive conditions for competency education. (more…)

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Interstellar Time at Boeckman Middle School

June 24, 2019 by

This is the fourth post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Eliot and Students at BoeckmanFarmington’s emphasis on teacher agency means that competency-based education is evolving in many different forms across the district. Boeckman Middle School has developed Interstellar Time, which brings a competency-based approach to selected subjects and grade levels.

During the 2018-19 school year, Interstellar Time served 90 7th-graders during a four-and-a-half hour period every other day focused on language arts, math, and social studies. During the 2019–20 school year, the initiative will expand to include 8th-graders in language arts, social studies, and art classes. These academic subjects reflect the teachers who wanted to participate. The expansion to 8th grade will mean that students in the 7th-grade Interstellar cohort will be able to continue their involvement in this approach to learning for a second year.

Boeckman Principal Megan Blazek explained, “Our mission is to provide an environment where learners become owners of their learning, informed problem solvers, and reflective goal setters.” The Interstellar Time website explains that the personalized learning innovation “allows learners to schedule time to work on their specific learning needs at any time, any place, any path, any pace. Our goal is to develop strong learners and leaders—learners who are able to think flexibly, critically, and creatively as well as communicate and collaborate with others.”

Every student has an iPad, and teachers build playlists of learning activities and assessments aligned to competencies that students need to demonstrate. These playlists are provided via the Schoology learning management system, and students’ progress on demonstrating evidence of competencies is tracked with an individualized Google sheet. Next year they will move away from the Google sheet and use Campus Learning, which is an add-on to Infinite Campus. Some learning activities are carried out on iPads, but others take place on paper or through group activities.

(more…)

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Shifting the English Department to Competency-Based Assessment

June 20, 2019 by

This is the third post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Beginning Approaching Competent ExtendingThe English department at Farmington High School has made major shifts toward competency-based curriculum and instruction, as described in the previous post. This has required parallel shifts in assessment, with greater use of formative assessment and competency-based grading.

“Much of the assessment we do is formative, and we treat that more like practice and skill development,” explained one of the four English teachers who have been making this shift. “So what I’ve found in my classroom is that the kids who might not love English class, or might struggle with it—now instead of seeing a 3 out of 10 on a writing assignment, they see on their rubric that they’re ‘approaching’ the competent level. That has allowed us to have those authentic conversations when we’re doing our conferencing, like ‘Hey, if you just fix these one or two things on the rubric, you can move up into that competent level.’”

“It causes a complete mind-shift, where students don’t just shut down after a couple weeks. Now they understand, ‘there’s no tricks to this—at first we’ll be practicing new skills, and then we’ll assess where you are at the end of the unit.’ And that’s really freeing for a lot of kids. It has kept them in the game. They keep getting a little bit better, and then they’re ready to show how they’ve improved.”

Another teacher said that shifting to formative assessment and competency-based grading is great for the teachers too. “It’s awesome, because you see the lightbulb go off the first time the kid comes up and they think they’re going to get yelled at or told that they’re doomed—and instead they’re amazed that they have the opportunity to improve a few things we discussed and then move up to the next level on the rubric. That’s been pretty awesome.” (more…)

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Shifting the English Department to Competency-Based Learning

June 18, 2019 by

This is the second post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to other posts are provided at the end of this article.

The administration of the Farmington Area Public Schools believes that their strategic plan, combined with “radical trust” in teacher agency, has led personalized learning to flourish in ways that are deep and expanding. Rather than prescribing what exact shifts should happen, they believe that changes in practice will emerge more naturally over time and with greater buy-in by giving teachers time and resources to support new ways of thinking and practicing.

Four English teachers at Farmington High School—Ashley Anderson, Adam Fischer, Sarah Stout, and John Williams—explained that these changes have played out in their department as a gradual process of becoming more focused on what each student wants. Over time, their work has become more closely oriented with all five parts of the working definition of competency-based education.

Wherefore Art Thou, Student Engagement?

Three years ago at a PLC meeting, the teachers and an administrator decided to expand the curriculum, which included readings such Romeo and Juliet and To Kill A Mockingbird, to include a wider range of traditional and contemporary books and authors. They believed this would increase student engagement and the curriculum’s cultural responsiveness. The PLC thought carefully about what outcomes they wanted and realized that the skills and dispositions students needed could be developed from this wider range of readings. Not everyone needed to read the same books at the same time with the teacher leading from the front of the room.

So they bought sets of 13 new books. The students not only began choosing what books they wanted to read, they also began leading their own book groups. The teachers helped them build higher-level skills such as leading a discussion and developing engaging questions. “So we get all of that ‘standards stuff’ in there,” one teacher explained, “but then it’s about them taking charge and leading the conversation.”

Some of the new titles were The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Flight by Sherman Alexie, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds—acclaimed books with diverse authors. The teachers described students coming in and saying things like, “Wow—do you know what’s in this book?!” and that it was the first book they had ever read cover to cover, sometimes in one weekend. (more…)

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“Radical Trust” and Teacher Agency Drive Deeper Change in Farmington

June 13, 2019 by

This is the first post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Jay Haugen, Farmington

Jay Haugen

Jay Haugen is Minnesota’s 2019 Superintendent of the Year, and his leadership has helped the Farmington Area Public Schools make great strides in advancing competency-based education. After 30 years in administration, Haugen has adopted a philosophy of “radical trust” in his staff, based on his experience that top-down initiatives fail to bring deep and lasting change.

During visits to Farmington High School and Boeckman Middle School, about 20 miles south of Minneapolis, I spoke with Haugen and Jason Berg, Farmington’s Executive Director of Educational Services. This post focuses on their philosophy and experiences with moving toward more personalized learning. Other posts in the series will explore specific changes in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and scheduling.

Jason Berg, Farmington

Jason Berg

Promoting Agency, Not Compliance

Jay Haugen: I’ve tried to make big change my whole career, but for decades I’ve watched all the right stuff come to nothing. So we don’t talk about “rolling out” changes anymore. That hasn’t been our language for the past seven years. We don’t “run initiatives.” The central office doesn’t decide what people should do and then schedule staff development for everyone on those topics. It’s very organic. We invite people to innovate, we get them inspired about our direction, and we unleash our staff and provide the supports they need. This has led to many types of competency-based innovations in our different schools, disciplines, and grade levels.

One of our top words is “agency,” and that’s for both students and staff. We do not tell staff what to do and how to do it. I think that’s what been wrong forever. Everything emanates from our strategic plan, and our purpose—to ‘ensure that every student reaches their highest aspirations while embracing responsibility to community.’ As long as staff are connecting to our purpose, we’re going to honor their agency and their ability to bring about that result.

We need to go slow to go fast. District offices tend to wish that people would all just get on board with mandates, but what you get is compliance. Then five years later you wonder what happened to your initiative. So the issue is how you go about it. You need to realize that you can’t tell a human what to do and how to do it. You just can’t! We won’t accept it! We will pretend. We will comply. Compliance is the 10% solution, because it makes your big initiatives become tiny increments that don’t keep pace at all with our world. So we need to do something different. The leap is radical trust—preserve people’s agency, and let them self-organize.

(more…)

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