Category: Case Studies

Hand in Hand: Pittsfield Integrates Personalized Learning and Competency Education

February 27, 2014 by

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(This is the second in a series about Pittsfield. See Part 1, Part 3 and Part 4.)

One of my big takeaways from my visit to New Hampshire is that personalized learning and competency education go hand in hand.  When personalizing education, you can’t be sure you are helping kids reach proficiency without the competency-based infrastructure and you can’t help each and every student become proficient without personalization.

Pittsfield School District (PSD) understands this. Building upon their competency education infrastructure, they are personalizing the educational experience for students in at least these four ways:

#1 Taking Student Voice Seriously

PSD focuses on student voice as much as choice.  As described in the first post, there is a pervasive belief that engagement is core to academic success and sustainability.  Engagement starts with respecting and listening to different perspectives – so much of the engagement is directed at including student voice and investing in their leadership development.

PSD has prepared for student voice in two ways. First, structurally, they are creating formal avenues for youth participation. At the Pittsfield Middle and High School (PMHS), the majority of the School Council members are students.  PMHS also has brought in consultants to help the school support students and adults in working collaboratively on the Council. It doesn’t stop there – students have the majority on the school’s Advisory Council, Impact Team, and Justice Committee.  These all give students the voice to make changes in the school so that it develops into the school they wish it to be. (more…)

Redesign at Pittsfield School District

February 21, 2014 by

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 7.26.32 AM(This is the first of a series on Pittsfield: See Part 2,  Part 3 and Part 4.)

It was a delight to visit Pittsfield School District (PSD) to learn about the redesign of the district starting with the Pittsfield Middle High School. It’s a comprehensive design:  Keep “students at the center” using personalized learning strategies that build upon a competency-based infrastructure to ensure students master twenty-first century skills and demonstrate academic content and skills. It’s a mouthful for sure – and this district is doing it.

Tobi Chassie and Susan Bradley, Co-Project Managers of the Systems Change Initiative shared their impressive results.  The percent of students being accepted to college has jumped from 20% to 80%. Chassie explained, “There is a palpable difference among faculty and the community in enthusiasm and hope. And their expectations for the kids have increased.” Bradley emphasized, “A lot of the difference is in student voice – they just had to let it out. They just needed a system and process that allowed them to express their voice. Their voice has motivated the teachers.”

How It Started: The redesign started after faculty and staff agreed that the status quo wasn’t acceptable and committed to do better for their kids. The district had been forced to reduce staff due to the economic downturn and dropping enrollment due to redistricting.  Pittsfield Middle High School (PMHS)was a SIG school and the community saw it as a problem. They also agreed that incremental cuts or reducing programs wasn’t an option. The school board wanted a coherent system of education.

Starting in 2008 with a community-wide dialogue, a shared vision was created for a student-centered redesign based on five principles:

  1. Learning is personalized
  2. Teaching is focused on coaching and facilitating
  3. Learning reaches beyond the school walls
  4. Progress is measured by mastery, not by age or the number of classroom hours, and
  5. Time is a flexible resource

Note that the competency-based elements are captured in “measured by mastery” and “time is a flexible resource.”  The others focus on personalization, valuing learning wherever it takes place, and the changing roles of educators.

Their Community Engagement Strategy: PSD doesn’t do “buy in” or input when they discuss community engagement. PSD’s active community demanded that it be an authentic partner, not passive observers satisfied with updates.  In order to ensure the community is a partner in considering and shaping new ideas all along the way, PSD has created formal structures.  (more…)

Competency Moves Beyond Courses

September 16, 2013 by
Sarah Luchs

Sarah Luchs

As a recipient of Next Generation Learning Challenge’s (NGLC) most recent wave of investment, New Hampshire-based Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) is getting some much-deserved buzz (most recently in Forbes and Ed Week). VLACS will redesign its current online model to move beyond course-based competency measures and toward an entirely competency-based design for learning.

The new model, called Aspire, is free of all the conventional dictates. Learning is not confined to a class, a building, a set block of time, or a subject-bound course. In the journey to personalizing education, this is a giant step forward, in my opinion. Up to this point, course structures (and the content that defines them) have disproportionately shaped the competency discussion and available options. I’m not opposed to learning in a course per se and the course experience itself is being revolutionized by new technologies–  also good. I just think the Aspire model creates some new possibilities that are long overdue and fundamentally exciting. Let me tell you what I mean.

