Tag: continuous improvement

Competency-Based Education Quality Principle #15: Develop Processes for Ongoing Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning

December 27, 2018 by

This is the sixteenth article in a series based on the book Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education. You can find the section on Principle #15 Develop Processes for Ongoing Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning on page 96. The links to the other articles can be found at the bottom of this page and will be updated as they are posted.

I think that one can argue that every school, whether it is a traditional school or a personalized, competency-based one, should have processes for continuous improvement in place. It only makes sense that any organization should be in the process of improving. However, traditional schools and school systems are highly bureaucratic in nature. The emphasis is much more on compliance than it is on an organizational drive toward excellence.

Our schools operate in an environment with layers and layers of policy, regulation, and reporting. These layers and layers of governance often create cultures of fear and mistrust. Thus, creating a strong continuous improvement and organizational learning culture, structure, and processes requires leadership. It may be the personal leadership of a teacher who uses formative assessment data to improve his own skills in learning how to help students develop the metacognitive and emotional skills to self-regulate their thinking and behavior. It may be the departmental leader who looks deeply at the data to identify that there are gaps in the domain-specific instructional approaches of teachers. Or it may be the organizational leadership of the principal or the superintendent who takes the courageous stance that they are going to do what’s best for students and manage the compliance requirements as needed.

The point is: In a bureaucratic world, truly engaging in organizational learning and continuous improvement can’t be separated from leadership. (more…)

How Schools Improve

March 2, 2017 by

ImproveOne of the concerns I have about how competency education is developing is that I don’t hear many districts or schools talk about continuous improvement that is based on looking at processes, data, and unpacking with the five Ys. (Our low income students aren’t progressing as much as upper income students — Why? They are missing pre-requisite skills? Why? They were passed on from eighth grade without them? Why? The middle school principals don’t have enough control over their budgets to create adequate summer programming? Why? The district has a policy that they manage summer school? So if we allow schools to organize or coordinate among themselves to determine the amount and type of summer school programming, more students will have all their foundational skills by the time we get to high school!  — nothing is ever this simple of course, but you get the drift.) It may be that there is something about education and the learning process that may make some aspects of schools hard to break into processes, but I’m not sure we have tried enough to know that. I’m sharing this piece by Getting Smart’s Tom Vander Ark (February 9, 2017) to open this conversation. If you do use some type of school improvement process to fine tune your competency-based district or school, we’d like to hear about it.

Frustrated by the lack of widely used improvement frameworks in schools, a colleague emailed some questions. Following is a quick attempt to outline approaches to improvement and innovation.

I see teachers sitting around the table with reports and then deciding to do a program or do more PD. How can we develop a more formal improvement framework that would drive effectiveness and efficiency?

There are five important steps to developing or adapting an improvement framework.

1. Prioritize outcomes. Hold community conversations about what graduates should know and be able to do–like those in El PasoHouston, and Marion, Ohio. An updated graduate profile can help create role and goal clarity by identifying priority student learning outcomes and ways of measuring (or estimating) those outcomes.

2. Do the research. Create a shared vision of what good practice looks. Unless you’re inventing a new set of practices, that picture should be research-based. BrightBytes is a decision support tool used by almost 1500 districts that allows teams to compare their outcomes with research recommendations.

3. Build a learning model. A common approach to supporting powerful learner experiences may include shared

  • Content, tasks and assessments (i.e., curriculum);
  • Teacher practices (e.g., Teach Like a Champ);
  • Values and behavioral norms;
  • Guidance and youth and family support services; and
  • Structures, schedules and staffing strategies that support learning.

Voluntary and managed school networks (and districts that act like networks) are disciplined about defining and supporting a learning model including some or all of these factors.

Some districts and networks go a step further and identify core processes and support systems for each (listen to an interview with Colorado’s District 51).

4. Identify metrics and source the data. In the 90s, best practice was a war room of handwritten data that allowed teachers and leaders to visually spot problems. By 2000, Excel spreadsheets were common. Data shops like Schoolzilla, spun out from Aspire Public Schools in 2013, help organize district data. Unfortunately, it’s still challenging to combine all the data schools are receiving.

5. Adopt a shared improvement framework. “School leaders need to focus their attention on creating the conditions where teachers have the resources, courage and support to experiment with improving their practice, and then the space to share what they are learning with other educators,” said Justin Reich, executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab.

An improvement framework identifies core processes (e.g., reading instruction), shared practices (e.g., guided reading), quality metrics (e.g., observations, running record), improvement tools, and review cycles.

The improvement framework for the New Tech Network (below) incorporates shared values, process tools and common structures. (more…)

Continuous Improvement: Addressing the Needs of Struggling Students

January 17, 2017 by

foursquareThis is the twenty-sixth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

After the first few years of transition, districts begin to have the bandwidth to look more deeply at where students are not advancing or are at a lower level academically than their age-based grade. Although not necessarily done in a linear fashion, there are three ways that districts and schools begin to respond to struggling students. First, they create strategies and direct more resources to struggling students. This often opens a conversation about how to meet students where they are so they build their pre-requisite skills rather than always depending on scaffolding that makes curriculum accessible but often leaves students in the same situation – taking on higher level courses without a strong foundation. (For more on this topic see Meeting Students Where They Are: Academic Domains and The Accountability Paradox.) Second, they begin to explore more deeply how habits of learning impact student achievement, building out their capacity to nurture students. Third, they seek out ways to improve instruction overall so that more teachers within the school have the disciplinary knowledge to help students advance.

At Sanborn Regional High School, the Freshmen Learning Communities are designed to help ninth graders build the skills they need for success and identify where students need additional support. They are finding that the conversations about students with special education needs are more focused on learning and progress than behaviors. The understanding of standards, differentiated instruction, and accommodations for assessments has become much more clear and intentional.

Pittsfield Middle and High School (PMHS) is exploring different ways to respond to the needs of students who are struggling or enter school more than one year behind in grade level. They’ve developed a strong intervention system, with an emphasis on reaching students in middle school. They have reading and math specialists and are providing double doses of reading and math. They also are reaching into elementary school with a special education teacher at every grade level, working to help students learn foundational skills. Still they aren’t seeing the results that they would like so they are continuing to explore what else they can do to ensure students are successfully learning. (more…)

Continuous Improvement: Improving Performance and Personalization through Powerful Data

January 16, 2017 by

dataThis is the twenty-fifth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

Timely, relevant data plays an important role in the transition to student-centered learning. In the process of the transition to competency education, school leadership, educators, and students will want, or even demand, an integrated information system to take advantage of the increased data on student learning. The drive toward improved student performance will increase the demand for data to guide greater personalization. Teachers who recognize the value of tracking student progress based on standards will not be content with the modifications allowed in most traditional student information systems or learning management platforms organized around semesters and courses. They will want to be able to monitor, support, and credential learning on standards regardless of if students are working below or beyond their grade levels. This requires organizing standards in a learning continuum beyond the course structure and displaying data in a way that gives a picture of the student profile—an entire student’s body of work and mastery, not just grading assignments and assessments within a course.

An integrated learning system to support competency-based environments starts with student profiles and standards-based learning continuums. Indicators of a student’s progress on each standard across content areas are key. Many vendors are offering standards-based or competency-based grading, but don’t provide the student-centered approach to managing progress along a learning continuum in all the significant domains. The student information systems that support traditional time-based schools are organized by courses or classes— not students—thus it is very difficult to generate a picture of how students are advancing across disciplines and over the years.

In early stages of the transition, most districts collect data on how students are progressing within the academic disciplines. As the competency-based system is further implemented, tracking of data on student learning often expands to include habits of learning, the type of learning experiences to ensure students are having adequate opportunities to apply learning in real-world settings or projects, and a broader set of domains. Bob Crumley, Superintendent of Chugach School District, explains, “It’s important to send a message that the state testing indicators aren’t the end all, even if that’s the focus of state legislators. It sends a powerful message when the state only tests reading, writing, and math but not social studies or employability skills. As a district, we had to put into place a system that created a meaningful and balanced way to talk about student progress and our effectiveness in all areas. We believe all content areas are equally important. We dedicate staff development and resources on all ten content areas. We monitor progress and celebrate growth in all ten areas.” (more…)

Continuous Improvement and Innovation

December 20, 2016 by

old-ladyThis is the twenty-fourth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

It is no surprise that Chugach School District received the Malcom Baldridge National Quality Award in its seventh year after creating a performance-based system. Competency education creates the conditions for continuous improvement and mutual accountability in managing school operations. When the only data is attendance and A-F grading scales, districts do not have access to data that allows them to track student progress in learning. With the rich data produced in competency education, schools can drive towards what Marzano Research refers as “high reliability” schools—schools that are able to continue to reflect upon their own performance and adjust to better meet the needs of students.

There is a tremendous shift for leaders to move from compliance to continuous improvement. Compliance has an inherent element of fulfilling specific requirements where continuous improvement reaches for the stars. Oliver Grenham explained that at Adams 50, they discovered there was no middle ground. They were “all-in or nothing” because the shift to competency education requires a totally different paradigm. He compared it to that visual game in which you can see an old woman or you can see a young woman, but you can’t see both at the same time. For district and school leaders, this means having to learn about continuous improvement management techniques early in the transition, even before the data may be fully available. There is simply no way to revert back to compliance management strategies after a second order change. The culture of learning expands to become a culture of continuous improvement with a focus on results.

