Category: Analysis

Five Quick Thoughts About Accountability

February 13, 2014 by

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 2.23.47 PMThere is a flurry of conversations about federal accountability policy and assessment going on around the country. You may have heard about it described as accountability 3.0. I had the opportunity to participate in one of the conversations last week and just finished listening to the conversation led by Maria Worthen, iNACOL and Lillian Pace, KnowledgeWorks held today based on their report  A K-12 Federal Policy Framework for Competency Education: Building Capacity for Systems Change. And I’m feeling inspired to jot down a couple of my thoughts:

1. Federal policy must NOT mandate competency education.  We want it to enable competency education and eliminate any elements that inhibit it.  Federal policy can even catalyze it.  But at this point in time, federal policy should not expect everyone to do it. There are several reasons for this. First, any top down, bureaucratic approaches are just inconsistent with the student-centered, do what it takes, spirit of continuous improvement that is essential to personalized, competency-based schools. Second, we don’t have enough research and evaluation to tell us about quality implementation or what we need to ensure that special populations and struggling students benefit.  We just aren’t ready yet.

2. Assessment comes before accountability.  It’s almost impossible to untangle accountability from assessment in today’s policy context.  That’s because the accountability system has required states to have a specific type of assessment system.  This is a huge problem because assessment should be focused on helping students to learn.  Instead we see it as part of the accountability system. I know this is too simple… and all the accountability and assessment experts out there might dismiss this. But I just don’t think we can go where we want to go if we start with the requirements of today’s accountability system driving learning. So I think we need to define what is really important for systems of assessments and then draw from that what might be valuable for any type of accountability system.  Let’s keep our priorities straight by focusing on assessment and accountability not accountability and assessment. (more…)

Do Learning Progressions Have to Be Linear?

February 5, 2014 by

learning progressionsSometimes in teaching we deal in “revelations:” big ideas that students are supposed to get at the end of a unit or learning progression. They are supposed attain these foundational concepts and understandings after progressing through a sequence that is designed to end at a particular point – a point we as educators decide upon when we create a unit of study or a curriculum.

According to Wiggins and McTeague, we are supposed to plan for the big ideas before we even start teaching. We are supposed to plan for where we end up before we even begin. And there’s a lot of good reasoning why. If we know where we’re going, then we can ultimately plan for how to best get there. But there’s a troublesome piece to that. Sometimes our “best” way to get there doesn’t suit some of the students in the room. And sometimes our endpoint is too fixed. Sometimes we create a round hole while students craft a square peg.

Are we right? Are they wrong?

A straightforward definition of a learning progression is to examine it as a “sequenced set of building blocks that students must master en route to mastering a more distant curricular aim.” (Popham, 2007)

Currently, the Common Core has replaced the teacher and the school as the determinant of when students should master concepts and skills. It is our learning progression and it has already determined our “distant curricular aims.” I know students should be reading at particular levels at particular times. I know students should have mastered persuasive writing by the time they come to ninth grade, so that my objective is to continue the work associated with argumentative writing. And educators involved with mathematics have their own timing issues as the Common Core has redirected particular math skills to brand-new points in time.

To say the path to knowledge and skills has changed would be a tremendous understatement. (more…)

Oklahoma Considering Proficiency-Based Promotion

January 20, 2014 by


270px-Oklahoma_in_United_States.svgWe knew once Robert Sommers became head of Oklahoma’s  Secretary of Education and Workforce Development that it wouldn’t be long until we started to see Oklahoma move towards competency education.  Here are a few of the highlights of the proposed changes in administrative policy that are open for public comment until February 5th.  Please note that Oklahoma – along with Maine, Colorado, and Oregon – uses the language of proficiency-based.