Competency Reflections: Past and Present

I spent over a decade of my career prior to joining NGLC working for the Ohio Department of Education and state level policymakers. In Ohio, we created a provision known as Credit Flexibility that afforded students the option to earn credit for demonstration of previously learned knowledge and skills and/or to determine the means of their learning for any graduation requirement. Long story short, it didn’t benefit as many students as intended, in part because the system wasn’t built to implement this kind of flexibility, and schools, districts, and states still lacked the tools to enable it. It’s been my hope that NGLC—which funds innovative school models like VLACS-Aspire as proof points to demonstrate what’s possible, and shares knowledge in order to accelerate the adoption of new practice—will help position education systems to embrace and support innovative provisions like Credit Flexibility and benefit many more students. (more…)

Ingenium Schools: A Big City Competency-Based School

June 13, 2013 by
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Ingenium Schools website

Is competency education a reform better suited for rural and outer ring suburbs than urban districts? That’s one of the questions I get asked a lot in the back of the room at meetings. No one ever asks that question during the regular sessions, leading me to think that the question goes beyond the size of the districts, and that the question is actually asking will competency education work in areas of concentrated poverty? Or perhaps, in our racially segregated country, people are using the code word “urban” to mean will it work for African-American students?

It is true that many of the district-wide reforms, supported by the work of the Reinventing Schools Coalition, started in rural districts and have taken hold in rural and suburban districts.  However, we now have a proof point that the very same model is taking root in south Los Angeles at Barack Obama Charter School (BOCS). And they are getting results – last year they had a 150 point gain in one year based on the California Standards Tests.   (more…)

Boston Day and Evening Academy: A Learning Organization

June 22, 2012 by

This is the third post in the Boston Day and Evening Academy series. Continue reading the first and second posts.

This final post on Boston Day and Evening Academy(BDEA) offers some of the big takeaways and lessons learned from my site visit.

Beatriz Zapater & BDEA student

Process for Designing Competencies: Beatriz Zapater, Head of BDEA, explained that “We always start with the curriculum frameworks. In Massachusetts, the standards feel like a telephone book with long lists of what we expect students to know. We can’t teach a phone book—we don’t have time. So we go in search of the most important ones. Common Core offers anchor standards so that makes it easier.” Alison Hramiec, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, continued by saying, “We ask ourselves three questions: 1) What is essential for all students to know and be able to do in each section of the Common Core?  2) What are the essential components of those skills and knowledge we are asking students to demonstrate?, and, 3) How can we scaffold this learning through the scope and sequence?

Zapater further suggested that “Schools develop a framework of common language around the language used in rubrics (BDEA uses not yet competent, competent, and highly competent), scope and sequence, and extra support. Otherwise it becomes a Tower of Babel, and you risk focusing on things other than student learning.” (See definitions used at BDEA on the wiki.)

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Boston Day and Evening Academy: Where Competency Education is Good Teaching Practice

June 21, 2012 by

This is the second post in the Boston Day and Evening Academy series. Continue reading the first and third posts.

During my site visit to BDEA, Alison Hramiec, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, explained that at BDEA “competency is synonymous with good teaching practice, with clear rubrics and discussion around student work. Competency education instills a sense of ownership in the learning process for teachers and for students. Learning comes alive.” Below are a few highlights of the BDEA competency education model.

Competencies, Benchmarks, and Assessments: BDEA defines competency as “able to demonstrate understanding and application of specific skills and content independently, multiple times, and using the correct vocabulary.” BDEA uses three levels: basic competent, competent, and highly competent.

BDEA uses benchmarks to organize learning and monitor progress. They do not use traditional grades or traditional grade levels. Their students earn benchmarks; each benchmark has a rubric. The Individual Learning Plans with the benchmarks for math, science, and humanities can be found on the wiki. (more…)

Reading the Pulse of Students at Boston Day and Evening Academy

June 20, 2012 by

This is the first post in the Boston Day and Evening Academy series. Continue reading the second and third posts.

Reading the pulse of students. That’s what Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) does exceptionally well—read the pulse of their students. They know them, they respect them, and they’ve got their backs. That’s where personalization always starts—by having respectful relationships between educators and students.

BDEA has been fine-tuning competency education for fifteen years, and they have a lot of insights to offer to schools that are transforming from a time-based system to a learning-based system. They now offer a Responsive Education Alternatives Lab (REAL) summer institute for interested educators. (more…)

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