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Aurora Institute

Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

national monumentThis is the first in a series on District 51’s transition to competency education. D51 uses the language of performance-based learning and uses PBL as an acronym. However, knowing that our readers are likely to read that as project-based learning, we are using P-BL to indicate performance-based learning.

D51, tucked away on the Western Slope in Colorado, is fashioning a new implementation roll-out strategy for performance-based learning. I spent a week in the fall visiting District 51 with school visits, meetings, interviews, and in-depth conversations with district leaders. The insights are plentiful but it should be understood that they were collected in the midst of the change process. Thus, there is less discussion in this series about the structure of their performance-based system and much more about the conditions that are needed to support it.

Highlights of D51’s Conversion to Performance-Based Learning

There is so much to be learned from the educators at D51. They are all at that stage of expert-novice – they can tell you about what they are learning, as it hasn’t become fully embedded as routine thinking or practices yet, and they can tell you about their areas of inquiry because they are becoming clear about what they don’t know…yet. Harvesting their bountiful insights was a delight. You can get a taste for their commitment and creativity by listening to Getting Smart’s interview with Superintendent Steve Shultz and Rebecca Midles, Director of Performance-Based Learning. Below are just a few of the highlights from this series:

  • D51’s story of deciding to move to P-BL and building the consensus for change is a fascinating one, as it emphasizes the critical role of school boards and how individual leaders can help move a district forward by engaging in dialogue and joint site visits.
  • D51’s roll-out strategies offer a new way of thinking about implementation. We have documented the implementation strategies used by many of the early innovators in Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders and strategies used by larger school districts such as Henry County, Lake County, and Charleston that have created scaling strategies. However, the early innovators were all very small and their approaches limited for medium-sized districts. And the larger school districts we have highlighted have often had funding through federal or large foundations to support their efforts. D51, with few additional funds, has developed a simultaneous and iterative approach based on carefully managing strands of work, including engaging the community in shaping a shared vision and graduate profile; designing a teaching and learning framework that defines the performance-based learning system; providing intensive capacity building for the first wave of demonstration schools; and re-designing professional development to support any teacher wanting to build their professional skills. They talk about phases of implementation but it doesn’t mean everyone will be in the same phase at the same time.

  • We are never short of new educational concepts – understanding them is easy compared to figuring out how to connect them or integrate them. D51 is in a constant process of aligning the concepts that have been previously introduced within the district to the core concepts of P-BL. Their work to date (they will all exclaim, “We aren’t done yet!”) on how to integrate and operationalize Growth Mindset, social and emotional learning, and Habits of Mind will help you reflect on what is woven together in your culture of learning.
  • Medium and larger-sized districts need clear systems. Their size means they simply can’t depend as readily on relationships to grease the wheel of operations. D51 understands this and is investing in clarifying P-BL through the development of a transparent system, including attention to the Teaching and Learning Framework.
  • If we know that top-down decision making isn’t going to work well in the transition to P-BL or in managing an empowering, responsive organization, what will replace the bureaucratic processes around which our school districts have been built? D51 is trying a new process called holacracy that flattens the organizational chart while clarifying roles and authority as well as introducing new protocols for managing meetings and making decisions.

This series, Designing Performance-Based Learning at D51, will be running over the next two months. Given that D51 is making progress as we speak, we will update these articles over the coming year.


District 51 serves Grand Junction and the towns of Grand Valley along the Colorado River stretching from Palisade to Fruita. The beauty of the valley, encircled by mesas and cliffs, red, white and golden, is truly breathtaking. Located less than two hours from Aspen, Telluride, and the arches of Moab, Grand Junction feels like a city dropped down in the middle of a western paradise. Wild horses can be found on the top of the surrounding Bookcliffs, mesas that turn shades of rose and lavender at sunset, no less.

