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Aurora Institute

Cleveland: Where Pedagogy Comes First

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

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

Starting up a school is challenging. No matter how much planning takes place, the first year is spent working out the design and operational kinks. Starting up a school that is mastery-based when no one in the district has had much experience in the model adds an entirely new level of challenge. But that’s what Cleveland Metropolitan Schools is doing (in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation and Springpoint) in creating new schools that are aligned with the Opportunity by Design principles.

Natalie Abel, program manager for CompetencyWorks; Ashley Jones, iNACOL communications associate; and I spent two days in Cleveland visiting schools in their first and third years to better understand how schools develop and fine-tune their models. We particularly want to thank Darcel Williams, Program Manager for New School Model, and Kristen Kelly, Mastery Learning Specialist, for hosting and organizing our visit. They were tremendously generous with time, insights, and experts.

From Teaching to Teaching and Learning

We started our visit to Cleveland with a discussion with Christine Fowler-Mack, Chief Portfolio Officer over New & Innovative Schools and Programs; Joseph Micheller, Executive Director of New School Development; Darcel Williams; and Kristen Kelly. It’s important to understand that Cleveland is using a portfolio strategy to improve their schools. In general, the portfolio strategy applies to high schools while the K-8 schools remain neighborhood-based.

For those of you not familiar with the portfolio strategy, it’s a school reform model that seeks to create choice among diverse, autonomous schools. The role of districts also changes, moving to managing a portfolio, including opening and closing schools, monitoring performance, and providing support. As part of this strategy, Cleveland has participated in Center for Reinventing Public Education’s network of districts using the portfolio strategy. Cleveland started down the path toward building a portfolio of high schools in 2006 using a set of design principles and building the district capacity to support the launch new schools. Among Cleveland’s 101 schools are four big comprehensive high schools and thirty-three small high schools.

Fowler-Mack explained that Cleveland is developing a district-wide pedagogical philosophy. It’s best explained as moving from a philosophy solely focused on teaching to one focused on teaching and learning. Similar to New Hampshire, Cleveland is turning to Elmore’s work on the instructional core to guide them.

Engaging Educators

Fowler-Mack explained that the reactions some educators demonstrated toward school improvement efforts were originally viewed as resistance. However, over the years her understanding has changed: She now understands it is as fear of effectiveness. “This isn’t about a clash of philosophy,” explained Fowler-Mack. “It’s about how we can evolve the practices educators use to help students. It’s about how we ensure that as teachers go through the journey, they have adequate support.” Williams continued, “There is always some organic learning in schools. Teachers are interested in learning about effective practices. But the learning curve is too steep to have everyone progressing organically in building their professional learning. We want to offer the right level of constructive learning.”

Fowler-Mack explained why the language of teaching and learning is more effective for them than personalized learning or competency-based education. “If we use the language of competency-based education, it sounds as if it is something totally new,” she said. “They don’t make the connections to sound principles of teaching and learning. We want teachers to see the similarities and build off their strengths.” They have learned that analogies and direct language about what they intend for kids to learn has been helpful.

Introducing a district-wide pedagogy within a portfolio district is a big, and very important, leadership lift. There are too many schools in our country that deliver curriculum without taking a step back to clarify their pedagogical approach and ensure that it builds on what research tells us about learning, motivation, and engagement. Fowler-Mack explained that it is important to have multiple strategies for engaging educators, “It is more important that we take into consideration what our educators need rather than to simply ask if they have bought into a vision. Some people believe in the ideas of personalized learning and thrive when given the opportunity. Some believe in the ideas but are not sure about what it looks like. And some people root themselves in what they’ve done because of their beliefs or because of fear. Under pressure, they can fight back.” Williams added, “When you ask people to change practices, you have to provide consistent and deep support. We can’t underestimate the change from, ‘I just taught it,’ to ‘Did kids learn it?’ Even really great, passionate teachers still have to learn to check in if kids are learning. They have to learn how to keep students engaged in the learning and to reflect on their own practice when they need to.”

For example, Williams explained how effective assessment for learning strategies are helping students to learn as well as educators, “We are entering a new phase of understanding the relationship between assessment and accountability. As we think about students demonstrating what they’ve learned and having multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning, we move beyond the ideas of one final test or annual state tests.” She explained that students at Lincoln West Global Studies had just completed their Exhibitions of Learning, complete with transparent rubrics, presentations to community members, and authentic feedback on their performance tasks. She emphasized, “It was amazing to see the growth in the educators in the school as well as the students. It gave me hope for a first year school to grapple with what it means to use exhibitions as a form of assessment.”

As Cleveland moves forward in this transition using a strategy to introduce a framework for teaching and learning, there are likely to be important lessons for other districts.

