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Aurora Institute

If Failure Is Not an Option, Neither Are Supports

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Susie Orsborn
principal at West Albany High School

I just had the opportunity to listen to Susie Orsborn, principal at West Albany High School in Oregon, describe the school’s journey toward proficiency-based education at the Business Education Compact’s training, Implementing Proficiency at the Secondary Level.  Below are of my big take-aways from her story:

With Voluntary Comes Variation: Like much of the efforts in Oregon, participation in proficiency-based education starts with volunteers.  At West Albany, a handful of teachers volunteered, approximately one in each department, to use proficiency-based approaches in their classroom.  She explained that a veteran social studies teacher said that it was “the first time he actually knew what students know, or didn’t know.” The voluntary, teacher-led approach to transforming the education system from the classroom also means that there is a lot of variation.  Instructional, assessment and grading practices vary across and within departments.   

Support is a School-Wide Function: The big lesson learned was that organizing interventions and supports is a school-wide function, not a teacher responsibility. Orsborn explained that the first year students were coming to teachers for re-teaching and re-assessment before school, mid-day and after school. Teachers were miserable. Then the math department decided to start a math proficiency lab for students not “getting a proficiency”.  But the downside was that students were getting pulled out for math lab and missing other classes. So finally West Albany figured out that, with their AB block schedule, they could use the last part of each day for interventions, and for those students that didn’t need any help, electives were offered.  Much of what is covered in the support classes are study skills, vocabulary-building, as well as support on the specific standards with which students are struggling.

Proficiency-Based Summer School: The next year, West Albany set up a proficiency-based summer school using their own budget to support the 133 students that still needed to complete courses.  Many of the students were missing proficiencies (that’s how many talk about competencies or standards in Oregon) in multiple courses.  As they demonstrated that they were proficient, students moved on to other courses and eventually just stopped summer school when they met their goals. It was successful for all students except for the 26 students that didn’t attend.  Thus West Albany started their next year with a much higher proportion of students on-track.

Not Yet Proficient? In hindsight, Orsborn referred to the four questions that Richard DuFour says that professional learning communities use to drive reflection:

•   What do you want students to know?
•    How do you know when they know it?
•    What are you going to do when they don’t know it?
•    What are you going to do when they do know it?

She emphasized that it is absolutely critical to ask the third question, What is going to happen when students don’t reach proficiency?, early on in planning for proficiency-education. Later, another teacher directed me to the DuFour’s website that lists a number of different ways that schools are organizing intervention time that is embedded in the regular schedule.

Celebrate!: Orsborn emphasized that it is important to celebrate the steps your school makes along the journey to proficiency-based.  West Albany has taken time during staff development to celebrate the contribution of each teacher as well as their own learning. Most of all, celebrate the success in student learning, big and small.

Orsborn closed her story with the reminder that, “Failure Is Not An Option.”