Category: Insights into Implementation

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…)

Reinventing Crediting and Transcripts (Part 1) – Learning from Experience

December 30, 2019 by

Reinventing Crediting Book CoverI had the good fortune to be present in April 2016 when educational leader Scott Looney articulated his vision for a new high school crediting paradigm and launched the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) in a meeting room at Cleveland’s Botanical Gardens. This new transcript model provided a key component of transforming student learning toward greater relevance and engagement, better differentiation, deeper learning, and ultimately stronger preparation for success in college and careers.

The MTC model for crediting and recording student learning presents a much-needed alternative to the standard United States version of a secondary school education. The transcript has no courses listed or credited, and no grades or Carnegie units. Instead, it shows competencies developed and demonstrated. This approach enables far more flexibility in designing, delivering, and acquiring a high-quality high school education.

Others have also written about the Mastery Transcript Consortium on the CompetencyWorks blog. Tony Wagner wrote here in June that it will “change the game by creating an entirely new way to report the quality of student work and their readiness for postsecondary learning—one that is based on real evidence of mastery, rather than a grade or time spent in a particular class.” Chris Sturgis wrote last year that “the MTC wants to create a system of credits and transcripts that represents the whole child, or whole teenager in the case of high schools.”

As an early participant in the development of the MTC, having prepared its first set of sample rubrics and competencies, I’m delighted to have now authored the first book on the MTC and its new transcript model. Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education: The Mastery Transcript Consortium Model and Beyond lays out the why, what, and how for this alternate transcript model.

As regular CompetencyWorks readers know, many schools nationally have been re-structuring high school education around competencies, and course credit is dependent upon competencies demonstrated. However, many of these schools have not changed the format of the transcript itself very much. The transcript may provide additional information in the form of core competencies identified and recognized in student learning, but it doesn’t transform what we credit and record regarding student learning. To quote New Hampshire educator and author Brian Stack in a piece published at CompetencyWorks, “most competency-based high school transcripts still contain the same base reporting measures, which include course names, final course grades, credit earned, grade point average, and class rank.” The MTC goes a step further, allowing for high school education to no longer be constrained by the conventions of the traditional course names and sequences and empowering students and educators to chart more personally pertinent pathways to acquiring a high school diploma.

Like nearly every innovation, the MTC transcript model has many important antecedents and analogues. My book focuses on three examples of excellent competency-based crediting systems in higher education and abroad that competency-based educators can learn much from. Western Governors University, which Heather Staker wrote about on this site in 2012, dispels with conventional courses. Students choose a major, which is composed of domains, competencies, and objectives. They progress by accumulating competencies via both a multiple choice test and a performance task until they have mastered a domain. Similarly, New Zealand’s universal system of high school crediting, the National Certificate of Education Achievement (NCEA), discards classes and coursework on its transcript altogether, itemizing instead only the standards students have mastered. Students, with the advice of their teachers/counselors, can select from a wide array of nationally determined standards and organize them into unique, personally pertinent pathways. Chris Sturgis has also written at length about New Zealand’s NCEA here at CompetencyWorks.

Even less familiar to K-12 educators is the outstanding model used by the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Medical College (LMC). MTC founder Scott Looney had the benefit of geographic proximity and personal connections to LMC when formulating his vision, and he has brought secondary educators from across the United States to study the successful LMC crediting and transcript model. (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…)

Deep Community Partnerships Lead to Authentic Project-Based Learning at Oakland USD

December 12, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at Next Generation Learning Challenges on August 27, 2019.

How to create authentic Project-Based Learning? In Oakland Unified, community partners and teachers are working together from the very beginning to design projects.

Young Whan Choi

Young Whan Choi

Teachers are often asked to make sure that their project-based learning (PBL) units are authentic. In response, a teacher might decide to teach a PBL unit where students are putting Christopher Columbus on trial. Doesn’t it sound more exciting than simply learning the facts of the history? They might even ramp up the authenticity points by bringing in a judge or lawyer to preside over the trial.

This “expert audience” approach does add an element of authenticity. Teachers are going above and beyond the traditional curriculum when they bring in a community expert as an audience for student projects.

