Skip to content
Aurora Institute

If I Were a Funder…Yubby Dibby Dibby Dibby Dibby Dibby Dibby Dum

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

Zero Mostel as Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye, Wikipedia Commons

Everyone has ideas from time to time of what would be valuable to accelerate or improve the quality of implementation of competency-based education. But only a few folks are in a position to make the decisions about what efforts get funded. So the rest of us throw our arms around a bit like Tevye bemoaning what is really need in the field.

Once upon a time, I really was a funder focusing my energies on understanding trends and emerging issues, thinking as strategically as I could about what was going to be needed two to five years ahead and working to organize the funding with my colleagues. (When I’m not working on competency education, I still consult to foundations.) I’m occasionally asked by the CompetencyWorks funders to put on my “funder hat” and make suggestions for what would help the field of competency-based education, and I thought others might be interested in this topic.

This isn’t a full-fledged strategy based on a robust analytical process—just my best thinking to date. My high level analysis is that in general, CE is making steady advancements in K12 without any major conflict or issues arising. However, there are several areas of vulnerability that need to be addressed, including underdeveloped communication/messages; lack of evaluation, results, and an understanding of quality implementation; and challenges in transforming larger districts.

In considering opportunities and challenges, I used three different lenses:

1) What is needed to accelerate the expansion of competency education?

2) What type of infrastructure (policies and organizations) is needed to support it?

3) What is the capacity needed in the field that is in position to support the change process?

After you take a look at the ideas below, please share your thoughts on where you think the biggest challenges are facing us and what type of initiative would help us to overcome them.

Recruit and Invest in Regional Capacity: The combination of a strong funder and Great Schools Partnerships has made an enormous difference in NE. Can this be replicated? Educause’s Next Generation Learning Challenge has put some of the pieces in place with regional intermediaries that could be strengthened to support the district-wide transformation process. We don’t need intermediary capacity everywhere, but three to four multi-state efforts could be very powerful.

Strategic Communications: To date, superintendents and districts have been able to handle communication needs because they are the innovators and because they have been developing in smaller districts. We need to have tools for leaders who may want to go in the direction of competency education (or have to) but are not as skilled as communicators or may have yet to fully embrace the idea themselves. Furthermore, larger districts will need tools to support them, as they will have to use several communications approaches. Projects might include focus groups with different parent groups (taking into consideration race, class, culture) to fine-tune messages; materials in different languages that can be easily customized; video tools that can be used to help people make the paradigm shift and understand why the traditional system is problematic (using humor would be helpful here); messaging to address critics; and communications training (perhaps an online course or MOOC—imagine if everyone in the field takes it together?).

Research and Evaluation: There have been some investments, but they have yet to be designed with the districts and schools and to have adequate funding to support what we really need. Formative evaluation could be very helpful in figuring out how to help expedite the conversion process. Longer-term evaluation efforts could look carefully at learning gains based on school-based structures/operations as well as classroom and instructional practices. It is imperative that evaluations be co-designed with districts and schools, and that they consider the model as school- or district-wide—not just classroom-based.

Documenting Models, Promising Practices, and Quality Indicators: Without adequate research and evaluation to guide us, it is difficult to determine the promising practices and quality indicators that can guide implementation. Thus, in the short run, projects could be funded to document different models, develop a framework to capture the different variations on practices, and draw together a task force of practitioners and experts to identify promising practices and quality indicators based on their hands-on knowledge. It is important in this work to highlight student-centered practices and blended learning. One option is to create a benchmarking project for districts to seek out who is doing the best on a range of different indicators and then learn which practices are producing the better output.

Leadership Institute for Superintendents and Principals: There are three substantial needs that can be addressed through a leadership institute for district and school leaders. First, they need coaching on how to shift from bureaucratic/military form of leadership to adaptive/empowering. Second, the learning curve is steep and the ability to learn more about student agency, performance-based assessment, learning trajectories/progressions, habits of learning, and other structural/instructional issues—as well as forming a vision of how the infrastructure can be created within and across states—will directly benefit implementation, increase innovation, and build the pool of people who can play leadership roles. Finally, networks of education leaders can help form a career ladder to expand high quality implementation. We want to make it easier for those who have developed expertise in competency education to find their next job in a district that is ready for the transformation.

Addressing Lack of Diversity: The field of competency education, like other “next generation” approaches, is weakened by its lack of racial/ethnic diversity in its leadership and organization. It is possible that the lack of diversity may become a substantial limitation when we try to introduce competency education into communities of color and larger districts.

To correct this situation, direct investments need to be made to do outreach to organizations led by people of color, form affinity groups of people of color, and create opportunities of site visits and leadership development. Finally, the foundation world needs to demonstrate it is serious by NOT investing in organizations whose organizations and top/middle management team do not have people of color. (See Reflections on Ferguson: Why We Need to Increase Racial Diversity in the Field of Competency Education.)

Information Management Systems, Continuous Improvement, and Metrics: We are starting to see more advanced information management systems and new vendors entering the field. CCSSO has done some work in this arena, but a more engaged approach, inviting vendors to talk with district and state leaders about specifications, is needed to expedite the process. Developing a training on continuous improvement, generating reports to accelerate responding to students, and addressing structural/instructional weaknesses could be very helpful, as could a process for districts to benchmark against each other to help them seek out best practices. Finally, a project to begin to identify different types of metrics (with advantages and limitations) that draw on people from other industries could advance our thinking.

Systemic Issues between K12 and Higher Education: There is already work going on naturally between the sectors, and it is fine to let that develop in the short run. When the higher education CE field solidifies a bit, it would be helpful to have a project that identifies the issues and potential for a true PreK-16 system with a strong focus on equity and implications for low-income/first-time college students. I think it is important to consider competency education in K12 as different than that which is developing in higher education until we fully understand the commonalities and differences.

Leadership, Hubs, and Ongoing Communication: CompetencyWorks has played a catalytic role in keeping an open flow of information, addressing issues as they arise, and managing potential conflicts/confusion in the field through communication and review of materials. Essentially, it has ensured a way for people to introduce different ways of thinking about things, explore them, and easily network. It is safe to say that at this point, if CompetencyWorks was eliminated, the field would need another way to meet this need. In addition, the informal coordinating that CompetencyWorks has been supporting through the advisory and periodic field coordination calls should be strengthened through CompetencyWorks or another organization. This is not to say that there should be a leading organization—more like a coalition model that can act to draw together the elements of the new infrastructure and system.

Consider investing in a “summit” to address a number of the issues discussed above, including revisiting the definition, holding discussions on promising practices, and helping to understand how the pieces fit together into a new policy infrastructure. If set for late 2016 or early 2017, the “summit” could be an interactive process leading up to the actual face-to-face meeting. If the work to increase diversity is put into place immediately, then the Summit could also be groundbreaking for the next generation learning sector.

Policy Infrastructure: There is already substantial work in this arena that needs continued support. One element that will need an investment is calibration across districts and states that is digitally supported so that it is not always as staff-intensive (the transition process requires staff to spend time discussing student work). Consider a project that helps to put the ideas of the policy infrastructure together so that policy leaders can see a big picture. This will likely require videos or more dynamic ways of displaying the policy infrastructure, as well as reports. It may also be helpful to determine if in fact competency-based schools are creating accountability that is embedded in the structure and practice. It appears that is what is happening, but it is not clear what elements need to be in place to ensure mutual accountability.

Build Capacity of Technical Assistance Providers: Each TA provider who participated in the convening CompetencyWorks held last year had extraordinary knowledge, yet no one had the breadth of knowledge needed on CE, blended, and personalized learning. Furthermore, despite being concerned about equity, only a few considered the needs of the most vulnerable students in the core of their work or had comprehensive organizational capacity with expertise in the full range of students who have been under-served. The next step would be to have a series of site visits and financially supported “staff exchanges” so that the TA providers could build the capacity of their own staff.

Strengthening Understanding of Aspects of Competency Education: There are certain areas of competency education that appear to be underdeveloped and may leave us vulnerable. As discussed above, the concepts of pace and progress need to be developed to have clearer, consistent meaning. In addition, the relationship of student agency and habits of learning is weak in most districts and schools. There are always aspects of it…but they tend to focus on voice and choice, less on ownership, and habits are often positioned as secondary to academic skills rather than as the way to build them.

Generating Demand: Invest in building demand from ground up by having students, parents, and teachers who see the value of competency education explain it to other students, parents, and teachers. State policy has limitations in that we can only expect 20 to 30 percent of districts to want to convert—the rest will put the practices into place without the full paradigm shift, which will actually put our work at risk. Types of projects might include: funding local and regional intermediaries in partnership with a strong communications team to build a cadre of students, parents, teachers, and principals to be speakers; investing in teachers doing panels at educator professional organizations; funding PTA and other parent organizations to learn about and advance CE; and investing in briefing tools that can be customized for parents and educators to use with local media. (See blog Generating Demand.)