Tag: meeting students where they are

Differentiation to Mass Customization: Same Goal, Different Eras

March 4, 2018 by

If there is one example that best exemplifies the paradigm shift from industrial to information eras, it is the example used by Todd Rose in The End of Average (Rose, 2016). In this book, he outlines the shortcomings of the concept of average. He talks about how the US Air Force had to make a major mental shift in how they thought about designing jet cockpits. Jet cockpits were initially designed to fit the average sized pilot. Sadly, through a series of events, they found that none of 4,000 pilots shared all ten physical body traits of their “average” pilot. In fact, only a small percentage had three measurements in common with their model of average. The Air Force was designing cockpits for non-existent pilots. In response, the Air Force now builds cockpits that are adjustable to varying degrees, so that you might say they are designing to the edges rather than the average. Pilots of great size variation can now fly jets. (more…)

Progressions? Trajectories? Continuum? Oh My!

February 20, 2018 by

Does anyone else get mixed up by the use of the phrases learning progressions, personalized pathways, learning objectives, trajectories, and learning continuum? I do.

They are all terms that try to convey in one way or another that learning is a continuous process that builds on prior knowledge, skills, and experiences. And they are used in all different ways throughout our field. As best I can tell, there are three concepts at play:

  1. The expectations for learning. (What do we want students to learn, and how are these organized over levels?)
  2. The research on how students move from one concept to another that can inform instruction.
  3. The actual way any one student learns and progresses, which is of course very important when trying to meet students where they are.


4 Threshold Concepts for Policy to Tackle in the Long Term to Support Competency Education

February 15, 2018 by

This is the sixteenth post in the blog series on the report, Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education.

What ideas does state policy need to address in the long-term to create the conditions for a transformation to competency-based education systems designed to ensure equity, so all students can be truly ready for success? We intend to push current thinking beyond the assumptions that perpetuate root causes of inequity and the structural issues that perpetuate injustice. We are focusing on a strategy for policy to support systems change over the long haul toward competency-based systems that ensure mastery for all students and equity for all. We hope to inspire new ideas and launch dialogue among communities and state policy leaders.

Threshold Concepts: Key Issues for Policy to Tackle for the Long-Term

Threshold concepts are important concepts for policymakers to understand so that they drive better policy and address structural gaps in our education system. Threshold concepts are “core concepts, that once understood, are needed to transform a given subject.” They can help us think differently about what is possible in an equitable future education system where all students succeed, and how to address deep-seated systems design flaws across K-12 education. Threshold concepts are not policy issues, but they deeply impact policy. In this blog, we discuss our thinking around the core, or threshold concepts, that state policymakers might think about addressing for a long-term, sustainable shift to personalized, competency-based learning.

Threshold concepts to understand before we address action steps for policy-making are: (more…)

Kettle Moraine: How They Got Here and Where They are Going

December 4, 2017 by

Image from the Kettle Moraine website

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the second in a ten-part series on Kettle Moraine. Please read the first post on Kettle Moraine before continuing to read this post, as it will prepare you to fully take advantage of the ideas and resources shared in this series.

Before they turned to personalized learning, Kettle Moraine School District (KM) was already considered a high performing school district, with 80-90 percent of students going on to post-secondary education and training and numerous recognitions of excellence every year. Superintendent Patricia DeKlotz explained, “How we think of success and high performance is based on what we measure. Eighty percent of our students go on to college, but only 45 percent of those students complete post-secondary. We want to measure ourselves based on things that really count for our students. We know we can do better. We know we can create more relevance for our students and their futures. ”

In fact, some people interpreted the suggestion that there should be change as an indication that there was a problem. DeKlotz explained, “When we first started talking about personalization, some people didn’t understand why. They saw it as we aren’t good enough. But that wasn’t the case at all. We are changing because we can do better, not that we are failing. This is important because trust between a district and the community, between schools and parents, begins with the belief that we are doing the very best for students. It’s important to begin from a position of strength if you can.” Assistant Superintendent Theresa Ewald added, “Many of the traditional measures of success used are those that were set in a time when few attended college, when knowledge was less accessible to all. The context has changed, so must the measures of success.”

