Category: Reflection

Competency Education and the Complicated Task of Communicating

August 17, 2017 by

Did you see that competency education (the same as mastery-based education) was mentioned in the New York Times? In some ways it is a very helpful article to introduce people to the idea of competency education, highlighting students taking ownership, students engaging more, the opportunity for students to really learn or master the skills and content before moving on, and the focus on growth.

Yet the article also includes examples of the difficulty we are facing in communicating what competency education is about, what it means to have a high quality competency-based school, and the noise from some of the critics. Below is a sample of the conversation I had with the author (in my mind, of course) while reading the article.

Instruction

One of the issues we are facing is that although competency education is primarily a cultural and structural shift, it also has implications for instruction. We know that instruction matters – it matters a lot. You can have strong instructional practices or weak instructional practices in a school. You can have some teachers with strong professional knowledge or some with weak professional knowledge in a school.

What competency education does is creates a structure by which teachers are talking with each other about what it means to have a student become proficient, aligning their assessments and instructional strategies, and exploring what is working and what isn’t working to help each and every student reach proficiency. Competency education, when well implemented, should be igniting the professional learning of the educators.

Competency education does introduce a few important implications for instruction and assessment:

  • Students need to be active learners with opportunity to apply their learning to new contexts (this is what makes it about competencies and not just standards). This means there also need to be assessment strategies that assess students at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (i.e., performance-based assessment).
  • Instructional strategies need to meet students where they are. Yes, we want to think about grade level standards AND we want to think about where students’ performance levels are and where they have gaps. Then using their professional knowledge and taking into consideration the needs of other students and resources, educators work with students to develop strategies that will help them progress.
  • To the degree possible, summative assessments should be aligned with the depth of knowledge and the learning goals of the students. This may mean organizing assessments to be “just-in-time” with students bringing forward evidence of their learning. A student who has completed a unit at the beginning of the week and believes they have fully learned the material shouldn’t have to wait until the end of the month to move on to higher level work. In other learning experiences, there is going to be value in students working on a large project all with the same due date. But when the curriculum can be organized into more modular units, it opens the door to more flexibility for students.

When I see something like “students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers” I get worried that either the school isn’t offering enough applied learning opportunities or we aren’t communicating what is happening instructionally in the classroom. First of all, students should know where they are on their own learning paths. Second, teachers are offering instruction through several methods, including individual and small groups, online videos they have made, or perhaps online instruction. In most, most but not all, of the classrooms I have visited, students talk about the use of online adaptive programs as how they practice. Most will say they prefer to learn about new material from their teacher or from a video their teacher made. Third, there will often be choices about how students practice and then demonstrate their learning. Worksheets might be one of them, and I’ve seen students playing games to practice and build math and vocabulary fluency, working on projects, writing essays, and engaging in large, inquiry-based projects that will wrap-up with a presentation. (more…)

National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education

June 29, 2017 by
Chris Sturgis

Chris Sturgis

I’m still processing. I find myself waking up several times a night with my brain spinning through conversations and the notes from the Summit. Here are just two of my personal reflections on the Summit. There will be more to come as I work through all of the notes.

Who is in the Room Matters

In the musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr sings about wanting to be in the “room where it happens.” In advancing any social or education effort, there are many rooms where vision, ideas, goals, and strategies are shaped. In the world of competency education (like many other fields), the people in the rooms have often been all or mostly white. We were super-intentional and goal-oriented in how we planned the Summit to bring in four types of diversity – regional, perspective (teacher to national), expertise, and racial & ethnic. The mix of knowledge in the room was extraordinary, with participants actively listening to stretch across their own perspectives.

In terms of the mix based on race & ethnicity, the first Summit was about 95 percent white. The second one was 59 percent. In order to do this, we had to learn to approach the criteria and process of inviting people as well as the agenda differently. We took a “diversity lens” to just about every decision – what is the impact, how would others interpret, feel, and engage. It all paid off – so I was told by many of the participants. It shaped not only the ideas that were introduced, but the comfort of pushing us forward in thinking about what it means to have equity as the core of competency education.

