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Aurora Institute

A Conversation with Teachers in Cleveland

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Image from the JFK E3agle Academy Website

This is the last of a five-part series on competency-based schools in Cleveland Metropolitan Schools.

One of the highlights of the school visits in Cleveland was a conversation with teachers at PACT and E3agle High Schools. The conversation was wide reaching – here are a few of the highlights.

What it Takes to Meet Students Where They Are

When asked what was different in teaching in a mastery-based school as compared to a traditional one, it was nearly unanimous that mastery-based learning requires teachers to think ahead and design substantial scaffolding. Teachers described having to do unit planning for at least ten weeks (based on 10-week curriculum maps) ahead in case students started advancing quickly while also planning for scaffolding that would help students who might be four or five grade levels below to build up their skills. (See project-based learning planning template.)

Tim Hurt, a literature teacher from PACT, emphasized how much mastery-based education demands differentiation. “When you are managing twenty different learning plans, it totally pokes holes into what we thought teaching was about. In a traditional system we felt like we were rock stars. The only way to be successful in a personalized, mastery-based model is to work with students and stay focused on learning…both student learning and our own.”

Almad Allen, also an ELA teacher from PACT, added, “It took a while to get unplugged from the traditional model’s focus on right and wrong. Now my job is to identify when a student’s understanding is incomplete to focus on pacing, and I’ve had to learn to differentiate on the fly. I can’t create lessons the night before anymore. I think through units with the end in mind about how I’m going to make sure every student is successful. I have to anticipate where there are going to be misconceptions or difficulties. If students get lost, they can’t move on. My job is to think through the different places they might get lost and how I’m going to help them move forward. I’m the one who has to have the map in my head to respond to the day-to-day changes in students’ learning.”

Nicole Williams, a PACT intervention specialist, described that she is now thinking intentionally about how to teach and re-teach in her unit planning. “Before I present the lesson, I’ve already thought about the needs of specific students and where the lesson might go,” she said. “I’m thinking about what they know, what they don’t know, and possible misconceptions.” She also said that conferencing with students and goal setting is particularly helpful in addressing student gaps.

Hurt explained, “My grading has become more fluid. In the traditional model, you gave a D or F if students didn’t do well. There wasn’t any next step. Now we think about what it will take for a student to be successful. There are a lot more interventions on the part of general teachers. Quite honestly, we are delivering better instruction because we think beyond just delivering it. We think about whether students will actually learn.” (See English Competency Map.)

Anthony Carbone, an intervention specialist at E3agle, was enthusiastic, “The best part of competency-based education is the ability to meet students where they are in their learning.

Mastery in Different Domains

There was a lively conversation regarding whether mastery-based learning worked more effectively within different domains. Opinions abounded. Some teachers felt that mastery-based learning was helpful in social studies because it was all content, while other teachers emphasized that mastery-based learning was more helpful in skills-based domains.

Another teacher pointed out that although there were skills involved in social studies, the Ohio graduation end-of-course exams didn’t emphasize them. Kelly Daily, an E3agle social studies teacher, explained that when there isn’t an Ohio State Test (OST), teachers can design courses for skill-building. For example, there is no OST for world history, so Daily was able to organize a five-week unit on the Rwanda genocide that including reading a book and watching a movie followed by practicing annotation skills, building a graphic organizer, and writing essays.

(Please note: Other schools I’ve visited have transformed their social science and history courses to be a balance of content and skills or entirely skill-based. See Young Women’s Leadership.)

As the conversation dug deeper into the issues of mastery-based learning and domains, teachers began to reflect on their own practices and how mastery-based learning led them to reflecting on their skills. For example, Michael Taub, a math teacher at E3agle, described that it is difficult to assess mathematical problem-solving, as there are often different ways to solve a problem. Students may solve problems differently based on their background knowledge.

On Grading

“Grading is definitely the biggest change,” remarked Allen. “Students now work toward meeting expectations. We talk about what it means to meet expectations. Students, teachers, and parents need to understand expectations and how students are doing toward those learning goals. But parents just want to know how their students are doing.” Hurt continued, “Parents, like all of us, are products of traditional models. They are used to the snapshot report cards. Now they are being asked to look more closely at how students are doing through different lens.”

Daily said that organizational skills were the most important for her success. “We don’t have the full set of systems we need to support us. So we end up doing trial and error, trying to find ways that will work for us. We use a lot of Google docs. We need better systems to communicate and share with parents so they can understand how their children are doing.”

One teacher raised the point that the process of assessing students really draws on the relationships with students. It’s no longer just giving a grade. “We have to be able to explain why and what they can do to improve. They need to trust that we are invested in their success. When teachers give helpful feedback, they demonstrate that they do want students to be successful. It becomes a virtuous cycle of trust, respect, and learning.”

Carbone offered an interesting understanding of grit: “If you want to succeed, it requires knowing what it takes to do it. Grit isn’t just a personal quality; it requires knowledge about the task as well.” Allen continued, “Rubrics open up conversations with students about what they need to do to in order to successfully learn. It forces teachers to provide detailed responses to that child about what they need to do to succeed.” (See Expository / Informative Writing Anchor Performance Task Instructional Guide.)

The teachers agreed that there are several sets of expectations for students. With competency-based education, students are expected to become proficient in all the standards on top of meeting Ohio graduation requirements (which includes credits and completion of Ohio State Tests). PACT is being absolutely transparent about all the expectations and is turning to PowerSchool Learning (previously Haiku) as an information system to help improve communication with students, teachers and among teachers. 

Read the Entire Series:

Post #1 – Cleveland: Where Pedagogy Comes First

Post #2 – Starting with Design Principles in Cleveland

Post #3 – Getting to Know Students’ Business: A Conversation at Lincoln-West’s Schools of Global Studies and Science & Health

Post #4 – E3agle and PACT: Insights from Two New Competency-Based Schools