CompetencyWorks is an online resource dedicated to providing information and knowledge about competency-based 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.

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Building 21’s Open Competencies, Rubrics, and Professional Development Activities

December 23, 2019 by
Building 21 Symposium Session

Building 21’s annual workshop at the Symposium. 100+ participants show the growing demand for CBE!

At Building 21, we have created an open resource called Learning What Matters (LWM) Competency Framework which includes all of our competencies and corresponding rubrics, which we call “continua.” Every year at the Aurora Institute Symposium, we facilitate a workshop introducing participants to our competency-based model. This workshop is great for folks new to competency-based education (CBE) but it’s also valuable for experienced CBE practitioners who want to learn more about our approach.

A common question we get from beginners is, “but what does it look like?” One of the ways to begin to answer this question is to show participants what grading looks like in a competency-based model and how it is different from traditional grading.

In our workshop, participants assume the role of a teacher, as we challenge traditional grading practices, followed by a demonstration of how Building 21 uses the LWM Competency Framework to change instruction and assessment in its schools. This workshop features the same activities we use with new teachers at our schools. We encourage all schools to facilitate these activities with their teachers even if they are not using the LWM competency framework.

Activity #1 – What Are My Assumptions About Grading?

We start the workshop by asking for volunteers for a mystery activity. Once secured and without telling them what they are volunteering for, we send them out of the room. The remaining participants are given the following set of instructions:

“Each volunteer will come into the room and dribble the ball for 15 seconds. When they are done, you will grade their dribbling on an online form.”

Similarly, in the hallway, volunteers are told:

“You will enter the room and dribble the ball for 15 seconds. When you are finished, the  participants, who remain in the room, will grade your dribbling.”

You can imagine that those instructions are inadequate for many people. We almost always get followup questions from both groups about grading criteria, grading scale, or location of the dribbling. And we purposefully do not answer those questions.

Coincidently, we usually have a basketball coach in the grading group. Also, the volunteers typically have a novice dribbler and a former/current basketball player. Upon completion of the dribbling and online grading, as a group, we scroll through a spreadsheet of the grading form responses while participants look for patterns in the data.

Grades from Dribbling ActivityThe table to the right shows a typical result for a single dribbler:

We ask, “When you look at this data, what do you wonder?”

In the discussion that follows, the group considers the following issues:

  • The incredible variability between graders, who are all viewing the same performance
  • The diverse grading methods
  • The lack of feedback to help the dribbler improve

Additionally, graders share feedback such as noticing that their “standards” changed as they saw more dribblers, and they wanted to go back and re-grade dribblers.

  • Sometimes dribblers share that as they saw their grade, they had an emotional response to the low grades.
  • There is usually a comment that goes something like this: “The dribbler was told to dribble for 15 seconds, and they all did that, so how can I give them anything less than an A?”
  • Graders wanted standardized rubrics shared across graders to limit variability.

This raises some really important questions for the group. What is the purpose of grading? Who is the grade for? What SHOULD be the purpose of grading. What is the value of an F? Is a D good enough for credit? Are low grades motivating?

As facilitators, we close this activity by posing a question to the group that guides our own professional work: “What if you can create a framework for student assessment where the purpose of any grade or rating is to give specific feedback to help the student improve and to measure their growth over time?” (more…)

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The Competency Train Pulls Into Kankakee: Common Start-up Challenges and Strategies

December 17, 2019 by

Kankakee School LogoAdapting Arlo Guthrie’s famous lyric was irresistible, but we should also know Kankakee for their devotion to competency-based education. Their session at the recent Aurora Institute Symposium on how to plan for common start-up challenges in high school redesign was full of valuable lessons for transitioning schools and districts.

The presenters from Kankakee School District 111 in Illinois were Felice Hybert, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, and Brent Johnston, Curriculum Coordinator. They were joined by two leaders from Building 21—Chip Linehan, Co-Executive Director, and Sandra Moumoutjis, Chief Instructional Designer. Building 21 partners with school districts to design, launch, and operate innovative schools, including a competency-based school in Pennsylvania that was featured on CompetencyWorks in 2016.

Building 21 LogoKankakee has partnered with Building 21 through their affiliate program, which supports schools and districts that are transitioning to competency-based education. Building 21 provides affiliate districts with their competency-based learning management system and data dashboards, technical consulting, leadership coaching, and teacher professional development. The partnership began when the Kankakee superintendent asked Hybert to write a grant application on competency-based education. She came across CompetencyWorks, read the blog posts on Building 21, found helpful resources on their website, and contacted Tom Gaffey, Building 21’s chief instructional technologist.