We all want to be in the room where it happens. What I’ve come to realize is that it really matters who is in the room. Yes, we want people who have power and influence in the room in order to commit to making things happen. But unless we have the right mix of people, it’s likely that we are not going to make the best decisions about what will happen.

What is Competency Education?

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Beware of AnythingGoes-Ness and Bandwagonitis

May 25, 2017 by

It’s very clear to me that we, the field of competency education, are at a turning point in many ways. First, we have reached a place where there are lots of different organizations with enough knowledge about competency education that we are seeing very valuable reports and articles with important insights. (Just in the past week, three reports/articles were released that are worth taking the time to read, as they give a sense of some of the expansion and challenges: Competency-Based Education: Staying Shallow or Going Deep?; Policy, Pilots and the Path to Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape; and Why There’s Little Consistency in Defining Competency-Based Education.) There are other organizations – other than CompetencyWorks, that is – that are identifying and lifting up new innovators and new practices. We’ve worked hard over the past five years to support organizations and our colleagues so that whatever knowledge we were building was being transferred and embedded into other organizations. And I can really feel that it is paying off because I’m finding that I need to put time aside now to read, not just skim, many of the things being published because they are enhancing my understanding.

Second, the field is expanding at a steady pace, and with that comes a variety of new challenges. For a while, competency education was under the radar. The folks who knew about it were all leaders who had come to the same conclusion that we weren’t going to move forward if we were handcuffed to the ranking and sorting of the traditional system. Then there was growing attention as states began to introduce the idea in their innovation zones and to take the concept of college and career readiness a step further with the idea that credits and diplomas actually had to have meaning (i.e., proficiency-based diplomas). However, we are now nearing what I used to call the “fad” stage when I was a foundation program officer: People are hearing about competency education from different organizations and feel that they may want, should, or need to get on the bandwagon. In some ways, of course, this is great news but it also carries a number of new problems: (more…)

When Young People Had a Vote in Decisions about Their Own Programs

April 12, 2017 by

Although this reflection by AYPF’s Board Chair, Tony Sarmiento (first posted at AYPF on March 13, 2017), isn’t related to competency-based education, I think it is an extraordinary piece that allows us to learn from our elders to better respect our children and youth. As we open up what is possible in competency-based education with transparent continuums of learning, we also open up new doors to how we construct education. In re-posting this article, I’m not suggesting that we should run directly to created markets. I’m saying that we should look backwards and forwards to organize the very best of what we know works best for young people to engage, motivate, and support students. Listening to them and creating formal ways to guide them is always a strong first step.

Happy reading! – Chris

Tony Sarmiento, AYPF Board Chair

As I near retirement after working with older adults for nearly two decades, I was recently honored in a surprise reunion with former co-workers from almost fifty years ago, when we worked together at a neighborhood youth center in upper Northwest Washington, DC. While we shared hazy memories of dances, basketball games, and other typical summer youth center activities, all of us recalled fond and detailed memories of the youth center director, Pat McDonough, who in his late-20s hired, supervised, and inspired us. None of us had been in regular contact with Pat before his death a few years ago, but all of us acknowledged his lasting impact on our careers and lives.

The reunion reminded me of my employment during the War on Poverty as a youth worker in several of my home city’s neighborhoods. At that time, an official goal of the federal government’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was to insure youth involvement in planning, operating, and evaluating youth programs. This was consistent with the larger goal of “maximum feasible participation” by the community in all OEO programs. As stated in an official OEO Instruction, “Youth Development Program Policies,” (February 1970):

Every Community Action Agency and Delegate Agency must insure active youth involvement in all phases of its Youth Development Program. Applications which do not reflect this commitment will not be funded. (as underlined in the original)]In the District of Columbia, this mandate for youth involvement was achieved by partitioning the city into twenty Neighborhood Planning Councils (NPCs), which were administered by then-Mayor Walter Washington’s Office of Youth Opportunity Services (OYOS). Each NPC was governed by ten adults and ten youth (between 14-21 years old) elected in community elections. Every year, each of the twenty councils was responsible for developing, debating, and voting on their community’s year-round youth programs and program budgets, based on funding made available by OYOS. OYOS also provided technical assistance to the councils and monitored their compliance with OEO regulations.