Continuous improvement in this context is a formal methodology or a system to improve performance through reflecting upon data, engaging stakeholders in discussions about variation or low performance, planning for targeted improvements, and then repeating the cycle. Many districts use an easy to use process of Plan-Check- Act-Do to manage improvements. There are other techniques, as well, such as implementing quality controls or benchmarking against other organizations to seek out and adopt best practices. (more…)

ESSA’s Opportunities to Rethink Accountability for Student-Centered Learning

October 12, 2016 by

ESSAThis post originally appeared at iNACOL on September 29, 2016. 

For the first time in decades, states have the opportunity to engage communities in redefining student success and reimagining the future of education.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opens up flexibility for states to design next generation accountability systems that support student learning. States now have a historic opportunity to rethink the purpose, role and design of their accountability systems, reframing them for continuous improvement of student learning toward new, more meaningful definitions of success through data-rich learning environments.

A New Definition of Student Success

State leaders should start by engaging and listening to diverse stakeholders from across the state, including teachers, students, parents, families, school leaders, community leaders, civil rights groups, philanthropic groups and business groups to chart a new vision for K-12 education. They should answer the question: “What do students need to be able to know and do to be successful beyond high school?”

In crafting a new state plan for ESSA, states can start by rethinking what success means for the whole child, for the future of their communities, for meaningful participation in the economy and in a global context.

Redefining student success—determining what we want students to know and be able to do upon graduating—should be the starting point for creating a coherent education system. Only after states build this broad consensus of what constitutes student success, should they determine what to measure for accountability.

Driving a new definition of success is crucial to developing coherent system improvements that are built around learning—including instructional shifts, systems of assessments, expanded pathways and better learning environments connected to communities and to the real world. Collaboration and community engagement needs to be sustained and ongoing rather than a one-time activity. (more…)

Making Room for Hardship in Positive Youth Development

August 31, 2016 by

ExclamationI had the chance to re-read the design principles from Carnegie Corporation’s Opportunity by Design and its partner Springpoint Schools the other day. And once again I find myself a bit in awe of the depth of the principles and the implications for how we think about what secondary schools might look like. The first principle is integrates positive youth development to optimize student engagement & effort. We don’t talk about positive youth development much in education – instead we talk about engagement, motivation, and effort. ObD describes this principle as:

  • Caring, consistent student-adult relationships that communicate high expectations for student learning and behavior
  • Clear expectations for student competencies and standards of performance
  • Opportunities for students to contribute to the school environment and have a voice in decisions
  • Encouragement of student responsibility for meeting learning and personal goals
  • Openness to and encouragement of family participation Integration of community participation, assets, and culture

It all sounds great, doesn’t it? But something was gnawing at me as I thought about positive youth development. And then I realized what it was – sometimes discussions about positive youth development are just too positive.

By being so positive, they don’t create the room to talk about the real-life day-to-day hardships, challenges, trauma, and tragedies that shape the lives and development of adolescents. As Christina Rodriguez notes in Responding to the Student’s Dream: Lessons Learned from Positive Youth Developers in New Mexico, “A lot of our schools don’t seem to recognize the variety of students and what students need. There’s not a one-size-fits-all option.” The lives of our students vary – some may face discrimination because of the color of their skin, their accent, or a disability. Some may experience violence or abuse in their homes or in their neighborhoods. Many will hold fear close to their heart as they listen to parents worry about where the next meal with come from, how to pay for school supplies, or where they might find housing next month. (more…)

Red Bank Elementary School: Teaching Students, Not Standards

February 3, 2016 by

This post is part of the series Competency Education Takes Root in South Carolina. This is the second in the series on Red Bank Elementary in Lexington School District. Begin with the first on five big takeaways and follow along with: #2 teaching students instead of standards, #3 teacher perspectives, #4 student perspectives, and #5 parent perspectives.

Red Bank Elementary offers a great example of how districts can take a big step toward high quality competency education by allowing schools to move ahead when ready. It’s also an example that schools can go far down the path when districts don’t hold them back from innovating.

It says a lot about the leadership at Lexington School District that they have been supportive of Principal Marie Watson and the team at Red Bank as they took the enormous step five years ago to work with the Reinventing Schools Coalition to transform their school into a personalized, competency-based school. Susan Patrick and I had just completed the scan of competency education five years ago and hadn’t even started imagining CompetencyWorks at that time. It’s this kind of district leadership, to support innovation wherever it develops, that is needed to transform medium and large districts.