There was another driving force: finances. Wisconsin, like other states, hasn’t been keeping up with increases in inflation, and the cost pressures are significant on districts. KM had had revenue limits in place since 1993. DeKlotz described that previous response to the tightening fiscal situation was to try to cut programs and drop things from the budget. Her background in business and familiarity with the Kaizan approach encouraged her to find another way. As did meeting Richard DeLorenzo, one of the architects of the Chugach performance-based model at a MCREL meeting. The dual drivers of costs and excellence catalyzed KM to look for more cost-effective ways of organizing education. Their answer was personalizing education to create more efficiency and to be much more effective for preparing their students for college, careers, and all they might encounter in life.

The shift to personalized learning and the district’s ability to sustain the transformation is based on four major processes:

  • School board adoption of a policy governance model: Working with Superintendent Pat DeKlotz, the school board clarified its role as policy, advocacy, and helping to promote the district. This left DeKlotz and her team to make strategic and operational decisions as they emerged.
  • Strategic visioning: Every three to four years, the district engages 100 members of the community in building a strategic vision. The most recent developed the vision of Learning Without Boundaries and guides the district today. The final product is a paper that is shared widely in the hopes of reaching even more people to engage them in the shared vision.
  • District annual retreat: Every year the school board and leadership council, consisting of twenty-four community members and educators, reflect on data about student achievement, school performance, financials, and student and parent feedback. They set the goals for the next year and develop 100-day action plans. This continuous improvement and public accountability has been instrumental in building trust between the district and community.
  • School annual retreats: Every school uses the same retreat process with a leadership team, reflection on school goals aligned with district goals, action plans, and monitoring implementation of those plans.

DeKlotz emphasized, “These processes have proven to be essential. This is how we hold the change process tight and not have things slip off the plate.” The strategic visioning process was particularly meaningful. As described in the first article about personalized learning in Wisconsin, the Institute for Personalized Learning describes three core elements of personalized learning: learner profile to track student learning; customized learning plans; and proficiency-based progress. KM wanted to make sure their understanding of personalized learning was embedded in their own experiences as a community. Based on the strategic visioning process, KM developed the vision statement Learning Without Boundaries, which captures the spirit of their personalized learning approach. (more…)

Kettle Moraine: Where the Future of Education is Being Created Student by Student


This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the first in a ten-part series on Kettle Moraine. Start the entire series here.

There are many reasons to learn about what Kettle Moraine School District is doing:

  • Personalizing education;
  • Opening up learning by using a learner continuum rather than grade level standards;
  • Multi-age classrooms;
  • Chartering schools to test innovations prior to scaling;
  • Micro-credentials;
  • Place-based learning; and
  • Community outreach and community partnerships.

Similar to Waukesha’s STEM Academy, Kettle Moraine (KM) is using a learner continuum that recognizes where the student is and where they will go. Although the standards might be the same, organizing around the learner rather than the grade level opens up new ways of organizing learning. It’s easier to think about meeting students where they are. It’s easier to allow students to learn above their grade level. It’s easier to think about providing students multiple opportunities for how they learn, as teachers must have resources and assessments prepared for students at different places along the continuum. This is the direction every district should be going.

This series is designed to help you understand the Kettle Moraine (KM) approach and how they are making it work. But don’t get too excited. Kettle Moraine is implementing personalized learning based on a strong culture of learning, a belief that students can learn to be independent learners, and a few powerful structures including a graduate profile and learner continuua. And each personalized learning school has then selected their own themes, their own learning designs, and instructional strategies to emphasize. Thus, you are not going to find an easy recipe for replication. Wherever I could, I’ve added links to KM video and resources so you can go even deeper. I truly encourage you to take the time to read this series slowly.

