Category: Policy

A Growing Movement: Behind the Shift to Competency-Based Diplomas

January 10, 2018 by

Why We Must Reconsider the High School Diploma

By at least one important metric, American education appears to be making progress. Our high school students are graduating at record rates, and the numbers have been steadily climbing in recent years.[i] However, behind this veil of graduation rates,[1] abundant evidence reveals that we still have a lot of work to do. Compared globally, the US still ranks in the bottom half of the industrialized world in graduation rates, and a sizeable attainment gap persists between whites and minorities.[ii] Among those who do graduate high school and enroll in postsecondary education, nearly half require remedial coursework.[iii] As a result, our college completion rates are alarmingly low—especially for minorities.[2] In fact, only 9.5% of students requiring remedial reading coursework in community colleges leave with a degree, while only 35% in four-year colleges graduate.[iv]

These results pose an especially dire forecast when one considers the increasing importance of postsecondary education. As Jobs for the Future adeptly noted in its 2017 recommendations for the reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act, “[t]here is a dire need for skilled workers and mounting evidence that postsecondary education has a direct impact on earnings. The shifting needs of the current economy make it clear that to attain real upward mobility, workers will need to be equipped with the education and skills that make them of high value to employers and able to adapt to changes in the workplace.[v]” It is likely the absence of the necessary training and skills that leads two thirds of hiring managers to say they cannot find qualified workers to fill even middle-skills jobs.[vi]

If we are to break the cycle of poverty, particularly among our minority communities, and if we are to ensure the economic welfare of our nation, the American education system must do something about our college matriculation and remediation rates. States and districts must find solutions to ensure that kids are prepared to succeed when they leave high school and not hamstrung with an unemployable skillset.

One such solution that many states are exploring is the competency-based diploma. Though policies differ among the states, competency-based diplomas (sometimes referred to as proficiency-based diplomas) typically discard traditional graduation credit requirements that rely heavily on the number of hours students spend in the classroom, instead requiring that students demonstrate certain competencies before earning credit for a course. Thus, competency-based diplomas create an advantage in that they inherently require individualized attention to each student’s mastery of standards, and they guard against time-based promotion. Only by ensuring that each student truly ascertains the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for postsecondary success can we improve college and career readiness.

The Movement for Competency-Based Diplomas

So, which states are shifting towards competency-based diplomas? To date, most states actually have laws allowing districts to issue competency-based diplomas, either by submitting a detailed proposal for a competency-based system to the state or by taking part in a state program in which districts can pilot a competency-based diploma. However, six states are taking the policy a step further and uniformly requiring that at least some portion of graduation requirements include the demonstration of proficiency for credit. Among those six states, two distinct approaches to the competency-based diploma have surfaced: a few states have fully proficiency-based graduation requirements, and a few have partially proficiency-based requirements. (more…)

Sketching Out the Vision for a Competency-Based Policy Platform

January 4, 2018 by

It’s hard, really hard, to imagine different worlds. Sure, science fiction writers and film directors must have a blast creating new worlds that inspire us, frighten us, or both. Being able to imagine a world where the education system consistently produces engaged, motivated students who are excited about their futures and graduating with a basket of knowledge and tools that open up doors to the world they want to live in requires a mix of creativity and analysis. Harder yet is imagining what the policy would need to be for this world that we are just beginning to build district by district, school by school.

The team of people involved with shaping the ideas and writing the paper Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education are doing just that. They are sketching out for all of us what the policies are going to need to look like and what they are going to need to do in order to support personalized, competency-based systems.

If you remember, iNACOL/CompetencyWorks used a participatory process, referred to as the Technical Advisory Group, to develop draft papers before the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. At the Summit, we collected feedback from the participants in order to fine-tune the ideas. Today, the final version Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education is being released.

There is a lot in the paper to chew on. Personally, I find the concept of threshold concepts really helpful. They are “core concepts, that once understood, are needed to transform a given subject.” In other words, they require time to learn about, a process to analyze not only what it means for the future but what it means for how the traditional system operates, and a set of colleagues to engage in a dialogue about the implications and what it can mean for each of our own work.

The paper outlines four threshold concepts:

  1. Certifying learning;
  2. Assessment literacy;
  3. Pedagogical innovations based on learning sciences; and
  4. Meeting students where they are.

(more…)

Why the Education Status Quo Cannibalizes New Ideas – and What to Do about It

December 19, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on October 27, 2017.

With the last round of ESSA plans rolling in this fall, states have put a stake in the ground. Education leaders across the nation have all articulated what they hope their school systems will look like in the coming years, and spelled out the strategies that they hope will get them there.

But Disruptive Innovation Theory suggests a risk on states’ road ahead: processes that dominated the past can wreak havoc on best-laid plans.

All organizations—for-profit, nonprofit, public, and private—have a model that consists of three things: resources, processes, and priorities (RPP). Our research shows that in the formative stages of an organization, the available resources determine much of what gets done. But as an organization matures, like most decades-old state agencies and school districts, the people working in the organization gradually come to assume that the processes and priorities they’ve repeatedly used in the past are the right way to do their work. Those processes and priorities become ingrained in an organization’s culture. How an organization brings in revenue further entrenches its RPP. In the case of state agencies and districts, if existing ways of doing business keep the budget afloat, they quickly become habit.

An organization’s RPP in turn spells the fate of which innovations the organization is willing to pursue. Mature organizations naturally pursue sustaining innovations—that is, innovations that align with their time-honored processes and priorities. Meanwhile, disruptive innovations—innovations that upend or compete with existing priorities—almost always get neglected or ignored in mature organizations. That’s because they don’t make sense to the organization’s established RPP.

This phenomenon helps explain what reformers often bemoan as a “status quo bias” that frustrates new ideas in education. Although that bias is often cast as a political problem, it is also, in fact, an organizational management problem. (more…)

Are Non-Traditional Diplomas and Transcripts Barriers to Implementing Personalized Learning?

November 21, 2017 by

As part of its efforts to build understanding and advance policies to support personalized learning and mastery-based education, ExcelinEd’s advocacy of innovation and pilot programs is identifying state policies that hinder full implementation of personalized learning as well as those that can provide better support.

Below is a quick overview of personalized learning, challenges related to nontraditional diplomas and transcripts, and a recommendation for state policy that you can use to engage state policymakers.

WHAT IS PERSONALIZED LEARNING?

Personalized learning tailors a student’s educational experience to meet their unique strengths, interests, and needs while empowering students to play a greater role in their learning. Coupled with flexibility in pace and delivery, personalized learning is grounded in the idea that students should progress when they demonstrate mastery of key content and skills regardless of the time spent in class or even where instruction takes place.

POLICY BARRIER

Non-traditional diplomas or transcripts can place graduates from schools implementing personalized learning at a disadvantage when applying for admission to colleges and universities as well as financial aid. (more…)

4 Ways We Can Fund Personalized Learning to Create More Equitable Schools

September 19, 2017 by

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This post originally appeared at Education Post on September 12, 2017.

Budget shortfalls in states are framing a new angle on educational equity conversations. It is no longer simply about what is right, but what is fiscally necessary for a state to grow and thrive.

Studies from Erik Hanushek and the National Bureau of Economic Research show, state economies live and die by the extent to which they drive educational success for all their learners.

Fiscal responsibility at the state level is vital for the academic success of all children, but especially for students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English-language learners, students living in foster care and students currently without a permanent residence.

These and other student groups who have been underserved, seemingly as tradition in public education, are more likely to attend what Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz calls “dropout factories”—schools in which less than 60 percent of students graduate on time.

For example, the national, on-time graduation rate for students with disabilities and English-language learners is currently under 65 percent. Given the widespread use of Balfanz’s “dropout factory” definition, this means that we could be on the verge of classifying our national education system as a dropout factory for the aforementioned student groups.

HERE’S WHERE PERSONALIZED LEARNING COMES IN

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PACE Sees Early Evidence of Student Achievement Gains

September 5, 2017 by

Susan Lyons

Please note: This article was corrected on September 6th to accurately reflect the findings on PACE.

According to the presentation by Susan Lyons of the Center for Assessment to the New Hampshire State Board of Education, early evidence is showing improvements in the PACE districts in the Smarter Balanced assessments over the past two years. The mean of students demonstrating proficiency in PACE districts has increased from 48 to 63 on the 8th grade ELA and from 35 to 48 on the 8th grade math. The PACE districts are inching above the state mean. Another researcher, Carla Evans, is seeing significant improvement for students with disabilities in PACE districts compared with non-PACE districts. Evans’s research, based on early results, is showing that students with IEPs in PACE districts are significantly outperforming their peers with IEPs in non-PACE districts on the SBAC assessment in both math and ELA. Despite these gains, achievement gaps between students with IEPs and students without IEPs are still apparent in the PACE districts.

