Category: School Processes and Practice

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 tranferable 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?”

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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…)

Rethinking Grade Levels and Age Groupings at the Whittier Community School

September 30, 2019 by

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

Whittier Playground

Whittier’s Schoolyard with Glacier Views

The Chugach School District in Alaska is one of the longest-implementing competency-based education districts in the USA, and it offers valuable lessons for schools and districts across the country. This blog series will share some of those lessons from my recent visits to the Whittier, Tatitlek, and Voyage schools in the Chugach district. This first article on the Whittier Community School focuses on Chugach’s approaches to grade levels and age groupings.

Despite its small student population, Chugach is huge geographically. My three-day loop began at the Voyage School in Anchorage. A 45-minute bush plane ride over mountains and glaciers brought us to the Tatitlek Community School, in a 200-person Native Alaskan village with no road access. From there it was a five-hour trip to Whittier on a once-per-month ferry across spectacular Prince William Sound. On the hour drive back to Anchorage, we left Whittier through North America’s second longest tunnel, drilled 2 ½ miles through a mountain for a secret World War Two military base.

Levels—But Not Grade Levels

To understand Whittier and Chugach, it helps to understand the basics of their standards and levels. Their standards span 10 content and process areas – Career Development, Culture and Communication, Math, Personal/Social/Service, Physical Education and Health, Reading, Science, Social Studies, Technology, and Writing. Each set of standards has 8 to 10 levels that students move through during their journey from kindergarten to graduation. Each standard has several learning targets that increase in complexity as students advance to higher levels. Their progress on each learning target is tracked through the district’s online learning management system, which also tracks a variety of student work such as individual projects and career transition plans.

Students Building Floating ObjectsA student can be at Level 4 in Reading, Level 5 in Personal/Social/Service, and Level 6 in Science. In fact, being at different levels in different standards is common, since the school doesn’t have grade levels. This leads to multi-age groupings in all classes. One student told me that she was in math class with high school students before she had formally entered middle school. She said it was hard to be in classes with much older kids, but it was good to be able to receive instruction targeted to her ability level.

(An earlier draft of the previous sentence ended with “it was good to be able to progress at her own pace.” Chugach principal Doug Penn’s comment on that wording contained just the type of valuable insight I was on the lookout for while visiting a mature CBE district: “We have been trying to dispel the idea that competency-based education is ‘learn at your own pace.’ Even though that’s true, those words often make people think it’s a passive method of working with students, when in fact we believe it’s a much more intentional model of instruction. What we have begun to say instead is that ‘students are receiving instruction targeted at their own ability levels.’” I don’t remember the student’s exact words, but Penn’s suggestion seemed important to act on and share.)

Multi-Age Grouping Benefits and Strategies

Multi-age groupings are essential at Whittier, because the whole K-12 school has four teachers and 51 students, but larger schools also use multi-age groupings productively to facilitate competency-based learning strategies such as varied pacing and pathways. More generally, multi-age groupings are an efficient way to use teacher time in a competency-based school. They allow teachers to support small groups of students who are working on the same competencies regardless of age or grade level. That reduces each teacher’s preparation demands, because not every teacher needs to be ready to support every competency. (more…)

Supporting Deeper Learning Through High-Quality Internship Projects

September 12, 2019 by
Sonn Sam

Sonn Sam

My recent CompetencyWorks post focused on helping schools facilitate deep, authentic student learning through real-world projects. This second post focuses on the nuts and bolts of supporting high-quality student internship projects through the lens of one student’s experience and some helpful tools and ideas.

As a former advisor and principal at Big Picture Learning (BPL) schools, I found that developing rigorous projects with students was the greatest lever to transforming them and their learning experiences. For the first time in their educational career, they saw how the quality, depth, and impact of their work and learning could all be driven by them. They found this deeply empowering.

So how does it work? BPL’s design is anchored in the 3 R’s: Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor. Strong student-to-teacher and student-to-student relationships form the foundation. Learning is relevant because it is anchored in student interests and contexts. Strong relationships and relevance become the fertile soil in which high-quality, rigorous learning can be cultivated. We see high-quality internship projects as the highest form of rigor, because they demand students to acquire and apply high levels of academic, industry, and social-emotional learning standards and skills.

