South Bronx Community Charter High School (SBC) in New York City has deeply embraced competency-based education since it opened in 2016. The school’s effective transition to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic led me to a recent conversation with John Clemente, the school’s co-founder and executive director, and also a member of the CompetencyWorks Advisory Board.
SBC emerged from the Expanded Success Initiative, an effort by the New York City Department of Education to reduce disparities in educational outcomes for young Black and Latino males. The first phase of the initiative began in 2011 and focused on direct investment in 40 schools that had already shown promise on reducing these disparities. The second phase began in 2013 with a year of creating new school designs with “radically different core principles, beliefs, and practices” and the aim of improving outcomes for all young men and women of color.
Clemente and others leading this work supported the 2014 launch of three district schools using the model they developed, followed by the South Bronx Community Charter in 2016. Growing by one grade per year, this is SBC’s first year with a graduating class. Their current enrollment is about 400 students with 98% Black or Latinx, 8% English language learners, 23% with IEPs, and 85% “facing economic hardship” by the city’s measures.
SBC’s Competency Framework
SBC has done great work in developing a competency framework that other competency-based schools can learn from and adapt for their own development. A key element of competency-based education is that “Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.”
Working with the Center for Collaborative Education, SBC developed their competency framework during the year before opening the school. It’s organized into 66 “attainments” for college and career readiness that lay out essential knowledge, skills, and behavior in “I can” statements designed to be clear and understandable to students and adults. For example, some of the attainments across a range of knowledge, skills, and behavior include:
- I can cite evidence and information to build, express, and/or substantiate an argument or interpretation.
- I can take a real-world problem and express it in mathematical form.
- I can construct explanations and design solutions for a situation.
- I can use appropriate tools strategically.
- I can set, monitor, adjust, and achieve realistic goals that support my growth and development.
- I can control my responses and behaviors in a range of situations, so that I can pursue goals and live up to the realistic standards that have been set for me.
The full list of attainments is in Appendix B of the school’s Student & Family Handbook. By design, the attainments span multiple academic disciplines. They are each mapped to multiple standards within the Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and CASEL’s Social and Emotional Standards, with the goals of helping students graduate from high school, pass the New York State Regents exams, and complete at least two years of college and/or a career internship of their choice.
The attainments are areas the school identified as lifelong skills that are challenging and important for youth and adults to continue striving toward. “They’re at a grain size much bigger than a standard,” Clemente explained, “but you can still assess the quality of a work product against them. We want students to understand the total trajectory of what we want them to do in high school and almost be able to hold it all in their head. This has been really effective for us. The students internalize the attainments. They roll their eyes every time they hear the collaboration attainment, because they hear it so often. But they know the attainments and buy into them, and they understand that those are things we evaluate them on.”
The attainments are also grouped into 19 critical domains that SBC calls “competencies,” such as Read Analytically, Investigate Scientifically, Practice Social Responsibility, Direct My Learning, and Design My Future (also listed and described in more detail in Appendix B of the handbook). However, students and teachers primarily focus on the attainments.
Putting Attainments Into Practice
For a given course, an SBC teacher will select 10 to 15 attainments they want students to develop during the school year. Then the projects within that course and across the student’s courses are designed to provide multiple opportunities to develop and demonstrate proficiency.
As an example, Clemente provided the attainment “I can obtain, evaluate, and communicate information.” It’s a big idea that a student might approach by doing nonfiction writing in an English language arts course, such as a research project on police violence in the community. The student could collect data on police violence, evaluate the data, and write about it. The school has developed rubrics for each attainment that students and teachers use to evaluate their proficiency, and that teachers customize for specific projects.
SBC teachers determine which content they’ll use as vehicles to address the attainments. The school leaves it to the New York state tests to assess how much of the more-granular content students have memorized, which Clemente sees as the main focus of the state tests, with smaller amounts of focus on broader, cross-cutting skills such as critical thinking. SBC teachers are more focused on promoting and assessing the bigger picture skills (i.e., the attainments), which they think are more important and prepare students better for the future.
A struggle for the school initially was that teachers were often more aligned with their content areas and focused too much on students memorizing discipline-specific content. “Yes, do that—a little,” the school leaders said, “but spend most of your time on the big picture skills. If you want them to be able to do and understand the process of a controlled experiment, yes, that’s important, but I’m less concerned about the specific content of the experiment.”
“A challenge is how to find the time to teach all of the content that’s expected, and also the larger skills such as our attainments,” Clemente continued. “So we say, ‘Don’t teach all of the content that’s going to be on the exam.’ You need to be realistic and give teachers that flexibility. It’s impossible to say ‘Do everything, and do everything well.’ I don’t think that’s helpful.”
He said it’s more realistic if you make sure students have critical thinking skills and reading skills and have received two thirds or three quarters of the content in class. Teachers select this content by analyzing the exams to identify the topics that appear most frequently. “Then you give them supplemental reading materials that empower them to be able to access the rest of the content, if they really want to get to it. But the idea that I would have to provide it all to them in a 45-minute lesson on Day 130 of my 165-day curriculum—I think that’s a poor way to get the most out of high school.”
The impossibility of meeting all of the standards as they’re written has long been quietly acknowledged, but recent comments I’ve heard from school leaders have become increasingly candid. A strength of many competency-based schools is recognizing that ensuring college and career readiness for all students requires selecting wisely how to use limited time to balance academic knowledge with transferable skills and essential dispositions.
Clemente also sees competency-based education as a key equity intervention, “because the system is rigged against most kids walking into a high school in New York City. If you’re behind grade level in your skills, which so many students are, but the teacher is demanding grade-level work, you’re set up to fail. By giving students this trajectory where we’re going to ask you to demonstrate various skills—you might not be able to demonstrate them right off the bat, but we’re going to give you multiple opportunities over the course of the year. And once you demonstrate that proficiency, you hold onto that. We don’t weight you down with your previous failures. We’re not going to average in your Level 1 or 2 score with your proficient score if you have consistently demonstrated proficiency. We trust that now you can do it. That’s why the attainments and other competency-based infrastructure is important to us.”
The next blog post in this series explores SBC’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Transitioning and Sustaining Competency-Based Education During School Closures
- How Schools Can Use Life Transitions To Help Students Feel They Belong
- EPIC Schools: Putting Young Men of Color in the Center of the Design
Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks.