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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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Interstellar Time at Boeckman Middle School

June 24, 2019 by

This is the fourth post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Eliot and Students at BoeckmanFarmington’s emphasis on teacher agency means that competency-based education is evolving in many different forms across the district. Boeckman Middle School has developed Interstellar Time, which brings a competency-based approach to selected subjects and grade levels.

During the 2018-19 school year, Interstellar Time served 90 7th-graders during a four-and-a-half hour period every other day focused on language arts, math, and social studies. During the 2019–20 school year, the initiative will expand to include 8th-graders in language arts, social studies, and art classes. These academic subjects reflect the teachers who wanted to participate. The expansion to 8th grade will mean that students in the 7th-grade Interstellar cohort will be able to continue their involvement in this approach to learning for a second year.

Boeckman Principal Megan Blazek explained, “Our mission is to provide an environment where learners become owners of their learning, informed problem solvers, and reflective goal setters.” The Interstellar Time website explains that the personalized learning innovation “allows learners to schedule time to work on their specific learning needs at any time, any place, any path, any pace. Our goal is to develop strong learners and leaders—learners who are able to think flexibly, critically, and creatively as well as communicate and collaborate with others.”

Every student has an iPad, and teachers build playlists of learning activities and assessments aligned to competencies that students need to demonstrate. These playlists are provided via the Schoology learning management system, and students’ progress on demonstrating evidence of competencies is tracked with an individualized Google sheet. Next year they will move away from the Google sheet and use Campus Learning, which is an add-on to Infinite Campus. Some learning activities are carried out on iPads, but others take place on paper or through group activities.

(more…)

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Shifting the English Department to Competency-Based Assessment

June 20, 2019 by

This is the third post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Beginning Approaching Competent ExtendingThe English department at Farmington High School has made major shifts toward competency-based curriculum and instruction, as described in the previous post. This has required parallel shifts in assessment, with greater use of formative assessment and competency-based grading.

“Much of the assessment we do is formative, and we treat that more like practice and skill development,” explained one of the four English teachers who have been making this shift. “So what I’ve found in my classroom is that the kids who might not love English class, or might struggle with it—now instead of seeing a 3 out of 10 on a writing assignment, they see on their rubric that they’re ‘approaching’ the competent level. That has allowed us to have those authentic conversations when we’re doing our conferencing, like ‘Hey, if you just fix these one or two things on the rubric, you can move up into that competent level.’”

“It causes a complete mind-shift, where students don’t just shut down after a couple weeks. Now they understand, ‘there’s no tricks to this—at first we’ll be practicing new skills, and then we’ll assess where you are at the end of the unit.’ And that’s really freeing for a lot of kids. It has kept them in the game. They keep getting a little bit better, and then they’re ready to show how they’ve improved.”

Another teacher said that shifting to formative assessment and competency-based grading is great for the teachers too. “It’s awesome, because you see the lightbulb go off the first time the kid comes up and they think they’re going to get yelled at or told that they’re doomed—and instead they’re amazed that they have the opportunity to improve a few things we discussed and then move up to the next level on the rubric. That’s been pretty awesome.” (more…)

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Shifting the English Department to Competency-Based Learning

June 18, 2019 by

This is the second post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to other posts are provided at the end of this article.

The administration of the Farmington Area Public Schools believes that their strategic plan, combined with “radical trust” in teacher agency, has led personalized learning to flourish in ways that are deep and expanding. Rather than prescribing what exact shifts should happen, they believe that changes in practice will emerge more naturally over time and with greater buy-in by giving teachers time and resources to support new ways of thinking and practicing.

Four English teachers at Farmington High School—Ashley Anderson, Adam Fischer, Sarah Stout, and John Williams—explained that these changes have played out in their department as a gradual process of becoming more focused on what each student wants. Over time, their work has become more closely oriented with all five parts of the working definition of competency-based education.

Wherefore Art Thou, Student Engagement?

Three years ago at a PLC meeting, the teachers and an administrator decided to expand the curriculum, which included readings such Romeo and Juliet and To Kill A Mockingbird, to include a wider range of traditional and contemporary books and authors. They believed this would increase student engagement and the curriculum’s cultural responsiveness. The PLC thought carefully about what outcomes they wanted and realized that the skills and dispositions students needed could be developed from this wider range of readings. Not everyone needed to read the same books at the same time with the teacher leading from the front of the room.

So they bought sets of 13 new books. The students not only began choosing what books they wanted to read, they also began leading their own book groups. The teachers helped them build higher-level skills such as leading a discussion and developing engaging questions. “So we get all of that ‘standards stuff’ in there,” one teacher explained, “but then it’s about them taking charge and leading the conversation.”

