Category: Uncategorized

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.


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…)

Why Personalized Learning is Hard to Study

July 25, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on July 14, 2017.

This week saw the release of the third in a series of personalized learning studies conducted by the RAND Corporation. The research analyzed implementation, survey, and efficacy data in a sample of schools that are part of the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) portfolio, and compared that data to a national sample of schools. The findings? NGLC schools yielded some positive academic results, but educators and administrators reported numerous challenges. And in some cases, such as how often teachers reported “keeping up-to-date documentation of student strengths, weaknesses, and goals,” the researchers detected little to no difference between personalized NGLC schools versus traditional schools. (NB: For those familiar with last 2015 RAND report on personalized learning by the same authors, it’s worth noting a crucial distinction: this new study analyzed a group of 32 schools only 16 of which were included in the set of over 60 schools in the 2015 sample, which helps to explain some divergent conclusions drawn between the two.)

Advocates for and critics against personalized learning will inevitably interpret these findings in wildly different ways.

Long-time advocates hoping to dismantle traditional factory-based instructional approaches can use the academic findings to cite the potential promise of personalized models. And they can defend apparent shortcomings by pointing out that the smaller sample of NGLC schools does not represent the numerous other promising personalized learning efforts afoot across the country. At the same time, those critical of the fever pitch around personalized learning can use the mere modest gains and numerous challenges that researchers surfaced to downplay its potential. Already, headlines reporting on the findings alluded to the ‘hyped’ or overblown ambitions of personalized learning.

But stepping back, what some would call promising or hyped I would call nascent. I’m skeptical of how much the particular research findings in this most recent report should extend to making broad statements about personalized learning in either direction. Put differently, I’m not sure the study would really give anyone reason to either celebrate or denounce personalized learning. The academic gains are positive, but hard to attribute back to specific practices or inputs. And the challenges implementers reported are real, but shouldn’t be conflated with efficacy of personalized practices themselves.

Instead, if we can acknowledge that schools are still extremely early in developing and implementing instructional models that personalize along a range of dimensions, then we should be wary of treating any research at this stage as an authoritative source on whether or not something so new and ill-defined actually “works” writ large.

This is not to say that RAND did a bad job trying to make sense of a new and evolving set of instructional and structural shifts afoot in schools. The researchers were handed a sample of NGLC schools attempting to personalize learning in a wide variety of ways. The researchers then tried to measure those practices along dimensions like competency-based learning that are themselves still hard to calibrate, and compare them to traditional schools. (more…)

3 Innovative Tips for Tackling School Culture

July 14, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on June 20, 2017. 

On the heels of a series of PR nightmares facing Uber’s executives, headlines and speculation about what’s next for the company abound. Some investors have continued to defend the company’s evidently toxic culture, suggesting that once successful entrepreneurs have built a successful product or service, they then can afford to worry about factors like company norms. Others, like Freada Kapor Klein have been less willing to let the company off the hook.

Both sides, however, seem to agree that Uber now needs to commit to fundamentally reshaping its culture. This, of course, may be easier said than done. Company culture is not something that can change over night, which begs the thorny question that USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava put best: Can Uber really change?

Although many school systems’ woes may pale in comparison to allegations permeating Uber, the question of whether entrenched systems can “really change” rings true through education circles today. All too often, new efforts die on the vine if a school culture isn’t lining up around those efforts. And in most reform circles, discussions about change management or school transformation inevitably circle back to nailing school culture. But we often remain short on the specifics of how to do so.

Luckily, innovation theory can help to surface insights on how schools might both measure and change culture. Here are three tips on what we’ve learned about culture, process, and change inside and outside of education:

  1. Find recurring problems

More often than not, discussions of school culture can feel vague. Successful leaders can rarely pinpoint the alchemy of what’s working, and culturally fraught schools can, like Uber employees, feel that all is not well but may struggle to find their way to a solution.

The first step for changing culture is realizing that it can indeed be broken down into something cognizable and measurable. Perhaps counter-intuitively, culture rarely presents itself through well-meaning mission statements or strategy documents. Rather, it manifests itself in repeated processes that are so common that they become virtually unconscious.

This means that measuring the actual components of culture cannot be accomplished merely through school climate surveys that offer self-reported data from staff or students. Although these instruments may help to take the temperature of school culture, they rarely reveal the factors actually contributing to it.

School culture, rather, should be identified through leaders and teachers gaining clear sense of the processes guiding day-to-day practice. Culture results from students and teachers solving problems in a certain way; that solution becomes repeated over and over until it is so ingrained that no one has to think anymore. Schools have many processes and priorities that can coalesce over time into a shared culture. If these processes themselves are broken or routinely marginalize certain actors or priorities, then so too will the culture be broken. (more…)

What I Learned at CompetencyWorks’s National Summit: Let’s End the Tradeoff Between Accountability and Teacher Professionalism

July 11, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at New Mexico Center for School Leadership on June 30, 2017.

From June 21-June 23, I spent my time brainstorming and collaborating with some of the nation’s most innovative educators at CompetencyWorks’s National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. It was clear that to many educators, we are neglecting the importance of investing in teachers. Here’s what I learned.

Our schools are like factories and they should be more like orchestras. Orchestras have conductors that lead talented experts who make music together. Factories are command and control systems with line workers who are judged by their output and number of defects. Since before the inception of No Child Left Behind, we have increasingly neglected building the expertise of our teachers who are the musicians of our schools. They are professionals who need to be developed and need time together to rehearse so that they can make music.  Our future prosperity as a community is dependent on whether we will re-invest in their profession.

The orchestra metaphor is a difficult to realize because we’re trapped between two competing values: teacher professionalism and accountability. I’m sympathetic to the calls for evaluation systems that are reliable and valid and I’m not romantic about the past when so many students were neglected.  However, taking judgement out of teachers hands and giving it to a testing company causes more harm than good because it reinforces the way we have mechanized our schools. Our policy makers are skeptical of teachers, while other states are pushing them into the forefront of change by building their professional expertise. They are making them the key ingredient for accountability by investing in training and professional development aimed at making them the expert in evaluating student learning. We should learn from other states about how to make a system that bets on teachers as valid and reliable.

Ahead of the Curve:


Bringing Voices Together for Competency Education and Performance Assessment

July 7, 2017 by

Laurie Gagnon

This post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education on June 29, 2017.

Last week was a big week for all those who believe that we can create an education system that meets the need of each child in finding his or her pathway to a successful and productive life. In the field of personalized, competency education, CompetencyWorks and iNACOL’s National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, “convened 100 leading innovators to move the field of competency-based education through the next generation of ideas and actionable outcomes, with a specific focus on equity and diversity.” Closer to home, the Center for Collaborative Education, in partnership with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, released the 46th issue of Voices in Urban Education (VUE) focusing on performance assessment.

As the school year comes to a close, these two events have generated much to follow up on, connecting to work in progress and yet to come. Here are three initial thoughts.

Equity is at the center of this work. Equity needs to both be embedded in all that we do and to be pursued as an explicit intention of our work with its own learning agenda. Among the 100 attendees at the summit, specific attention was paid to racial diversity with 41% people of color participating. Equity was the center of the learning agenda for the Competency-Based Education Summit.

Designing for equity and from the student experience are inseparable from attaining a quality competency education system. If we want competency education to have different results than our existing sort and rank system, we need to pay attention to racial justice as a key element of equity. In our definitions of success for our students and graduates, we need to explore what it means to be a citizen of a democracy and a global world. Beyond college and career ready, we want every child to be ready for a fulfilling life and to thrive in a multicultural world. That being said, anti-racist education should be included as we redesign and redefine curriculum. Repeating the mantra “all children” is not enough. Colorblind doesn’t work. (more…)

What’s New in K-12 Competency-Based Education?

June 30, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicSchool Designs

  • Pittsfield School District shares their story of transformation toward student-centered learning in this video.
  • Chicago’s CICS West Belden embarked on a journey to implement personalized, competency-based learning. Learn more about their model here.
  • Navin Elementary School in Marysville Exempted Village School District is committed to personalized learning and doing what’s best for kids. Read an article and watch a video explaining their model.
  • Amidst opioid addiction and plummeting morale, learn how this one elementary school reinvented itself.
  • Some schools use changes in grading to begin shifting the focus on helping all students reach proficiency. Here is a story from North Carolina.