Get Ready to Read This Series

To get ready to read this series, I also encourage you to do two things and to consider two things. (more…)

Waukesha STEM Academy’s Journey from ABC to the Learner Continuum (Part 4)

November 27, 2017 by

Image from the WSA website

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the fourth in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Read the entire series with posts onetwothree, and four.

The transition of Waukesha STEM Academy (WSA) to a personalized, proficiency-based system didn’t happen overnight. Principal James Murray and the team at WSA started down this road in 2010, moving through four stages of implementation.

The first stage was moving toward blended learning and incorporating educational software. Murray explained, “The programs provided a lot of data, especially in math. We had to learn how to use it. We had an innovation dip, and the student data plateaued before finally starting to shoot upward. However, we realized there were problems. We were giving students choices. We thought the gamification would be engaging. But we weren’t teaching students the really important skills of how to collaborate, create, and innovate; we were still somewhat stuck in the consumption game and we wanted to transition to the production side of town.” Murray emphasized, “We started to understand that there was a strong and often overlooked nuance between getting something done compared to mastering concepts and owning the ability to contextualize these skills. We realized that students could never get to mastery solely by using adaptive educational software. You simply can’t do it all online. There are definitely powerful supplemental resources for students, but not the core instructional strategy. We never wanted these programs to supplant great instruction and varied modalities and, more importantly, the application of the skills being developed needed to be the keystone of this process.”

So WSA took a big step back. They began to repurpose. Murray explained, “We started thinking about the endgame. We have to put students on a playing field in life. We wanted our students to know how to learn, make progress, demonstrate their learning, and own their education. We needed to think about how we could prepare our students for that.”

In stage two, or STEM 2.0, WSA focused on what it was going to mean to use STEM to help students build higher order skills. They reorganized the campuses so there was now a K-5 and a 6-8 with 850 students enrolled overall. The next step was moving to 1:1 netbooks, expanding the project-based learning to disband projects tied to grade-levels and add in student-proposal projects, and building a platform to support monitoring students. During this stage, they narrowed grading to A-D with the idea that no student should ever be failing a course.

The third stage, referred to as STEM 3.0, introduced standards-based grading (using standards and committing to every student meeting all the standards). Murray pointed out, “We were focusing on proficiency and mastery. We had an adult mental model in which we kept telling students, “You need to do this or that. You need to reach proficiency. Our feedback on behaviors emphasized compliance.” At this point they started understanding that grade-based standards were adult-driven based on what we expected but not where students really were. The standards were transparent but the expectation was that students were all learning the same standards and at the same pace. They also realized that they needed to shift the orientation to learner-driven so they were helping students begin to own their education and their progression.

In the fourth stage, WSA created their own learner continuums that were informed by standards and learning progressions, organized courses to meet students where they were, increased transparency for students about learning expectations and progress, invested in more coaching and reflection in developing personal habits of success, and created the information system to support it all. The vision was finally staring to take shape and people were beginning to really notice the difference in production, engagement, and excitement for learning. This brand new concept of a school had started to grow its sea legs and was now beginning to transform the educational system as we had always known it into a program model that functioned much like a blend of a start-up company and a think-tank, woven into a technical college type-campus.

Use of Technology to Support Students and Teachers

Murray explained, “In order to make the personalized, proficiency-based system really work for students, teachers, and parents, we needed a really good LMS. It needed to operate as a fully-accessible digital file cabinet so that teachers, students, and parents could have access to real-time data and resources.” As every school shifting to competency-based education knows, that’s not so easy to find. “We didn’t just want to build a system and then let it collect dust, as the teachers were the keepers of knowledge. We wanted our most important customers – our students and parents – to be able to access these tools whenever and wherever they pursued their learning. (more…)

Waukesha STEM Academy: Rethinking Space, Time, and Reporting (Part 3)

November 20, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the third in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Read the entire series with posts onetwothree, and four.

