Fulton County Schools: A Big District Approach to Competency Education

October 9, 2014 by
Dr. Scott Muri

Dr. Scott Muri

I had the opportunity to talk last week with Dr. Scott Muri, Deputy Superintendent of Academics for Fulton County Schools (FCS) in Atlanta, Georgia. I knew that FCS was moving aggressively towards personalization, but I had never been quite sure how they saw competency education fitting into their strategy. (Although one definition of personalization includes competency-based progressions, in my opinion schools can be highly personalized without being competency-based: They can focus on completion rather than proficiency, they can pass students on with Cs and Ds, and they can personalize within age-based cohorts without opportunity to move beyond their grade level.)

When I asked Dr. Muri about their approach to competency education, he replied, “How can one  think about personalization without looking at competency education?  One is embedded in the other. If you don’t have a competency-based infrastructure, there is no way of knowing if your personalized approach is resulting in students learning.”

FCS is a public school district that is physically bisected by the City of Atlanta and its school system, Atlanta Public  Schools. It is a majority-minority district with 45 percent of the 96,000 students from low-income families (mostly in the central and southern portions  of the district). FCS has been moving down the path to technology-enabled personalization for two years. Muri described the effort as “daunting, but if not now, when?”

With the support of Gartner, FCS started their journey by exploring  the different ways schools can be personalized. They then developed a highly detailed roadmap to guide their work. (You can find FCS’s briefing on personalization and the Personalized Learning Roadmap on their website.)

Their schools are in different stages of building up capacity. For example, 25 of their elementary and middle schools have been using “standards-referenced grading,” in which standards are used to report out what students have learned. (As always, it’s important to understand the difference between standards-referenced grading and standards-based grading. According to Marzano Research Labs, the difference is in standards-referenced grading, standards are used as a reference for reporting; in standards-based, the school has put into place the structures and supports to make sure students are actually proficient in the standards.)

They’ve invested in blended learning by developing a Fulton Virtual School that provides courses to students in virtual labs staffed by paraprofessionals in each high school. They’ve also been expanding the ability of students to accelerate beyond their grade levels. Some fourth and fifth graders are taking middle  grade math  through the virtual school. FCS also is supporting their teachers to become more adept at using education technology tools and working in the blended environment.

At the secondary level, FCS has revamped summer school so that it is entirely targeted to students’ learning needs. Once students demonstrate proficiency, they can receive credit for the course. This means that some students may be in summer school for just a day or two, while others continue on to complete courses. If students started at a much lower academic level, they can also use the summer to advance towards their grade level.

FCS is starting to put together the infrastructure for competency education. With the goal of creating a consistent understanding within and across schools about proficiency and performance levels for each standard, FCS is working with Marzano Research Laboratories to develop proficiency scales and exemplars. One of the challenges for big districts is how to create consistency, given the number of schools and teachers. FCS is addressing this by creating an online capacity to help teachers discuss what mastery looks like. The calibration process will still require that teachers talk together about student work, but they’ll have a starting point that will hopefully reduce variation.

As a charter district, FCS has a lot of freedom to redesign their operations. (They are required to use Georgia standards, students must take the state assessments, and teacher/principal evaluation must use the Georgia evaluation instrument). Muri emphasized that the district is not bound by the element of time. They have flexibility in scheduling, calendars and defining credit. They can also explore the traditional mix of pre-teaching, instruction, and remediation so that instead of waiting for students to not succeed, schools can begin to provide enrichment upfront to students that may take longer or need substantially more support to succeed.

FCS is now beginning to explore how they might re-engineer the district to support a personalized, competency-based system. As far as I know, few of the districts that have converted to competency education have done much in the way of re-thinking districts roles. (One example of a district that has is Pittsfield School District in New Hampshire). FCS is now starting to think about the culture and structures that need to be in place to support students, educators, and schools. They are trying to do it in a way that other large districts can draw on their solutions.

(Disclaimer: I played an adviser role in Fulton’s efforts to develop a Personalized Learning Roadmap.)

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