One Student’s Real-World Project

My student Zaidee was a budding artist. Ever since arriving in my advisory in 9th grade, they (Zaidee’s preferred pronoun) could always be found doodling, drawing, or creating something original, with an eclectic style. Fortunately, at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (the Met) in Providence, Rhode Island, our entire design is built around leveraging students’ passions through real-world internships.

Zaidee and David

Zaidee and friend David (painting a mural for another student’s internship project with an advertising firm)

During junior year, Zaidee’s internship combined a passion for art with an intention to help people. With the support of their dad, Zaidee landed an internship with a local non-profit that provided artistic outlets for developmentally challenged older adults. We learned during an informational interview that community members from across the state came there to paint, draw, sing, play instruments, and record their own music. Their smiles and the gentle hum of productive artistry in the background truly warmed our hearts.

This was a special place and Zaidee knew it. Art empowered so many aspects of their life, and here they saw how art empowered these community members. To ensure that students and internship sites are a good fit, Big Picture schools engage in an informational interview and shadow day process where students ask questions of the potential mentor and spend some time on site to get a feel for the day-to-day activities. For Zaidee, the informational interview and shadow day made it clear that this was the right place to do an internship.

After they spent several days observing and assisting wherever needed, I scheduled a project set-up meeting with the mentor to help develop Zaidee’s internship project. The bedrock of high-quality projects is authenticity, and the process of finding authenticity is a conversation guided by a few simple questions. I ask the student, “What are you interested in learning?” and I ask the mentor, “What is a current challenge or opportunity you are facing right now”? As they both answer the question and the conversation evolves, we usually arrive at an idea and a product for a project.

This is where I introduce the mentor to our Project Development Tool, which helps us flesh out the student’s project. It is a living document that the student, mentor, and I will communicate and work with as the student carries out the project. As her advisor, I help make or push the connections between the project and academic and social-emotional skills. Simultaneously, the mentor makes connections with industry skills. Using this tool, we help the student break the project into manageable pieces and set realistic timelines. We also use the Project Rubric to be clear with students and mentors about what high quality looks like while planning and carrying out the project. (more…)

Structuring Schools to Enable Deep, Student-Centered Learning in Real-World Settings

September 9, 2019 by
Sonn Sam

Sonn Sam

One of the main pillars of the Big Picture Learning design is deep, authentic student learning in the real world. For more than 20 years, BPL has experienced the power of this approach for increasing equity and deeper learning centered on the student’s talents and passions. In most schools, learning mostly takes place within the school building, and engaging with community partners is uncharted territory. So how can a school go about developing a real-world learning program? As a regional director for Big Picture Learning (and before that a BPL principal and advisor) supporting teachers and school leaders, this has been a major priority of my work. Here are some of the major lessons I’ve learned about what’s needed to make it happen.

Visionary Leadership: There needs to be a leader at the helm who holds deeply to the concept of deep, authentic student learning in the real world. A leader who leads through modeling and works tirelessly with their staff to consistently improve their practice. Why? Unfortunately, our current educational system was built and designed for in-school learning. The focus on standardized tests, daily schedule, course sequence, credits, seat time, and so on was designed to support a particular approach to education. So when a leader attempts to redefine the system by designing real-world learning structures such as an internship program, friction will arise. The gravitational pull on leaders to fit into and return to the old system will be immense, and this will be a true test of a leader’s core values and vision. In the face of this friction and in the eyes of their teachers, the leader will need to remain fully engaged in the problem-solving process to stay true to the vision. In my experience in leading and supporting systemic change, there are no silver bullets, but one thing is essential: a visionary leader who stays true to their core values.

Staffing: When I first became a principal, BPL co-founder Dennis Littky gave me a piece of advice that has served me well through the years. He said, “The single most important decision you will ever make as a leader is selecting the ‘right’ staff member.” Simple, right? As a young administrator, I took heed. But after 10 years as a school administrator, I have experienced first-hand the truth of this statement. I have made many bad decisions as a leader, but nothing has been more difficult than a bad staffing decision. Underperforming staff members can be coached to be better—but fundamentally I can coach skills, but I can’t coach will. In other words, staff mindsets about the work are equivalent to their competencies to learn and do the work. At Big Picture Learning, in order to find the “right” staff member, we developed a list of BPL Advisor Competencies that captures the skills and will needed to appropriately execute on our design.