“Once you get a new iPhone, you can’t go back to a flip phone…it just doesn’t feel right,” remarked Waukesha STEM Academy principal James Murray. We had been discussing the power of creating a transparent learner continuum and the implications for other parts of the instructional and school design.

Use of Time

One change just led to another, and there was no way to stop or back up because the value to students was so apparent. Murray likened it to climbing a tree, branch by branch. “Eventually, you look down and realize how high you have climbed. We were so far beyond the norm that we weren’t going to turn back and climb down that proverbial tree.” For example, in rethinking the learner continuum, Waukesha STEM Academy (WSA) also started rethinking the structure of time and how it impacted learning. Instead of a semester or a school year, they began to think about how they would use the 540 days of learning students had while at STEM and then stretch the learning experience into the summer and vacation months. They are now pushing to see how they might provide a year-round model with more learning during the summer through seminars.

One of the principles they used is Do less so you can do more. They reduced core courses from eight to three per day.  The WSA considers the schedule a framework (scroll down to see this week’s framework), as it is something that guides but can be changed if needed. The first fifteen minutes of the day is spent for a transition to learning spaces. The idea of transition is that students check in with whom they need to, grab the resources they need, finish up any work they need to, and find their way to their learning space. The schedule is then a mix of four core courses each day with times aimed at supporting students and openings in the day, when students are able to work on focus areas respective of their individual and personalized learning goals.

Twice a week, students have FLEX where they go to whatever teacher and course they need extra help or extra time with to complete their projects. Homework Club is available three times a week for extra help after school, with students working in a math lab or literacy lab as needed. Murray noted that 98 percent of the students who need the extra help stay after school. In addition, twice weekly Advisory has formal reflection time for students to think about how they are using the time in the day for their learning, as well as to focus on personal success habits, digital citizenship conversations, ACP lessons, and other types of training and coaching.

CONNECT happens at lunch every day, with students touching base with staff as needed or as requested. This is a very unique approach to lunch, because 100 percent of students are on, all at the same time. No one tells students when they need to eat or where they need to go. In this hour, students choose when they eat and which teachers they will go to connect with. At first, there were conversations about schooling this concept and telling groups of students when they needed to eat and where they needed to go. This quickly fell by the wayside when the mission of this time was looked at closely. “We wanted to help our students build skills in time management and ownership of their day,” Murray adds. “When you do it for them and tell them when they can eat and where they need to sit, and make them raise their hands to throw their trash out or excuse themselves from the table, you have removed the ability and need to develop that sense of growth. Our goal was to build independence, not dependent students who didn’t need to think for themselves.”

When students first join WSA, they are offered a four-week Bootcamp during CONNECT to fully understand the proficiency-based system and the information management systems that support it. Students only exit the Bootcamp when they have demonstrated that they understand the necessary components to be successful at WSA. They learn how to use Google Docs and the information management system For All Rubrics; they are introduced to how the schedule is organized; they become familiar with the learner continuums and rubrics; and they learn how to use FLEX, CONNECT, and Homework Club to best support their learning. Once they demonstrate mastery in these areas, they are released into Gen. Pop. and are “pushed out of the nest,” so to speak, and show that they can be successful. If, after a few days, it is observed that a student still needs some support, they are reeled back in to Bootcamp so they can further develop the skills they need to build up.

Rethinking Space


Waukesha STEM Academy: Personalizing Instruction and Learning Experiences (Part 2)

November 13, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the second in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Read the entire series with posts onetwothree, and four.

Many people describe WSA as a STEM school or as a project-based learning school. Murray quickly pointed out, “I couldn’t really make a blanket statement that we are a project-based school or not. It really depends on the student and how they learn best. For some students, hands-on learning and projects all day work great; for others, not so well. We organize the instruction and learning around what works for students.” He continued, “We started out as a project-based school until we discovered that not every student is ready to do hands-on learning the day they walk through our doors. We failed forward and learned by doing and not doing. Now we ask and discover through conversations with our students what the best fit is for them and roll from there. What does the student need? What type of environment do they like? What type of modality fits their learning habits best? What type of seat do they like, even! Maybe their best fit is direct instruction from a teacher, possibly a slide-show or presentation, maybe it is to watch a video so they have some control and can re-watch, or maybe what they need to do is create a video to teach other students.”


