Author: Eliot Levine

Deep Poverty, Deeper Learning, and Being an Ally

March 25, 2019 by

This is the last post in a series about equity and anti-racism issues discussed at the SXSW EDU 2019 conference. The two sessions reviewed in this post are Deep Poverty and Deeper Learning, and Let’s Get Real: A Primer for Allies. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Photos of Deep Poverty Deeper Learning PanelDeep Poverty and Deeper Learning

Too few schools committed to deeper learning serve students in concentrated poverty, according to this session’s panelists, but all four of them work in or with schools that are trying to do just that. The three presenters were high school principals—Linnea Garrett from Chicago Tech Academy, Matthew Riggan from The Workshop School in Philadelphia, and JuDonn DeShields from El Centro de Estudiantes in Philadelphia—and the discussant was Carlos Moreno, co-executive director of Big Picture Learning.

Multiple panelists touched on the theme of not assuming that students are ready and open to welcome the deeper learning options being offered to them. This is because students in deep poverty often have good reasons to distrust schools and the adults in them. Matthew noted that offering students voice and choice doesn’t mean that they will immediately open up and go along, after years of being told that they are “special needs” and other words that they hear as “inferior” or “problematic.”

Linnea emphasized that getting to the know students well has been essential, and something the school wasn’t doing enough at first. The key is “pouring love” into students, even when they push back against it, and bringing adults into the school who are able to do this and understand the importance of relationships with students. Matthew agreed, saying that “cool projects” are not what gets kids to keep coming back to school—it’s the sense of community and that people care about them.

Sometimes this caring takes unconventional forms that meet students where they are. Carlos shared a story of a school in his network that struggled with very low attendance rates. The principal learned that a major reason students were missing school was (more…)

Educolor: Elevating the Voices of Public School Advocates of Color

March 21, 2019 by

Photos of EduColor Panel MembersThis is the second post in a three-part series about equity and anti-racism issues discussed in sessions at the SXSW EDU 2019 conference. Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

This session featured three members of Educolor, an organization that “seeks to elevate the voices of public school advocates of color on educational equity and justice.” The presenters were Lorena German, a teacher in Austin, Texas; Julia Torres, a teacher librarian in Denver; and José Luis Vilson, a math teacher in New York City and Educolor’s executive director.

It was a wide-ranging conversation that started with describing what Educolor can offer its members—“an inclusive cooperative of informed, inspired and motivated educators, parents, students, writers and activists.” The friendly dialogue made it clear that the organization is a source of affirmation and mutual support. Educolor also has a newsletter with materials from members and a resources page that recommends dozens of educational equity and justice books, articles, movies, and websites. Their website even sells #EduColor t-shirts, hoodies, stickers, and coffee mugs.

Much of the session was spent responding to questions from audience members. One question was “How can innovation outside the system intentionally disrupt, transform, and liberate the system?” One panelist responded that district leaders find it hard to listen to voices that are already within the system, such as those of teachers. To outsiders who visit a district, she suggested “bringing the eyes of the people who gave you the money back to the people within the system who are working to make change.” Specifically, she said to identify the most marginalized people in the school and advocate for their voices to be heard.

Another question was “How can white teachers in predominantly white institutions participate while also getting out of the way to make room for voices of people of color?” (more…)

You’re Invited: Capital Hill Forum on Competency-Based Education

March 19, 2019 by

US Capitol Building and FlagYou are invited to join iNACOL and the American Youth Policy Forum on Friday, March 22, 2019, for a Capitol Hill forum, Competency-Based Education: Promising Policies and Practices for the Future of K-12 Education.

Educators and school districts across the globe are designing modern approaches to teaching and learning that use competency-based education (CBE) to help every child achieve mastery of knowledge and skills needed for future success in their personal and professional lives.

By bringing together national experts and state and district leaders, this forum will highlight the growth of CBE in state policy, the benefits of CBE, promising practices taking hold around the country, and opportunities for states to align K-12 education with postsecondary education systems and the workforce. The forum will examine federal policy opportunities to advance CBE in the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. (more…)

Amplifying Messages on Equity and Anti-Racism from SXSW EDU

March 18, 2019 by

Photos of equity to anti-racism panelTopics such as equity, anti-racism, discrimination, marginalization, and privilege were the main focus of four sessions I attended at SXSW EDU 2019. These issues are also central to competency-based education. One audience member asked, “How do we move the needle on issues of equity, agency, and pedagogy?” A panelist answered that allies should amplify the messages of people from marginalized groups who are trying to move that needle. Following that advice, I’m sharing takeaways from these sessions in a series of three blog posts, of which this is the first.

In a session entitled From Equity to Anti-Racism in Education, the presenters were Marco Davis, a partner at New Profit; Christopher Emdin, an associate professor at Teachers College; Kate Gerson, CEO of UnboundEd; and Jeff Livingston, CEO of EdSolutions, as facilitator. Jeff said that racism is “the combination of racial bias and the power to do something about it.” Systemic and structural racism were mentioned repeatedly as embodied in the American educational system, such as these three examples:

  • Jeff cited studies that students perform better academically when there are more teachers and school leaders who come from the students’ own demographic groups. Knowing this, he said it’s an example of systemic racism that adults of color are so under-represented in American schools and that the system isn’t working harder to remedy this disparity.
  • Kate noted that the term “achievement gap” puts the blame on students, whereas calling it the “provision gap” would suggest that the system is to blame for not providing what students need to succeed. She also said that news of gains such as rising graduation rates nationally often obscures the reality that many students, particularly those from marginalized groups, are graduating without basic skills they need for college and career success.
  • Multiple speakers noted that our curriculum, standards, and assessments reflect what the mostly white, male, middle class people who created them consider important. Skills that may be more common in communities of marginalized groups are often excluded from our standards and assessments. (This reminded me of a recent presentation from Jamila Lysicott where she recounted asking white educators at a PD workshop to develop and perform spoken word pieces; unsurprisingly, their skill level was low and they felt awkward and inferior.)

Affirmation, Agency, and Anti-Respectability

Chris said that anti-racist pedagogy requires many students from marginalized groups to receive deep affirmation first and foremost, as a precursor to successful learning. Being told for years that they are (more…)

Mixed Signals from Report Cards: Learning Heroes Report Highlights Why Competency-Based Grading Matters

March 13, 2019 by
Statistics on disconnect between parent perceptions and reality.

Source: Learning Heroes Report

A recent report from Learning Heroes provides a dramatic illustration of the need for schools to transition to more transparent grading practices, such as those in a competency-based education system. The report found that, for three years in a row, a very large percentage of parents in a nationally representative sample have overestimated how well their children were doing in reading and math.

The bar chart below illustrates this stark disconnect for reading. The math results were nearly identical. In 2018, for example, 91% of parents reported that their 4th grader was achieving at or above grade level in reading, whereas the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 36% of 4th graders nationwide were performing at that level.

Graph of parent perceptions versus findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress

Source: Learning Heroes Report


The Learning Heroes study attempted to understand the reason for this disconnect and how it could be remedied. “By having a more informed and holistic picture,” they said, “parents can find the best resources for their children at home and partner more effectively with teachers to keep their children on track for college and life success. They also can demand more of their schools.”

From interviews with parents, the study concluded that parents interpret good grades on report cards to mean that their child is performing at grade level academically. But two-thirds of the teachers interviewed said that grades on report cards reflect not only academic achievement but also effort, progress, and participation in class. In fact, nearly half of the teachers said that report card grades reflect effort more than academic achievement! Clearly, report cards as they are currently used in many schools are not a reliable indicator of mastery. (more…)

Global Best Practices – A Practical Tool for School Self-Assessment and Action Planning

March 11, 2019 by

Cover of Global Best Practices ToolGlobal Best Practices is an outstanding, free resource that offers a practical, step-by-step process for assessing your school or district to inform school improvement plans. It focuses on common characteristics of high-performing schools and districts, as documented in the accompanying Research Summary.

These common characteristics overlap considerably with descriptions of high-quality personalized, competency-based schools, such as those presented in iNACOL’s Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education.

The Global Best Practices tool can be used by a variety of school stakeholders, such as teachers, school and district administrators, school board members, and parents. It was developed by the Great Schools Partnership as part of their technical support of the New England Secondary School Consortium.

The tool focuses on four “strands” of school practice—teaching and learning, organizational design, school leadership, and school district—and each strand has multiple “dimensions.” For example, the dimensions of teaching and learning include equity, academic expectations, assessment practices, and others. Across the four strands, there are 22 dimensions of school practice.

