CompetencyWorks is an online resource dedicated to providing information and knowledge about competency education in the K-12 education system. Drawing on lessons learned by innovators and early adopters, CompetencyWorks shares original research, knowledge and a variety of perspectives through an informative blog with practitioner knowledge, policy advancements, papers on emerging issues and a wiki with resources curated from across the field. CompetencyWorks also offers a blog on competency education in higher education so that the sectors can learn from each other and begin to align systems across K-12, higher education and the workplace.

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Increasing Student Trajectories

November 20, 2012 by

from Making Mastery Work

Students Receive Rapid, Differentiated Support – that’s the fourth element of the working definition of competency education.  Without support, competency education wouldn’t be any different than the traditional A-F system, which tolerates students not learning very much or just enough to pass on to the next grade.

For anyone planning the transition to competency education, an essential step is to have an intentional strategy for providing support. Start by asking yourself two questions:

  • How are we going to support the students that don’t reach proficiency the first time they encounter a new skill or content?
  • What is our strategy for supporting students that enter our school significantly behind or with gaps in their academic skills?

Don’t wait to think about it. You can learn from Andrew Skarzynksi, Principal at Medical Professions and Teacher Preparation Academy:

“In hindsight, we would have spent more time identifying additional instructional opportunities for students, and examining the role of anytime, anyplace education. Due to a variety of factors, such as academic need, different learning backgrounds, and a lack of prior exposure to concepts such as ‘the historian’s craft,’ we discovered a distinct need to increase many students’ learning trajectories. We would now incorporate more alternative learning approaches, such as the flipped classroom and extended day learning. We initially began with a summer academy and realized early on that we need to incorporate more opportunities for ‘any time, any place education.'” (more…)

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Five Things That Changed At My School When We Adopted Competencies

November 15, 2012 by

Jumping into the deep end of competency education

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.

The second best time is now.”

This ancient Chinese proverb sums up my view on why, just three years ago, it was time for my school, Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, to stop “talking” about making the change to a competency-based grading and reporting model, and why it was time to start “doing it.” With a leap of faith in support of the latest educational research from authors Colby, Marzano, O’Connor, Reeves, Stiggins, and Wormeli, our school community “jumped into the deep end of the pool” of high school redesign. Looking back on this now, I firmly believe it was the best thing we could have done. While we haven’t solved all of our issues yet, I think we are well on our way toward realizing our vision of “learning for all, whatever it takes.”

As you might expect, our leap of faith into the deep end of the pool didn’t happen without some advanced strategic planning and groundwork. In the years leading up to our jump, teachers in my school spent a great deal of time developing common course-based competencies and making sure they were aligned to the New Hampshire Grade Span Expectations (GSEs) and ultimately the common core. They worked in teams to develop common assessments and common rubrics to measure student learning. As a school, we talked about the importance of focusing our professional work on student learning and mastery of competencies. Still, we were only scratching the surface of our potential. We knew that if we truly wanted to impact student learning on a large-scale in our school, we were going to have to operate differently.

Last year, we developed a blueprint to help us become a premiere high school in New Hampshire. We identified three “pillars” of success, and we recognized that if we could do these three things well, then everything else would fall into place:

Pillar One:  Our LEARNING COMMUNITIES work interdependently to advance student learning and academic performance for which we are collectively responsible and mutually accountable.

Pillar Two:  Our STUDENTS ARE ENGAGED in learning tasks and performance assessments that accurately measure learning and mastery of competency.

Pillar Three:  Our community fosters a POSITIVE SCHOOL CULTURE AND CLIMATE for each of our stakeholders that promotes respect, responsibility, ambition, and pride.

Since the adoption of our pillar model, we have made some great strides toward becoming a premiere school. Here are five ways our school has changed since we went to a competency-based model: (more…)

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Mud Season and Modules

November 14, 2012 by

from Making Mastery Work

One of the things that Making Mastery Work: A Close-Up View of Competency Education brings into focus is the number of design choices competency-based schools and districts have in deciding how to shape their models.  For example, there are lots of design choices about time. Yes—all of the schools share a belief that time is a variable and not a constant. Yet, how they begin to create flexible use of time varies substantially.

Below are two examples from Making Mastery Work about how two schools organize time for students.  I realized while preparing this post (ahh, writing is such a great way to force deeper understanding!) that it’s not an issue of just more time or less time, extended or expanded time. There are other dimensions such as constructing “time” for application of learning including project-based, problem-based, and fieldwork.  There are also dimensions about how much time is expected between steps, such as modules, trimesters, semesters, and transitional time to provide flexibility.  It seems to me that we should be able to figure out some common language to expedite our thinking strategically and through multiple dimensions in how we use time.