Another pivotal role to support real-world learning is the Internship Coordinator—the bridge that connects the school with local internship opportunities. Equipped with an entrepreneurial spirit, this staff member will need to survey students about their interests, develop marketing materials for the program, establish internship procedures for students and staff, hit the pavement to reach out to local businesses and community leaders, host informational events to educate the community about the programs, regularly check on mentors and students, and help curate activities to better prepare students for the real world.

Big Picture Learning LogoFor most schools with traditional staff structures, allocating a full-time position to support real-world learning may be difficult. In my last school, our social worker became a half-time social worker and half-time internship coordinator. Although this helped us start our program, we didn’t see the progress or success we were looking for. Finally, I decided to make her a full-time internship coordinator, and for the first time almost 100% of our students were placed in internships just one month into the school year. With her attention focused solely on internships, she was able to commit to building needed infrastructure at the end of the previous school year, expand our internship network over the summer, and solidify internships much sooner in the school year. This was the momentum we needed, and we would not have achieved it without the full-time position. (more…)

Eastern Carver’s Framework for Lifelong Learning Skills

August 26, 2019 by

This is the sixth and final post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Graphic Showing Two Behaviors That Support LearningEssential learning outcomes in competency-based education include not only academic knowledge but also important skills and dispositions. Many schools, districts, and states have done outstanding work on developing frameworks for these dispositions and implementing them with students. For districts looking to develop or improve their work in this area, it’s helpful to see a variety of examples, such as recent ones on CompetencyWorks from New Hampshire and South Dakota.

Eastern Carver’s framework is called the Behaviors that Support Learning. They have developed a helpful handout that includes the six behaviors, descriptions of each (with some differences for elementary versus secondary levels), and two brief paragraphs explaining it all. One of the many strengths of Eastern Carver’s framework is that all of this information can fit on one side of one page in a non-tiny font, which is so helpful for communication with students and parents.

The six Behaviors that Support Learning are:

  • Strives for personal best
  • Shows respectful behavior
  • Interacts collaboratively with peers
  • Engages in learning
  • Exhibits responsibility
  • Demonstrates accountability

Descriptors are provided for each of the six behaviors. For example, “interacts collaboratively with peers” includes the following for elementary students:

  • Contributes ideas,
  • Asks for and respects others’ opinions, and
  • Flexible, willing to adjust to others’ ideas.

Additional expectations for secondary students include:

  • Challenges the group to do their best, and
  • Helps group to achieve shared learning goals.
Dr Seuss Quotation

From The Walls of Pioneer Ridge

Teachers at Pioneer Ridge Middle School said that they often reference the Behaviors that Support Learning with students, asking “What does it look like? Sound like? Feel like? We are constantly reinforcing, modeling, redirecting, modeling again.” During the daily morning meeting, specific student behaviors are held up as positive examples. During student-led parent conferences, students reflect on how they’re doing in relation to the behaviors. Students at Chaska Middle School East have taught and reinforced the behaviors by using them as themes for lessons during advisory.

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It Takes a Village to Personalize Learning to Every Student

August 12, 2019 by

This is the third post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Conversations at many of my school visits come around to how schools are managing accountability to state standards while also personalizing learning for each student. A discussion at the Integrated Arts Academy, an arts-based high school discussed in the previous post, shed valuable light on this topic. The following is part of my conversation with Tera Kaltsas, IAA’s Principal, and Brian Beresford, Eastern Carver’s Leader of Personalized Learning and Innovation. It provides insights into strategies for satisfying diverse stakeholders in the development of a complex, competency-based system. It also illustrates the “tight vs. loose” decisions that are made in evolving CBE systems, and it touches on the state’s role in facilitating innovation.

TK: The district has “power standards” with many learning targets. What we learned was that, for our school, that was too specific. So we spent many years working with teachers to figure out which power standards must be met, and how to make them user-friendly for IAA—so they’re more applicable for life. For example, a physics teacher from another high school helped us figure out how to make the physics standards more applied and less math-focused. Also, students can take classes at the high school if they want; one of our students recently took AP Calculus at the high school.

EL: What do you say to stakeholders who insist that every student needs to meet every standard?