Teachers in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), however, are exploring even deeper partnerships with the professional community as a way to ensure that PBL projects are authentic. These partnerships begin at the earliest moments of project design, well before the students set foot in the classroom. There are many inspiring examples of what might be called a “client”-driven model of PBL. San Diego Unified has been scaling these kinds of projects in their Linked Learning schools while here in the bay area, one of the most promising models is Y-PLAN—an initiative out of the Center for Cities and Schools at UC Berkeley. In Y-PLAN, students work on real problems of urban and regional planning.

 

 

A recent example from Y-PLAN occurred when students at Oakland High School in the Law and Social Justice Academy worked with an affordable housing developer. They visited the site of the proposed project and then conducted research to find out what the community would like to see in the housing development. For the final presentation, the students created proposals that they shared when the developer came to their classroom.

The key difference in this approach to authentic PBL is that the community partner engages with teachers from the beginning to shape the project. With this goal in mind, OUSD organized a “community partner engagement” day during our weeklong PBL Institute in June. Over 40 different partner organizations and individuals joined 120 middle and high school teachers on the second day of the institute.

OUSD teachers gathered at MetWest High School for the Project Based Learning Institute

OUSD teachers gathered at MetWest High School for the Project Based Learning Institute. (Courtesy of Greg Cluster)

Before the teachers showed up, we asked them to give us information on the PBL project they were hoping to plan during the institute and if they already had a community partner that they wanted to work with. Our planning team of seven central office leaders then invited relevant partners like public radio station KQED, Alameda County Public Health Department, Red Bay Coffee, Oakland Public Works, and the Museum of Children’s Art.

On the morning of the “community partner engagement” day, teachers prepared a project pitch composed of three slides—the final product students would create, a driving question, and a key learning outcome. In the afternoon, partners and teachers met to discuss the PBL project idea. (more…)

But What About The Test?

November 25, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at the Mastery Collaborative on June 11, 2019.

Christy and Student With Laptop

Christy works with a student at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, NYC.

How can high-stakes testing “live” in a setting that also uses mastery-based grading? Project-based learning? Culturally responsive practices and content? Too often, innovative school design is thought of as difficult or impossible to implement amidst heavy testing requirements. But success on standardized exams is not incompatible with mastery-based grading and project-based learning. In fact, I have seen in my fifteen years in education how these two innovative approaches facilitate a wide range of success at schools.

I often hear from and read about practitioners who worry about tests, especially high-stakes tests. It is not their fault. As practitioners, we receive mixed messages with one message usually the loudest: the test is the most important, the test is the data, the test defines your teaching, the test, the test, the test.

There is a lot of valuable research and data that underscores the lack of authenticity and inequity inherent in high-stakes standardized testing. But, I hope to provide a perspective of an educator doing innovation work “on the ground” while addressing the reality of standardized tests. To be clear, this piece is not advocating for standardized tests, rather it’s a demonstration that high-stakes testing does not erase the feasibility of innovative practices like mastery-based learning.

While we wait for large-scale change in states where high-stakes testing is prevalent, replicable innovations are happening in small pockets across the country. It is possible to destigmatize “teaching to the test” when it becomes teaching skills that are prevalent on the test.

I am a teacher and instructional coach at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria (TYWLS), a grade 6-12 public school in the New York City Department of Education. Our school is just one example of a “testing” school that also uses innovative practices, including a whole-school, mastery-based grading system. Our students find success on the multiple New York State exams and AP exams they take each year. We have been able to find a successful balance between the tension of innovation and standardized testing.

As a Living Lab site for the NYC DOE’s Mastery Collaborative, we often host visitors and present at conferences about our whole-school mastery-based grading system. At every session, there are folks who quickly reveal a seemingly fixed mindset about the importance of “the test” as well as the challenges testing presents. We try to make the connection for practitioners in traditional settings that they likely do this type of work already by analyzing what’s on the test and teaching and reteaching skills and content. What is different about planning mastery-based curriculum using a project-based methodology that includes a high-stakes test is that we prepare for, but go well beyond, the test. (more…)

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…)

Learner Variability in the Classroom through Micro-credentials

October 15, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at Digital Promise on August 22, 2019.

Teacher With Students“I’m not just a math teacher; I’m a teacher of the whole child,” Bethany Orr, a fourth grade teacher in North Carolina and Iredell-Statesville Schools’ 2019 Teacher of the Year, reflected after earning a learner variability micro-credential on self-regulation.

Orr spent a semester digging into the research behind how learners vary and tried several strategies tied to self-regulation, a key learner variability concept, to support two of her students. She demonstrated her understanding and use of strategies such as mindfulness breaks by collecting artifacts that showed how her students benefited from these changes in practice.

Orr said one of her biggest takeaways from the micro-credentials process was the importance of leveraging students’ strengths, which she did not do initially. “Having them write was not their strength,” she explained. “Both of the students are very verbal, and so I got audio recordings of them reflecting. I got so much more from them when I didn’t ask them to write.”

Because a diverse student population brings varied experiences and abilities to the classroom, teachers must understand each child’s strengths and challenges in order to create a learning environment where each student can thrive. Micro-credentials, a natural extension of the formal and informal learning activities educators engage in every day, provide teachers with personalized, competency-based recognition for the skills they learn throughout their careers.

The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation produced a stack of 15 Learner Variability micro-credentials—including the Self-Regulation micro-credential—in collaboration with Digital Promise Global’s Learner Variability Project. These micro-credentials are steeped in learning sciences research, providing insights into how best to support and engage the full diversity of learners found in every classroom.

After earning her Self-Regulation micro-credential, Orr reflected that her “relationship with [her students] is much stronger now than it was at the beginning of the year.” She added: “They started to see that I was working to understand them better and that they were important to me, important enough to learn something new to try to help them, and I think that really changed things.” (more…)

Sustaining and Sharing Cultural Heritage at the Tatitlek Community School

October 10, 2019 by

This is the fourth post in a series about the Chugach School District in Alaska. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Student Making a Kayak Paddle

Making a Traditional Kayak Paddle During Cultural Heritage Week

Almost all students in the Tatitlek Community School are Alaska Natives. One of the village elders, David Totemoff, who is also a recent past Chief and Tatitlek Indian Reorganization Act Council President, spoke strongly of the need to promote traditional tribal values and the importance of the school in supporting that effort. The school and the church are the main community centers in Tatitlek, a village of about 65 residents on Prince William Sound that I visited with Mike Hanley, Superintendent of the Chugach School District and former Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. Two projects from Tatitlek are described below that build community, cultural competence, and community service experience within a competency-based education framework.

Cultural Heritage Week – Peksulineq

Activities to build students’ cultural knowledge are infused throughout the school year, according to Jed and Nichole Palmer, who have been the school’s two teachers for 16 years. The ongoing learning gets a tremendous boost from Cultural Heritage Week, a week of cultural immersion every spring that involves many members of the village as well as students and adults from other schools and districts. The week is called Peksulineq, which means “things are coming to life” in Sugt’stun, the native language of the local Alutiiq tribe.

Peksulineq SignPeksulineq runs from Sunday to Saturday, with more than 80 students arriving by boat and bush plane (there’s no road access) to join the Tatitlek students, along with chaperones, instructors, and other visitors. From Monday through Friday, the older students rotate through several workshops on topics such as sewing animal skins, beading, dancing, carving wood or soapstone, making traditional kayak paddles or miniature kayak models, and processing salmon or sea lions. Sometimes there are classes in Sugt’stun, which also take place during the school year. The younger students mostly stay with one teacher and do smaller-scale versions of some of those projects, as well as participating in story-telling activities related to local culture. The instructors infuse historical knowledge to help students understand how each activity fits into the village’s culture.

To take fish processing as a project example, the students might catch salmon or start with salmon caught by a village member. Then they go through the process of cleaning, brining, smoking, cutting up, and canning the fish. By the end of the week, the students have canned salmon that they can bring home, give as gifts to people who helped with Cultural Heritage Week, or auction off at the fundraiser that happens at the end-of-week celebration.