Kankakee started working with Building 21 in March of 2018 and began implementation with students in the fall of 2018. Each incoming class of 9th-graders will use the new approach, so the transition will be complete in four years. During the first two years, Building 21 has been an essential resource that Kankakee has “called constantly” for consultation. There was a two-week teacher “boot camp” for extensive professional development during the first summer, and now they have a daily 45-minute period (from 2:20 to 3:05 p.m.) when the students leave and teachers collaborate. This is made possible in part by a state waiver of student seat-time requirements.

Here are three sets of lessons learned that Kankakee and Building 21 shared in their Symposium session.

Start with Adults, not Students

Kankakee learned that any meaningful change begins with changing adult mindsets. The teachers’ thinking from their own traditional education got in the way of envisioning change. The rationale for change was clear, because the high school was already a low-performing school, and teachers knew that many students were leaving without what they needed to be successful. Many teachers agreed that the school was “running a credit-recovery factory,” and they knew that the rates of graduation, attendance, and teacher retention were all well below state averages.

Transformation efforts focused on the philosophy and rationale of competency-based education. Kankakee and Building 21 leaders emphasized the need to embrace risk-taking, vulnerability, ambiguity, and an iterative cycle of trying new strategies, experiencing success and failure, and making additional changes. They affirmed the messiness of working through change at the classroom, department, school, and district levels. Staff members were encouraged to adopt a stance that said “I don’t know the answer to that—this change doesn’t come all wrapped up in a binder. Let’s figure it out together.” They discussed the inevitability of meeting resistance and how to avoid backsliding once things got hard. In short, the school adopted a bias toward action and continuous improvement. (more…)

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Deep Community Partnerships Lead to Authentic Project-Based Learning at Oakland USD

December 12, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at Next Generation Learning Challenges on August 27, 2019.

How to create authentic Project-Based Learning? In Oakland Unified, community partners and teachers are working together from the very beginning to design projects.

Young Whan Choi

Young Whan Choi

Teachers are often asked to make sure that their project-based learning (PBL) units are authentic. In response, a teacher might decide to teach a PBL unit where students are putting Christopher Columbus on trial. Doesn’t it sound more exciting than simply learning the facts of the history? They might even ramp up the authenticity points by bringing in a judge or lawyer to preside over the trial.

This “expert audience” approach does add an element of authenticity. Teachers are going above and beyond the traditional curriculum when they bring in a community expert as an audience for student projects.

Teachers in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), however, are exploring even deeper partnerships with the professional community as a way to ensure that PBL projects are authentic. These partnerships begin at the earliest moments of project design, well before the students set foot in the classroom. There are many inspiring examples of what might be called a “client”-driven model of PBL. San Diego Unified has been scaling these kinds of projects in their Linked Learning schools while here in the bay area, one of the most promising models is Y-PLAN—an initiative out of the Center for Cities and Schools at UC Berkeley. In Y-PLAN, students work on real problems of urban and regional planning.

 

 

A recent example from Y-PLAN occurred when students at Oakland High School in the Law and Social Justice Academy worked with an affordable housing developer. They visited the site of the proposed project and then conducted research to find out what the community would like to see in the housing development. For the final presentation, the students created proposals that they shared when the developer came to their classroom.

The key difference in this approach to authentic PBL is that the community partner engages with teachers from the beginning to shape the project. With this goal in mind, OUSD organized a “community partner engagement” day during our weeklong PBL Institute in June. Over 40 different partner organizations and individuals joined 120 middle and high school teachers on the second day of the institute.

OUSD teachers gathered at MetWest High School for the Project Based Learning Institute

OUSD teachers gathered at MetWest High School for the Project Based Learning Institute. (Courtesy of Greg Cluster)

Before the teachers showed up, we asked them to give us information on the PBL project they were hoping to plan during the institute and if they already had a community partner that they wanted to work with. Our planning team of seven central office leaders then invited relevant partners like public radio station KQED, Alameda County Public Health Department, Red Bay Coffee, Oakland Public Works, and the Museum of Children’s Art.

On the morning of the “community partner engagement” day, teachers prepared a project pitch composed of three slides—the final product students would create, a driving question, and a key learning outcome. In the afternoon, partners and teachers met to discuss the PBL project idea. (more…)

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

December 6, 2019 by

What's New ImageAurora Institute News and Reports

  • iNACOL is now the Aurora Institute, reflecting our evolution to focusing on systems change and education innovation through student-centered approaches to next-generation learning. A video and more information are here. CompetencyWorks – which was launched in 2012 with iNACOL as the lead organization – will continue as an initiative of the Aurora Institute.
  • The Aurora Institute published What Is Competency-Based Education? An Updated Definition and a companion podcast. The report updates the 2011 definition in many ways, including new elements focused on equity, student agency, and different pathways. It also provides belief statements, FAQs, and resources to contextualize and deepen the definition.
  • The Aurora Institute also published Aligning Education Policy with the Science of Learning and Development. We know more than ever about how students learn best, but education policy hasn’t kept pace with these advances. The report explores research and offers recommendations to align policy with what we know about student learning.

Resources

  • In A Path Forward to Educational Equity, Karla Vigil and Emily Abedon of the Equity Institute share a framework they have developed and additional suggestions to guide teachers and leaders looking to become fluent in multicultural education and more culturally responsive in their practice. Also see their Culturally Responsive Walkthrough Tool.
  • The Student-Centered Learning Continuum provides a rich description of the characteristics of high-quality, student-centered learning. A series of rubrics provide clear and measurable ways to assess the depth of the four key SCL tenets—that learning is personalized, competency-based, anytime/anywhere, and student-owned—in an educational setting. The research-based continuum was developed by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the RAND Corporation.

Professional Learning

  • A webinar on Scaling Up Deeper Learning Approaches in Public Schools will be offered by the Learning Policy Institute and the Alliance for Excellent Education on December 11 at 2:00pm ET. Experts from the field and researchers will discuss the challenges and opportunities educators and district leaders face in expanding deeper learning. The Assessment for Learning Project will be holding a National Conference February 11-13 in San Diego with four practice-based strands on formative assessment, performance assessment, exhibitions & defense of learning, and graduate portraits. The goal is to reframe thinking about assessment and enabling conditions while grounding learning in proven practice.
  • Global Online Academy is offering a new online program, “Competency-Based Learning: From Theory to Practice,” in which teachers will work with a coach to create a personalized pathway through five key shifts toward implementing competency-based learning. Other upcoming GOA courses focus on rethinking the roles of students, teachers, time, and place.
  • Jane Szot of Distinctive Schools in Chicago shares her network’s Personalized Learning Innovation Fellows model that supports teachers in leading change toward personalized learning. The fellows pilot new strategies, drive efforts emerging from the network’s partnership with LEAP Innovations, and model exemplary practices in their own classrooms.

Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks. Follow @eliot_levine

 

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The Challenges of a Large, Diverse School District and the Promises of Performance Assessment Micro-credentials

December 2, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education on November 13, 2019.

Backpack With Micro-credentials Inside

In our large, urban school district—Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky—we are challenging ourselves to do more than ask students to bubble in circles to “prove” what they know. We are expecting students to demonstrate and provide evidence of their abilities, skills, and dispositions. We know we are not alone. Across the world, schools are creating profiles of learners and portraits of graduates to describe the aspirations of their students. Schools are organizing exhibitions, demonstrations, presentations, and defenses of learning. Schools are planning learning experiences that are engaging and relevant, and that recognize that a person’s agency grows when their work is applied to the world.

At the more than 150 Jefferson County Public Schools, this has proven to be a worthy and large task. We have set the bar high—we want to ensure that every student, every year:

  • will create multiple, high-quality, ideally interdisciplinary products or performances to add to their digital portfolio, which in JCPS we call the Backpack of Success Skills.
  • will experience meaningful learning equitably no matter their ability or background.
  • will be empowered to determine the evidence upon which their abilities and dispositions will be judged.

As soon as the bar was set, the challenge was obvious to us. Normally, our students did not have a wide body of evidence to include in their “Backpack of Success Skills” or to use in a presentation or defense of their learning. They had too few meaningful learning experiences to refer to when discussing their Success Skills. There wasn’t much evidence of students being the agents in their own learning, of meeting the aspirations set by the Success Skills.

The Challenges

This has raised a problem of practice for teachers all across the district: How do we design learning experiences and assessments that require and create the opportunity for students to produce evidence of learning and growth?

And a problem of practice for district leaders: How do we support teachers in this design, in ways that do not undermine the principles of agency and authenticity that we know under-gird all constructivist approaches to teaching and learning, including this newest iteration – deeper learning.

(more…)

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But What About The Test?

November 25, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at the Mastery Collaborative on June 11, 2019.

Christy and Student With Laptop

Christy works with a student at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, NYC.

How can high-stakes testing “live” in a setting that also uses mastery-based grading? Project-based learning? Culturally responsive practices and content? Too often, innovative school design is thought of as difficult or impossible to implement amidst heavy testing requirements. But success on standardized exams is not incompatible with mastery-based grading and project-based learning. In fact, I have seen in my fifteen years in education how these two innovative approaches facilitate a wide range of success at schools.

I often hear from and read about practitioners who worry about tests, especially high-stakes tests. It is not their fault. As practitioners, we receive mixed messages with one message usually the loudest: the test is the most important, the test is the data, the test defines your teaching, the test, the test, the test.

There is a lot of valuable research and data that underscores the lack of authenticity and inequity inherent in high-stakes standardized testing. But, I hope to provide a perspective of an educator doing innovation work “on the ground” while addressing the reality of standardized tests. To be clear, this piece is not advocating for standardized tests, rather it’s a demonstration that high-stakes testing does not erase the feasibility of innovative practices like mastery-based learning.

While we wait for large-scale change in states where high-stakes testing is prevalent, replicable innovations are happening in small pockets across the country. It is possible to destigmatize “teaching to the test” when it becomes teaching skills that are prevalent on the test.

I am a teacher and instructional coach at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria (TYWLS), a grade 6-12 public school in the New York City Department of Education. Our school is just one example of a “testing” school that also uses innovative practices, including a whole-school, mastery-based grading system. Our students find success on the multiple New York State exams and AP exams they take each year. We have been able to find a successful balance between the tension of innovation and standardized testing.

As a Living Lab site for the NYC DOE’s Mastery Collaborative, we often host visitors and present at conferences about our whole-school mastery-based grading system. At every session, there are folks who quickly reveal a seemingly fixed mindset about the importance of “the test” as well as the challenges testing presents. We try to make the connection for practitioners in traditional settings that they likely do this type of work already by analyzing what’s on the test and teaching and reteaching skills and content. What is different about planning mastery-based curriculum using a project-based methodology that includes a high-stakes test is that we prepare for, but go well beyond, the test. (more…)

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Building a District Innovation Ecosystem Accelerates School Transformation

November 19, 2019 by

Four Henry County Students in Matching T-ShirtsThe Henry County Schools, a large suburban district just south of Atlanta, has spent six years transforming their district of 50 schools and 43,000 students toward personalized learning. In a session at the recent Aurora Institute Symposium, Henry County personnel and partners discussed reorganizing district functions to create an “innovation ecosystem” to facilitate the transformation.

The presenters were Karen Perry, the district’s Director of Personalized Learning; Aaryn Schmuhl, VP of Program Design and Innovation at the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement; and Jeffrey Tsang, Founding Partner of Building Blocks Education. All three have been deeply involved in the district’s “2020 Vision for Personalized Learning” redesign process and shared many of the district’s strategies and insights from this work.

Building a District Culture of Innovation

District design often evolves organically, but transforming a district requires attending deliberately to the culture of innovation. Everyone needs to hear from district leadership and the school board, “We’re about to about to embark on innovative work that’s intentionally different, and it’s going to be challenging.”

Several conditions are required for this message to take hold. First, the district and schools need to pour resources and efforts into building trust, because engaging in change requires trust. Second, it’s essential to establish and communicate a “north star” and have clear discussions about what’s needed to move toward it. For Henry County, the north star has been building student agency. Many of the district’s innovation strategies have changed over time, but the north star has stayed the same.

Third, decision makers across the district need to be meaningfully included. An inclusive process may slow down change in the short run, but it enables deeper change in the long run. Over a period of years, Henry County often gathered key decision-makers from all departments around a table at the district office and framed discussions as “Here’s a problem we need to solve; how can we do that?” rather than “We know what changes are needed; here’s what you need to do.”

This level of inclusion is essential because adopting an entirely new school model—unlike simply adopting a new textbook—involves every district department. Changes required from different departments could include:

  • Information Technology – Adopting new learning management systems.
  • Communications – Conveying the rationale for reforms to a range of key stakeholders.
  • Student Services – Exploring implications for students with special needs.
  • Facilities – Creating different types of learning spaces.
  • Human Resources – Recruiting new hires with relevant skills, dispositions, and training to build the pipeline.

