This is the ninth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.
There are several design decisions that need to be made to create a common language of learning, especially in the context of the district’s overall pedagogical approach and belief about motivation and learning. In addition to districts engaging the community in the process of developing a shared purpose and guiding principles, there are four core questions educators will need to drive the design and operations of any competency-based system:
- What do you want students to know and be able to do?
- Why is this objective important?
- How are you going to know if students have learned it?
- What are you going to do if they don’t (or they do)?
This article and the next four articles in the series will walk through the design decisions that will need to be made to answer the questions above. At this point in the development of competency education, there is no best model. Districts and schools are making decisions based on a number of considerations, including the availability of technology to support student learning.
Establishing Overarching Competencies and Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements
What are the overall sets of skills, content, and traits you expect students to have upon graduation?
The initial work to determine the desired skills, content, and traits is done in partnership with community conversations. Later, districts facilitate conversations with their educators to further develop the goals for their students. Those districts that have fully engaged their communities often have shared purposes that are broader than the current policy of “college and career ready.” The focus tends to be more on lifelong learners and preparing students for life. Thus, the set of learning continuums—the expectations for what students will be able to know and do—is much more comprehensive than just academic disciplines.
Determining what a proficiency-based diploma means as opposed to one founded on time-based credits that have little meaning (and that require so many students to take remediation once they start college) is not an easy process. Is it a floor that everyone reaches and can go beyond? Is it a ceiling at which you have completed high school? Is there a point that it becomes personalized based on student goals?
Determining this meaning and value will raise questions about what it means to be college-ready when the higher education sector offers little agreement or transparency. It will also raise questions about equity—do we expect 100 percent of students to meet 100 percent of standards at 100 percent levels? Given that high school continues to be time-bound because of the importance of graduation as a significant benchmark on the way to becoming an adult, it will raise questions about how to help students who either started with gaps, need greater flexibility, or need more time. Do you build in more time during the four years of high school, or do you begin to plan based on student performance at the end of ninth grade for extended graduation? More than anything, determining the meaning of a proficiency-based diploma will open the door for deep discussion among teachers about whether they and/or the school offers the capacity for the necessary instructional support, and, if not, what needs to happen to build capacity.
Some districts continue to use number of credits to determine graduation, with the understanding that competency-based credits indicate success in learning the skills. Assuming there are mechanisms to calibrate proficiency and maintain quality control in place, this indeed should be the case. Others create specific levels of proficiency to determine graduation. For example, Chugach School District created ten domains with ten levels to describe what they expect students to know and be able to do upon graduation. They developed the Performance Snapshot to show student progress toward achieving the minimum graduation levels in each domain. It’s now a reporting tool generated by their AIMS information management system to indicate how students are progressing. The light shaded boxes show the minimum graduation level for each standard. The darker shaded boxes show advanced levels. The district credentials that students are proficient as they move from level to level toward graduation, with teachers determining proficiency within the levels. When they complete the graduation requirements, students then present their School To Life Transition Plan to the School Board prior to graduating. See Exhibit 5 for the Chugach School District Performance Snapshot.
For more information, explore this whole blog series:
Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?
Blog #3 Investing in Shared Leadership
Blog #5 Engaging the Community
Blog #6 Creating the Shared Purpose
Blog #7 Investing in Student Agency