The shared pedagogical philosophy at WSA begins with making learning visible. This starts with an agreed-upon workflow process that has students able to access ‘playlists’ or the resources they need for the unit or progression of skills, followed by students planning for and engaging in learning. The next stages are skill building and practice tasks and experiences with formative feedback, which is then followed by summative work where students submit artifacts that demonstrate their proficiency for a specific level of skill and demonstrating mastery. Finally, the learner continuum is used to monitor and share student progress to help support a competency-based learning system. And the cycle begins again.

As emphasized above, the specific instructional strategies vary based on a combination of student needs and the teacher’s professional judgment about what will be most effective delivery and modality for students. There are different instructional modalities, including direct instruction, complementary and adaptive educational software, Socratic seminars, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. There is an emphasis on students applying their learning through the design process, innovating and creating things, capstones projects followed by gallery walks, and project-based learning. Murray explained, “It really feels unique and pretty real when you walk down the hallways and into learning spaces here, because you don’t see just STEM at WSA, you actually have to step over it.”

WSA knows that teachers need time for planning. Given the high degree of interdependence of math skills, with students needing to access prerequisite concepts and processes, the math team has 80 minutes [together] every day for planning and strategizing for providing support to all students. “When we sat back and reflected on our schedule for about the hundredth time in Year 3,” Murray laughs, “we recognized that we truly needed to be responsive to our teacher’s needs and not just our students’, or burnout was sure to follow.  Similar to how a teacher would ask a student how they learn best, I asked our staff how they would work best, and they gave some amazing feedback and a vision. This vision blended with our students’ needs and brought upon our new daily and weekly framework, which is quite fluid to support needs of all learners in the school.” Feedback was then gathered from students, staff, and parents to continue to grow the best possible framework for optimal learning and teaching conditions.

Mix of Courses and Educational Experiences

Before WSA made the transition to personalized, proficiency-based education, there were eight core courses and transitions a day. “With that many transitions and classes came that much less time to learn and time wasted moving between classes,” Murray says. “What if we didn’t have bells, reduced the amount of transitions between classes, and built up the amount of time that students were able to spend on experiments, projects, and collaboration? What if we just gave students more time to apply their learning and opened up the pacing a little bit?” It seemed to be the switch that needed to be flipped, because engagement and performance skyrocketed, and WSA currently organizes their day into four main COREs, as they’re called. Murray insists that the day isn’t a block-schedule and there is evidence to prove it. “When we visited other schools or teams come to visit us, they quickly ask if our schedule is a block schedule when they see it and I show them the past two, three, and four weeks that we have just experienced. Every single week this year has been different for the most part, based on what took place each week – which trips were built in, which mentors and partnerships came to visit, when Advisory took place, and when we felt the need to build in a FLEXible afternoon, where students created their own schedule for half of the day. Folks aren’t sure how to take that, but it excites them when they see that it’s possible.” Murray shared that at WSA, they even run mornings and half days where the students are able to visit Passion-Project Seminars based on their own interests and, at times, the students are the ones who are running the seminars. (more…)

Creating a Learner-Driven System in Waukesha (Part 1)

November 8, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the first in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Read the entire series with posts one, two, three, and four.

I arrived early at Waukesha’s STEM Academy – Saratoga Campus (WSA). Entering the front door, one immediately steps into a relatively open space carved into smaller areas by bookshelves, desks, and a variety of seating options. The place was humming. Students streaming in, unpacking backpacks, clustered in corners talking, some wrapping themselves in chairs with a book or a computer. A film crew from a local station was set up in another area to interview two young women who were winners in a regional Toy and Game competition. (See for yourself in A Day in the Life or virtual tour videos.)

