Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Creating a Transparent Performance-Based System at D51

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This is what co-design looks like.

This article is the eighth in the Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51 series. A reminder: D51 uses the phrase performance-based learning or P-BL.

Grand Junction feels like a rugged western city, bordered as it is by towering mesas and the Colorado River. That’s why the sculptures that spring up at almost every downtown corner let you know that something else is happening here. Creativity runs through the city just as it runs through the school district. You can see it and feel it in the tremendous process of design that is taking place as D51 as it outlines the architecture of the performance-based system.

They are also in an intensive process of aligning these elements to offer a transparent and coherent system of learning:

  • Graduate profile: Will inform graduate competencies, school design, and learning experiences.
  • Shared vision, mission, and guiding principles: Used to make decisions and allocate resources from school board to classroom.
  • Competency Framework: Graduate competencies, standards, and rubrics create transparency for what students should know and be able to do at each performance level. This serves as the structure by which teachers can calibrate proficiency and ensure alignment of instruction as assessment to levels of rigor.
  • Teaching & Learning Framework: Guides policies, professional learning, and feedback loops to teachers, and adds new capacities and functionality in the system. Defines the instructional practices needed for personalized learning in all classrooms regardless of content or grade level
  • Effective Practices: The core set of practices that enable students to take ownership and teachers to create the capacity for personalization in their classrooms.
  • Foundation of Growth Mindset, Social & Emotional Learning and Habits of Mind: Standards and continuua that are used to help students build the skills of being a lifelong learner.

As described in the article on D51’s Implementation Strategies, the district is using a simultaneous roll out of strands of work, thus requiring them to intentionally loop back for further aligning before they complete this phase of work.

Much of their work is similar to the efforts that have been described in articles about Henry County, Lake County, Charleston, and the report Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. However, the features of D51’s transformational process (a culture rooted in a growth mindset; a shared vision; transparency and alignment; data-driven processes; personalized learning; and collective ownership) are shaping the processes and emphases in ways that give them depth. Their Teaching & Learning (T&L) Framework stands out as an important step that I haven’t seen before in other districts.

What is the Purpose of the T&L Framework?

Screen Shot 2017-01-29 at 4.38.14 PMOne of the big shifts from the traditional system to a performance-based one is that districts are clarifying their district-wide pedagogical philosophy, creating district-wide systems to support learning, and agreeing to a set of principles and techniques to monitor learning. This is a far cry from the traditional systems that have each teacher working in isolation – all with their own pedagogy, their own grading methods, and their own way of determining proficiency.

Most districts dive into clarifying their competencies and standards as the first step in creating an intentional and transparent system. However, D51 drew upon the knowledge of Director of Performance-Based Learning Rebecca Midles’ previous experiences in competency-based schools and districts in creating a T&L Framework that outlines what needs to be in place to ensure reliability and consistency in learning. The T&L Framework was described to me as underlying basis of how the performance-based system works and the supports that are needed by educators in order to be effective within the performance-based system.

I ended up thinking about the T&L Framework as the pivot point from the traditional system based on equity (i.e., helping each and every student be successful in their learning and become independent learners as well as ensuring they are making progress toward graduation). For educators, this is where the rubber meets the road; the expectation is that over time, as students become adept at the new practices, all of them will be reaching proficiency and making progress. If they aren’t, then reflection and continuous improvement are necessary at the level of the district, school, department, and individual teacher. That’s how we are going to move from this stage of designing performance-based systems to building the knowledge of what makes an effective performance-based system.

Although we will have to wait to see their final model because it is in the very midst of being re-worked, I think it helps to understand how they are constructing the process and organizing concepts to engage educators in designing the T&L Framework.

The Process

As part of their holacratic organizational decision-making approach, D51 has established the Teaching & Learning Committee (See Holacracy: Organizing for Change at D51, where committees are for projects and teams or circles are for ongoing functions) to design the Teaching & Learning Framework. The team members include a school board member, a representative from special education, teachers from a mix of grade levels and content areas, and district leadership. In order to ensure strong communication, three members of T&L Committee are from the Leadership Support Team that works with teachers to build new practices.

The Steps

Below are sketch of the steps D51 has taken in shaping the T&L Framework. Remember, simultaneous to this process, Superintendent Steve Schultz is leading a community engagement process to create the profile of a graduate, shared vision, and the guiding principles. All three of these will be important to introduce into the design of the T&L Framework. A member of the T&L Committee explained, “The visioning of the district is going on right now, and many schools are also engaging their communities around creating a shared vision. It is important that we keep things fluid in order to shape the priorities in the final T&L Framework based on the vision and culture of the school and what is going on there. This is definitely an iterative process.”

Step 1: Engage a broad group of stakeholders with specialized knowledge and from different domains, different age-based grades, and different levels of the district as a work group.

Step 2: Create an initial structure and build it out to capture the teaching and learning process in a performance-based system. This is expanded on below.

Step 3: Gather feedback from educators about strengths, weaknesses, and gaps of the T&L Framework

Step 4: Based on feedback, the workgroup revises the T&L Framework. Using the feedback is also a very important step in building trust and ownership. This is the stage they were at when I was at D51.