Sidetracked by Technology and Tools: Several people at both the district and school levels said that introducing a blended learning tool early without being clear about pedagogy sidetracked their process. One person said when asked what they would do differently, they would clarify pedagogy first to be able to make informed decisions about balancing instruction, assessment, opportunity to engage more deeply in learning through projects, and the use of adaptive software products. They are finding that technology is playing a lesser role each year.

Expanding Choice as Opportunity to Introduce Competency-Based Education: Among the Cleveland schools, one school, MC2 STEM, under the leadership of Jeff McClellan, had created a competency-based approach with staff working collaboratively as a learning community. There had been strong results that suggested competency-based education could be a valuable direction: The Cleveland Higher Education Compact monitors how students do post-high school. They found that MC2 STEM students are some of the most prepared students.

In partnership with the Carnegie Corporation, Cleveland opened two schools, JFK PACT and JFK E3agle, in 2014 and opened two more schools, Lincoln-West School of Global Studies and Lincoln-West School of Science and Health, in 2016. Three new schools using this model are opening in 2017: Rhodes School of Environmental Studies, Rhodes College & Career Academy, and John Adams College & Career Academy. To be clear, they wanted to expand the high school but they have not made a commitment to a competency-based structure. However, the focus on teaching and learning does begin to orient them toward thinking about how every student is progressing. Having several schools as exemplars can lift the conversation to what competency education can look like.

Launching New Schools: Throughout the visit, the orientation toward design popped up again and again. The district has created K-8 design principles  to drive toward school improvement and redesign that includes a focus on teaching and learning. There are also conversations about what foundational skills students need to have before they transition from eighth to ninth grade. High schools also have a set of design principles. The four schools supported by Carnegie Corporation have embraced a slightly different set of design principles. Micheller pointed out that a district-wide pedagogical philosophy leaves schools room for creativity and artistry. He said, “We are offering thematic school models that fit with student interests using a number of ways to engage students. We want to offer students meaningful choices.”

As the district launches new schools, there is a formal process for designing and launching the school. The Portfolio team provides specialized support to launch between eight and ten schools per year. It takes three to five years to fully launch a new school. Around the fourth year, they are transferred out of the portfolio division and into the new and innovative school network to provide ongoing support.

Fowler-Mack emphasized that creating new schools isn’t a streamlined process, “It can be messy at the beginning. It’s important to establish community connections. It’s important to spend time upfront to engage stakeholders in the conversation about why it is important for students to learn differently.” They found that some of the best advocates are in the business community and can explain the changing needs of the workplace.

Partners Making a Difference: I always ask who has been helpful to districts and schools, as the answer provides feedback for others who are seeking partners in their work. The Cleveland team mentioned the leadership at Carnegie Corporation, Springpoint, and Antonia Rudenstine from reDesign in understanding the school design principles and how to operationalize them; CPRE for support in developing a portfolio; Alissa Whitehead Bust in thinking about how to organize the district’s roles and structure to overcome silos; and participating along with teams from Ohio and Kentucky in Harvard’s PELP project to build on Elmore’s instructional framework.


Big districts have different challenges than small districts in making the transition to competency-based education. There are at least two strategies these districts are using. One is the scaling strategy that you can see in Henry County and District 51, with an intentional plan to eventually engage every school in the transformational process. Given the philosophy that schools need autonomy to take on accountability that underlies the portfolio strategy, it is near impossible for a district such as Cleveland to then say that everyone is going to become competency-based. Thus, portfolio districts may find it helpful to adopt a network strategy, such as the Mastery Collaborative in NYC. Right now in Cleveland, Springpoint is providing this support to the four new high schools supported by Carnegie.

Although there isn’t a way for other schools to join the Opportunity by Design network, Darcel Williams explained that there are sparks of interest as principals are exposed to the new practices. All the high school principals are invited to participate in professional learning opportunities for the competency-based schools. For example, when Kristen Kelley, Mastery Learning Specialist, and the team creating the new competency-based school offers workshops on practices, it sparks interests in performance tasks, multiple opportunities to learn and demonstrate learning, data trackers, and the use of extended time. These are all entry points that can help schools begin to rethink the way they have organized learning. The challenge going forward beyond the Carnegie grant is how principals who are interested in competency-based education will be able to tap into knowledge to support them in the transition.

Another challenge, of course, is finding an integrated learning management system that meets the district, school, educator, and student needs, as vendors are not keeping up with innovation in education. It is even more difficult when some schools are highly personalized and competency-based while others aren’t. Fowler-Mack explained, “We have a set of schools that have different needs. They want to be able to collect evidence of student learning and track progress much more closely. We need an information system that can be customized for schools within the portfolio.”

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