I hadn’t had my coffee yet and was having difficulties taking it all in. Especially the five-foot-long Ball Python in principal James Murray’s office, which luckily hadn’t had his coffee either and lay there peacefully. (I later learned that a parent, who was ready to pass on the snake to the next caretaker, had dropped it off at the school.)

WSA serves over 300 students in a middle school, all of whom are selected through a random lottery and without any criterion to enter. Jokingly, Murray points out the irony in the lottery process, because even though the school is a one-to-one technology school, full of 3D printers, laser engravers, CNC routers, saws, drills, and a flurry of digital learning platforms and 55” TV’s lining the walls like posters, the lottery is conducted through a process that uses an old-school Bingo hopper. “We want all students, “Murray points out. “We don’t want to go out and hand pick our students…we want students…period.” He shares that, “we have the 1st through the 99th percentile in academic readiness and the 1st through the 99th percentile in behaviors when they come through our doors. After Day 1, it’s a whole new ball game, and we help foster caring, compassionate citizens who end up becoming great students. One is the byproduct of the other, and I honestly don’t feel that these can be grown in isolation, nor should they be.”

He also quickly disposed of the idea that middle school simply means grades six through eight. “On paper, this campus is grades six through eight. That’s about where that antiquated theory ends, though. Students enter our school with skills that stretch from second grade and extend beyond tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade. Basically, we’ve eliminated grades based on your age… here is no born-on date for progress and success. We help students own the fact that when they arrive here, they are on a 540-day journey, with each student entering at a different place and moving at a different pace. We are, simply put, a competency-based school.” Although we at CompetencyWorks have anticipated schools thinking this way, to date it is few and far between. I didn’t even need my coffee anymore. I was alert to make sure I didn’t miss any of the details about how WSA had developed.

Theory of Action

WSA has a clear theory of action that drives how the school is organized and the culture of the school. (more…)

Blair Elementary School

November 6, 2017 by

This is the third post in a series on my visit to Wisconsin. Start with this look at what’s happening state-wide. 

After my tour of Flight Academy in the school district of Waukesha, I was able to swing by for a quick conversation with Aida Cruz-Farin, principal at Blair Elementary School. Cruz-Farin’s career had taken her to the Milwaukee office of New Leaders for New Schools, but she missed the daily interaction with children. She was attracted to Blair because it was a school struggling to meet the needs of its students, of which 90 percent are FRL. Another way to think about Blair is as a beautifully multicultural school with 70 percent Hispanic students and fifteen spoken languages. But one thing was for sure: Expectations were low. Ten percent of students were proficient in reading and 12 percent in math. There was more pity for the students than expectations. There was only one place to go, and that was up. In less than four years, the school went from low-performing based on Wisconsin’s accountability system to exceeding expectations.

Blair’s Mission

To educate all students in a loving environment while maintaining high standards for academic excellence and character. We are committed to equity, diversity, bi-literacy, innovation and collaboration. Five key practices make our success possible: college focus; team teaching; innovation and diversity; maximizing instructional time; and communication with families and community partners.

Operating in the context of Wisconsin, where it seems that much of the strongest efforts around personalization have been in middle and upper income communities, Cruz-Farin brought a commitment to providing personalized learning to the students at Blair. Cruz-Farin said that the first stage of the transition process was creating a strong mission and vision with personalization at its core, establishing a high level of expectation, and building a culture to support the new vision.


The change at Blair Elementary School started with changing beliefs. Introducing a college-bound focus, every classroom adopts a college and learns about it. Students are referred to as scholars. Connections to college are constantly made throughout the school. The discussion about beliefs is transparent. The Blair team is instilling the values of believing in oneself as well as agency. Cruz-Farin explained, “We can open doors for students but they need to walk through them. We want them to understand that they are the ones who hold the keys to their future.”

Believe in yourself and you are halfway there – Theodore Roosevelt


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