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With Much Sadness We Remember Diane Smith

December 9, 2016 by
Smith Diane

Diane Smith, Jan. 28, 1950 – Nov. 30, 2016

We lost Diane Smith recently, and the world feels very different. Diane was the Teaching & Learning Initiative Director at Oregon’s Business Education Compact, author of It’s About Time: A Framework for Proficiency-based Teaching & Learning and a valuable member of the CompetencyWorks Advisory Board. Her death came as a shock to all of us who cared for her, respected her, and were inspired by her never-ending enthusiasm to advance proficiency-based learning.

In preparing to write this tribute, Susan Patrick reminded me that we often turn to one of Diane’s statements, “Performance or competency based learning is fundamental to personalizing learning at scale and it challenges almost all of our assumptions about the present system.” That fact that we were forging into such new territory didn’t bother Diane at all. In fact she found it enthralling – she was simply an adventurer.

There is a passage in her obituary that I want to share with you, as I think it captures Diane’s entrepreneurial spirit perfectly:

Diane didn’t believe we needed to think outside the box with respect to educational reform, but rather asked attendees of her trainings, “what box?” She radiated joy and possibility that was contagious.

By now, you hopefully have a smile on your face thinking about her enthusiasm for learning and teaching.

Here are a few more memories of Diane from our colleagues:

I remember meeting Diane Smith and being amazed at the level of commitment and the span of influence of her work in competency education. She was an ardent supporter of examining systems change for competency-based pathways in partnership with local school systems and the state. Diane Smith was an early leader championing the need to move from a time-based system toward one that ensures mastery. She helped launch, drive, and support the work in Oregon over decades of sustained leadership. She was dedicated, passionate, and selfless with furthering the cause to ensure every student had the full range of knowledge and skills mastered for future success. She was kind and generously shared her knowledge broadly across the United States, taking lessons learned in Oregon with the state and with districts and working with others across the country to provide a pathway forward. She will be sorely missed by her colleagues and friends. – Susan Patrick, iNACOL, President and CEO

The world of competency education has lost one of its original innovators. Diane Smith, dear friend of Sandra Dop and I, died suddenly recently. Diane championed the work of teachers across the state of Oregon, creating models for all of us to follow. Sandra Dop, Diane and I were on speed dial with each other. Whether in a high level policy meeting, working with teachers, or having a problem presented to us, we knew we could count on each other at a moments notice. We valued our time together at national meetings and conferences. Whether sharing our love of Hallmark Christmas movies or helping to shape this new world of competency education as Coast to Coast pals, Sandra and I are honored to have called her friend. – Rose Colby, competency education consultant

With Diane’s passing I have lost a dear friend and colleague. Her work on personalized, proficiency-based education was an inspiration and a guide as we started personalized, competency-based education in Iowa.  As some of the early ones involved, we had few to call for help or just to talk through something. Rose Colby, Diane, and I called those calls the Coast to Coast Conversations. We called, texted, emailed anytime day or night and usually a response was there within the hour. We will miss you, Diane. Eventually that Coast to Coast will fill in as others join the movement, and those of us at the beginning of the journey will remember your dedication to the cause. Rest in Peace. Thanks for your friendship and hospitality–for the tour of schools in Oregon and the conference memories. – Sandra Dop, former consultant on competency education to Iowa Department of Education

Diane was always generous with her time and knowledge as an expert source as well as a mentor in providing tremendous encouragement and support for tackling issues in how to approach proficiency based learning and teaching. – Liz Glowa, consultant and author of Student-Centered Learning: Functional Requirements for Integrated Systems to Optimize Learning

Diane’s combination of professionalism and warmness permeated every room she was in. She could engage people in a conversation with ease and make them feel as though they had known each other for years, even if they just met. Her dedication to the students and teachers of Oregon was evident in the way her eyes lit up when she talked about her work. I will miss her kindness, and I will always be thankful for her partnership. – Anne Olson, Director of State Advocacy, KnowledgeWorks

Donations may be made in Diane’s honor by visiting www.AlbanyPublicSchoolsFoundation.org or calling 541-979-2773. Your condolences for the family may be posted online at www.fisherfuneralhome.com.

