Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Autonomy, Apples, and Oranges

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Ephraim Weisstein

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

What have you learned about how to work with districts in introducing competency-based schools–and what district leaders can do?

I have been working since 1985 on competency-based education (CBE) models to better serve over-aged and under-credited  students, first as the Education Director of Jobs for Youth High and later as the founder of Diploma Plus and more recently Schools for the Future.

The following lessons learned for how to establish strong working relationships with districts are generalized for CBE.  (Click here for a checklist) However, anyone working with marginalized students, especially those that are over-age and undercredited, will need to negotiate upfront the expectations of the population you want to serve and how students will gain admission to the school (first come; lottery, application; placement).

1) Negotiating the Time-Based Constraints

  • Determine which policies are driven by federal, state, or local and strategize with the district to be proactive seeking waivers from the feds and state officials:
    • Are students restricted to a prescribed number of years that they can stay at your school?
    •  Will your school “grade” be impacted by students graduating at a “nontraditional speed?”
    • Are there any mandates in terms of the type of curriculum that must be used or similar curricula restrictions?
  • Be sure that you have the freedom within the district to include anywhere/anytime learning within your model if it’s an aspect of your CBE programming

2)  Have An Aggressive Focus on Students and Learning

  •  The most important thing for the success of your school (and the district) is to be crystal clear about your mastery standards.  It’s hard to do CBE if you are trying to balance unclear or sometimes contradictory standards.  Even better than negotiating your own deal, is to work with a district that is moving toward clarity.
  • Be sure that you have the freedom for students to move through the program and to graduate based on meeting agreed upon benchmarks rather than needing to meet time, attendance, or other non-mastery related targets.

Autonomy, Apples and Oranges

  • Getting the right staff in place to do CBE is paramount so be sure that you have the necessary agreements in place with the districts to hire the right principal and staff.
  • Make sure that you have agreements in place with the district to provide sufficient amounts of PD and a delivery schedule of your choosing.
  • Be clear and realistic about the needed services/resources and cost of the program and use it to codify agreements with the district that are workable for both parties. Beware of districts that are only interested in limiting costs and want to compare apples to oranges—“it only costs us 8K for this one to one computer assisted school and that’s what you need to make work for your school.
  •  Be prepared. It’s likely that at some point the district will start to try to micromanage the how (time and scheduling) and you’ll have to get them re-focused on outcomes.

This last point is arguably the key.  At the very heart of CBE is the proposition that: (1) the learning target (typically a set of proof points that show students are ready for success after high school) are fixed but, (2)  the route that students take to get there varies by need—sometimes student by student. (Click here to find School for the Future’s Three Big Principles)

Attempts to make the “how” uniform for all (students scoring at level 1 must take six months of developmental reading for 240 minutes per week) destroys the very essence of CBE.  If we want students to advance based on demonstrated competence we cannot mix in non-competency-based indicators such as fixed time or the same curriculum for everyone.

Conclusion: It is very hard for schools not to fall into the traditional ways of doing things. Like all of us, they know what they know and they don’t have a mental model for CBE.  While you don’t need districts to have every policy in place to support CBE, if you don’t have most of them you will likely have a hard time succeeding.

__________About the Author__________

Ephraim Weisstein is founder of  Schools for the Future. Previously, Ephraim Weisstein was a co-designer of Diploma Plus, a nationally acclaimed alternative high school model operating 30 schools in eight states and serving 4,000 formerly disconnected youth. You can reach Ephraim at [email protected]


Photograph is adapted from an original by Dan McKay