Tag: competency education, competency-based learning

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…)

A Conversation with Teachers in Cleveland

July 24, 2017 by

Image from the JFK E3agle Academy Website

This is the last of a five-part series on competency-based schools in Cleveland Metropolitan Schools.

One of the highlights of the school visits in Cleveland was a conversation with teachers at PACT and E3agle High Schools. The conversation was wide reaching – here are a few of the highlights.

What it Takes to Meet Students Where They Are

When asked what was different in teaching in a mastery-based school as compared to a traditional one, it was nearly unanimous that mastery-based learning requires teachers to think ahead and design substantial scaffolding. Teachers described having to do unit planning for at least ten weeks (based on 10-week curriculum maps) ahead in case students started advancing quickly while also planning for scaffolding that would help students who might be four or five grade levels below to build up their skills. (See project-based learning planning template.)

Tim Hurt, a literature teacher from PACT, emphasized how much mastery-based education demands differentiation. “When you are managing twenty different learning plans, it totally pokes holes into what we thought teaching was about. In a traditional system we felt like we were rock stars. The only way to be successful in a personalized, mastery-based model is to work with students and stay focused on learning…both student learning and our own.”

Almad Allen, also an ELA teacher from PACT, added, “It took a while to get unplugged from the traditional model’s focus on right and wrong. Now my job is to identify when a student’s understanding is incomplete to focus on pacing, and I’ve had to learn to differentiate on the fly. I can’t create lessons the night before anymore. I think through units with the end in mind about how I’m going to make sure every student is successful. I have to anticipate where there are going to be misconceptions or difficulties. If students get lost, they can’t move on. My job is to think through the different places they might get lost and how I’m going to help them move forward. I’m the one who has to have the map in my head to respond to the day-to-day changes in students’ learning.”

Nicole Williams, a PACT intervention specialist, described that she is now thinking intentionally about how to teach and re-teach in her unit planning. “Before I present the lesson, I’ve already thought about the needs of specific students and where the lesson might go,” she said. “I’m thinking about what they know, what they don’t know, and possible misconceptions.” She also said that conferencing with students and goal setting is particularly helpful in addressing student gaps.

Hurt explained, “My grading has become more fluid. In the traditional model, you gave a D or F if students didn’t do well. There wasn’t any next step. Now we think about what it will take for a student to be successful. There are a lot more interventions on the part of general teachers. Quite honestly, we are delivering better instruction because we think beyond just delivering it. We think about whether students will actually learn.” (See English Competency Map.)

Anthony Carbone, an intervention specialist at E3agle, was enthusiastic, “The best part of competency-based education is the ability to meet students where they are in their learning. (more…)

Hiring: The Very First Step to a Flourishing School Culture (Part 3 of 3)

July 20, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center Hub on June 22, 2017. It is the third of a three-part series. Read parts one and two.

MY ADVICE TO THOSE SEEKING TO ESTABLISH A THRIVING CULTURE IN THEIR SCHOOLS AT THE SAME TIME THAT THEY PROMOTE HIGH ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT FOR OUR MOST UNDERSERVED STUDENTS: HIRE WELL.

Transforming the adult learning community isn’t all that difficult when you hire adults who aren’t afraid to be human with youth, and when you create working conditions that nurture collaboration, creativity, trust, and respect.

That may sound obvious, but when you put “connection” and “sincerity” at the top of your criteria, you read resumes differently. Hiring at BDEA involves two steps.

First, the interview team (different for each position) conducts a 30-minute meeting with each of the top 10 candidates. The interview is an opportunity to make sure all parties see this match as a good fit. In this initial meeting, we’re determining whether a candidate is philosophically aligned with our mission, and the extent to which he or she knows the content. This process usually yields three to five really great candidates, such that picking one over the others is close to impossible. So we’ve added a second step.

Step two requires each candidate teach a 15-minute demonstration lesson, followed by Q & A, to a small group of BDEA students. We think this is the ultimate, foolproof step for hiring the right person for the position. No matter how crunched for time, we never skip this step, because it’s here that we can assess perhaps the most important quality: a candidate’s ability to connect with students and colleagues.

(more…)

Creating a School Culture Where Students and Teachers Both Flourish (Part 2 of 3)

July 19, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center Hub on June 20, 2017. It is the second of a three-part series. Read part one here.

ENCOURAGE AND PRACTICE BEING HUMAN WITH ALL OF YOUR STAFF

Simple, right? Maybe not at first, but we’re all human, in this work for a reason, and it’s worth examining our hearts and minds at the beginning of each day to make sure our students’ interests, equity, and a healthy community are our priorities.

To accomplish this, I offer the following prescriptions:

  • Be humble, acknowledge when you make a mistake, publicly reflect, and practice conflict resolution: colleague to colleague, adult to student, student to student.
  • Be empathetic. Take the time to learn more about your staff, what motivates and energizes them. Don’t make assumptions. Try to learn what might be behind a student or staff’s behavior or inconsistent performance. In most cases, they are struggling with bigger issues outside of the workplace.
  • Create structured time and flexible protocols that foster collaboration, communication, and accountability. Encourage staff to share best practices and new ideas. Create unstructured time for them to take care of their professional responsibilities.
  • Create a culture that celebrates diversity, student success, staff accomplishments, and birthdays. Encourage whole-school field trips where students and staff are put together on teams and can engage with one another in playful ways.
  • As leaders—and staff—listen more, talk less.

In my next post, I’ll describe the very first step toward attaining these goals:
hiring the right people.

See also:

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.

The Crucial Factor in School Success is School Culture (Part 1 of 3)

July 18, 2017 by

Alison Hramiec, Head of School, Boston Day and Evening Academy

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center Hub on June 16, 2017. It is the first of a three-part series. 

School reform is more than incorporating tech tools, being competency-based, or implementing student-centered practices. It’s more than opening the walls or focusing on core competencies. School reform starts by transforming school culture, and reforms flourish when we allow adults to be creative and compassionate human beings.

At Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), we’re lucky to have a regular flow of visitors interested in learning about our unique student-centered, competency-based, trauma-sensitive learning model, and are eager to share their own best practices with us. While it’s our model that initially intrigues visitors, the conversations inevitably shift to what they see and hear in the building. They remark first on how happy the students appear to be, then on how calm the learning environment is, and finally on the respect adults and students convey to one another.

Visitors also know these are not your traditional motivated, happy, independent learners. Our students often have a lifetime of reasons to be angry, depressed, and disengaged. Before enrolling at BDEA, 97 percent of our students had already dropped out of high school or were at risk of doing so. Almost all are living in an ecosystem of poverty, food and housing insecurity, mental and physical health challenges, and suffer from various forms of violence, abuse, anxiety, and other traumas. Seventy percent of our students were suspended at least once in their previous schools. It’s no surprise, then, that many struggle to build healthy relationships, bridge gaps in their learning, and make healthy life choices that lead toward graduation and adult opportunities. But once at BDEA, students tell visitors they feel safe, respected, and free to be exactly who they are without judgment.

SO WHAT’S GOING ON HERE? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? WHY ARE THE STUDENTS HAPPY AND LEARNING?

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E3agle and PACT: Insights from Two New Competency-Based Schools

July 17, 2017 by

This is the fourth of a five-part series on competency-based schools in Cleveland Metropolitan Schools.

John F. Kennedy High School in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) has been reorganized as two small schools: PACT Problem-Based Academy of Critical Thinking and E3agle Academy. These two schools were part of the effort to develop competency-based schools through the Opportunity by Design Initiative (funded by Carnegie Corporation and supported by Springpoint Schools). Positioned one above the other, PACT and E3agle offer a helpful perspective of how a common infrastructure of transparent competencies and standards provides different designs and mix of pedagogical strategies.