1)   Allowance for Time-based or Competency-based Credits

Oklahoma is upgrading its graduation requirements specifically stating the expectations for academic skills rather than how many units. For example, the proposed policy lists acceptable math courses including  Algebra, Trigonometry and Statistics rather than just describing three units of math. The proposed policy for college preparatory/work ready curriculum requires states: “ In order to graduate with a standard diploma from a public high school accredited by the State Board of Education, students shall complete the following college preparatory/work ready curriculum units or sets of competencies at the secondary level”.  Sets of competencies are defined as “instruction in those skills and competencies that are specified skills and competencies adopted by the State Board of Education without regard to specified instructional time”.  From what I can tell this opens the door to districts and schools that want to convert to proficiency-based models.

2)   Enabling Proficiency-based Promotion

There is specific language that allows students to be placed in courses and to advance based on proficiency-based assessments. It’s an interesting policy to lead with as it does allow students to “advance upon mastery” without having to “do their time” based on the Carnegie unit. This policy will certainly benefit “gifted” students, students who want to speed through their high school experience – which includes kids who just hate high school, who are clear on what they want to do in life, who need to work to support their family, and those who want to get away from their community or family – and students who are over-age, under-credited, and about to age out of the K-12 system.


What Can We Learn From Our Foreign Language Teachers?

December 23, 2013 by

I stumbled upon an article Proficiency-based assessment and personalized learning: What world language educators have known for years that described the process that World Language studies used as they moved toward a competency-based system over the past thirty years.

In 1993, four organizations (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the American Association of Teachers of French, the American Association of Teachers of German, and the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese) developed standards for learning foreign languages designed around five themes (Communication, Culture, Connection, Comparison and Communities). Click here for the foreign language standards and proficiency guidelines.

According to the author, embracing standards immediately challenged the notion of grade levels:

The most evident change to the foreign languages standards at that time was replacing grade-level standards with proficiency-level expectations. The proficiency levels are: novice, intermediate, advanced and superior. Additionally, each of these levels (except superior) was further subdivided into low, mid and high. The proficiency levels were defined separately by the ability to listen, speak, read and write in the target language. These new foreign languages standards were framed differently than standards in the past. A Novice Low proficiency level, whether taught to a first grader or a 10th grader, would contain the same standard content — gone were grade-level standards.

Forty states now base their state standards upon this framework. Yet they’ve been operating in the traditional world of Carnegie units and bell-curved grades.  Perhaps we can find leadership and expertise behind the doors of our foreign language classrooms. Perhaps competency-based foreign language teachers in states and districts with enabling policies can now unleash the power of time so that students can reach for higher achievement. Certainly, strong foreign language programs are important for recognizing the assets our ELL students bring to school, helping all of our students  compete for college and jobs, and for our country to navigate globalization.

A final thought — in considering the world language standards, perhaps if we apply competency-based instruction to ELL instruction, we might finally be able to open the door for students to fully access academic literacy across the disciplines. In January, I’ll be writing about how ELL in competency-based schools.


Barriers to Competency-Based Innovation Aren’t Just Coming from Above

December 2, 2013 by
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Julia Freeland

This post was originally published by the Christensen Institute on November 6, 2013.

There is a clarion call from online-learning proponents to free up student time—literally. As Susan Patrick explained in her opening speech at the annual iNACOL Symposium last week, student seat-time requirements are one of the greatest barriers to personalized, student-centered learning.

Removing seat time from state regulations certainly stands to open up more opportunities for students to move at their own pace, and for educators to measure progress in terms of authentic learning rather than hours and minutes. However, regulatory barriers are only half the battle. When it comes to creating effective competency-based schools and classrooms, policy change is only a small part of a much bigger endeavor. It is necessary, but by no means sufficient.

One state, New Hampshire, provides a helpful example of how we need to consider the internal dynamics of fostering innovation, not just the external barriers that constrain it. In New Hampshire, the external barriers to competency-based education are gone altogether. In 2005, the state got rid of the Carnegie unit—the core unit around which credit hours are measured—and mandated that all high schools move to a competency-based model by the 2008-09 school year.