Processing a Sea Lion

Processing a Sea Lion

In addition to the goal of sustaining Tatitlek’s cultural heritage, the week helps Chugach students fulfill the district’s Culture and Communication standards, which include the following:

  • Students will understand and participate in the cultural heritage and traditions of their own cultural community.
  • Students will understand and appreciate the unique aspects of their own culture.
  • Students will understand and respect the unique aspects of other cultures.
  • Students will participate in a variety of art forms (dance, music, theater, visual arts) and appreciate the arts.

Depending on the student’s level, these standards include learning targets such as :

  • (Level 2 out of 8) Listens to and discusses a variety of stories from oral traditions (i.e., myths, legends, fables, folk tales).
  • (Level 7 out of 8) Appreciates the arts in three or more ways, including practicing their skills as an audience member (e.g., listening, providing positive feedback); participating in one or more forms of art (e.g., dance, music, theatre, or visual arts); studying artwork from other cultures; and learning artistic techniques from one or more artists.

(more…)

Pathways, Pacing, and Agency Are Intertwined

October 7, 2019 by

This is the third post in a series about the Chugach School District in Alaska. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Seven Whittier Students in Tie Dye ShirtsThe Whittier Community School provides many opportunities for three core components of competency-based schools: different pathways, varied pacing, and student agency. Before sharing some of their strategies, it’s worth revisiting the nuances of those terms:

Different Pathways – Students in competency-based schools can master learning targets in different ways, in different orders, and at different ages, reflecting their unique needs, strengths, interests, and goals. These differences should not be mistaken for the inequitable, traditional practice of tracking.

Varied Pacing – The primary goal is deeper learning, not faster learning. Varied pacing can mean that students who are proficient in certain standards are encouraged to engage in ways that lead to greater depth of knowledge and multiple ways of demonstrating competency. Varied pacing does not imply that there is a single learning pathway that students simply navigate at different speeds. Each student’s pace of progress matters, with schools actively monitoring progress and providing more instruction and support if students are not on a trajectory to graduate by age 18 or soon after.

Student Agency – The methodical development of both the capacity and the freedom of learners to exercise choice regarding what is to be learned and to co-create how that learning is to take place. This has four components—setting advantageous goals, initiating action toward those goals, reflecting on and regulating progress toward those goals, and a belief in self-efficacy (source: this Education Reimagined blog we cross-posted in August).

Student With Porcupine at Conservation Center

Whittier Student Feeding a Porcupine at Her Conservation Center Internship

Individual Learning Plans

Whittier’s learning strategies illuminate connections among these three aspects of competency-based education. All Whittier students have Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) that serve two main purposes. First, students do not always demonstrate mastery on particular standards during the time that those standards are the focus of group instruction in a class. ILPs provide opportunities for students to revisit those standards. (It’s important to say that teachers in competency-based schools often lead students through learning activities in groups, which is not only efficient but has educational advantages. Thinking that every learning experience must be entirely individualized is a misconception that can lead various stakeholders to doubt that competency-based education is possible.)

Second, ILPs are a structure for students who want to meet standards in personalized ways or go beyond “meeting” standards to “exceeding” them. Specific times during each school week are set aside for students to work on ILP projects.

Whittier parents who work in the local fish processing plants have their prime earning months in the summer, so they sometimes return to the Philippines for several weeks in the winter to visit their extended families. Their children are out of school during these visits, and ILPs allow them to continue making progress while they’re away and to make up missed work once they return.

One student completed an in-depth project about the history, politics, culture, and language of the Philippines in preparation for her trip, fulfilling culture and communication standards. Her teachers emailed her some assignments while she was gone, although they wisely set boundaries on these accommodations, which can explode into an unmanageable workload for the teacher. The student was also able to catch up on other standards during ILP times when she returned. Of course there were some standards that she simply couldn’t complete, but the school’s structure meant she could complete them in future school years without having to “stay back” a year or redo entire courses in which she had already demonstrated mastery of many of the competencies. (more…)

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