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Aurora Institute

Gateways, Not Grades

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

This is the second of a two-part series on Making Community Connections Charter School. Click here for Part 1.

 In our traditional system, students progress in age-based cohorts, with most students progressing regardless of what they know and somej curve being retained to repeat a year.  Competency education expects students to get the support they need so that they are proficient, offering flexibility as needed, such as allowing students to continue to focus on gaps or areas where they are not yet proficient (i.e. competency recovery) in the summer or the coming school year.  The challenge for the school is to keep students on track AND provide flexibility to ensure they become proficient, which means rapid response when students struggle and more intensive interventions as needed.

Making Community Connections Charter School (MC2) has a different understanding of what it means to be on track. It’s not just an arrow, angling up at 45 degrees. It’s the J curve, which predicts that as students become more mature, with the habits to be successful learners, they will take off and learn on a much steeper trajectory. Under this theory of learning, how does MC2 make sure students are on track and progressing? 

How Students Progress

First of all there is the Individual Learning Plan, which is all about learning to make, monitor and adjust goals.  Second, there are two sets of transparent competenciesacademic disciplines and the life-long learning competencies (i.e. the habits). In middle school, teachers emphasize building academic identities or thinking like an artist, scientist, mathematician, linguist or writer. In high school, teachers focus more on “Essential Knowledge,” pulling from state and national content standards, including the Common Core State Standards. Teachers carefully monitor whether students are making progress on the competencies. MC2 uses the MAP assessment twice a year and works with students to set goals based on their level and progress.

Third are the phases that, like the habits, are at the core of the design. The entire educational philosophy of MC2 is encapsulated in the phases. In order to move to the next phase, students have to complete all the requirements (see checklists), develop a gateway portfolio with careful attention to the different types and uses of portfolios (growth, best work, proficiency and readiness), then make a formal presentation to a panel comprised of the student’s adviser, parents, and a student advocate, as well as the MC2 director, and one to three outside panelists (depending on the student’s current phase).  Students pass through the gateways when they are ready, and not before. (You can see examplars of portfolios here.) Carter explained that teachers negotiate with students around pacing, gradually releasing students to take on more responsibility as they increase their understanding of their personal learning strengths and challenges, demonstrate stronger habits, and learn how to design effective experiences.

The four phases’ focuses are:

  • Phase 1 focuses on having students understand the habits that are essential to successful lifelong learning, and developing their ability to consciously apply those habits. Phase 1 also targets competency in basic skills. Examples of questions that students will explore are What do I want from school? Who can I work with? Who do I want to learn from? How do I want others to see me?
  • Phase 2 expects students to continue developing their competency in the habits, while shifting focus to applying those habits to acquiring essential knowledge. Students explore questions such as What’s important to me? Where do I want to be five years from now? What choices do I have and don’t I have? What do I need to learn?
  • Phase 3 expects students to be able to effectively and efficiently use the habits for essential knowledge they have developed. This is the phase where students are expected to document most of their essential knowledge. Students will explore questions such as How do I (continue to) learn the things I want/need to? What is my plan for reaching my goals? What different things do I need to try? How do I present myself?
  • Phase 4 or the graduation phase expects students to apply habits and essential knowledge as they prepare to move into adult life. Questions include How can I communicate what I’ve learned? How valuable are my accomplishments? How does what I’ve learned connect to my life? Where do I want to go now?

MC2 is trying to run a year round calendar so that students have more time to make progress if they need it. In addition, MC2 then becomes a place where students can be with caring adults that are mentoring them throughout the year. Similar to Generation Schools, MC2 is structuring two different schedules with students having 10 weeks on, 3 weeks off and teachers having 11 weeks on and 2 off. That extra week for teachers – it’s dedicated to professional development.

The tenth week of each quarter is intentionally labeled as “Documentation Week,” when students wrap up projects, reflect on and document their learning through entries in their digital portfolios, and present exhibitions of learning.

Adolescent Development and Adjacent Possibilities

Student progress is a multi-dimensional concept at MC2. Phases with gateways are one measurement of progress. The other is a deeply student-centered understanding of progress, as students begin to better understand themselves and their lives.  Carter pointed out that creating adjacent possibilities is really important for adolescent development. MC2 creates these through studios, internships, and mentorships with community members.

Carter recounted the story of a student whose primary interest was cars. He completed internships in auto mechanics, auto body work, and detailing, and was relatively satisfied with that work.  One day he agreed to participate in a kaizen, a continuous quality improvement analysis of MC2’s processes. The facilitator of the process was so impressed by the student’s participation he invited the student to do an internship in a major manufacturing company’s continuous quality improvement department. While on site one day, the student overheard a manager talking about accounting and was startled to learn he could “make money managing other people’s money.”  Now in college, he is completing a degree in accounting. He would never have known that he was interested in accounting without a series of adjacent possibilities.  Carter also emphasized that constructing situations where adjacent possibilities will occur is critical to overcoming the racial and class segregation of our communities, by opening a much broader social network for students.

Implications for Teaching and Teachers

As Carter emphasized, MC2 is turning things on their head. “In traditional high schools teachers know what they are supposed to teach and then get to know students the best they can within a 50-minute period. At MC2 the habits are a formal way teachers get to know their kids. The job of teachers then becomes coaching students to manage their own learning..”

Carter explained that MC2 teachers need to have two critical capacities: 1) ability to form relationships with students and 2) depth of knowledge in their content areas, including the conceptual progressions that students need to make.  Essentially, they need to have deep capacity in both academic and lifelong learning competencies. Teachers need to be able to see what steppingstones students need to take and how their progress in building their habits is related to their success in becoming proficient in the essential academic skills. “Being an educator in a competency based education system is has a lot to do with managing motivation,” said Carter. “As Kathleen Cushman of WKCD so eloquently articulates in her Fires In the Mind book and videos, motivation equals expectation of success times value of the accomplishment. We need to know our learners well in order to keep that equation positive.”

I was a bit awed that teachers also have to be comfortable as coaches in a variety of instructional approaches (direct instruction, online learning, and studios), as well as skilled in effectively providing feedback through formative assessments. I started to wonder: Do we need to create positions in the education career ladder to acknowledge and compensate for this level of professionalism and expertise?

I’ve done my best to explain the theory of learning and structures at MC2. The orientation is five weeks to help students understand the learning experiences that are available to them.  However, MC2 really needs a design firm like IDEO to help them organize the elements and structures so it is easier to understand. If you plan on visiting, I highly advise dedicating time to reading thoroughly through their website beforehand so you are familiar with the different elements.  Like other competency education schools, MC2 highly values transparency and you can find almost everything on their website.

As for results, it is too soon to tell. Although it’s the second incarnation of this school design, it is only the second year of operations and the school is designed around having a senior class that can help nurture and mentor younger students.  So it’s worth a visit to have your assumptions challenged about what high school needs to look like…but we shouldn’t expect to see real results until the fourth or fifth year.  When a school is both student-centered and includes students as one of the assets of the school, we have to be patient until the students begin to make the full contribution to the culture of the school.