Some of the new titles were The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Flight by Sherman Alexie, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds—acclaimed books with diverse authors. The teachers described students coming in and saying things like, “Wow—do you know what’s in this book?!” and that it was the first book they had ever read cover to cover, sometimes in one weekend. (more…)

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“Radical Trust” and Teacher Agency Drive Deeper Change in Farmington

June 13, 2019 by

This is the first post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Jay Haugen, Farmington

Jay Haugen

Jay Haugen is Minnesota’s 2019 Superintendent of the Year, and his leadership has helped the Farmington Area Public Schools make great strides in advancing competency-based education. After 30 years in administration, Haugen has adopted a philosophy of “radical trust” in his staff, based on his experience that top-down initiatives fail to bring deep and lasting change.

During visits to Farmington High School and Boeckman Middle School, about 20 miles south of Minneapolis, I spoke with Haugen and Jason Berg, Farmington’s Executive Director of Educational Services. This post focuses on their philosophy and experiences with moving toward more personalized learning. Other posts in the series will explore specific changes in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and scheduling.

Jason Berg, Farmington

Jason Berg

Promoting Agency, Not Compliance

Jay Haugen: I’ve tried to make big change my whole career, but for decades I’ve watched all the right stuff come to nothing. So we don’t talk about “rolling out” changes anymore. That hasn’t been our language for the past seven years. We don’t “run initiatives.” The central office doesn’t decide what people should do and then schedule staff development for everyone on those topics. It’s very organic. We invite people to innovate, we get them inspired about our direction, and we unleash our staff and provide the supports they need. This has led to many types of competency-based innovations in our different schools, disciplines, and grade levels.

One of our top words is “agency,” and that’s for both students and staff. We do not tell staff what to do and how to do it. I think that’s what been wrong forever. Everything emanates from our strategic plan, and our purpose—to ‘ensure that every student reaches their highest aspirations while embracing responsibility to community.’ As long as staff are connecting to our purpose, we’re going to honor their agency and their ability to bring about that result.

We need to go slow to go fast. District offices tend to wish that people would all just get on board with mandates, but what you get is compliance. Then five years later you wonder what happened to your initiative. So the issue is how you go about it. You need to realize that you can’t tell a human what to do and how to do it. You just can’t! We won’t accept it! We will pretend. We will comply. Compliance is the 10% solution, because it makes your big initiatives become tiny increments that don’t keep pace at all with our world. So we need to do something different. The leap is radical trust—preserve people’s agency, and let them self-organize.

(more…)

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

June 11, 2019 by

Research

  • The 74 reviews two recent studies on personalized learning and explains the challenges in researching the effectiveness of personalized learning.
  • Growth Mindset – A recent MRI study gives some of the first biological evidence that presenting math in a way that encourages a growth mindset changes not just students’ motivation to learn, but the the way their brains tackle problems.

Resources

  • iNACOL recently conducted an Introduction to K-12 Competency-Based Education webinar that answered the most frequently asked questions about this system of education designed to equitably ensure that all students develop the skills they will need for college, career, and life. The webinar recording and slide deck are available here.
  • Global Online Academy has launched the Competency-Based Learning Toolkit, a design tool that helps teams of educators shift to activities that are skills-driven, performance-based, and co-designed with students.

Equity

Professional Learning – Some upcoming opportunities include:

  • The New Hampshire Learning Initiative is offering its annual Powerful Learning Conference, July 9-11 in Bow, NH, to celebrate innovative projects from across the state on topics such as competency instruction, learning progressions, and embedded work study practices.
  • The Personalized Learning Summit will take place in Chanhassen, Minnesota on August 5-6, 2019. It is an opportunity to learn about culturally responsive teaching, explore feedback and assessment, and gain tools and resources to more fully realize student-centered learning.
  • The Competency-Based Education Summit will take place October 9-11 in Westminster, Colorado. Westminster Public Schools is a large district implementing a competency-based system. The summit will support educators in learning how to do the same.

(more…)

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Illustrating Proficiency Grading Levels: 1234 Versus ABCDF

June 7, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at KnowledgeWorks on April 30, 2019.

When you walk into the Early Childhood Center of Kenowa Hills Public School District and talk with Principal Dan Brant, is it immediately clear that engaging families in their journey to personal mastery learning is a top priority. New language and concepts that are different from more traditional approaches to teaching and grading require being thoughtful about how to build clarity in communications. Just like many schools who are working to shift to student-centered learning or personalized, competency-based learning, helping parents and guardians understand and engage with their child’s learning is critical.

Principal Brant uses simple images to help illustrate the purpose and importance of proficiency-based grading for people who may only be familiar with thinking about grading in terms of percentages, points or As, Bs and Cs.

These impactful visuals are one of the first things visitors see when walking through the school’s doors and helps easily explain their proficiency grading levels of 1, 2, 3 and 4:

Bulletin Board at KHECC

Image of Baby Chick1: Not Yet: Students unable to perform any part of the task at this time. Like a bird hatching, you’re just getting started and need more help to get ready to fly.