Casco Bay High School, Portland Maine:  To facilitate student access to the power of collective learning, Casco Bay organizes its students into grade-level cohorts, and its school day has recognizable bell schedule with block periods. The block periods make it possible for students to undertake the deep thinking work required by Expeditions while also providing flexibility to accommodate student learning outside the classroom, such as fieldwork. … At two points during the school year, Casco Bay offers “Intensives” in which students study one topic for a number of days. Intensive topics range from Bridge-Building Engineering to Winter Sports. A smaller portion of students also use this time to continue working toward mastery of learning targets they have not yet achieved. (more…)

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Making Mastery Work

November 13, 2012 by

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) is releasing Making Mastery Work: A Close-Up View of Competency Education today. You can find the report here. The report, authored by Nora PriestAntonia Rudenstine, and Ephraim Weisstein, examines several issues through the collected experiences of the ten schools that participated in the Proficiency-based Pathways Project (PBP)  with co-funding from NMEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The PBP grantees are Big Picture Learning, Boston Day and Evening Academy, Diploma Plus, Expeditionary Learning, MSAD #15 otherwise known as Gray -New Gloucester District in Maine, National Center for the Education and the Economy, and Vergennes School District.

Making Mastery Work provides insights into how the schools, all of which have different approaches and are at different stages of development as a competency-based model, are aligning their schools around learning. Topics include the creation of a transparent mastery and assessment system, time flexibility, curriculum and instruction, leadership for competency education development, and the role of data and information technology in a competency-based education model. We’ll be offering webinars in January – March 2013 on these topics so you can hear from the innovators directly. Or check out the wiki to see examples of the tools they use. Stay tuned!

In Making Mastery Work, the authors provide the key characteristics of competency education.  This is an important addition to our understanding as it helps us to better comprehend the nature of competency education and guide us in implementation.

Key Characteristics of Competency Education

1) Students progress at own pace

  • Transparent system for tracking and reporting progress;
  • Flexible, learner-centric use of time, often beyond standard school day and year; and
  • Explicit methods for providing additional support or opportunities for learning

2) Graduation upon demonstration of mastery of a comprehensive list of competencies

  • Courses designed around set of competencies aligned with Common Core State Standards;
  • “Credit” awarded upon mastery of competencies associated with course or smaller module, based on summative assessments; and
  • Transparent system for tracking and reporting progress

3) Teachers skilled at facilitating differentiated learning environments

  • Frequent formative assessments provide real-time feedback to students and teachers on progress toward competencies and help guide instruction; and
  • Development of robust approaches to supporting students as they move through competencies, especially those who progress slowly

What do you think?  Are these the key characteristics that you think about? Are there others you think should be included?


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Application of Learning: It Doesn’t Have To Be An Outhouse

November 12, 2012 by

We know that mastery happens when skills or knowledge are applied in new situations or contexts.  As adults, we have these natural opportunities all the time. For example, I’m reminded of the time I figured out that I could grind my own quinoa flour using a hand-held coffee grinder, just like I had learned to do with oats for oat flour.

In school however, we need to start making them a regular part of our student’s lives.  Asking students to apply skills and knowledge from their classes in new contexts is essential in ensuring that our students have mastered the skills and knowledge we have mapped out in our learning targets and learning progressions. We can ask our students to put their skills and knowledge to use, and it can be simple to do.

An application of learning, as my principal Bill Zima says, doesn’t have to be an outhouse. It doesn’t have to be someplace we are hesitant to go; nor does it have to be a huge, complicated project, like actually building an outhouse. The meaning of the word apply is, simply, to put to use.  Here is a process for working out how to get your students to put their skills and knowledge to use:

Step One:  Go back to the learning target(s) from your unit of study and review the reasoning level (see my earlier posts for a brush up on learning targets and reasoning levels). This is important!  You don’t want to find yourself suddenly asking students to apply skills and knowledge in a new context while using a higher reasoning level. (more…)

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Direct Instruction? That’s the Old Way

November 7, 2012 by

I met with a group of teachers yesterday for our monthly check in. The group is made up of individuals that willingly volunteered to try some of the processes and procedures of a customized classroom. They are omnivorous learners. They are the energetic group that is willing to jump in, give it a try, reflect, and then adjust. They are not concerned about building the airplane while it is flying. They have absolute confidence they can hit the exhaust vent and blow up the Death Star. . .most likely finding Obi-Wan Kenobi’s constant reminders as irritating; Yea, yea I got it. The Force. But, even with their voracious appetite and willingness to find the path through the ambiguity, they can sometimes talk themselves astray.

The issue this month: the role of direct instruction. Somehow, somewhere, someway, the idea that a teacher should talk directly with students has become part of the “old way.” The idea that students need to “learn on their own” is the new way. We want learners who can figure this stuff out. They need to struggle, ask questions, and seek those answers using their own reasoning. “Direct instruction is so old school. I need to get out of their way.”

