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Aurora Institute

Boston Day and Evening Academy: Where Competency Education is Good Teaching Practice

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments, Learn Lessons from the Field

This is the second post in the Boston Day and Evening Academy series. Continue reading the first and third posts.

During my site visit to BDEA, Alison Hramiec, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, explained that at BDEA “competency is synonymous with good teaching practice, with clear rubrics and discussion around student work. Competency education instills a sense of ownership in the learning process for teachers and for students. Learning comes alive.” Below are a few highlights of the BDEA competency education model.

Competencies, Benchmarks, and Assessments: BDEA defines competency as “able to demonstrate understanding and application of specific skills and content independently, multiple times, and using the correct vocabulary.” BDEA uses three levels: basic competent, competent, and highly competent.

BDEA uses benchmarks to organize learning and monitor progress. They do not use traditional grades or traditional grade levels. Their students earn benchmarks; each benchmark has a rubric. The Individual Learning Plans with the benchmarks for math, science, and humanities can be found on the wiki.

Formative assessments take place in the classroom. Curricular tasks in the classroom, homework assignments, or projects that have bundled a number of benchmarks might be used for assessment. The demonstration of skills plays a critical role in learning.

1)   Teachers use student demonstration of knowledge to direct student learning, and

2)   Demonstration of student knowledge offers feedback to teachers so that they can strengthen their instruction.

With each benchmark having its own rubric, competency education lends itself to formative assessment. Students can’t move on until they have demonstrated knowledge of the benchmark. It has to be done independently, multiple times, and using appropriate vocabulary. We have created a culture of revising and editing. —Beatriz Zapater,Head of BDEA

Habits of Mind (also available on wiki): The Habits of Mind are comprised of six elements which define specific aspects of understanding, and which are interwoven throughout BDEA’s curriculum structure and assessment process. These habits inform our teaching practice, our school culture, and our behaviors.

They include:

  • Reflection: Understanding what one believes, the reason for those beliefs, and recognizing that there are different ways to express oneself, along with the ability to effectively communicate one’s vision to others in different ways;
  • Connections: Understanding why things are the way they are and developing the ability to see how seemingly separate parts of society, the world, and life affect each other;
  • Evidence: The ability to determine the difference between fact and opinion, and knowing where to find information and how to understand it;
  • Possibilities: Recognizing that few things are inevitable. The ability to understand and evaluate complex ideas and issues and to understand that for any given situation, there could be multiple outcomes;
  • Perspectives: Understanding the presence of bias in various forms of communication, recognizing the effect of these biases, and knowing how to discern the truth; and
  • Relevance: Understanding the importance of different events, issues, ideas, and systems in one’s own life and committing to using this awareness to make informed choices.

The Habits of Mind live in the types of assessments and questions teachers ask of the students . They are not separated from the academic competencies. You should expect to hear the words. As schools develop their Habits of Mind, they need to ask themselves “Are we using them in our language and assessments? — Alison Hramiec, Director of Curriculum and Instruction

Scope, Sequencing, and Scaffolding: The scope of the courses at BDEA takes into consideration the needs of the student body. Thus, humanities courses include literacy, an introduction to literature, genre writing, and advanced literature. Student understanding and skill is constructed through a sequence of competencies and benchmarks. Each course has a list of benchmarks; each benchmark has a rubric.

In order to provide more flexibility for students, BDEA uses 11-week modules to allow for proper placement based on skills, allowing students to work at their own pace and to move forward when they demonstrate mastery.

It’s important to remember that sequence doesn’t necessarily mean a linear path. The modularized curriculum allows students to have diverse learning paths, which is another core element of personalized learning.

Because their students are entering with a range of  fourth grade to tenth grade learning, BDEA has become skilled at scaffolding. As Alison reminded me, “The implications of scope and sequence are that they determine the pace at which students can progress. It also has consequences for the teachers’ course load. Teachers need to have adequate prep time. They need the time to design supports so that a class of students reading at eighth grade and one at tenth grade level, based on the Common Core, will be able to comprehend and engage in the text. If the level of text is a challenge for some students, they will read together and discuss it.”

Hramiec also explained that the school focuses on “scaffolding higher-order learning skills with a focus on the four C’s: creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.”

The next and final post about BDEA will be about a few of the big lessons learned from them.

You can find resources from BDEA at the wiki.

Chris Sturgis is Principal of MetisNet, a consulting firm that specializes in supporting foundations and special initiatives in strategy development, coaching and rapid research. She is strategic advisor to the Youth Transition Funders Group and manages the Connected by 25 blog.