TK: Well, we’ve worked closely with the math specialists in the district to become more project-based, and there are times when students need to do old-school worksheets and “you just need to know this and learn it in a traditional way” kinds of math activities. And let’s not forget that students in conventional schools don’t always finish the textbook; it happens all the time.

But part of the idea of being an alternative learning center is that it really is alternative. When we as the district were creating and designing it, I refused to just be a smaller version of the mainstream high school. If kids are coming here because they’re disengaged from the whole learning process, then how are we going to reengage them? If the old system didn’t work in a big high school, why would we think that just making it smaller will make them engage in the same worksheets and sitting in rows and being compliant? That’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a colossal waste of time.

IAA’s Aquaponic System

Our system has some checks and balances. Students need a learning plan that everyone signs off on. We hold to our standards, but we get there by different pathways. I’ll give you an example: We have a student who loved our aquaponic system. She spent hours and hours creating her own aquaponic system, helping create the school’s aquaponic system, getting a grant for the aquaponic system. So in her learning plan, I gave her a biology credit for going that in-depth on a handful of biology standards. She didn’t meet all 10 biology power standards, but she went so far in depth with a couple of them. But then everyone signs off on that. That doesn’t happen often, but it happens.

EL: What is the district’s perspective on that? (more…)

Promoting Lifelong Learning Skills in the Classroom: New Hampshire’s Work Study Practices

July 25, 2019 by

Terry BolducAt the recent New Hampshire Learning Initiative conference, long-time teacher Terry Bolduc led a session about powerful strategies to help students develop lifelong learning skills and dispositions. This work is central to competency-based education. Bolduc’s presentation focused on New Hampshire’s Work Study Practices (WSPs), the state’s term for “behavioral qualities or habits of mind that students need to be successful in college, career, and life.” (Other common terms are personal success skills, 21st century skills, transferable skills, building blocks of learning, and non-cognitive skills.)

The four WSPs are collaboration, communication, creativity, and self-direction. Bolduc has developed strategies for promoting and assessing the WSPs in two New Hampshire elementary schools in the Sanborn and Timberlane regional school districts. She and other staff from Sanborn shared their WSP strategies in a series of CompetencyWorks posts in 2015. One insight was that students needed more help understanding what the WSPs looked like in practice. The 2015 posts describe a series of strategies to accomplish this, such as relating the WSPs to characters in books they were reading.

Bolduc uses graphic organizers that allow students to set goals for each WSP and then reflect on their progress at the end of each week. Over time, with input from her students, she has elaborated these organizers to include separate reflections for each academic subject, as shown in the figure below. In addition to academic subjects, she has used a similar organizer that includes recess, cafeteria, bus, classroom, and specials.

Terry Bolduc Graphic Organizer

The acronym “CARES” in the figure stands for Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-Regulation/Control. Sanborn was already using the CARES framework from the Responsive Classroom when the New Hampshire WSPs were rolled out, so they created a crosswalk between the two frameworks and kept using CARES. For each academic subject, students select one of the five elements of CARES and use it as their goal for that academic subject for the week. During morning meetings, students tell each other their goal, and at the end of the week they reflect on their progress out loud and written on the graphic organizers. (more…)

Reinventing High School: Measuring What Matters Most

July 22, 2019 by

Students in Graduation Gowns and Hats

This post originally appeared at the Mastery Transcript Consortium on June 23, 2019.

“Too many students … experience high school as a cutthroat competition for admission to a selective college,” writes Tony Wagner, a Mastery Transcript Consortium board member and globally recognized voice in education. “There is a better way.”

This month, approximately 3.5 million high school seniors will be granted diplomas. The rest of us will (and should) applaud their achievements, but we must also stop and consider: What did these students have to do to earn their diplomas, and what, exactly, has their schoolwork prepared them for? In 1892, The Committee of Ten, led by Harvard President Charles Eliot, created a standardized framework for the high school curriculum that, in turn, dictated essential prerequisites for college admissions. This system requires that students earn between 18 and 24 “Carnegie Units” in order to graduate. A Carnegie Unit is a standardized measure of “seat time served” in a given class — roughly 120 hours of a class over the course of a year. Students’ grades in a particular class are supposed to represent how well they served that time, and students’ grade point average and class rank are taken as measures of how well individuals have performed compared to peers. And these numbers still make up the typical high school transcript, which is required by virtually every college and university in America in order to be considered for admission.