This was not the first time I had heard that customized learning meant stepping out of students’ way. I was just surprised that it was being mentioned by my colleagues. I had worked hard to not allow that idea to sink in. I firmly believe that the direct instruction of material from the expert (the teacher) to the novice (the learner) is a legitimate and effective means of the transfer of information, data, facts, and skills. While teachers should refrain from giving out answers and allow students the opportunity to struggle, they need to be in the middle, monitoring, prompting, and guiding during all steps of the learning process, especially as the students begin to construct relevance from classroom lessons. It’s what I like to call the “input” step of the learning process. (more…)

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What Else Could They Learn? Part II

November 6, 2012 by

Part I  asked, “How can we expand the depth, breadth, and process of high school learning?” and answered with STEM-related Credit Flexibility possibilities. Today we look at how CreditFlex can further customize learning for individual students at the same time it broadens the collective learning of the national cohort.

“The United States is not going to compete with the rest of the world in terms of cheap labor or cheap raw materials. If we are going to compete productively with the rest of the world, it’s going to be in terms of creativity and innovation.” – Dana Gioia

”The United States is not going to compete with the rest of the world in terms of cheap labor or cheap raw materials. If we are going to compete productively with the rest of the world, it’s going to be in terms of creativity and innovation.”      – Dana Gioia

It’s been six years since many of us gathered across from the White House for Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children. For all the mixture of concern, no one knew that a deep recession, budget cuts, and more testing were soon to make a bad situation worse. (more…)

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Be Reasonable!

November 5, 2012 by

Defining Targets With Reason

In an earlier post I talked about what a learning target is, and how to write one.  Whenever I run a PD session about learning targets, someone points out that it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure “being skilled at” or “understanding.”  I am sure some of you were left with that same sentiment after reading Target Practice.

You know what?  You are right!  A learning target on its own is not enough. A target needs to be defined in terms of reasoning levels and foundational knowledge.  Without doing so, we are in danger of pontificating on and on about what it means to understand… and setting a college level bar for our sixth graders!  Here is a step-by-step on how to set an appropriate reasoning level for a learning target. This video shows me working through the process.

1. Select a target
You may already have a set of targets, or you can create them based on your current standards.

2. Think about what you want students to do in order to show you that they “get” it
You already do this.  We’re just making the process transparent so that we can be more precise in our measurement of targets.  Think about what you have had students do in the past.  Keep in mind their age and developmental stage.  Consider what is reasonable and realistic.  Take into account where they came from in their learning, and where they are headed.


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What Else Could They Learn? Part I

November 2, 2012 by

How can we expand the depth and breadth of high school learning?

Credit Flexibility offers a vast range of opportunities to engage and motivate students. It can customize learning for individual students. At the same time it can broaden a cohort’s collective learning.

While the states are still trying to figure out competency-based learning strategies, Ohio has in place a law that essentially permits every HS student to elect their own strategy of learning. Think about that.

As the knowledge needed by a skilled worker and informed citizen keeps climbing, as college grads increasingly lack in the breadth a liberal education should entail, here’s a big opportunity for students to dig in. By using Credit Flex to unbundle learning, students can increase their High School experience, add more subjects, or explore some to greater depth. (more…)

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Kentucky Summit on Competency Education

November 1, 2012 by

Lt. Governor Abramson

Earlier this week, people across the state of Kentucky convened for a Summit on Competency Education sponsored by the Kentucky Department of Education and the National Governors association.  I thought it was worth pulling out how they defined competency education as it both succinct and reinforces the relationship with student-centered and personalized learning:

Competency-based education is a method that focuses on mastering specific skills or standards rather than completing course work over a specific period of time. It offers opportunities for all students and is student-centered. This type of education features personalized learning, which takes different learning styles into account by providing different avenues to learn the same content.

Competency-based education can motivate passive students who do not learn well in traditional classrooms because they do not see the curriculum as relevant to their needs. Students can earn college credit while still in high school, and they learn how to learn, a skill they need throughout life.

Topics at the Summit included the role of expanded learning opportunities, the role of career pathways to accelerate student learning towards college and career readiness and higher education. Scheduled speakers included:

  • Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson
  • State Senator Jimmy Higdon
  • Rose Colby, author of Off the Clock
  • Paul Leather, New Hampshire Deputy Commissioner of Education
  • Tom Shelton, superintendent of the Fayette County school district
  • Lu Young, superintendent of the Jessamine County school district
  • Jay K. Box, chancellor of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System
  • Robert L. King, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education
  • Elizabeth Grant, chief of staff in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education
  • Michael Cohen, president of Achieve

We’d love to hear more about the Summit and next steps for Kentucky! Or if you want to get a sense you can read the twitter feed.



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