Teacher Perspectives

  • When first learning about competency education, teachers often have a host of questions: “Do I plan a different lesson plan for each child?” “How do I manage all the levels?” This article addresses these questions about the practicalities of teaching in competency-based learning systems.
  • A D.C. teacher laid out a bold vision to improve poor student performance in this article. Educators and readers of Washington City Paper have since agreed and believe personalized learning should replace traditional schooling.
  • A high school English teacher penned a response to a recent article in The Federalist which warns against competency education.

Thought Leadership


The Summit Starts Today

June 21, 2017 by

….and I’m thinking about all the incredible educators I’ve met over the past seven years and about all the bright and shiny faces of children I’ve seen enjoying and valuing their learning.

I’m also aware that our decision to only have 100 people (because it is a good size to bring in a diversity of perspectives while also small enough for people to feel safe to share and explore ideas and feel listened to) also leaves out so many of you, who would make invaluable contributions and benefit from the leadership development that takes place at these types of working meetings. Many of you participated in the Technical Advisory Groups, and we are forever grateful – they way-exceeded our expectations. Honestly, we never could have developed such rich ideas in such a short period of time on our own. Truly, the power of collaboration and collective knowledge can never be under-estimated.

So…I wanted to share two small things that can help you feel as if you are in Denver with us. First, we are using #CBESummit17 as our hashtag. Second, participants contributed to a playlist organized around the question, “What music captures your feelings when you think about competency education and making sure that students are learning?” The playlist now on Spotify is just so fun and upbeat – I had to share it right away. If you want to add songs, leave the artist and song in the comments!

New Hampshire Innovation Studios

June 5, 2017 by

This post and all pictures originally appeared at 2Revolutions.

Depending on the goals of our partners, Discover and Learn Days can take many formats. Innovation Studios are one example. Launched in partnership with the New Hampshire Department of Education and the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, Innovation Studios are half-day workshops at New Hampshire schools that focus on exposing educators and school leaders to innovation happening in their own backyard. Participants explore cutting-edge learning environments that foster personalization, competency-based learning, and student agency and then go on to design prototypes to bring these innovations back to their schools.

Public Will Through Community Engagement

The genesis of Innovation Studios came from New Hampshire’s state educational vision, called NH Vision 2.0, which laid out the foundational goals for the state in 2016 and beyond. One main goal of the vision, is to engage New Hampshire communities in transforming schools in ways that make sense for the kids and families attending them. The NH 2.0 visioning team of state officials, educators, district leaders, business and non-profit organizations, 2Rev, and others, realized that it’s more powerful to help communities create solutions that fit their distinct needs rather than coming to them with an answer. These studios are one mode for how this is unfolding—sparking and encouraging innovation by sharing ideas and approaches that are working in real schools with real kids.


Space for Exploration

Sessions begin with a range of design and learning activities, like this one, which is a play on the periodic table and helps participants identify the skills and dispositions where they shine and those areas where they need support. Creating transformative schools that go beyond academic competencies requires the educators in them to have experiences that tap into these essential skills and dispositions; activities like these are one way into that. After warming up, participants hear from the visiting school about the work they have been doing. Each studio has focused in on a different entry point to innovation: competency-based learning and assessments at Pittsfield Schools, project-based learning at Parker-Varney Elementary School, and student agency at Souhegan High School and Maple Street Magnet School. (more…)

The Future of Teacher Learning

May 26, 2017 by

This post first appeared at 2Revolutions on May 2, 2017.

“We should seek to be fellow students with the pupil, and should learn of, as well as with him, if we would be most helpful to him.”

– Henry David Thoreau

In all of our engagement at 2Rev, we work to create authentic, personalized learning experiences for educators that model the approach we seek for kids. This photo is from a recent design kick-off with the Bush Foundation in Minnesota. Read more about that work here. (From the 2Rev website.)

How do you learn? It’s a simple question…and yet, you have to think about it. Turn it over in your mind. It’s something I think about a lot. Rather than Calculus, or Shakespeare, or the effects of the American Civil War, consider cooking, or skiing, or teaching your five-year old daughter to ride a bike. How did you learn to do or teach those things? Did you watch others? Talk to an expert? Watch online videos incessantly or read articles and books? Did you listen to a lecture, or two or three? Try and try again? A combination of all or none? How you did it speaks to some important components of the learning process: motivation, learning style, and assessment, to understand how you know you’ve reached mastery of that stage of learning.

In schools and districts around the country, far too often we talk around rather than about this issue of how we, as humans, learn. It is amazing to me, the chasm between this question, which feels central to everything, and how we teach. This is the learning profession, right? The science and psychology of cognition can do a great deal to inform how we teach.