Economically, Grand Junction has had a hard time recovering from the recession, and this has hurt the district financially. Colorado has created a higher property tax on businesses than residential properties, which generates much of the revenue for the school district. With the Grand Valley economy still trying to rebound, the district continues to be operating at around $20 million lower than the 2009/2010 budget. D51 serves roughly 22,000 students and operates forty-four schools: twenty-four elementary, nine middle (one serving 8th and 9th graders), four comprehensive high schools, four alternative schools and programs, and three charter schools. The student population is 30 percent minority with a growing Hispanic community (at 24 percent) and 51 percent FRL. The geographic spread of the district also means that community members identify more strongly with their neighborhood schools than the overall district, which can make it very hard to pass additional levies.

The commitment to reaching all students through greater personalization started long before the recent decision to become performance-based. In 2006, the district put the first piece into place for a performance-based policy. The school board agreed to have three pathways: the regular path to graduation, a pathway for distinction, and individualized pathways. Soon after, they expanded programming to provide even greater choice for students, including IB, concurrent enrollment, a STEM strand, a Key Performance Program that opened up ways to demonstrate learning through capstones and presentations, and four alternative education programs.

While D51 recognizes the importance of investing in technology, they have been unable to significantly impact the student-to-device ratio. In general, there are approximately two to three devices in each classroom in addition to computer labs. Thus, at this point, P-BL is being implemented without a strong blended learning strategy. This may well be an advantage because if and when they raise the funding to increase technology-enabled education, D51 will be able to organize it around their the pedagogical philosophy and P-BL structure.

One of the challenges D51 faces is that they are somewhat isolated in their efforts. There are many districts advancing competency-based education in Colorado, such as Thompson, Westminster, and Denver (opening new high schools in partnership with Carnegie Corporation’s Opportunity for Design), yet all are several hours away. Thus, D51 is building partnerships, such as with KnowledgeWorks and Colorado Education Initiative, to bring in expertise. They are also participating in several initiatives including the Colorado Accelerator Project; Great Schools Partnership Project; and Community Partnership Project as well as the Colorado Department of Education’s Multi-Tiered Support Systems to ensure they are tapping into new ideas and expanding networks. I heard that just down the road, the small town of Parachute, Colorado is exploring project-based learning and capstones and exhibitions. Utah is also one of the states we are watching to see if competency-based education begins to take root. Who knows? Maybe D51 will soon have other partners on the Western Slope.

With Great Appreciation

steve schultz
Steve Schultz

I am deeply grateful to all of them for their generosity in sharing what they are learning. I am particularly appreciative of the leadership of Superintendent Steve Schultz and Rebecca Midles, Executive Director of Performance-based Learning.

Schultz recently announced that he will be stepping down as D51’s Superintendent at the end of the school year. The members of District 51 school board are investing time and resources in demonstrating their commitment to performance-based learning by making personal phone calls to principals and initiating surveys for educators and members of the community to share their ideas of the types of criteria that should be used in hiring Schultz’s replacement. Their letter to all staff re-affirmed their commitment to:

  • Developing our community vision for Performance Based Learning
  • Collaborating with our community/business partners to offer exciting opportunities such as the CareerWise apprenticeship program, Career Center programs, WCCC and CMU programs, Academic Options, etc.
  • Knowing that communication and collaboration between the Board, teachers’ association, principals, and other staff benefits everyone when we focus on what’s best for students. We will continue these collaborative efforts.

This is what accountability looks like.

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

Post #8 – Creating a Transparent Performance-Based System at D51

Post # 9 – New Emerson: Learning the Effective Practices of the Learner-Centered Classroom

Post #10 – Transparency and Trust

Post #11 – Lincoln Orchard Mesa: What Did You Notice?

Post #12 – Performance-Based Learning in a Dual Immersion School

Post #13 – R5 High School: Abuzz with Learning

Post #14 – A Conversation with Heather O’Brien: The Teacher Association Perspective on Performance-Based Learning

Post #15 – A Journey of Discovery at Broadway Elementary