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Aurora Institute

In Conversation With David Ruff, CompetencyWorks Advisor and Outgoing Executive Director of Great Schools Partnership

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chiara Wegener

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

The Aurora team recently had the chance to sit down and speak with David Ruff, a CompetencyWorks advisor and outgoing executive director of Great Schools Partnership, a nonprofit school support organization working to redesign public education and improve learning for all students. As David is set to retire this June, we invited him to reflect with us about his last 17 years leading the Great Schools Partnership, how he’s seen the landscape in education innovation change over the years, and what message he’d leave with those continuing to move the work forward.

Aurora: Looking back at the 17 years you’ve been leading Great Schools Partnership, I’m curious what has stood out for you as the big, monumental moments?

DR: First off, just lasting 17 years! I think that the work we’ve done with the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC) – a regional partnership that promotes forward-thinking innovation in the design and delivery and secondary education across New England – has been truly remarkable. I haven’t heard of another collaboration quite like NESSC, where six states really came together to support, push, question, and provide political cover for each other. This consortium really laid the groundwork for competency-based policy in New England. 

The work we’ve done around community engagement has also been a big highlight for me. The dominant tendency of schools doing community engagement has typically been structured as one-way communications. But community engagement is really an entirely different approach – it means engaging with folks to bring the best of everyone’s ideas to the surface, especially those who historically have not been listened to. 

I also feel really proud about the work that GSP has done around diversifying the educator workforce; I think more people are starting to recognize the importance of the work. Overall, I think that the things that I’ve been most proud of have focused on challenging the imbalances of power and privilege that exist within the current system so all students can learn well. 

Aurora: How do you think the field of education innovation has changed over the past 17 years? Where have you seen progress and where do you think there’s still room to grow?

DR: The single biggest shift in competency-based education is that it’s now generally understood as an equity strategy. When CBE was new, it was seen as a technology strategy to either move kids forward faster or to get kids caught up. I think this is a big breakthrough; you can’t have a conversation about CBE without thinking about equity. 

Additionally, I think the need for more innovative assessment practices is at the root of many ongoing issues in the education space. We need to move to demonstrations of learning, but if our demonstrations aren’t fair, equitable, and accurate, well, we’ve got a problem! We also have a lot of work to do on supporting the assessment literacy of educators. There’s some great assessment work that’s out there now, but it’s just not at the breadth and depth yet that we want it to be.   

Aurora: What topics in the K-12 education innovation space do you think aren’t getting enough attention right now?

DR: Assessment – we need to think entirely differently about it. There’s the potential to really think differently about how we’re looking at evidence, and innovative assessment can really open up opportunities for personalization for kids. But if we continue to be stuck on a narrow standardized test mentality, we certainly aren’t going to get there. We need to get really clear around what knowledge we want students to have, and what skills we want them to demonstrate. Really, we want to think about – what type of people are we preparing our learners to become, and what ways are we assessing this?

If I were to have any disappointment as I move into the next phase of my life, it would be that we really have not made a lot of progress around transforming accountability systems. Our systems still largely exist as assessment systems masquerading as accountability systems. We measure and report results, but we don’t actually have a system that produces the insights necessary for students, educators, and families to do better. Everyday, educators are doing the best they can within the confines of the traditional system. But we need to give them better supports and structures to do their jobs well, including better classroom assessments and more innovative accountability systems that align clearly with personalization and competency-based education. 

We also need to really continue to push on diversifying our educator workforce. Our student demographics have changed, but the demographics of our teachers haven’t. This isn’t a strategy just for supporting students of color, but white students as well. Having a more racially diverse educator workforce benefits all kids, and there’s clear evidence behind this. 

Aurora: What are some of the biggest hang ups to advancing this type of work?

DR: Well, I think one thing we have to change is our mental framework – schools need to shift their thinking and see themselves as part of the community. I think the primary way that schools have operated is reaching out to the community to share information, or ask for support. But we need to flip that mentality. Instead, how might schools have conversations with the larger community about what their role is? Instead of centering the school, let’s think about centering the needs of the community. That changes the dynamic, and I think is really hard for educators because it’s not been the way we’ve operated. This doesn’t mean that we’re ignoring the expertise of educators, but it is inviting a larger conversation about what we want our students to come out of a system equipped with – what knowledge, skills, and dispositions do we want the students and our community to leave our system with? 

Aurora: What roles do you see for CompetencyWorks and Aurora moving forward in this work? What gaps in the education innovation space do you see us filling and leading?

DR: You’re pushing on innovations and trying out future-focused and innovative strategies – and they aren’t always going to be correct. It’s hard for nonprofits to really push the boundaries on this sometimes because we’re always competing for foundation dollars, but we really need to ask ourselves some tough questions. Being in innovation work means experimenting and piloting new things that may not always work 100% of the time. And we need foundations to realize that what may appear as a failure is actually increasing our understanding about how to effectively impact learning – and the people and organizations pushing this agenda need continued financial support.

Aurora: What messages do you want to share with our network as you move into your retirement? 

DR: Tenacity is a good strategy – we have to keep at it! But we have to do so in ways that enable us to collaborate with each other. I’d also say that it’s critical to structure yourself in ways that support freedom and flexibility to students, families and teachers. At its core, competency-based education is a simple system; it’s not complex. It’s about getting really clear about what we want kids to know and be able to do. It provides a baseline of equity.

Aurora: Is there anything else you’d want to add that we haven’t talked about yet?

DR: I’ve been blessed to have amazing colleagues over the years – they have pushed and challenged me in my thinking. I think it’s important that we all keep challenging and supporting each other at the same time. There’s also a certain amount of bravery in this work; we have to be willing to try new things.