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Aurora Institute

Building Shared Understanding of Quality through Design Principles

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Nina Lopez, Susan Patrick, and Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Evaluate Quality

This is the sixth post in the blog series on the report, Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education.

In the recent CompetencyWorks report, authors introduce 16 Quality Design Principles to build shared understanding and help states, districts and schools plan and develop competency-based education systems and personalized learning approaches. To be clear, quality does not require a single model or approach. In fact, schools and districts with strong results find themselves engaged in an ongoing cycle of continuous improvement and reflection. However, we offer these design principles as a common reference point for dialogue about what makes a competency-based system high quality.

In education, quality has a moral component to it. Before diving into the constituent parts and examples of quality, it is important to remember that quality matters because it directly influences our ability to make good on our social contract with students and our broader community. While producing high-quality schools may require attention to technical issues, it must start with a belief in the moral imperative of supporting and empowering the next generation of adults. In fact, it is the very beliefs, assumptions and values that shape the culture of a competency-based school that make the structure so powerful. The competency-based structure will falter if it rests on the beliefs and assumptions upon which the traditional system was built.

Schools have implemented competency-based education models for decades. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of districts and schools adopting competency-based education with a handful of states seeking to create innovation space, pilots or a vision for transforming the education systems across the entire state. As the number of competency-based schools has expanded, some have done so with a deep foundational understanding of the purpose, culture and key elements of competency-based education. Others have not, instead treating it as a technical reform or resorting to piecemeal implementation. As a result, some competency-based schools have not always served kids in a way that fulfills the promise of this model. This means that many students are not benefitting as much as they could and puts scaling of competency-based education at risk.

In order to develop an understanding of quality in competency-based schools, it was important to take advantage of the deep well of experience of educators in designing and implementing competency-based systems. The 16 Quality Design Principles discussed in the recent report, Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education, have been identified based on site visits, interviews and guidance from participants in the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. Although these 16 Quality Design Principles can lead to different models, innovators draw upon them to help them “get it right” i.e. to create an integrated system that helps students to learn, adults to learn how to better support students, and the organization to adjust in search of greater effectiveness. Innovators consistently report that “getting it right” requires a commitment to comprehensive implementation that starts with attention to the underlying culture of districts and schools and maintains an unrelenting focus on equity. More detail about how districts have used these design principles will be offered will be offered in the forthcoming CompetencyWorks report, Building a Shared Understanding of Quality: The 16 Design Principles of Competency-Based Education.

A commitment to implement all of the Quality Design Principles is necessary to embed and sustain a competency-based structure within educational systems. For example, schools that try to increase transparency with standards-based grading, but fail to build the capacity to cultivate a growth mindset and provide greater instructional support to respond to struggling students, are unlikely to see higher engagement or achievement. Having said this, districts and schools use different entry points to transform their systems. At any point, schools and districts will find themselves at different steps along a continuum of implementing each of the principles. No matter what the entry point, these principles are intended to support districts as they build out a competency-based system with quality. Consider these 16 Quality Design Principles as a cohesive framework that offers a set of guideposts for schools and districts, whatever their entry point may be. Thus, we can think of each of these design principles as a potential doorway rather than as a set of sequential steps.

16 Quality Design Principles

There are multiple ways to approach quality. Given where the field is — with a growing number of leading districts that are seeking full implementation, innovative school models that seek to draw upon transparent continuums of learning to open up new opportunities for students to pursue rich learning experiences, and increasing numbers of districts and schools just beginning or stumbling in their implementation — we offer design principles as a way to engage in deep dialogue and offer concrete exemplars about the design and implementation of high-quality competency-based systems. As the field progresses, it is anticipated that more formal approaches to ensuring quality will be needed.

The 16 Quality Design Principles are organized into three categories: Culture, Structure, and Teaching and Learning. A high-quality competency-based system starts with Culture. A school’s culture — the values, beliefs, relationships, rituals and routines — provides the foundation of a high-quality school and reinforces its core purpose. Next, the Structure refers to the organizational architecture, processes and policies that create the conditions for teaching and learning. Attention to each of the Structure Design Principles is necessary in order to make good on the promise of supporting all students to reach mastery. Finally, competency-based schools create a shared understanding of Teaching and Learning based on learning sciences. There is no one right instructional method in competency-based schools although there are implications for instruction and assessment. The section on “Meeting Students Where They Are So That Everyone Masters Learning” within the full report delves deeper into the strategies for teaching and learning in quality competency-based systems.

Follow this blog series to delve deeper into these design principles and for more articles charting the course for the next phase of competency-based education, or download the full report:

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