Using the Global Best Practices Tool

The tool can be used very flexibly and includes a helpful Facilitators Guide. Here’s a quick overview of their basic approach, followed by some examples. First, users select which strands and/or dimensions to address. Then they take the following four steps for each dimension: (more…)

Social-Emotional Learning and the Cost Effectiveness of Educating the Whole Child

March 7, 2019 by

Source: Aspen Institute

Early in the recent Aspen Institute report on Social-Emotional Learning is the statement that SEL interventions “can be undertaken by schools at a reasonable cost relative to benefits.” That’s good news, considering the importance of SEL in effective education.

When discussing how to spend finite school budgets, we should note that our current investments are leaving far too many students graduating without the skills needed to succeed in college, careers, and civic life—or not graduating at all. A realignment of those investments is clearly needed to achieve greater equity and effectiveness. Those are the core purposes of competency-based education, which recognizes that students learn more effectively when their social and emotional needs are taken into account.

Evidence of Cost Effectiveness

How does the Aspen Institute know that SEL is cost effective? The study they cite is entitled “The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning,” published in 2015 by Clive Belfield and colleagues at the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The study’s authors begin by estimating the costs and benefits of six SEL programs. They include costs such as instructional materials and personnel time. Then they take into account benefits such as (more…)

Aspen Institute Report Provides Powerful Support for Developing Social-Emotional Learning

March 5, 2019 by

Advocacy for social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools is growing, and making the case is not difficult on moral and rational grounds alone. After all, who doesn’t think that helping students become motivated, responsible, compassionate, and focused is a good idea? Who doesn’t want to improve equity in schools and provide nurturing relationships for the youth in their communities?

But deeply influencing educational policy often requires empirical evidence in addition to moral and rational arguments, and the new Aspen Institute report provides all three. The report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope, summarizes findings and recommendations from an extensive study by the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.

Their central argument is that “Since all education involves social, emotional, and academic learning, we have but two choices: We can either ignore that fact and accept disappointing results, or address these needs intentionally and well. The promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is not a shifting educational fad; it is the substance of education itself. It is not a distraction from the ‘real work’ of math and English instruction; it is how instruction can succeed.”

Accompanying the main report, the Commission released a Practice Agenda, a Research Agenda, and a Policy Agenda. Together, these resources provide solid support for why we need social-emotional learning, plus extensive recommendations for advancing the work. (more…)

SXSW EDU Sessions for Competency-Based Education

March 2, 2019 by

There are probably hundreds of sessions of great relevance to CompetencyWorks readers, and we all arrive with different needs and interests – but here is a small selection of sessions that touch on big issues in our field. We look forward to seeing you there!

iNACOL Sessions – We had a longer post on these last week, but here they are again, in brief:


  • From Equity to Anti-Racism in Education – Marco Davis, Christopher Emdin, Kate Gerson, and Jeff Livingston discuss what it will take to change the inherently racist educational system.
  • Personalized Learning Toward Equity – Evan Gutierrez, Carolyn Jones, Frances Messano, and Jim Shelton on how diversity and equity help leaders shift beyond one-size-fits-all education.

Personalized Learning



February 27, 2019 by

If you’re headed to Austin next week, iNACOL is offering two sessions, and it would be great to see you.

Our iNACOL and CompetencyWorks Meet Up will be on Wednesday, March 6, from 11 a.m. – noon at the Hilton Austin Downtown, Room 602. I will join our President and CEO, Susan Patrick, in facilitating an informal gathering to meet each other and discuss everyone’s work, plans, resources, challenges, and promising practices for creating powerful, personalized learning experiences for students. Newcomers to this work are strongly encouraged to join us!

The CEO State of Play in Personalized Learning session will be on Wednesday, March 6, from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. at the Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon H on the 6th floor. Susan Patrick will join the CEOs of three other personalized learning organizations—Dana Borrelli-Murray of the Highlander Institute, Beth Rabbitt of the Learning Accelerator, and Elisabeth Stock of PowerMyLearning. Hear from them to make sense of this moment of opportunity for personalized learning and the future of the field.

Also, in my new role as iNACOL’s Research Director, which includes leading CompetencyWorks, I’m eager to get to know more of the people, schools, districts, and organizations who are advancing personalized, competency-based education. If you want to have coffee, walk and talk, or chat some other way in Austin, please email me at

We hope to see you in Austin!

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