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Aurora Institute

6 Ways to Eliminate Attribution Error on the Path to Equity in Competency-Based Systems

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Post 5In order to create an equitable education system, we need to reduce the predictive value of race, gender, class, and disability in the classroom. In the blaming culture of the traditional educational system, we point to children or their families as the problem when students aren’t successfully learning, rather than revisit our educational designs and structures. In competency education, students who are struggling are identified quickly and receive additional supports. In addition, the continuous improvement cycle can identify and address patterns of inequity in resources, learning experiences or access to highly qualified teachers.

Given that high quality competency education rests on having respectful relationships between students and teachers, eliminating attribution error is a critical step. Attribution error is when we assume a deficit to explain behavior. For example, believing that a student who is always late doesn’t care about her education, when in fact she cares so deeply about education she drops her siblings at school and then takes three different buses to get to class each morning. We need to begin with the assumption that we are all at risk of making the wrong assumptions about students. The following are suggestions gathered during a convening on how to rid your school of attribution error. ž

1. Cleaning Up the Language of Learning: The language of learning in a traditional system is limited to smart, fast, or ahead. Students are racing ahead, falling behind, or on different tracks (even though we don’t like to admit that these descriptions still exist). In order to eliminate attribution errors, we need to let go of the adjectives and create a data-driven language of learning that indicates what level students are at on a learning progression, the pace of learning, their growth, and the depth of their learning. ž

2. Starting with Honesty: In competency education, data on student learning is a powerful tool for challenging patterns of inequity. Instead of giving students passing grades for good behavior and/or using bad behavior as an academic marker, educators are required to talk with students and parents about the exact level students are at on the learning progression, regardless of how they act in class. It may feel counterintuitive, but by being honest about where students are, we create the opportunity to lift them up rather than limiting their future by telling them that all is fine when it isn’t. ž

3. Assessing the Environment: Instead of seeing the deficits located with the child, consider the school capacity and classroom environment as the target of change. Conditions for learning are affected by school climate, social-emotional learning, discipline policies, and attitudes around difference. To provide an environment where students matter and can be engaged in learning, you may need to address these elements:

  • In what way is your school enabling or disabling for your lowest achieving students?
  • Do you know your students’ strengths as well as their academic deficits?
  • Are students able to engage in critical thinking, creativity, and deeper learning regardless of their skill levels or cultural background, or does the school push lower achieving students into low depth of knowledge learning?
  • Do students have choice about curriculum and projects to pursue topics that are culturally relevant to them?
  • Do all courses incorporate Universal Designs for Learning? ž

4. Investing in Agency: The behavior of students is shaped by how they are motivated, their aspirations and fears, their skill at handling conflict and complex problems, and their sense of what is possible. Given that many students are in special education because of behavioral issues, it is imperative that we integrate strategies into the core of the school to help students learn productive behaviors. For example, at Making Community Connections Charter School, teachers use a technique called “negotiated release” to help students learn habits. By using very precise rubrics to help students reflect upon and understand the specific behaviors that are needed to manage themselves and navigate the school environment, students are able to build a broad set of skills. ž

5. Investing in Social and Educational Capital: Our current accountability frameworks force a singular focus on what kids know. In order to understand equity gaps, schools need to take other things into consideration, such as who you know or what you’ve experienced in life. We need to be more deliberate about arming students with strong networks that can propel them forward — not just in learning, but in life. Schools need to be designed to expand social and educational capital (whether through networking options like peer-to-peer collaboration, mentors, and job shadowing, or educational capital like learning how to play instruments, participating in new sports, or school-related travel). ž

6. Breaking Down Bias: It’s too easy for bias to sneak into our work. We have to be on the look out for it, identify it, and learn from it. Do you have structures in place that can help you clean out attribution errors from your school, such as having PLCs surface and test assumptions and interpretations through activities like looking at student work without names or assessing student work in groups? Consider establishing peer advocates who can help when a student feels like an adult isn’t really listening to them or understanding them.

How do you work to eliminate attribution error in your school or district? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us here: @nacol, @CompetencyWorks, @sturgis_chris.

For more information, explore this blog series on equity:

  • Blog 1 in series: Addressing Equity Issues in Personalized, Competency-Based and Blended Learning
  • Blog 2: How Competency Education Drives Equity
  • Blog 3: Addressing Misconceptions in Competency Education
  • Blog 4: Tackling Issues of Equity in Personalized Learning

To learn more: