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What’s Homework Got to Do with It?

March 11, 2014 by
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Alison Hramiec

At Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), a student-centered, competency-based high school, we host as many as 20 educators every month who want to see for themselves how competency-based education (CBE) works in the classroom. After a few years of working with schools transitioning from traditional (Carnegie units and grade levels based on age) to competency-based education, what strikes me is the assumption by educators in both systems that CBE is radically different from traditional teaching. It’s not.

At the beginning of this school year, I sat in the back of a new BDEA teacher’s humanities class. As he reviewed with students the previous night’s homework, he explained, “If you complete the first two questions correctly you will be competent in this assignment; if you complete three questions you will be highly competent.” I looked through the series of papers he collected and discovered that very few students had even tried the third question, some had not done the assignment at all, and others had answered with very short responses.

A question that invariably is asked of us when we present our CB system to educators is “How do you get students to complete homework and classwork in a competency-based system, if those elements are no longer part of your grading equation?” BDEA’s “grading” system asks students to show competence in specific benchmarks, which are created in alignment to the Common Core to measure skill. Using rubrics, teachers set clear expectations about what it means to demonstrate competence according to our school’s definition: demonstrating a skill multiple times, independently and using the correct vocabulary.

The shift in grading in a competency-based program is subtle and with a few adjustments to language, classroom systems and expectations, ownership of learning can be transferred from teacher to student both quickly and cleanly. The message we want to give students is that classwork and homework are the places to learn and to practice demonstrating new skills and content that are introduced in class. Classwork and homework help students build their skills so they can independently demonstrate their learning on an assessment in class. As teachers, we are transitioning students’ expectations of learning from a culture of taking a test to show what they don’t know, to taking a test to show what they do know.

So how does this happen at BDEA? First, we developed a comprehensive assessment system that places students at their learning edge upon entry to the school. This assessment process results in an individual road map for each student, giving them their pathway through courses and a projected date of graduation. (We enroll year round and graduate students four times a year.) In classes, teachers are transparent with students about the courses’ learning benchmarks, and they define the opportunities students will have to demonstrate competence of those benchmarks. As a way of illustrating the difference between traditional and competency-based learning, teachers describe homework and classwork as a means to build skill and practice, but do not count homework or seat time as part of the assessment equation. At certain points in a trimester, students are given assessments in each content area as an opportunity to demonstrate their skill level. If they cannot demonstrate competence on an assessment, they will keep practicing so when they try again (on a different version of that assessment), they can demonstrate competence independently.

Teachers hold students accountable to this expectation of competence by using a variety of systems. In many of our math classes, teachers require students to present a series of practice assignments (a combination of classwork and homework) before they can take an assessment. Teachers know their students, along with their strengths and challenges, and do not give assessments to students if they are clearly not prepared to take them. In other classes, teachers use a layered approach, where they have students complete a series of activities before moving to the next layer of complexity. In order to do the final assessment, students must show evidence that they accomplished prior assignments. Both of these teaching practices help to build students’ academic confidence and a culture of success.

Our teachers still “grade” student work. They give students feedback on assignments or tasks and indicate whether they demonstrated a benchmark ‘competently.’ However, demonstrating a benchmark one time does not mean the student receives credit for that benchmark; credit is given after a summative assessment, in which students must show that they can demonstrate competence independently and using the correct vocabulary. This creates a culture where students understand the value of editing, revising and redoing. There is no failure.

For some classes, a student may need to demonstrate ‘competence’ in a series of activities to meet one particular benchmark. These are often a series of scaffolded skill-building lessons, ending with a more summative exercise. Teachers also provide an extension activity for students driven to earn a rating of highly competent. It is important for teachers to find balance with the amount of practice that needs to be demonstrated before students are given a summative assessment. As teachers, our goal is to increase students’ complexity of thinking, not increase the amount of work they are doing.

Our humanities teacher and I sat and reviewed my observation notes. “How does answering two questions show competence?” I asked him. As we reflected on his classroom practice, we identified subtle changes that would add substance to the lesson. “What do you want students to demonstrate to show that they are competent on each benchmark? How do you want them to demonstrate that competence? How can we make that transparent for students?” We discussed ways in which he could add these expectations to his course syllabi, to his rubrics, and how they can be communicated regularly to students.

If the school community (or teacher) is both consistent and transparent with their expectations, it will not take long for students to see the connection between practice and competence. Students become more confident as learners and see the value of persistence and hard work. Ultimately, they become engaged in the process as they understand that they are in charge of their learning.

About the Author

Alison Hramiec Alison Hramiec has spent the last 15 years re-defining what school looks like for Boston’s most at risk high school population. Her tenure at Boston Day and Evening Academy began in 2004 as one of the founding science teachers for the Day program. In 2008 after completing her principal training and being mentored by the BDEA leadership team she was hired as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Through her leadership, she has helped bring clarity to the school’s competency-based program methodology, helping it become known nationwide. Alison is the lead designer of BDEA’s summer institute, REAL (Responsive Education Alternative Lab), which provides educators from around the country the tools to transform student learning to ‘student-centered’ learning. As of July 1st 2015, she is BDEA’s new Head of School.

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