Author: Eliot Levine

Transitioning to Standards-Based Grading

January 20, 2020 by

Sign on Wall That Says Are You Proficient YetThis is the final post in a series about the Northern Cass School District.

Northern Cass is making an ambitious transformation to competency-based education, as described in earlier posts in this series. They are shifting to standards-based grading over multiple years as the district develops needed policies and learning management systems, teachers develop materials and strategies, and students and parents have opportunities to learn about the changes.

The district’s grading scale is ‘1’ = Emerging, ‘2’ = Foundational, ‘3’ = Proficient, and ‘4’ = Extended Learning. The Proficient level means a student has demonstrated competency, and Extended means they have gone beyond the expected level of competency.

Wall Poster Showing Definition of Level 3Last school year Northern Cass teachers still reported grades on a 1 to 100 scale, and they began implementing standards-based grading to different degrees. This school year all grading is standards-based, and teachers no longer report numeric grades. To reach this point, teachers needed to identify each of their competencies and develop corresponding performance levels and rubrics. For many schools, this is one of the most challenging demands of moving into a competency-based system. (Thomas Gaffey shares Building 21’s competencies and rubrics in this CompetencyWorks post.)

The district also faces the challenge of how to handle students’ traditional grades from previous years of high school. This year’s 9th-graders (the class of 2023) will start and finish high school under the new system, but older students will graduate under a mix of the old and new systems. During the transitional years, each subsequent class will have graduation requirements that come closer to being fully competency-based:

  • Class of 2020 – 100% of learners get a 2.0; learners must achieve a 3 in 80% of the standards in a specific class
  • Class of 2021 – 100% of learners get a 2.0; learners must achieve a 3 in 85% of the standards in a specific class
  • Class of 2022 – 100% of learners get a 2.5; learners must achieve a 3 in 90% of the standards in a specific class
  • Class of 2023 and beyond – 100% of learners get a 3.0; learners must achieve a 3 in all of the standards in a specific class

In short, the more years a student spends in the new system, the more they will need to meet its expectations. Students in the class of 2023 and beyond will need to demonstrate competency (a score of ‘3’ or ‘Proficient’) in all standards. (more…)

Framing Habits of Work and Capstone Skills in Northern Cass

January 14, 2020 by

Organization Capstone Skill DefinitionThis is the second post in a series about the Northern Cass School District. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Many competency-based schools are working hard to support the development of “personal success skills” or “habits of work.” These skills are well-understood to be essential for life success but are underemphasized in schools. There is no standard approach across schools in terms of which skills are emphasized, what they’re called, or whether and how they’re assessed. That’s understandable, because evidence to guide those decisions is still in early stages of development. One way to build the evidence base and improve practice is to share examples of what different schools are doing and the issues they’re grappling with.

Habits of Work and Capstone Skills

During my visit to the Northern Cass School District, I learned about their strategies with what they call “Habits of Work” and “Capstone Skills.” An elementary teacher told me that grades K, 1, and 2 teachers had developed the following habits of work list, which was posted for students:

  • Effort – Always do your best. Check your work and find ways to improve.
  • Timeliness – Arrive to class on time. Use time appropriately.
  • Respect – Respect self, others, and property. Follow directions/classroom rules.
  • Preparedness – Have items needed for learning. Complete classwork on time.
  • Engagement – Practice active listening. Participate.

The high school was using a similar list, minus the first element (effort). Teachers at all levels said that developing the Habits of Work was still a work in progress. My visit was last school year. The district’s Learner Handbook for the current school year makes it clear that the district has further refined the list to include just three of the elements from last year’s list: respect, engagement, and preparedness.

I’m presenting this evolution rather than just the final list to highlight how each district will likely need to develop and refine their habits of work list over time. The habits chosen have important implications for what teachers will emphasize, what students will consider important, and how habits of work relate to assessment and accountability—more on that a little later.

