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Aurora Institute

Introducing an Equity Framework for Competency Education

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

This post first appeared on CompetencyWorks on June 8, 2017. 

This is the second blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency-Based Education. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field. 

One of our challenges at the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education is to explore, clarify, and develop recommendations on how to approach and improve equity within a competency-based system. In a competency-based system we assume that there is some level of personalization and differentiation in order to meet students where they are, to build lifelong learning skills, and to engage and motivate students. In the participatory Technical Advisory Group we looked at several driving questions, including:

  • How should we define equity to be meaningful in a personalized, competency-based system?
  • How can competency-based learning systems and schools make outcomes more transparent and take responsibility for addressing equity issues?
  • What do we know about improving equity? What elements should be integrated into competency-based structures? What practices should be integrated into any classroom?
  • How can we work together as a field to ensure that competency-based systems take full advantage of what we know about equity strategies to benefit all students, especially those who have been historically underserved?

The first step was to clarify what we meant by equity. With a reflection on how the concept of fairness or equality has developed in American education, we came to an understanding that equity refers to the strategies – equity strategies if you will – that are used to ensure that all students succeed. After looking at many definitions, we are building upon the definition of equity advanced by the National Equity Project.

Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential. Working toward equity in schools involves:

  • Ensuring equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system; removing the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor;
  • Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases, and creating inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children; and
  • Discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests that every human possesses.

However, we hold out as an aspirational goal the vision of educational equality in which all students thrive and develop to their fullest potential. Potential is something difficult to measure and thus susceptible to bias and institutional patterns that treat students differently based on color of skin, earnings and education of parents, language used in the home, and learning challenges. Thus, we are staying focused on the idea of college and career readiness as the goal with the expectation that we will more fully define those skills as the new definition of success in school.

At the National Summit, we will propose and strengthen an equity framework for personalized, competency-based education that includes a set of guiding principles for ensuring that competency-based education is fully designed to support equity strategies and ensure all students are growing and progressing. We organized our thinking into eight categories, each with guiding principles: culture of safety, respect and trust; student agency; transparency; new definition of success that informs graduation outcomes; pedagogical philosophy; responsiveness, continuous improvement, and success; consistency and reliability; and, progress, proficiency, pace, and school/district performance.

We invite you to share your insights and feedback to the proposed guiding principles below.

1. Culture of Safety, Respect, and Trust: The culture of schools are designed so that all students and adults, especially the most marginalized, feel safe and respected and can build trusting relationships that enable direct and productive feedback.

Proposed Guiding Principles

  • All policies and procedures nurture cultures of learning in which students feel safe and respected.
  • Students have opportunities for choice, voice, and leadership within the school and school governance.
  • Students see their cultural, racial, social class, sexual orientation, and gender identities acknowledged, affirmed, and reflected around them. Educators work with students through an assets-based, rather than deficit-based, lens that includes viewing language, culture, and family background.
  • Educator and administrator workforce reflects the diversity of the student population and actively works toward attaining cultural competency.

2. Student Agency: Schools provide feedback, coaching, and opportunities for students to build the skills and mindsets needed to take ownership of their learning and become lifelong learners.

Proposed Guiding Principles

  • All policies and procedures are designed around enhancing a growth mindset and seeking opportunities for coaching students in lifelong learning skills (habits of work, metacognitive skills, social and emotional learning, self-advocacy, and navigating new environments).
  • Transparent structures, practices, and supports are designed to support students in building lifelong learning skills.
  • Students have access to culturally responsive curriculum, flexible pathways, and multiple opportunities to learn and demonstrate learning with common assessments and common outcomes.
  • Students have opportunities to learn outside of school, to explore the world, and discover their passions and aptitudes.
  • School strategies to nurture student agency are intentionally monitored to ensure that all students, specifically historically underserved and marginalized students, are receiving the feedback and coaching they need to build skills.

3. Transparency: The cycle of learning is explicit and transparent so that students know what they need to learn, what proficiency looks like, how they will be assessed, and how they are progressing.

Proposed Guiding Principles

  • The learning objectives, competencies, and standards are explicit and transparent.
  • Districts are open and honest in all communication. Clarity of intentions, expectations, learning targets, and feedback ensures everyone has the information to advance their goals. (Adapted from Building 21.)
  • Grading practices and policies are clear, fair, and refer to student progress in their learning.

4. New Definition of Success that Informs Graduation Outcomes: Districts and schools engage the community in creating a shared vision of what students need to know and be able to do upon graduation. Districts and schools are designed around a well-rounded set of graduation outcomes including lifelong learning, higher order skills, and academic skills and content.

Proposed Guiding Principles

  • Student success is broadly defined to include academics, lifelong learning, higher order skills, personal interests, and preparation for successful transition to college and careers and citizenship (democratic decision making).
  • Multiple measures of student success are used to provide feedback on school performance.
  • Habits of work or desired behaviors are positioned as durable skills that benefit students outside of school.
  • Districts and schools are designed to ensure that students have the opportunity to apply their skills and develop higher order skills.

5. Pedagogical Philosophy: Districts and schools are designed around shared and explicit pedagogical philosophies based on research in engagement, motivation, child/youth development, and learning sciences.

Proposed Guiding Principles

  • Pedagogy is based upon a growth mindset and must take into consideration that students start with different sets of academic skills, social and emotional skills, and life experiences.
  • Pedagogy is designed to meet the needs of diverse learners. It is learner-centered and culturally responsive, including, but not limited to, communication of high expectations, active learning teaching methods, student-driven discourse, and small group instruction.
  • Learning environments are designed using UDL and literacy strategies are taught across the curriculum.
  • Pedagogy is designed to build self-directed learning skills.
  • Pedagogy is designed to ensure students have opportunities to apply learning.

6. Responsiveness, Continuous Improvement, and Success: Districts and schools use data on student progress to create agile organizations that can respond to student needs, drive continuous improvement, and ensure that students are successfully reaching proficiency each step of the way.

Proposed Guiding Principles

  • Data is available and used to identify individual students not making adequate progress (in the lifelong learning skills, academic skills and standards, and higher order skills), support evidence-based approaches, monitor effectiveness of support and intervention strategies, and catalyze continuous improvement to improve effectiveness of instruction, services, and school design.
  • Teachers, paraprofessionals, and case managers have opportunity for collaboration, learning, and planning.
  • Schools and teachers have autonomy to respond to the changing strengths and needs of students and to tailor learning experiences to needs of students.
  • Schools address gaps in learning.
  • Districts and schools have the autonomy to use school finances and resources flexibly in response to student assets and needs.
  • Resources are distributed to maximize the number of students who gain one or more performance levels per year and to ensure that those students who are two or more performance levels behind their grade levels are prioritized for additional targeted support.

7. Consistency and Reliability: The expectations of the learning objectives and rigor are calibrated with all students being held to the same high standards, including demonstrating mastery and fluency in the foundational skills.

Proposed Guiding Principles

  • States, districts, and schools co-design policies and practices to ensure that levels of proficiency and mastery (application of the skills and knowledge) are calibrated to state standards and are fully transparent.
  • Teachers engage in joint scoring of student work to ensure inter-rater reliability.
  • Teacher-generated performance assessments are strengthened by engaging in task validation protocols.
  • Transparency in grading provides feedback on student progress and is designed to recognize and monitor growth with improved consistency and reliability.

8. Progress, Proficiency, Pace, and School/District Performance: Student progress is measured by growth along a learning continuum with personalized strategies for setting the pace of learning towards graduation.

Proposed Guiding Principles

  • Every student has the opportunity to apply skills and engage in deeper learning.
  • Student achievement recognizes growth rate and level of proficiency/mastery.
  • Culturally responsive education strategies are in place to ensure that diverse communities of learners are fully supported.
  • Student learning is monitored along a continuum rather than completion of grade-level standards within a year or course.
  • Data is used to monitor student growth in academic domains, success in deeper learning/higher order skills, and developing lifelong learning skills. This includes monitoring growth over time and on-track indicators.

By creating a framework, we as a field have a place to collect and share our knowledge about how to improve equity in personalized, competency-based systems. We invite you to share your reactions to these guiding principles, and we encourage you to share next steps that can be taken to transform these principles into action.

It is very much up to the adults in the system, from teachers to federal policymakers, to take responsibility to learn as much as we can about improving equity and holding ourselves accountable for putting it into action. We must live and breathe equity in our daily lives.

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