When the state took schools “off the clock,” something interesting happened. Some schools ran with the concept of competency-based education, undoing the age-old practices that benchmarked progress against time rather than learning. This subset of schools shifted their grading and testing policies to better reflect mastery, provided supplemental content for students falling behind or moving ahead, and made assessment more frequent and formative. Other schools, however, have remained very much the same. Even though many New Hampshire high schools today may have documents titled “competencies” in their classrooms and student handbooks or offer competency recovery to students falling behind, they have maintained the trappings of a time-based system, where students continue to move through material regardless of mastery and at a course-wide pace regardless of individual ability. These schools may still do a good job at serving students according to the traditional school model; they have not, however, embraced innovative vision enshrined in the state’s policies. (more…)

Framing the Learning in the Blended Learning Environment

October 17, 2013 by

ColbyAs more models for blended and online learning emerge into the mainstream of educational design, there is still some undercurrent of thought that these models have emerged because students are not successful in the traditional classroom-learning environment.  In addressing recovery for such lack of success, it may happen that students are more successful in a blended or online learning opportunity.

This has given rise to the misconception that both blended and online learning may in fact not have the degree of rigor that is thought to be present in the traditional classroom environment.

Let’s be clear about the framework for a high quality competency-based learning environment, be it in the brick and mortar classroom environment, blended or online learning opportunity, or the community based extended learning opportunity.  (more…)

HELP Committee Report on ESEA Includes Competency Education

October 15, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 9.11.33 AMAlthough I thought the government was shut down, some things just kept rolling. On Friday, October 11th, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions filed its report to accompany the ESEA reauthorization bill  that passed out of committee on June 12. Maria Worthen, iNACOL’s Vice President for Federal and State Policy, reminded us in an email: “Report language can carry a little or a lot of weight, depending on how much of it ends up in a conference report and how much ED chooses to follow congressional intent when implementing.”

Competency education was inserted in two places in the report.  To help you find your way through its 1,054 pages of the report, I’ve excerpted the two sections below.  If you want to take a look yourself, you can find the working definition of competency education nserted into Title 1, Part B: “Pathways to College” as a method to improve secondary schools (page 33).  In Title IV: “Supporting Successful, Well-Rounded Students”, among a list of special programs, the emergence of competency education is recognized with a pilot for competency-based assessment and accountability (page 51) (more…)

I’m So Dizzy….

October 9, 2013 by

csbouldersmallUpdate September 2015: I’ve noticed a lot of people have been reading this blog lately. I think we have moved beyond this stage of confusion. In the paper Maximizing Competency Education and Blended Learning we tried to explain the difference between a personalized system (as compared to factory model), competency-based structure, personalized learning as an approach, and online/blended learning. I think this might be a much more helpful reading at this point.

I’m so dizzy…my head is spinning. Does personalized learning equal competency education equal blended learning equal student-centered learning? I think not…but the recent Student First report “A Personalized Future for Education” really tipped me over the edge.  I can’t go on any longer without making sense of it all.

Now we know that we have a language challenge in competency education because each state has developed their specific terms. That makes sense to me – this is a local reform that is rapidly advancing across the country. New Hampshire and Iowa are “competency-based”; Maine, Oregon, and Colorado are “proficiency-based”; and Connecticut and Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority are mastery-based. That’s why we created the working definition– to provide some cohesion to the field.  That’s how Diane Smith in Oregon and Sandra Dop in Iowa can have meaningful conversations without confusion, even though they may use different terms.  We call it a “working” definition, so if we need to update it to reflect best practices, we can do that.