A Framework for Building the Ecosystem

Henry County developed a valuable framework for building the innovation ecosystem based on three sets of school needs and two sets of district actions. The three school needs are: (more…)

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CompetencyWorks Releases Report Updating Definition of Competency-Based Education

November 14, 2019 by

Report CoverToday, the CompetencyWorks initiative of the Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL) released What Is Competency-Based Education? An Updated Definition. The report updates the 2011 working definition, which helped to build the field and create common understandings of key elements in competency-based systems among stakeholders. The definition has been used by schools to support design and implementation, by states to establish supporting policies and a common vision, and by national organizations to provide frameworks for networks of states, districts, and schools to discuss their initiatives and build shared understanding.

The 2011 working definition was developed by more than 100 education innovators at the first National Summit for K-12 Competency-Based Education. Several years later, feedback indicated that it should be updated to reflect a deeper understanding of key issues and developments in the field. The new report presents the updated definition, which was developed with extensive input from field surveys, invited attendees at the second National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education in 2017, and a Technical Advisory Group of more than 40 experts in the field.

Updated Definition

The updated 2019 definition of competency-based education is:

  1. Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
  2. Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.
  3. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  4. Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
  5. Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
  6. Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.
  7. Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.

(more…)

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Student Thinking Made Visible: Assessing Transferable Skills With Brief Performance Tasks

November 12, 2019 by

Working on Bridge Building TaskCompetency-based education emphasizes learning not only academic knowledge but also skills and dispositions. These include transferable learning skills such as problem solving and effective reasoning that enable people to perform effectively in different settings and apply knowledge and skills to different tasks. A session at the recent Aurora Institute Symposium introduced valuable strategies for assessing these skills. The tools and concepts they shared could also inform assessments of other lifelong learning skills.

The session was led by Director of Curriculum and Instruction Jeff Heyck-Williams and 5th-Grade Teacher Katie Mancino from Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC, a school in the EL Education network. They emphasized that teachers typically prioritize whatever will get assessed, so it’s important to assess lifelong learning skills.

Rubrics for Critical Thinking Skills

The rubrics presented for assessing problem solving, effective reasoning, and decision making serve the essential function of providing both students and teachers with a clear picture of what quality looks like. This enables teachers to plan instruction oriented toward deeper learning with these targets in mind.

The session focused on assessing problem-solving skills, defined as “The ability to identify the key questions in a problem, develop possible plans for solving, follow through on those plans, and evaluate both the success of the plan and the solution.” The corresponding rubric has five components: Identifies What Is Known, Defines the Problem, Generates Possible Solution Strategies, and Evaluates Solutions. The table below contains the rubric for one of these components; the full rubric is here.

Problem Solving Rubric for One Component

Three principles guided their rubric design process: (1) Rubrics define the construct that you want to teach and assess for students and teachers; (2) Each component on the rubric needs to be mutually exclusive but also narrow to a single dimension; and (3) The rubric should define a a continuum of growth from notice to expert.

Performance Tasks to Assess Critical Thinking

With the rubric in place, the question remains of what and how to assess. Two Rivers accomplishes this with brief performance tasks that are specific to the skill being assessed. EL Education believes teachers should experience the educational approach they plan to implement with students, so unsurprisingly we were led through a problem-solving performance task. In short, small groups were given two cups, some paper, rubber bands, paper clips, and blue tape. Brief, clear instructions launched groups into creating a bridge with a maximum span using the materials provided.

For this performance task, students at Two Rivers are assessed on how well they make their thinking visible, not how good their bridge is. This is done in writing on a handout, although teachers can scribe for students who need writing support. Before starting to build bridges, our first step was a “KWI” (Know, Want, Ideas) exercise in which we had to write about “What do you KNOW?,” “What do you WANT to know?,” and “What are some IDEAS you have about how to solve the problem?”

(more…)

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New Resources and Future Directions in Competency-Based Education

November 7, 2019 by

The first part of our annual reflection focused on the field’s evolution and where we are now. This second part looks at how our understanding is deepening and future directions for building and strengthening the field of K-12 competency-based education.

How is our understanding deepening?

Seeing competency-based schools in action and hearing about their successes and challenges is deeply illuminating. There are a growing number of schools and districts to learn from about all stages of planning and implementation. Many of these are innovative, newer schools and districts, such as those shown in the image below from our annual strategic reflection webinar. Many more are featured in our summary of blog posts from visits to competency-based schools in 26 states.

Innovative New Schools and Organizations

An impressive array of new reports, books, and other publications have also emerged to deepen our understanding of competency-based education since 2010. New resources from the past two years are shown in the three figures below. If there are publications you think should be added, please email me or mention them in the Comments box below.

New Resources 2018-19, 1 of 3

New Resources 2018-19, 2 of 3

New Resources 2018-19, 3 of 3

(more…)

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