 

 

 

2. Image of Goose About To Fly2: Emerging: The student demonstrates some, but not all of the knowledge/skill to perform the task. You’re spreading your wings and trying to fly on your own.

 

 

Image of Goose Flying3: Proficient: The student demonstrates all of the knowledge/skill to perform the task. You’ve done it! You’re flying on your own with ease.

 

 

Image of Geese Flying in Formation4: Advanced: The student demonstrates knowledge and skill above the expected task and can lead other children with task. You can help lead your flock and show others the way). (more…)

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Habits of Mind and Learning New Ways of Learning at Journey Elementary

June 4, 2019 by

This is the final post in a series about the Harrisburg School District in South Dakota. Links to the other posts are at the end of the article.

Harrisburg Math Coaching SessionOne teacher at Journey Elementary who was in her third year of personalized learning recalled, “Early in my first year it was chaotic and I said, ‘I don’t see how this is going to get better.’ But by mid-November the learners were moving, they were advocating for themselves, things were clicking for them. It’s something about that time frame. There’s enough time there that you can build some structures and routines for them. Then it gets easier for both learners and facilitators in the second year and beyond.”

Another teacher explained, “This was the first year for my cohort, and we spent about the first 10 days of the school year setting up our procedures. We don’t really do any curriculum during that time. It was a lot of team building with learners because it’s so different from traditional. You’re used to having 24 learners, but with our multi-age groupings there are now 90 of them that you might see at some point in the year. So we want them to be comfortable with us, and we want to be comfortable with them and know who they are. You also want the different ages to be able to interact with each other. That was particularly true because it was the transition year for our cohort. For the cohort that started a year earlier, they didn’t need as long to do culture-building at the beginning of the school year. You need everyone to be comfortable with each other and the program before you really dive in.”

The initial weeks of school are also used for students and teachers to get comfortable with changes in the use of space. For example, since students move across studios during the day, there are no student desks containing a student’s own supplies. Instead, each room has bins of pens, markers, paper, and other supplies that students share. Each teacher sets up the supplies in their room similarly, so students can easily find what they need and don’t keep asking the teacher.

Habits of Work

Another key aspect of helping students learn to make good use of personalized learning, flexible scheduling, and multi-age groupings are the “Habits of Work” utilized across multiple competency-based schools in Harrisburg. These are the skills that students use to manage their learning, which also go by other names including “personal success skills,” “habits of work and learning,” “non-cognitive skills,” and “21st century skills.”

Harrisburg uses Costa and Kallick’s “Habits of Mind,” which is the longest list of these skills that I have seen used in practice. There are 16 in total, each with a name, a phrase (listed below), and a description (shown in the image below, from posters on the walls in Freedom Elementary): (more…)

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Littles, Middles, Molders, and Olders – Multi-age Learning at Journey Elementary

May 30, 2019 by

This is the second post in a series about the Harrisburg School District in South Dakota. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Harrisburg Students Working on Floor, Three GirlsWhen I asked a teacher at Journey Elementary how he liked teaching in his school’s personalized, competency-based model, he looked at his bare forearms and said, “It gives me goosebumps every time I think about being able to do this. I love it. I could never go back to being the boring teacher I was for so many years. I wish all my former students could have had this opportunity.”

Journey is the second elementary school in Harrisburg to shift to a personalized model. As with Freedom Elementary, described in the previous post, Journey has phased in two personalized cohorts in two years, while keeping one cohort in a traditional model to accommodate parent preferences.

The two personalized cohorts are each about 90 students—a little over 20 students in each of the four age groups that traditionally correspond to 2nd through 5th grade. However, learning happens in multi-age groupings for mathematics and English language arts in the morning. Then afternoon classes in other subjects are conducted by grade level, although the school’s goal is eventually to have those be multi-age and flexibly scheduled too.

To de-emphasize the idea of different grade levels, the four age groups  are called “littles, middles, molders, and olders,” terms that have become familiar and normal in the school. The school’s architecture complements the multi-age groupings, with four “studios” arranged around a large, carpeted central area. The personalized schools in Harrisburg prefer the term “studios” to “classrooms” to suggest that all the needed tools are present, but student agency is needed for the tools to result in acquiring knowledge and demonstrating learning. The youth and adults also use the terms “learners” and “facilitators,” rather than “students” and “teachers,” to shift everyone’s mindframes toward learning that is driven by student agency and personalized adult support.

Notice all the wonderful new words, plus new meanings for old words! One of the exciting opportunities of transforming education is creating new language that both describes and enables new ways of thinking and doing.