For example, they have different design themes. PACT is organized around developing critical thinking skills using the practice of problem-based learning. Real-world problems are used to engage students to develop and apply skills in ways that connect to their lives. E3agle Academy is organized around a theme of social justice. Principal Lennox Thompson pointed out that current events have proven to be an effective way to personalize the learning experience by connecting student concerns with justice issues in their community and the broader world. Students often feel passionately about the topics, and ELA teachers are using a number of ways to build skills and connections such as organizing debates, research, surveys, and inviting people from the community to speak on topics. Students are learning their rights as well as the laws that might land them in front of a judge.

Highlights

Here are a few of the highlights from our conversations with Lennox Thompson, principal at E3agle; Richard Reynolds, principal at PACT; Darcel Williams, Program Manager for New School Model; Kristen Kelly, Mastery Learning Specialist; and students and teachers from both schools.

Start with Pedagogy Before Introducing Technology-Enabled Learning

When E3agle and PACT first started, they relied heavily on Edgenuity as the primary way to deliver instruction and for students to demonstrate their learning. They immediately realized this was a mistake – it wasn’t engaging for students, it didn’t help establish relationships for students, and it didn’t create opportunities for deeper learning. They did a mid-course correction and since then have been building out the range of learning experiences for students, although Edgenuity remains as an option. Edgenuity continues to play a role when students need more instruction and for addressing incompletes. The lesson learned is that it is important to clarify the pedagogical philosophy first. Then it becomes clear when and where technology-enabled products can be beneficial.

Reynolds, principal and founding member of PACT, explained, “When we began the design process, the concept was around blended learning and mastery-based learning. The ten principles were aspirational. But when the kids walked in the door, suddenly the rubber meets the road. We learned quickly what wasn’t working. There was a lot that didn’t work the way we had imagined it.” What they learned was that a 50/50 mix of online and face-to-face instruction didn’t work well. “We needed to invest in relationships,” Reynolds said. “The students wanted engaged teachers. We needed to develop an approach to instruction that emphasized and nurtured relationships.”

Once they introduced problem-based learning that emphasized critical thinking, everything started to work better. Through discussion, students and teachers began listening to each other and getting to know each other better. Reynolds continued, “When done right, problem-based learning can engage students and develop their critical thinking skills. They turn on to learning. The key to doing it right is planning – you have to be clear on what you want kids to know and be able to do. It is often much more than you expected. We’ve developed our ability to do backward design, starting with the targeted competencies and content and then building problems around it.” For example, an ELA teacher used the Sandra Bland case for students to build their argumentative writing skills. They brought in a lawyer to talk about what makes an effective opening statement and then they each wrote an opening argument. They learned about pathos, ethos, and logos and then demonstrated each in their arguments.

As always, students open doors to better understanding how schools operate and how they are changing. In speaking with students from PACT and E3agle, they raised up many of the issues related to the original focus on using computers to deliver instruction to the much more blended approach being used now. There was a strong feeling that the school gets better and better the less they have to use Edgenuity. (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…)

How Schools Develop Student Agency

July 12, 2017 by

Alix Horton

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on May 28, 2017.

Through the tenets of agency, we help students see effort and practice in a new light and associate both as growth paths and, ultimately, success. We can provide students with the skills to rebound from setbacks and build confidence as they welcome new challenges. Instilling the principles of agency helps students find personal relevance in their work and motivates them to participate actively, build relationships and understand how they impact themselves and their communities. – New Tech Network

Developing student agency. Given the rate of change in the world, helping young people take charge of their own learning is more important than ever. This post includes an interview with Alix Horton, a School Development and Literacy Coach for the New Tech Network, as well as a few thoughts from Randy Ziegenfuss, a Pennsylvania superintendent.

What is agency? In short, managing your own learning. New Tech schools share rubrics that identify the ability to develop and reflect on growth mindset and demonstrate ownership over one’s learning. Below is the rubric for fifth grade.

How does NTN measure agency? 1) Growth mindset, or the belief that through hard work you can get better, and 2) Learning strategies to gather information, manage stress, and work with other people in order to do the learning you need to do.

What builds agency?  Carnegie Corporation identified culture and authenticity as key:

  • Culture and relationships that make student feel like they matter in the school community, and
  • Authenticity: purposeful work that matters to students. students will have a lot more persistence and agency if the work is purposeful through high quality project-based learning.

We expect elementary students to tackle and monitor learning with a lot of teacher support in terms of what questions to ask, where to look, how to gather information. A high school student has more ability to ask questions, find resources and find answers on their own. There is a handover component where teachers are doing more support at the lower levels and handing the work to students at the upper levels. (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:

(more…)

Getting to Know Students’ Business: A Conversation at Lincoln-West’s Schools of Global Studies and Science & Health

July 10, 2017 by

This is the third of a five-part series on competency-based schools in Cleveland Metropolitan Schools.

Lincoln-West is a large comprehensive school being redesigned into two smaller schools: the School of Global Studies and the School of Science & Health. These two schools are being designed as mastery-based schools. Both schools had only six months under their belt when we visited. They have used the same design principles and design process but have created cultures, learning experiences, and established community partnerships that reflect their themes. For example, students at Science & Health spend time learning in a hospital, and Global Studies offers an array of service learning opportunities. Below are conversations with principals and teachers at the two schools.

A Conversation with Principals

Christopher Thompson, principal at the School of Science & Health, said, “We’ve learned that it is important to be very intentional about onboarding veteran teachers. They’ve learned and worked in traditional schools all their lives. Resetting their orientation and mindset takes time.” Irene Javier, principal at the School of Global Studies, emphasized that the growth mindset is important for students and teachers. “We took advantage of the design process for all of us to reset our mindsets,” she said. “We used the process almost like a meditation so that each person was able to see their new roles and how they could contribute. It’s important to celebrate how much is being accomplished in such a short period of time.”

The process of hiring came up several times. The principals emphasized that attitude is equally important to skills. It’s important to make sure that teachers understand what they are signing up for. Thompson noted, “We found that we needed to look for a specific set of qualities. Teachers need to have a growth mindset for themselves, expertise in differentiation, a positive attitude toward learning and building relationships with students, and strong knowledge of instruction and assessment. Oh, and they need to know the standards.”

Javier expanded, “This looks daunting at first, until teachers understand that there are lots of supports to this structured way of teaching and learning. Essentially we are staging the learning curve. We are intentional about what we want students to learn with clear plans balanced with flexibility because students shape the learning process as well. What’s most important is to always celebrate what teachers bring to the learning process and their accomplishments in expanding their skills.”

Darcel Williams, Program Manager for New School Model, explained, “Principals play a critical role in instruction at any school. However, at a brand new school it is particularly important for principals to be engaged with teachers.” Javier continued, “We have 75 percent brand new teachers and 25 percent veterans. They have different issues. The older teachers struggle because they feel less confident than they have in the traditional system. But they are already saying that the change has been worth it to see students so engaged.” The district has also been helping with building the educator capacity by offering professional learning before the opening of the new schools, much of it introducing and role modeling the new practices.

One week of professional learning was offered in May for the staff of the new schools. During that time they worked together to create curricular maps with their peers. For example, a team might include one ELA teacher, two interventionists, and two bilingual paraprofessionals so that important strategies for serving students with disabilities and those learning English are embedded into the curriculum. Javier smiled in recalling this process, “Teachers can conquer the world when they collaborate.” The curricular maps went through two to three reviews to improve the quality, make connections with the themes of the schools (service learning for Global Studies and hospital internships at Science & Health), and ensure they were organized for students with different sets of skills to be able to make progress. Advisory also created its own ten-week map, including introducing students to learning within a competency-based structure. (more…)

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