However, the confusion between the terms competency education, personalized, student-centered, customization, and blended is awesome. The Student First report is a great example of this. In the report, they lead with personalization, and then write, “Personalized learning is a student-centered approach to education that allows each student to advance through academic content at his or her own pace. In a personalized model, also known as a competency-based education (CBE)…” and continue to introduce the competency education working definition.  They then go on to explain, “Thanks to an influx of choice and entrepreneurship in public education, personalized learning is popping up in all different shapes and sizes across the country. Since competency-based strategies provide flexibility in the way that students earn academic credit, states are exploring many different ways to personalize learning for their students. Some strategies to personalize learning include: blended learning, online schools, dual enrollment, project and community-based learning, and credit recovery. Blended learning and online schools are two of the fastest growing forms of personalized learning.” Once they started to describe blended learning in detail, I totally lost it – who wouldn’t think that personalization = competency education = blended? (more…)

Competency-Based Education and Blended Learning: Worlds Apart or Just Two Sides of the Personalization Coin?

October 1, 2013 by

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This post was originally published by Clayton Christensen Institute on September 18, 2013.

At the Clayton Christensen Institute, we often talk about blended learning and competency-based education in the same breath. That’s because we see both as necessary features of accomplishing personalized learning at scale. A competency-based system allows students to move at their own pace upon mastering concepts, rather than being forced to move beyond material they don’t fully understand or being held back when they are learning at an advanced pace. You can imagine this highly individualized model in a traditional classroom with extremely low teacher-to-student ratios. But to operate personalization at scale, we believe technology must play a part. Software tools in a blended classroom stand to provide a mix of content, assessment, and meaningful real-time feedback that can help teachers move each student along an individual learning pathway at his own pace.

Although this theory sounds quite tidy, the reality on the ground is a bit messier. I keep asking myself: are practitioners and policymakers in blended learning and competency-based education coordinating their efforts? Both, from different angles, are building toward a vision of personalized learning. This common vision, however, does not always yield as natural a synergy as you might imagine. As Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks pointed out in her blog a few weeks back, competency-based education models could benefit from taking greater advantage of blended learning, particularly to lend extra support to students who have gaps in understanding or are falling behind. And although many edtech products describe themselves as “mastery-based,” these tools are not always customized to competency-based education classrooms’ needs to track students’ progress against discrete competencies and provide multiple pathways to learning.

There’s not really animosity between these two camps, if you can call them that. Proponents of competency-based education are certainly not luddites, nor are blended-learning entrepreneurs and educators gripping onto time-based policies. But at this point, it’s easier to find models that are either blended or competency-based, rather than both. I have a few working hypotheses of why these worlds aren’t always aligned, or why we aren’t seeing a lot of blended competency-based models yet. (more…)

Our Piece of the Pie and Competency-Based Education

September 24, 2013 by

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Launched nearly 35 years ago, Our Piece of the Pie® (OPP®) is dedicated to helping Connecticut youth become economically independent adults.  All of OPP’s strategies and services are structured to lead at-risk or disadvantaged youth, ages 14-24, toward the goals of achieving a college degree or vocational credentials and obtaining rewarding employment.  This posting will focus on OPP’s journey in building its signature competency-based high school model.

OPP’s Competency-Based High Schools at a Glance

  • Founded in 2009, Opportunity High School in Hartford is a unique partnership between Hartford Public Schools and OPP serving over 100 over-aged and under-credited students
  • Founded in 2012, Learning Academy of Bloomfield is a co-operated high school between the Bloomfield Public Schools and OPP. During 2012-2013 the school served over 20 students with all seniors receiving diplomas
  • In August  2013, OPP began its work with Norwalk Public Schools under an agreement with the state to turn around Briggs HS in Norwalk, a “failing” school serving up to 100 high-risk students
  • With the June 5, 2013 vote of approval by the CT State Board of Education, OPP will open Path Academy, its first charter school, in Windham in August 2014 serving a maximum of 200 high school students who are off-track; in doing so, OPP becomes  a charter management organization (CMO)

Eight Core Philosophies

The Path Academy model is the prototype for all of OPP’s Competency-Based High Schools. OPP builds the model around eight core philosophies that guide the innovative school model: (more…)

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