Northern Cass also has a set of “capstone skills” that students must develop over time. Students do a capstone project for graduation, and their final presentation is organized in part around evidence of these skills. The capstone skills and their definitions are:

  • Organization – Creating and utilizing an efficient system to prioritize time and materials.
  • Leadership – Develops abilities in themselves and others in order to make a positive impact at school or in the larger community.
  • Collaboration – Working towards a common goal with a group of peers while demonstrating respectful interpersonal skills.
  • Accountability – Being responsible for the consequences, both positive and negative, of one’s actions; following through on obligations and commitments.
  • Self-reflection – Processing experiences as a means to deepen, enhance, value, and grow their learning and thinking skills.
  • Critical Thinking – Using a process to solve and reason through complex problems in a logical way.
  • Communication – Effectively convey messages both orally and in written form.
  • Learner’s Mindset – A belief that skills and talents are not inherited but are developed by adapting through adversity, flexilibility, and maintaining forward progress.

Each of the capstone skills is part of the Northern Cass Portrait of a Graduate, shown below. Two teachers mentioned that there is some overlap between the habits of work and the capstone skills, and there have been discussions about possibly combining them to manage complexity and streamline assessment. (more…)

The Evolution of Competency-Based Transformation in Northern Cass

January 8, 2020 by
Three Students, School Ambassadors

Northern Cass Student Ambassadors (Visitor Guides)

“It was either we continue to produce unprepared kids, or we change. And we made the decision as a district that we are done with that and we are going to make the change.

– Kelly Trudeau, Northern Cass Educator

This is the first post in a series about the Northern Cass School District. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Northern Cass, a rural school district in North Dakota, is making an energetic transition to competency-based education. About half an hour north of Fargo, they are early innovators in what has become a larger movement for change within the state. The district is a single, newly-constructed K-12 school building that emerges after several miles of driving through farm fields. It serves 650 students from a sending area of 925 square miles, about three-quarters the size of Rhode Island.

Shared Purpose for Change

Their transformation began with a sense of shared purpose, well-stated by educator Kelly Trudeau in the opening quotation above about the need for change. (Northern Cass uses the term “educator” rather than teacher. Also “learner” rather than student.) She added that the Northern Cass School District has always been on the cutting edge, pushing educators to find innovations and best practices. “With this personalized learning journey, we’re really starting to figure out that what has been happening in education just isn’t working for our kids. It’s not preparing them for what life is like when they leave us.”

They knew it wasn’t working because they had students who were strong in school but then struggled in college and jobs. “They’ve struggled to advocate for themselves,” Trudeau added. “They’ve struggled to keep up with the rigor. Our move toward personalized learning is to allow them to learn some of those things that they’ll need to do in college—when they don’t have a teacher right next to them all of the time walking them through things and reminding them ‘This is due tomorrow’ and ‘Your test is on Wednesday’ and ‘Make sure you’re studying.’ In the personalized setting, it’s more on them to take control of that and take ownership of their learning. Then hopefully they’ll leave high school being able to do that in college or being able to be a great employee for whoever they go to work for.”

Educator Christian Thompson added, “It’s really just learning how to learn. Our students were good at understanding concepts if they knew exactly what they needed to know, if they were told when and how to learn it. But when they were thrown into situations where they had to adapt and figure out how to learn on their own, that’s what they really struggled with. And that’s when I realized that something need to change.”

Steps Toward Change

These realizations led the school community to discuss how they could really change. They turned toward discussing resources such as the book Beyond Reform: Systemic Shifts Toward Personalized Learning from the Lindsay Unified School District. They also visited school districts who were years into their competency-based transformation, such as Lindsay USD in California and RSU2 in Maine.

Once they decided to change, they continued working with outside experts and building their own expertise. They are part of a “Proficiency Competency-Based Learning” (PCBL) cohort of five districts in the state moving toward personalized learning. The PCBL cohort members are working with KnowledgeWorks and the Center for Collaborative Education. Their work is funded in part by the Bush Foundation, which is supporting competency-based transformation in the region.