Step 5: Revise T&L Framework based on graduate profile, shared vision, and guiding principles.

Overall, it is going to take approximately a year to have the first version of the T&L Framework at the stage where it can be meaningful to the entire district.

How is the Teaching & Learning Framework Organized?

There are infinite ways that a district can organize this description of how the system works. The D51 T&L framework is organized into four dimensions: Professional Engagement, Design for Learning, Learner-Centered Environment, and Monitoring Learning. They also talk about the “altitude” of an idea with three levels within each dimension: 1) Sub-dimension; 2) Guiding principles, purpose, and rationale that should drive each sub-dimension; and 3) Guiding questions. Here is an example.

Dimension:                  Monitoring Learning

Sub-Dimension:          Assessment

Guiding Principles:      Assessment criteria; Methods; and Purposes are transparent and match the learning standard

Guiding Questions:     How does the teacher and learner gather evidence about learning?

The lower level, Guiding Questions, engaged teachers in thinking about the why and the what of the model. Leigh Grasso, Director of Academic Achievement & Growth explained, “The intention behind the Guiding Questions is to make sure all educators to understand the framework. This is an important stage of our work that needs to happen before we begin to think of how it will inform evaluation.”

I’ve reviewed numerous different types of frameworks, and so many of them have long lists of bullet points. It’s understandable, of course, because we are making the education system transparent and intentional – so an important part of bringing it into the light is breaking it into all its little nuggets. However, within the D51 T&L Framework, I also saw the power of using questions rather than bullet points. First, it avoids the risk of the checklist. Second, it creates a reflective environment if the questions are well-crafted. Third, it can help, depending on the how the questions are written, to avoid the fear of being used as evaluation.

Observation and Insight on Codifying Teaching and Learning: The tricky part of the dimensions is, of course, that there is overlap between them. Furthermore, some (such as the dimension design for learning) is such a dramatic shift from the factory-like delivery of grade-level curriculum that one person described it as “a beast.” Given that, a good project for someone might to try to codify several different models using something similar to D51’s T&L Framework to help expedite the process for other districts.

Up Close: What This Process Looks Like

Organizing the Committee Meetings for Dialogue

I was able to participate in a session of the T&L Framework committee. In their first draft, identifying four dimensions had been reviewed by principals and teachers. At the meeting, the T&L Committee was sorting through the feedback, working in small teams around each of the four dimensions.

The feedback had been collected through a “Ladder of Feedback” with four steps: 1) Clarify, 2) Value (what are the strengths), 3) Raise Questions and Concerns, and 4) Suggest. On top of this protocol, adapted from Harvard Project Zero, is a note that says that this protocol establishes a culture of trust and constructive support by sequencing feedback in an order that is constructive. I raise this because I believe that the D51 attention to consistent use of protocols and rethinking organizational decision-making is both a sign of and a tactic for generating trust in an ongoing way.

Observation and Insight: Language matters in your tools: If it sounds too much like a criteria that could be used as evaluative, teachers will read it as such. If you are focusing on purpose, then use language that clarifies purpose. If you are focusing on what you expect to see in the classroom, then be specific about that. If they are just suggestions, then use language that will clearly be a suggestion. Purpose matters as well. Trustworthiness starts with being clear about how you are going to use tools and doing so. One of the regular comments we’ve seen in the feedback is, “How is this going to be used?”

One teacher explained that it had been invaluable to organize the feedback sessions in vertical groups of teachers. Being able to reflect on ideas through the lens of the different developmental stages of students (early and late elementary, middle, and early and late high school) helped teachers contemplate the full system and its interdependence.

Paul Jebe, facilitating the process, made sure that the dimension teams only received the information that was “germane to their domain” so that no one got overwhelmed by too many pages of feedback. In another example of the intentionality that D51 brings to organizing their work in a way to ensure people will be successful, all the feedback had been organized into six categories. (Please note: This was based on the type of feedback received. If you adapt this process, you may need different categories.)

  • Overall Structure
  • Language/Terms/Glossary Needs
  • Missing Ideas/Things
  • Other Trends/Repeated Themes
  • Questions/Comments on How Do I Implement This
  • Relevant Questions that need to be Answered Outside the Framework

As they began their work, Midles reminded the teams to be thinking about how they can make connections between the T&L Framework and the (professional) learning community continuum based on the work of Learning Forward. Constantly seeking opportunities for alignment, she was asking them to think about teacher effectiveness and the supports that teachers will need to be effective within a performance-based system.

 . . .

Although they had worked hard for several hours in a small, dark, portable classroom, the energy and enthusiasm stayed constant throughout the session. At the end of the day, one teacher remarked, “This may sound kinda weird, but this was fun.”

Read the Entire Series:

Post #1 – Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51

Post #2 – Building Consensus for Change at D51

Post #3 – The Vision of Performance-Based Education at D51

Post #4 – Holacracy: Organizing for Change at D51

Post #5 – Growing into the Framework: D51’s Implementation Strategy

Post #6 – Laying the Foundation with Culture and Climate

Post #7 – Supporting Teachers at D51: A Conversation with the Professional Learning Facilitators