Please, it helps all of us to remember her. We hope you will share your memories in the comments below.

Diane, we are missing you.

#iNACOL16 Day Four Learnings on the Run

November 3, 2016 by
jim-rickabaugh

Jim Rickabaugh

Resetting the Classroom Power Dynamics: Every person I’ve met from WI is so visionary, so creative, so dedicated to figuring things out systemically. Every time I get a few minutes with Jim Rickabaugh, previously the director of the Personalized Learning Institute at CESA#1 (he’s still involved as an advisor — Ryan Krohn is now the director), I feel like he opens up door after door of insights. Here are a few:

  • Different Pathways: We aren’t ready to commit to one model or one best way of implementation. Our work in personalized, competency-based education isn’t mature yet. We may discover that there are very different pathways.
  • Learning Leaders: We focus too much on instruction and instructional leaders. We want our focus to be on learning and leaders who manage learning. “Learning leaders” have to think about the whole school, the entire learning environment, and what students are learning beyond school.
  • Learning Targets and Beyond: When we focus only on specific assessments, we are asking the question, “Did you learn this or that?” However, if there is robust, inquiry-based or “deeper” learning, then we should also ask the more open question, “What did you learn?” A good caution for us – we want to be intentional and we want to include learning beyond the anticipated. Deeper learning positions us to learn more about our own learning and to be generative in our learning.
  • Do Students Feel they Belong?: Disciplinary rates are an indicator of how engaged students are and how much they feel that they belong (in other words, how inclusive the school is). Robust personalized learning in a competency-based environment should be resetting the power dynamics in a school and in the classroom. In traditional schools, sanctions are compliance-based. In PL/CBE, our goal is to help students to commit to their own learning. So if students are resistant to power, then there is something going on and we need to listen to the students. When there is nothing to fight or resist against, because the goal is for you to take ownership of your own learning, then there is some other pain that needs our attention. Rickabaugh mentioned that he had heard of schools repurposing the position of assistant principal because discipline problems had so dramatically reduced.

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#iNACOL16 Day Three Learnings on the Run

November 2, 2016 by

Well, actually, I’m not running anymore. I was able to catch my breath for the weekend before I head out to District 51 in Grand Junction to learn about their early stage implementation.

Here are some of my highlights from the final days of iNACOL16:

sajan-george

Sajan George

Productive Struggle: One of the reasons I think so highly of the Matchbook Learning team is that they are always trying to figure out how to meet the needs of students who have large gaps in foundational skills or are on a performance level that is below their grade level. (I apologize for the use of a deficit structure, but we still haven’t figured out a way to talk about students being at different levels that doesn’t use the grade level as a norm.) Sajan George described that they have concerns that leveling students and offering instruction that meets them at this level is not working the way they had hoped. Yes, it helps students build all the foundational skills they need, but it isn’t building other skills – specifically the skill and traits needed to productively struggle with challenging problems. One might think about it as the ability to apply learning, not just demonstrate the skills. Application requires us to think about which skill or approach can be helpful.

dixie-bacallao

Dixie Bacallao

Later that same day I had a chance to meet Dixie Bacallao from reDesign. How to design for productive struggle was one of the many things we touched on. She cautioned that it is important to take into consideration where students are in their own learning and development (including social-emotional learning and relationships with peers) and how big the gap between performance and grade level is in designing interventions. In other words, there is no single best intervention. (more…)

#iNACOL16 Day Two Learnings on the Run

October 27, 2016 by

Well, I think it is safe to say the highlight of the Day Two was Virgel Hammond’s (KnowledgeWorks) keynote dedicated to helping all of us reduce our cool factor. His point is that for all of us to learn, we need to be vulnerable. We all need to be willing to take risks and get out of our comfort zones. He demonstrated this point by having Susan Patrick (iNACOL), Bill Zima (RSU2), Nick Namba (Lindsay), Dave Roberts (Fraser), and Steve Schultz (District 51) and yours truly dance our hearts out to silly songs such as The Twist, Greased Lightening, Thriller, Mr. Roboto, and Shout!

Lesson Learned: I’m too old (or perhaps I should admit just plain out of shape) to dance to Shout! anymore…instead of just twisting down to the floor, I found it more comfortable to just fall on my belly.

On a much more serious note, Todd Rose, author of The Myth of Averages, kicked off day two at #iNACOL16. If you haven’t heard him, it’s worth listening to one of his TED talks. His message is powerful – when you design for the average, we meet the needs of none. He draws on research and science to explain why we must root the design of the education system in the individual. We must figure out how to have more personalized systems of education. (more…)

A Better Way Forward for Competency-Based Learning

October 26, 2016 by

pencilsThis post originally appeared at New Profit on September 29, 2016. 

Over two decades ago, I served as an educational advocate for the State of Rhode Island. It was my charge to act as the parent for a caseload of about 80 youth who were wards of the State that either identified or were suspected of having special educational needs. My caseload was very diverse. Students had serious learning disabilities and/or behavioral issues. As wards of the State most were living in poverty and the majority came from what are often called minority groups. Despite the wide array of challenges, I ensured that the adolescents in my caseload all earned, and were granted, their high school diploma. This, despite the fact that these students often had not learned the things our society expects of a high school graduate. How was this possible?

The reliance on seat time for awarding course credit allows for any student who passes a class that meets for the required 120 hours of instruction to earn credit toward graduation. The 120-hour requirement was established by the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching over a century ago and still governs what a high school diploma entails in nearly every state in the union. Typically, students are required to pass 20-28 courses in order to earn their high school diploma. As an advocate for youth in State care, I made sure that schools were paying attention to each student’s transcript and awarding him/her the credits earned through sitting in class.

Did I do these students more harm than good? Over the past 20 years, I have pondered that question often. I was complicit in sending adolescents out into society with a diploma that didn’t necessarily reflect whether they had mastered the requisite education to become functioning adults in a democratic society. Despite my well-meaning advocacy, was I setting them up for failure? (more…)

#iNACOL16 Day One Learnings on the Run

October 25, 2016 by
renee-hill

Renee Hill

As you wander the huge halls of the San Antonio Convention Center, you can’t help but bump into old friends, people you wanted to meet, or people you didn’t even realize you need to meet. And each conversation has at least one “AH-HA” that moves understanding forward, deeper, or into altogether new directions.

How Districts Can Use Competency-Based Education Infrastructure Enables More Autonomy and Creativity in School Design: I was thrilled to bump into Renee Hill, Assistant Superintendent at Riverside Public Schools in California. They’ve been moving toward personalization with the assumption that schools need autonomy and room for creativity (as compared to a district model that is implemented in all schools). They are now putting into place the infrastructure of a shared vision of a portrait of a graduate from Riverside and beginning to build the set of competencies/standards that will be shared graduation expectations. Eventually, they will have an infrastructure that will enable school autonomy balanced with a system of accountability to ensure students are making progress and reaching proficiency.

andrea-mulkey

Andrea Mulkey

Moving from Negotiated Alignment to Systemic Alignment: I also had the opportunity to meet Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Early College at KnowledgeWorks. We had an interesting conversation about how early college programs have always had to figure out how to align secondary and post-secondary expectations. However, instead of a defined set of competencies and standards, they’ve done it through well-developed relationships and negotiations.

This got me thinking – we need to get to the point where districts aren’t creating graduation expectations in isolation but actually developing them with colleges. This is going to be one of the key pieces of system-building. With our strong commitment to local control, I’ve been worried that variability in district graduation expectations will continue to be a problem. But it’s not a problem if we set the expectation that institutions of higher education have to sign off on how districts define what it means to be college ready. Think about it – colleges are going to want to set the same set of expectations across multiple districts. (more…)

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