Master's Program Graduates

Teacher Leader Academy Graduates

Another important initiative has been their Teacher Leadership Academy. Northern Cass partnered with North Dakota State University to develop a program in which 20 educators earned a master’s degree while also advancing the district’s personalized learning work. Their courses and master’s theses included work such as rewriting the school’s policies, strategic plan, and family engagement plan, as well as developing new pedagogical strategies and leading professional development activities to share the new knowledge with their colleagues. Much of the course work and research took place at the school, eliminating the long commute to the college campus.

A Phased Transition

Despite wanting to put their new beliefs and insights into practice rapidly, Northern Cass staff recognized that deep change would require much more than a few days of summer professional development, and more than one or two school years for full implementation. Their frank acknowledgment that they are a change-in-progress has helped them manage their transformation at a sustainable pace and offers a model for other transitioning schools and districts.

In support of ambitious but manageable change, Superintendent Cory Steiner emphasized the importance of having a growth mindset for adults, not just students. “Movement forward has been so fast and good,” he said. “We take deep breaths and celebrate where we are but also keep on improving. It’s the most fulfilling educational work the teachers have ever done, but also the most difficult. At first some people wanted to jump ship, but now they’re on board, and we’ve seen a big jump in the use of competency-based approaches.” (more…)

The Competency Train Pulls Into Kankakee: Common Start-up Challenges and Strategies

December 17, 2019 by

Kankakee School LogoAdapting Arlo Guthrie’s famous lyric was irresistible, but we should also know Kankakee for their devotion to competency-based education. Their session at the recent Aurora Institute Symposium on how to plan for common start-up challenges in high school redesign was full of valuable lessons for transitioning schools and districts.

The presenters from Kankakee School District 111 in Illinois were Felice Hybert, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, and Brent Johnston, Curriculum Coordinator. They were joined by two leaders from Building 21—Chip Linehan, Co-Executive Director, and Sandra Moumoutjis, Chief Instructional Designer. Building 21 partners with school districts to design, launch, and operate innovative schools, including a competency-based school in Pennsylvania that was featured on CompetencyWorks in 2016.

Building 21 LogoKankakee has partnered with Building 21 through their affiliate program, which supports schools and districts that are transitioning to competency-based education. Building 21 provides affiliate districts with their competency-based learning management system and data dashboards, technical consulting, leadership coaching, and teacher professional development. The partnership began when the Kankakee superintendent asked Hybert to write a grant application on competency-based education. She came across CompetencyWorks, read the blog posts on Building 21, found helpful resources on their website, and contacted Tom Gaffey, Building 21’s chief instructional technologist.

Kankakee started working with Building 21 in March of 2018 and began implementation with students in the fall of 2018. Each incoming class of 9th-graders will use the new approach, so the transition will be complete in four years. During the first two years, Building 21 has been an essential resource that Kankakee has “called constantly” for consultation. There was a two-week teacher “boot camp” for extensive professional development during the first summer, and now they have a daily 45-minute period (from 2:20 to 3:05 p.m.) when the students leave and teachers collaborate. This is made possible in part by a state waiver of student seat-time requirements.

Here are three sets of lessons learned that Kankakee and Building 21 shared in their Symposium session.

Start with Adults, not Students

Kankakee learned that any meaningful change begins with changing adult mindsets. The teachers’ thinking from their own traditional education got in the way of envisioning change. The rationale for change was clear, because the high school was already a low-performing school, and teachers knew that many students were leaving without what they needed to be successful. Many teachers agreed that the school was “running a credit-recovery factory,” and they knew that the rates of graduation, attendance, and teacher retention were all well below state averages.

Transformation efforts focused on the philosophy and rationale of competency-based education. Kankakee and Building 21 leaders emphasized the need to embrace risk-taking, vulnerability, ambiguity, and an iterative cycle of trying new strategies, experiencing success and failure, and making additional changes. They affirmed the messiness of working through change at the classroom, department, school, and district levels. Staff members were encouraged to adopt a stance that said “I don’t know the answer to that—this change doesn’t come all wrapped up in a binder. Let’s figure it out together.” They discussed the inevitability of meeting resistance and how to avoid backsliding once things got hard. In short, the school adopted a bias toward action and continuous improvement. (more…)

What’s New In K-12 Competency-Based Education?

