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Aurora Institute

8 Ways Blended Districts Can Implement a Competency-Based Structure

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Post 6Districts that have introduced blended learning may share the common philosophy with competency-based schools that students learn differently, requiring schools to personalize the learning experiences of students. However, they’ve started with a different entry point by focusing on how technology can improve the delivery of instruction. They may not have yet made the shift to understanding that we need to reconfigure our education system to be designed for success, rather than the ranking and sorting of the traditional system that reproduces inequity.

Depending on the strategies they have used, this means that blended districts and schools may have already developed the essential leadership and management capacities required for introducing the changes involved in creating a competency-based system. Because they see flexible pacing as an element for supporting student learning rather than focusing on fixed time for delivering curriculum, the concept of progress upon mastery has already taken root. In fact, blended classrooms where both the digital resources and face-to-face instruction are providing engaging educational opportunities and encouraging a high level of rigor for students to demonstrate mastery may have already created the capacity and a rational transition point for fully moving to competency education.

The process of blended schools converting to a competency-based structure is just beginning. Below, I highlight eight ways blended districts can implement a competency-based structure, based on insights of technical assistance providers who are working with districts across the country.

1. Invest in Leadership: In the process of planning and implementing blended learning delivery models, most districts have already found that a top-down leadership and management approach has its limits. In competency education, top-down management is generally ineffective. Leaders in competency-based districts consistently raise the importance of developing a more adaptive leadership style, such as distributed leadership or middle-up-down management. Lindsay Unified School District has experienced this firsthand. Their first and most important step in the process of change was investing in school leadership and district staff. As a team, they began to reflect on their leadership styles and discuss how to build capacity to engage others in decision-making.

2. Re-Visit the Mission and Vision: Competency education rests on a foundation of transparency, empowerment, and shared purpose. If an inclusive process wasn’t used to develop the district’s mission, blended districts may want to revisit their mission and vision by engaging the community to ensure that it reflects a shared purpose (not one defined solely from the superintendent and/or school board). Inclusive engagement processes to create a shared purpose and vision is essential for sustainability and changes in leadership. Given that we are still in relatively early stages of understanding what competency-based districts might look like as the system fully develops, the shared ownership is a critical element in the implementation process.

3. Start with a Learning Culture: Depending on the transition strategy and roll-out strategy, blended districts may have started with building a strong culture of learning, they may have emphasized individual teacher experimentation and innovation, or they may be working with something in between. That’s why blended districts will want to consider the characteristics and strength of their culture of learning as they move toward competency education. A shared purpose and culture of learning is at the very heart of competency education.

4. Calibrate Proficiency: A required step in competency education is for teachers to work together to clarify what proficiency is for each standard, including the depth of learning based on a knowledge taxonomy. This starts with three ingredients: strong professional learning communities, a learning progression such as Common Core or other state standards, and a knowledge taxonomy such as Webb’s or Bloom’s. This includes teachers looking at student work together and clarifying what exactly is making it proficient or not. When done well, this process becomes embedded professional development as teachers begin to build their skills in assessing learning.

5. Nurture Student Agency: Student agency is an integral part of competency education. In the process of implementing blended learning, schools will have an increased understanding that the greater the level of student ownership of their learning, the more easily teachers can take on the role of facilitator. Yet they may have little in place to support student agency beyond the self-directed learning that is inherent in some digital content.

6. Advance Students Based on Demonstrated Mastery: One of the benefits of blended learning using digital content is the enriched data that is available regarding student learning. Yet, as discussed previously, that data is only one indicator and should not be used alone to determine student proficiency or readiness to advance to the next academic level. Depending on where they are in their development, blended districts and schools may be still using A–F grading systems and standards-referenced grading, or they may have made the crucial shift to standards-based grading in which students only move on to the next academic level when they have reached demonstrated proficiency.

Districts that have built capacity around blended may or may not have aligned their assessments with higher order skills. If they are still focused on the levels of recall and comprehension they will need to support teachers in building their instructional capacity as well as developing performance-based assessments.

7. Design for Not Yet Proficient With Adequate Support: Once a school stops passing students along to the next course or grade with Cs and Ds, it must face up to building adequate supports for students who need extra help or who are not yet proficient. Blended learning is likely to be of substantial help here, especially as some adaptive digital content is helpful for students to get more practice and rapid feedback on standards at the levels of recall and comprehension.

8. Plan for Application and Knowledge Utilization: Many blended schools have emphasized high-quality face-to-face instruction as well as high-quality online tools and resources. Others have focused implementations of digital content on identifying skills gaps and freeing up class time for higher order thinking and application. If the digital content is focused on lower-level skills, it is important the students have opportunity for application of knowledge and adaptation in different contexts. An essential part of competency education is ensuring that students can apply their learning at the deeper levels of learning: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Without some opportunities to apply that knowledge more deeply, schools are providing a less-than-desired quality of learning.

Implementing a competency-based structure into a blended learning district takes hard work. It requires extraordinary leadership throughout the layers of the education system to deconstruct the old system and build up new structures and language. Yet, we all know that each year we are not successful in educating students will have an impact on their lives and on the strength of our nation.

I invite you to share your insights and lessons learned on competency education and blended learning in the comments below or reaching out to me on twitter (@sturgis_chris). The most valuable knowledge is that which practitioners are developing on the cutting edge of transformation.

Follow this series on equity in personalized, competency-based and blended learning to learn more:

  • 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
  • Blog 5: 6 Ways to Eliminate Attribution Error on the Path to Equity in Competency-Based Systems

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