Red Bank Elementary is in the Lexington, South Carolina district a bit outside of Columbia. The school serves a socioeconomic mix of 580 students with about 56 percent FRL. The school has a bilingual Spanish Immersion program serving 30 percent of the students. Many of the families were hard hit by the flooding in the fall of 2015. Another thing you should know – South Carolina has its own set of standards, called the College and Career Ready standards, that have been described to me by one educator in my travels in the state as a “tweaked version of the Common Core.”

What’s Happening in Red Bank Classrooms

Red Bank is entirely organized around learning and leadership (leadership is a district initiative). It starts before you even walk in the door of the school with a sign for students coming in late: “Parents please check in at the office, learning has begun.”

The dominant feeling is of a quiet joy mixed with a good dose of respect, hope, and aspirations. There are lots of hugs, constant reminders of the qualities of leadership that everyone is aspiring to, and clear, clear, clear focus on learning. Staff are unified by a commitment to do better for kids and to intentionally improve their school based on a clear set of values and understanding of learning and teaching. After spending a few hours at Red Bank, I just wanted to do my personal best (it may have been the sign that says Everything you need is already inside you that gave me that lift).

Red Bank has taken many of the rituals of personalized learning that I’ve seen in other schools, mixed it with the The Leader in Me program, and then lifted it up into almost every aspect of the school. For example, two students, Hunter and Reilly, gave me a tour of the school, guiding me through hallways named Kindness Avenue, Creativity Lane, Perseverance Path, and Compassionate Way. Hunter and Reilly talked to me about what they like to study, when they like to do their work on a computer and when they like to work in a group, and how they get to make things, “really make things, like windmills” in STEM class. (more…)

RSU2: Continuous Improvement at Richmond Middle and High School

January 7, 2016 by

pumpkinThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the second post on my conversations at RSU2 in Maine. The first post is on lessons learned.

During my visit to RSU, we stopped off at Richmond Middle and High School. It was a glorious fall day, perfect for the middle school students to do a bit of pumpkin pitching with the catapults to culminate their study of Newton’s Laws and simple machines.

Richmond serves 260 students in grades sixth through twelfth, of which 40 percent are FRL. The size of the school means each academic department is approximately two people. This allows for ease in collaboration. For example, ELA and social studies are starting to explore how they can be integrated.

As we stood out on the field watching pumpkins soaring over our heads, Steve Lavoie, Principal of Richmond, emphasized that the induction process is vital to the success of the school. In the summer, he brings new hires together for a full day to talk about the philosophy of personalized, proficiency-based learning. During the school year, he meets with the new teachers every other Wednesday. Lavoie explained, “I bring an agenda item and the new teachers bring agenda items that feel pressing to them. We look at issues in the context of their work. As they become comfortable with work in a proficiency-based school, we begin to have meetings as needed.” When there is only one new teacher, other teachers join in this process so the new teachers always have a cohort of support.

Lavoie has noticed that students are talking more about their GPA and going to college. “The conversation about what it means to be academically successful has lifted the expectations that students hold for themselves.” At some schools I’ve visited, the competitiveness surrounding the GPA has created an environment in which students want to re-assess to get higher scores. Lavoie explained that hasn’t been a problem at Richmond. “We stay focused on helping students reach proficiency and always do their best. Students can go back and finish things they didn’t get done. They can go back to things they didn’t learn well to strengthen their skills. But wanting to increase the scores on the GPA is not a reason for re-assessments. We want them to do their personal best the first time around.”

Like many competency-based schools, Richmond has moved from an honors track to honors performance. Any students with 3.75 are designated as honors. Lavoie emphasized, “We want to reward students for performance.” Another example is that if a student in an AP course gets a 3.25 in class and a 4 on the AP test, their final performance score will be a 4.

In an exciting new partnership, University of Maine Presque Isle (UMPI) is sending new teachers to Richmond to understand the personalized, proficiency-based system. Seven student teachers visited RSU2 in the fall. The first day was focused on gaining an overall perspective on proficiency-based learning; the second day, teachers were fully immersed in the classroom. The partnership is also opening up experiences for students, as well. Last year, thirteen students took an online course offered by UMPI. College-going confidence skyrocketed when students realized they were doing as well or better than some of the college students. (more…)

How My Understanding of Competency-Based Education Has Changed Over the Years

December 8, 2015 by

StairsNext week, I am excited to be sharing the work that my team and I have done in New Hampshire on competency-based education with a group of South Carolina educators as part of the Transform SC institute on Meeting the Needs of Every Student With Competency Based Progression. My preparation for this institute has been an opportunity for me to reflect on what has now been a six-year journey with competency education with Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH. This past week, our school district was recognized for the second year in a row as a “leader in competency education” by Tom Vander Ark’s organization Getting Smart, noting that Sanborn was one of 30 School Districts Worth Visiting in 2015. (more…)

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