December 6, 2019 by

What's New ImageAurora Institute News and Reports

  • iNACOL is now the Aurora Institute, reflecting our evolution to focusing on systems change and education innovation through student-centered approaches to next-generation learning. A video and more information are here. CompetencyWorks – which was launched in 2012 with iNACOL as the lead organization – will continue as an initiative of the Aurora Institute.
  • The Aurora Institute published What Is Competency-Based Education? An Updated Definition and a companion podcast. The report updates the 2011 definition in many ways, including new elements focused on equity, student agency, and different pathways. It also provides belief statements, FAQs, and resources to contextualize and deepen the definition.
  • The Aurora Institute also published Aligning Education Policy with the Science of Learning and Development. We know more than ever about how students learn best, but education policy hasn’t kept pace with these advances. The report explores research and offers recommendations to align policy with what we know about student learning.

Resources

  • In A Path Forward to Educational Equity, Karla Vigil and Emily Abedon of the Equity Institute share a framework they have developed and additional suggestions to guide teachers and leaders looking to become fluent in multicultural education and more culturally responsive in their practice. Also see their Culturally Responsive Walkthrough Tool.
  • The Student-Centered Learning Continuum provides a rich description of the characteristics of high-quality, student-centered learning. A series of rubrics provide clear and measurable ways to assess the depth of the four key SCL tenets—that learning is personalized, competency-based, anytime/anywhere, and student-owned—in an educational setting. The research-based continuum was developed by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the RAND Corporation.

Professional Learning

  • A webinar on Scaling Up Deeper Learning Approaches in Public Schools will be offered by the Learning Policy Institute and the Alliance for Excellent Education on December 11 at 2:00pm ET. Experts from the field and researchers will discuss the challenges and opportunities educators and district leaders face in expanding deeper learning. The Assessment for Learning Project will be holding a National Conference February 11-13 in San Diego with four practice-based strands on formative assessment, performance assessment, exhibitions & defense of learning, and graduate portraits. The goal is to reframe thinking about assessment and enabling conditions while grounding learning in proven practice.
  • Global Online Academy is offering a new online program, “Competency-Based Learning: From Theory to Practice,” in which teachers will work with a coach to create a personalized pathway through five key shifts toward implementing competency-based learning. Other upcoming GOA courses focus on rethinking the roles of students, teachers, time, and place.
  • Jane Szot of Distinctive Schools in Chicago shares her network’s Personalized Learning Innovation Fellows model that supports teachers in leading change toward personalized learning. The fellows pilot new strategies, drive efforts emerging from the network’s partnership with LEAP Innovations, and model exemplary practices in their own classrooms.

Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks. Follow @eliot_levine

 

Building a District Innovation Ecosystem Accelerates School Transformation

November 19, 2019 by

Four Henry County Students in Matching T-ShirtsThe Henry County Schools, a large suburban district just south of Atlanta, has spent six years transforming their district of 50 schools and 43,000 students toward personalized learning. In a session at the recent Aurora Institute Symposium, Henry County personnel and partners discussed reorganizing district functions to create an “innovation ecosystem” to facilitate the transformation.

The presenters were Karen Perry, the district’s Director of Personalized Learning; Aaryn Schmuhl, VP of Program Design and Innovation at the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement; and Jeffrey Tsang, Founding Partner of Building Blocks Education. All three have been deeply involved in the district’s “2020 Vision for Personalized Learning” redesign process and shared many of the district’s strategies and insights from this work.

Building a District Culture of Innovation

District design often evolves organically, but transforming a district requires attending deliberately to the culture of innovation. Everyone needs to hear from district leadership and the school board, “We’re about to about to embark on innovative work that’s intentionally different, and it’s going to be challenging.”

Several conditions are required for this message to take hold. First, the district and schools need to pour resources and efforts into building trust, because engaging in change requires trust. Second, it’s essential to establish and communicate a “north star” and have clear discussions about what’s needed to move toward it. For Henry County, the north star has been building student agency. Many of the district’s innovation strategies have changed over time, but the north star has stayed the same.