Lyons believes that two elements of the PACE theory of action are driving the changes:

  • implementing the performance assessments as intended enhances and extends desired instructional practices; and,
  • student engagement and student learning increases/deepens when performance assessments are implemented as intended.

Notice the language of implementing performance assessments as intended: PACE is focused on ensuring high quality implementation of performance assessments. It is a partnership of the state and local districts to commit to high quality instruction and assessments for the children of New Hampshire.

We’ve all become so accustomed to state systems of assessments that are designed to compare apples with apples and make student outcomes transparent (with the idea that by making them transparent, school performance will improve). The problem is that those state assessments have been used to blame and shame schools, and are not actually designed to directly help improve student learning. Thus, we’ve gotten used to assessments being something other than part of the cycle of learning. (more…)

New Resource: State Policy & K-12 Competency-Based Education

August 29, 2017 by

iNACOL released a new issue brief today: State Policy & K-12 Competency-Based Education. It’s a quick read on why the traditional system is a barrier to us reaching a vision of an excellent and equitable system, what strategies states are using to advance competency education, and how to take advantage of ESSA. From what I understand, it doesn’t look like states are taking full advantage of ESSA, so I’m going to reprint that section from the brief here.

 

 

STATES MOVING FORWARD: STATE-LED STRATEGIES TO ACCELERATE SYSTEMS TRANSFORMATION

For states moving toward broader systems change, policymakers could establish policies on proficiency-based diplomas, which require students to demonstrate mastery of academic content standards before graduating. While not inherently competency-based (particularly if implemented as solely “credit by exam”), proficiency-based diplomas can encourage the adoption of personalized, competency-based learning by stipulating that graduation decisions be based on students demonstrating mastery of college- and career-ready standards, rather than on seat-time credits.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides additional space for states to redesign their systems of assessments to better support student-centered learning. Balanced, innovative systems of assessments can empower educators, students and other stakeholders with multiple forms of evidence and timely feedback on student growth, readiness, depth of learning and mastery of competencies. In competency-based education, assessment is a positive experience for students because it is part of the learning process. Innovative systems of assessments incorporate formative, interim and summative measures and forms of evidence of student work.

ESSA allows for states to consider innovative assessment pilots with a smaller number of districts to help support competency-based education. State leaders could partner with districts and schools participating in the pilot that are beginning to lead the way to competency-based learning. (more…)

Red Flag: When Habits of Work and Learning Become Extrinsic Motivation

by

If I had only two choices between a thumbs-up and thumbs-down, I don’t know which I would use to comment on Portland School District’s new policy that will prohibit students from participating in extracurricular activities if they don’t meet the expectations for demonstrating the habits of work and learning. It is a great idea for a school district to embrace the idea of Habits of Work and Learning (I’ll use HOW as an acronym to indicate the behaviors and skills students need to learn only because HOWL raises images of wolves in my mind), since becoming a lifelong learner is essential to preparing students for college, career, citizenship, and their well-being as adults. However, in tying it to access to and the denial of extracurricular activities, the district has bureaucratized and corrupted the power of using HOW to engage and motivate students.

When you see a good idea at a school, it makes sense that district leaders would want to scale it to everyone. Certainly Portland’s Casco Bay High School a leading example of competency-based education highlights how a competency-based structure (referred to as proficiency-based in Maine) can contribute to a school that has a rich pedagogical theory of learning emphasizing inquiry, communities of learning, and horizon-broadening experiences. The problem is that when we do this, we take a practice out of the context of the culture and related practices that make it work. Implementing habits of work and learning as a gate for whether students can play football will simply never work to improve engagement, motivation, and academic learning, or to prepare students as lifelong learners. Here’s why.

#1 Opening the Door to Opportunities for Learning, Not Closing Them

In competency-based (or proficiency-based) schools, the practice is to shift how we communicate student progress. The traditional grading system is based on points (extrinsic motivation that works for the students at the top and does little for everyone else) for: 1) assignments and summative assessments (which may indicate how well a student understands the material but does little or nothing to motivate students who are not understanding, as they never have a chance to go back and learn it) and 2) points for behavior that may be related to learning or not (being helpful or bringing in cans for the food drive). Zeros for not turning in an assignment are nearly impossible to recover from and will actually chip away at a student’s motivation.

