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Aurora Institute

A Big District Strategy for Implementing Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Image from the Mastery Collaborative website

Commitment counts. It seems to make a difference when school boards and district/school leadership make a commitment to the vision of a more equitable education system where all students are successfully prepared for their next step (i.e., advancing based on mastery) before they begin the process of piloting or implementation.

However, that’s not always going to be possible especially for larger districts. It is much more difficult to engage the broader community and build the consensus needed for the commitment in larger communities. There are just too many people to bring together into one room or around one table. Furthermore, we don’t believe that competency-based education can be effectively implemented as a top-down, memo-driven approach. It requires building trust and engaging in dialogue for everyone to clarify values, understand how the traditional system reproduces inequity and low achievement, and understand the implications of research in the day to day operations of schools.

New York City’s Mastery Collaborative (see the video about its work) offers an option for larger districts to move forward without commitment from the top leadership. The Mastery Collaborative is a voluntary network of schools that have chosen to move to mastery-based learning. At my last count, they had approximately 10 percent of the high schools in the network.

In their continuous improvement efforts, the Mastery Collaborative has recently updated their implementation framework. (See below). The framework includes conditions for success, schoolwide shifts, classroom shifts, and the role of teachers in facilitating learning. It can be easily be placed into a rubric to allow schools to reflect on where they are in their process and identify areas they want to target for improvement.

2017-18 Mastery Collaborative Implementation Framework 2

There is one thing that is very important to remember if your district wants to adapt the Mastery Collaborative approach to their district: New York City has invested heavily in creating smaller secondary schools. Many of these schools have fewer than 600 students. Small does make a difference. Many leading indicators improve with smaller schools such as attendance and graduation rates. It takes instructional changes for achievement to increase as well.

There is another way that smallness makes a better. It is easy to create professional learning communities. In fact, when schools are 350 students or fewer, it makes it easy for teachers to operate in a more empowered, democratic fashion. Why? They can all fit around a table. Kettle Moraine School District values smallness as part of their overall strategy. We haven’t talked about making smallness a condition for successfully implementing personalized, competency-based systems…but we might want to in the future.

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