Third, decision makers across the district need to be meaningfully included. An inclusive process may slow down change in the short run, but it enables deeper change in the long run. Over a period of years, Henry County often gathered key decision-makers from all departments around a table at the district office and framed discussions as “Here’s a problem we need to solve; how can we do that?” rather than “We know what changes are needed; here’s what you need to do.”

This level of inclusion is essential because adopting an entirely new school model—unlike simply adopting a new textbook—involves every district department. Changes required from different departments could include:

  • Information Technology – Adopting new learning management systems.
  • Communications – Conveying the rationale for reforms to a range of key stakeholders.
  • Student Services – Exploring implications for students with special needs.
  • Facilities – Creating different types of learning spaces.
  • Human Resources – Recruiting new hires with relevant skills, dispositions, and training to build the pipeline.

A Framework for Building the Ecosystem

Henry County developed a valuable framework for building the innovation ecosystem based on three sets of school needs and two sets of district actions. The three school needs are: (more…)

Student Thinking Made Visible: Assessing Transferable Skills With Brief Performance Tasks

November 12, 2019 by

Working on Bridge Building TaskCompetency-based education emphasizes learning not only academic knowledge but also skills and dispositions. These include transferable learning skills such as problem solving and effective reasoning that enable people to perform effectively in different settings and apply knowledge and skills to different tasks. A session at the recent Aurora Institute Symposium introduced valuable strategies for assessing these skills. The tools and concepts they shared could also inform assessments of other lifelong learning skills.

The session was led by Director of Curriculum and Instruction Jeff Heyck-Williams and 5th-Grade Teacher Katie Mancino from Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC, a school in the EL Education network. They emphasized that teachers typically prioritize whatever will get assessed, so it’s important to assess lifelong learning skills.

Rubrics for Critical Thinking Skills

The rubrics presented for assessing problem solving, effective reasoning, and decision making serve the essential function of providing both students and teachers with a clear picture of what quality looks like. This enables teachers to plan instruction oriented toward deeper learning with these targets in mind.

The session focused on assessing problem-solving skills, defined as “The ability to identify the key questions in a problem, develop possible plans for solving, follow through on those plans, and evaluate both the success of the plan and the solution.” The corresponding rubric has five components: Identifies What Is Known, Defines the Problem, Generates Possible Solution Strategies, and Evaluates Solutions. The table below contains the rubric for one of these components; the full rubric is here.

Problem Solving Rubric for One Component

Three principles guided their rubric design process: (1) Rubrics define the construct that you want to teach and assess for students and teachers; (2) Each component on the rubric needs to be mutually exclusive but also narrow to a single dimension; and (3) The rubric should define a a continuum of growth from notice to expert.

Performance Tasks to Assess Critical Thinking

With the rubric in place, the question remains of what and how to assess. Two Rivers accomplishes this with brief performance tasks that are specific to the skill being assessed. EL Education believes teachers should experience the educational approach they plan to implement with students, so unsurprisingly we were led through a problem-solving performance task. In short, small groups were given two cups, some paper, rubber bands, paper clips, and blue tape. Brief, clear instructions launched groups into creating a bridge with a maximum span using the materials provided.

For this performance task, students at Two Rivers are assessed on how well they make their thinking visible, not how good their bridge is. This is done in writing on a handout, although teachers can scribe for students who need writing support. Before starting to build bridges, our first step was a “KWI” (Know, Want, Ideas) exercise in which we had to write about “What do you KNOW?,” “What do you WANT to know?,” and “What are some IDEAS you have about how to solve the problem?”

(more…)

New Resources and Future Directions in Competency-Based Education

November 7, 2019 by

The first part of our annual reflection focused on the field’s evolution and where we are now. This second part looks at how our understanding is deepening and future directions for building and strengthening the field of K-12 competency-based education.

How is our understanding deepening?