Over the past few years within our practice, how teachers learn has become a much more central focus in how we work. At 2Rev, our focus is building the knowledge and skills of educators – teachers and leaders – to transform student learning. In order to get there, though, our work passes squarely through their willingness and readiness as learners. I’d go even further to say that it is these dispositions of willingness and readiness to learn that drive how we approach creating the learning experience — grounding the work in what is relevant to them in their practice and meeting them where they are from a knowledge and skills perspective. We work hard to create a process of learning that models the destination; whether the focus is personalized, competency-based, or deeper learning. For example, if the content is performance assessments, educators should understand the concept and how to develop, score, and calibrate; but they should also have the experience of completing complex performance tasks as part of their learning experience. Mental models shift when we experience the content as part of the process.

As Ron Ritchhart, a researcher at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero says, “For classrooms to be cultures of thinking for students, schools must be cultures of thinking for teachers.” In order for educators to embody and facilitate new learning experiences, they must experience those for themselves and buy into their effectiveness and power. In Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel do a thorough walkthrough of the empirical research on how people learn, throwing many assumptions and ideas you hear passed around like folklore out the window. One quote that rang particularly true for us as we think about the experiences educators need to create and what they need to know to be able to do it. The authors write, mastery requires “both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it,” so how do we rethink teacher training to help them with both? (more…)

Thank You TAGs! We Couldn’t Have Done It Without You

May 19, 2017 by

We are busy putting the finishing touches on the four papers for the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. Each of the papers is incredibly rich (and each probably deserving of a book). The topics – equity, quality, policy, and meeting students where they are – are all huge issues that, if we can’t get some significant traction on, could cause trouble for us in the future.

We knew that we needed to tap into as much brain power and knowledge out there in order to really move the ideas forward. In order to prepare the papers we tried a new idea – Technical Advisory Groups or TAGs – that essentially crowd-sourced ideas.

We are so grateful to the people who participated in the TAGs. It was hard work and took time. Some folks would keep working right into the weekend. It was amazing how generous you all were – and I know I personally learned so much from you (and still processing some of the ideas).

Thanks, thanks and more thanks to…

Denise Tobin Airola, Amy Allen, Sharyl Allen, Thomas Arnett, Elliott Asp, Lexi Barrett, Mary Bellavance, Jan Bermingham, Elaine Berry, Michelle Bishop, Mandi Bozarth, Kelly Brady, Betsy Brand, Colleen Broderick, Michael Burde, Harvey Chism, Rose Colby, David Cook, Carisa Corrow, Wesley Daniels, Randy DeHoff, Emily Dustin, John Duval, Karla Esparza-Phillips, Theresa Ewald, Daniela Fairchild, Dawn Ferreyra, Julia Freeland Fisher, Pat Fitzsimmons, Amy Fowler, Dan French, Dale Frost, Cynthia Freyberger, Thomas Gaffey, Laurie Gagnon, Liz Glowa, Jim Goodell, Brittany Griffin, Jill Gurtner, Renee Hill, Anne Hyslop, Thomas (T.J.) Jumper, Ian Kearns, Kristen Kelly, Michael Klein, Jeremy Kraushar, Tim Kubik, Christine Landwehrle, Susan Lanz, Steve Lavoie, Paul Leather, Diana Lebeaux, Bethany Little, Scott Marion, Kathleen McClaskey, Christine McMillen, Caroline Messenger, Gretchen Morgan, Mark Muenchau, Nikolaus Namba, Joy Nolan, Ellen Owens, Lillian Pace, Susan Pecinovsky, Shawn Parkhurst, Alfonso Paz, Ace Parsi, Alexandra Pritchett, Jeff Renard, Patrick Riccards, David Ruff, Blair Rush, Bror Saxberg, Aubrey Scheopner Torres, Aaryn Schmuhl, Matt Shea, Don Siviski, Bob Sornson, Karen Soule, Andresse St. Rose, Dale Skoreyko, Katherine Smith, Andrea Stewart, Circe Stumbo, Vincent Thur, Barbara Treacy, Jonathan Vander Els, Brenda Vogds, Glenda Weber, Karen White, Mike Wolking, Jennifer Wolfe, Margery Yeager, Stacy Young, Bill Zima

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