But these measures are more than a century old, and hopelessly obsolete. In this era of innovation, all students need essential skills and dispositions for work, learning, and citizenship—habits of mind and heart that cannot be measured by Carnegie Units. Students who can take initiative, learn through trial and error, collaborate, persist, understand and solve problems through interdisciplinary approaches, and who have strong moral foundations are set up to thrive in the future. The students who are merely good at the “game of school”—those with high grades but without those skills—are not.

If school is a game, then “losing” comes with stark emotional consequences. Too many students in our “best” suburban and independent schools increasingly experience high school as a cutthroat competition for admission to a selective college. Bright and resilient students who receive poor grades or don’t get into the “right” college often see themselves as losers for life. And, as we have seen recently, the college admissions process is even more problematic than we might have imagined. Some parents are going to extreme measures that are harmful to their children and unfair to others.

There is a better way. The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC)™ is working with a growing network of nearly 300 public and private member schools to codesign the Mastery Transcript, which takes the high school transcript from a flat, two-dimensional accounting of student time spent on single subjects to an easy-to-read, interactive, digital transcript. It is an effort to 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.

The new reporting will indicate the skills and knowledge that students have mastered. But it can also include qualities of character that make their humanity visible and help admissions officers make better decisions when it comes to an applicant’s “fit.” The design will help colleges better understand students’ skill sets and potential to succeed on campus, and allows students to present themselves more authentically to admissions officers. The MTC is still in development; it will be built, refined and tested over the next several years. But the goal is to finally see students’ educational record in clearer focus, and in three dimensions.

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Celebrating Learning Can Be Moving and Uplifting, and We Need To Get It Right

July 15, 2019 by

Mastery Collaborative Students(This blog post began as a comment that Joy Nolan wrote on a recent CompetencyWorks post about recognizing outstanding student achievement in competency-based schools. Thanks, Joy!)

Celebrating learning can be moving and uplifting, and like all other aspects of education, we need to get it right, which may mean unlearning and improving upon ideas and practices that don’t serve our students (meaning: all our students) as well as possible. Chris’s ideas about honoring progress are cool, and so is the practice of sharing out and recognizing excellent project-based learning.

Schools are both places of learning, and issuers of credentials . . . and we need to be thoughtful about all aspects of practice.

One of the newer member schools in NYC’s Mastery Collaborative (www.masterycollaborative.org) recently realized they needed to rethink honor roll and start recognizing students whose mastery has grown most, as well as students who have reached high levels of mastery. Their thinking: Both are amazing and meaningful accomplishments, so let’s celebrate both—especially as this is a more equitable way to roll in a world (our world) that inequitably advantages and disadvantages students in many ways that can show up on transcripts.

NY Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education FrameworkIf our vision is genuine educational equity (aside: not everyone shares this vision, and some will agree in word and not in action), we need to be intentional and critically conscious to bring it about. We’re looking at you, beliefs, policies, and practices. We have much actionable, research-based and road-tested knowledge about what works to support learners and to bring about more equitable schools—yet we know we’re a long way off from this vision. Moving toward a more equitable steady state—a world we have yet to see— requires learning, unlearning, and collective action. We have our circles of practice and community, along with the principles of student-centered learning, competency-based education, and culturally responsive-sustaining education to guide us.

We know that learning is a cognitive process that is not most helpfully framed as a competition nor as a race. We know that ideally grades are neither rewards nor punishments, but instead messages about where a student is in terms of mastery of key skills and knowledge—at a point in time.

We know that mindsets for learning—growth mindset, and its less famous but powerful cousins, value mindset (“There is value for me in the effort and time I put into academic work”) and belonging mindset (“My school is for me; I am an important part of a community; it matters that I am there”)—are vital dispositions that power the multidimensional set of achievements every student must reach to graduate high school. Do we foster or discourage these mindsets by separating out a small number of students who “really” got there in some way that may have to do with technical aspects of credentialing systems, and a variety of answers to “What’s in that grade?” What aspects of learning are we valuing over others when we post honor rolls and choose valedictorians based on GPA?

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