Seeing competency-based schools in action and hearing about their successes and challenges is deeply illuminating. There are a growing number of schools and districts to learn from about all stages of planning and implementation. Many of these are innovative, newer schools and districts, such as those shown in the image below from our annual strategic reflection webinar. Many more are featured in our summary of blog posts from visits to competency-based schools in 26 states.

Innovative New Schools and Organizations

An impressive array of new reports, books, and other publications have also emerged to deepen our understanding of competency-based education since 2010. New resources from the past two years are shown in the three figures below. If there are publications you think should be added, please email me or mention them in the Comments box below.

New Resources 2018-19, 1 of 3

New Resources 2018-19, 2 of 3

New Resources 2018-19, 3 of 3

(more…)

Where We Started and Where We Are Now: Reflecting on the Field of Competency-Based Education

November 4, 2019 by

Integrated Arts Academy Student PaintingWith the field of competency-based education growing and changing so quickly, it’s important to step back from time to time and reflect on what we’ve learned, what has changed, and what’s needed next. At the Aurora Institute we see and hear many perspectives on the field from our school visits, research, reading, conferences, policy visits, and other connections with innovators and leaders in the field. All of these views inform a reflection we do annually with our CompetencyWorks Advisory Board.

This blog post shares some of the conclusions of this year’s reflection process. We also conducted a webinar recently with a more detailed discussion of what we learned; you can find the webinar recording and slide deck here.

Where Did We Start and Where Are We Now?

From the outpouring of resources in recent years to guide CBE design and implementation, a newcomer would never know that when CompetencyWorks started ten years ago they could only find one publication on this topic. Now there are hundreds of publications, thousands of blog posts, and schools across the country in all stages of development. They have enabled great increases in the quality, quantity, and understanding of competency-based practice.

The Stages of Development figure below gives an overview of early models and policies that were fundamental in driving the field’s development. The top row focuses on innovations in practice, and this CompetencyWorks blog post from our previous strategic reflection discusses most of the entries there. The new entries under “Scaling Strategies” include support organizations, regional professional learning communities, profile of a graduate, and integrated student supports.

Many organizations are now supporting the scale-up of competency-based practice at the school, district, and state levels. A comprehensive list across the country would be a valuable resource. These organizations have grown in number, influence, and the range and sophistication of services they provide. Their growth reflects the expansion of the field and increased demand for these services. The growth of these organizations has also driven demand, because districts now have more support options than ever before. Expansion of competency-based practice has also been driven by the increased implementation of PLCs, improved student supports, and the number of districts and states that have developed a profile of a graduate. These graduate profiles enable new definitions of student success that align to and support more holistic student learning outcomes.

 

Another development is a revised definition of competency-based education, which the Aurora Institute has worked on in collaboration with dozens of leaders in the field for the past two years. The revised definition will be released by the Aurora Institute in November. It reflects a deeper understanding of key issues and developments in the field since the original definition was developed and published in 2011, after undergoing a similar process of deep discussion among early innovators. It will also include materials to help contextualize and understand the definition, including a set of belief statements, frequently asked questions, common misconceptions, and resources.

The revised 2019 definition also reflects an increased recognition from leaders in the field that addressing inequity in student opportunities and outcomes—a fundamental impetus for competency-based education since its inception—is not happening quickly enough and that greater effort is needed. The revised definition will have a new element that is specifically about equity, and the accompanying belief statements include:

  • Equity is a central goal of advancing competency-based education systems.
  • Communities that aspire to achieve equity must work toward implementing a competency-based education system.
  • Competency-based education is driven by the equity-seeking need to transform our educational system so all students can and will learn through full engagement and support and through authentic, rigorous learning experiences inside and outside the classroom.

(more…)

CompetencyWorks Meetup at the iNACOL Symposium

October 24, 2019 by

If you’re headed to the iNACOL Symposium, there will be a CompetencyWorks Meetup on Monday at 5:15 pm during the President’s Reception. Look for the “CompetencyWorks Lounge” sign in Oasis 1/Innovation Corner and come meet your colleagues from across the country and around the world. We look forward to seeing you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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