Kindergarten and first grade do not participate in the personalized cohorts, in part because after first grade a small percentage of students leave Journey to attend the district’s gifted and talented program. However, school administrators reported that the kindergarten and first grade teachers are increasingly adopting personalized practices and pushing for permission and supports to move further in that direction.

Harrisburg Scheduling ScreenshotPersonalizing Student Schedules

As with many other personalized schools, Harrisburg uses the Empower learning management system to organize student assignments into playlists that permit personalized scheduling and progression. All students have to demonstrate mastery on lists of standards that are divided into learning targets. Each learning target has activities developed by teachers in categories called iLearn, iPractice, and iMaster, with iLearn focused on exposure to new content, iPractice providing opportunities to develop skills with the new content, and iMaster providing options for demonstrating mastery. (The playlists are online, but many of the activities are offline in a variety of formats.)

During a given class period, different teachers offer different iLearn activities, and students who haven’t demonstrated mastery of the corresponding learning targets attend those activities. This is where multi-age grouping comes in, because a given learning target might be the next step in the learning progression of both littles and middles, or both molders and olders. At the elementary level, teachers do most of the personalized scheduling of students into activities. Some of this takes place during the teachers’ common planning time, using data about student progress from Empower and from shared Google Docs that the teachers developed. (more…)

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Improving School Equity Through A Student-Led PD Activity and an Equity Summit at Casco Bay

May 28, 2019 by

This post originally appeared as “Letter from the Principal Derek Pierce” in the January 2019 newsletter of the Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine.

Casco Bay High School StudentsDear CBHS Families and Friends,

Happy New Year! The CBHS faculty is always looking to create meaningful opportunities for student leadership, but last month was the first time we ever offered an entirely student-planned and facilitated professional development session.

The goal was to help faculty better understand the lives our students live, especially our immigrant students and students of color. It began with a student fishbowl. A cross-section of about twenty CBHS students, many members of our Student Union, answered questions posed by senior Imti Hassan. Faculty sat around in a larger circle and just listened, for thirty minutes, as students spoke candidly on questions that ranged from “What do you love about CBHS?” to “Where and when have you experienced injustice or inequities at school?” Faculty received lots of kudos, but also heard some hard truths (delivered with remarkable maturity and civility); they ranged from student frustration at having their names or pronouns continually botched by staff, to a request that our curriculum include more uplifting and nuanced tales of oppressed or marginalized people. Afterwards, small groups of students and staff discussed what they had just heard and went deeper into questions about what teachers and students may not yet see or fully understand about each other’s lives.

Students and Staff at Fish Bowl Professional Development ActivityThe insights shared during our closing circle from both faculty and staff made clear the profound impact of the experience. This December professional development session was one action step in response to the Equity Summit held on October 30th. During the Summit, the CBHS faculty leadership team met with members of the Student Cabinet to review feedback generated earlier in the fall by the faculty’s equity self-assessment and the student’s courageous conversation on equity. We also used a set of rubrics on school equity developed by the “Schools of Opportunity” program as another tool to reflect on our strengths and areas in need of improvement. (more…)

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District-wide Transformation in Harrisburg, South Dakota

May 22, 2019 by

Harrisburg Girls WorkingThis is the first post in a series about the Harrisburg School District. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

The Harrisburg School District has made major shifts toward competency-based education in several schools in recent years. With 2,000 visitors from 10 states over the past two years, it’s clear that their successful implementation has made them a model for districts around the country that want to observe and discuss strong competency-based practices.

The district’s goal is to deepen personalized learning (their name for the initiative) over time across the high school, two middle schools, and six elementary schools in the district, which is located in Sioux Falls and Harrisburg. This article focuses on district-wide implementation; a subsequent post will focus on how personalized learning is carried out within individual schools.

Launching Personalized Learning in Multiple Schools

The transformation to personalized learning was driven by school and district personnel who saw the need for change, but parent choice has also played a key role. Harrisburg’s first elementary school to make the shift, Freedom Elementary, kept one cohort of students in a traditional model while phasing in two personalized cohorts in two years. The district kept a traditional cohort to accommodate parents who didn’t want their children to switch to personalized learning. In the third year, the district surveyed the remaining parents, and 94% wanted their child to join the personalized model, so the school eliminated the traditional cohort. Two other schools in the district, Journey Elementary School and South Middle School, are using a similar approach—starting with both personalized and traditional cohorts.

Harrisburg Work ChartWhen Harrisburg began its transformation, seven years ago, they started with the high school. The district’s Innovative Programs Director, Travis Lape, says “We had a group of educators and building leaders at the high school willing to be bold and think differently. Along their journey, we learned a lot, but we know without them being bold we would not be where we are today.”

One of the lessons they learned in that first year is that “after eight years of being told what to do all the time, the learners needed more scaffolding. They weren’t prepared enough for getting organized and managing their time, and they started falling behind.” In subsequent years, the schools have provided more scaffolding. (more…)

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