Underlying the traditional grading system are two beliefs: 1) extrinsic motivation is the best way to get students to put in the effort and 2) a focus on ranking students that believes some students are smart and others not so much, and there is little a teacher can do to help students learn. The second one is directly related to our ability as a nation to improve equity or continue to reproduce it – if we don’t think students can really learn, we just pass them on with Cs and Ds. If we believe that all students can learn, if we truly believe the evidence underlying Dweck’s theory of a growth mindset, then we should be constantly seeking out opportunities for students to keep learning and for educators to have opportunity to build their skills to better support students. Instead of ranking, we should be monitoring growth and seeking to discover each student’s potential.

In competency-based grading systems, we make two big changes from the traditional grading system. First, grading is no longer used to rank students. It is focused solely on letting students know how they are progressing toward mastering the material. A student who attempts a unit with misconceptions and/or gaps from previous years may stumble at first and take more time to do some more learning. The scoring system lets them know if they are just getting started, are making progress but aren’t quite there yet, or have mastered the material. All students have a chance of succeeding if they keep at it and if they receive effective instructional support. (It’s important to remember: Asking a student who has a misconception to just keep trying is totally unfair. They’ll never know that they have a misconception and will discover no way of uncovering it. It will only reinforce that they are dumb, when the fact is that no adult offered them the help they need.) (more…)

Should Instructional Choice Trump School Choice?

January 3, 2017 by

typingThis post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on November 23, 2016.

Today, President-elect Donald Trump appointed school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as our next secretary of education. Given DeVos’s decades support for charter schools and tax-credit scholarships, most are speculating that this signals Trump’s commitment to follow through on his promise to commit over $20 billion to expanding charter schools across the country.

Looking ahead, Trump and DeVos would be wise to embrace an expanding notion of educational choice. Indeed, in the 21st century, a choice agenda should focus on optimizing instructional choices, not just school choices. A next generation vision of choice should be about schools—of the district, charter, or private varietal—providing numerous and flexible learning pathways tailored to each of their students. In the long run, we believe that a robust supply of personalized instructional options within schools may be the most potent driver of combatting stubborn achievement gaps and graduating more students college and career ready.

Historically, the quality and experiences that a given school could offer were fairly uniform within that school. All students sat in the same rows, with the same educators, receiving the same lectures, reading the same materials, and taking the same tests. School was designed like a factory assembly line, providing all students with the same—regardless of whether that particular version of “same” was a good fit. As decades of research have shown, this led to variable and often unequal learning outcomes among different students, both within and between schools. But because of the manner in which most school districts operated, if a school model proved ill-suited to a student or his family and couldn’t pay out of pocket for another option, then he was essentially out of luck.

School choice regimes, in part, emerged as an answer to that embedded constraint of our factory model education system. (more…)

Illinois Launches Competency Education Pilot Program

December 8, 2016 by
tony-smith

Tony Smith, State Superintendent, Illinois

Illinois keeps surprising me. First, in July they passed the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act, which included a competency-based pilot (innovation space without any additional funding) as well as an effort to begin the calibration process between graduation expectations in mathematics and freshman-year mathematics in higher education. Then a second surprise. Within five months of the new legislation, they have launched the Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program for twelve districts to “replace high school graduation course requirements with a competency-based learning system.”

The pilot only focuses on grades 9-12, although districts will quickly learn that they are going to want a full district system – otherwise there is a constant flow of students with big gaps in their learning as students in the earlier years are passed on without ensuring they are mastering the fundamentals.

The competency-based learning systems must have the following elements:

  • Demonstrate mastery of all required competencies to earn credit.
  • Demonstrate mastery of adaptive competencies (foundational skills needed for success in college, careers, and life, such as, but not limited to, work ethic, professionalism, communication, collaboration and interpersonal skills, and problem-solving) defined by the school district, in addition to academic competencies.
  • Advance once they have demonstrated mastery.
  • Receive more time and personalized instruction, if needed, to demonstrate mastery.
  • Have the ability to attain advanced postsecondary education and career-related competencies beyond those needed for graduation.
  • Be assessed using multiple measures to determine mastery, usually requiring application of knowledge.
  • Be able to earn credit toward graduation requirements in ways other than traditional coursework, including learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom setting, such as supervised career development experiences.

(more…)

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