This article is the third in a nine-part “In Real Life” series on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.
Because competency-based education (CBE) systems expect all students to reach mastery on all competencies, how those competencies are defined (and who gets to define them) becomes critical. For district and school leaders aiming to promote equity in their systems, this question is only heightened. How inclusive and representative are vision-setting and decision-making processes? How can leaders garner support from various stakeholders and help reconcile differing perspectives on what equity means or how to achieve it?
To better understand how competency-based school systems reckon with these fundamental questions, I sat down with Cynthia Green, Executive Director of Secondary Programs and Pathways for Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), and Karyn Stocks Glover, Principal of Capital High in MMSD.
The second largest school district in Wisconsin, MMSD serves over 27,000 students across its 50 schools. Over the last 15 years, the district has become increasingly diverse, with African-American and multi-racial groups steadily growing and nearly one-third of its students English language learners. Nearly half of all students come from low-income households.
Green leads a new department within MMSD’s central office that was created to focus on the middle and high school experience. Her charge is to thoughtfully manage the options students have within the secondary schooling experience, including high school personalized pathways, the student-centered AVID approach, career and technical education, academic and career planning, and credit recovery.
Capital High is a small school comprised of two campuses that serve a combined 180 students in grades 9-12. The school was formed two and a half years ago as Glover took the helm in an effort to unify alternative education programs that were scattered across the district. Capital High enrolls students that are off-track to graduate based on their accumulation of Carnegie units. It is more diverse than the district as a whole, with 85% students of color (mostly African-American, multi-racial, or Latino), and 85% students from low-income families. Many of its students are wage earners in their households, which influences how the school is structured, and most will be the first in their families to go to college.
In our interview, adapted below, Green and Glover describe how both MMSD and Capital High used community-driven and culturally-responsive processes to define desired outcomes for their graduates.
Jennifer Poon: How did MMSD and Capital High come to discover – and desire – a competency-based model of teaching and learning?
Cynthia Green: A few years ago, MMSD set out to better understand what our community wants all students to know and be able to do when they graduate from the district. This process led to our Graduate Vision, which is made up of eight non-cognitive competencies (creativity; self-knowledge; growth mindset; interpersonal skills; confidence; cultural competence; community connection; and wellness) surrounding a ninth competency, which is mastery of content knowledge. We have heard from postsecondary institutions and community-based partnerships alike that these are the skills that are most important.
Although not all our schools are competency-based in how they approach the Graduate Vision, we have tried to promote it and to give school leaders ways to think about how they could measure its competencies. At the middle and high school level, this is happening through Academic and Career Planning and portfolios. We also have students do portfolio presentations around the Graduate Vision in grades 8, 10 and 12. And of course, some schools like Capital High are taking this to greater lengths by rethinking their entire models around the Graduate Vision.
Karyn Stocks Glover: Because of our student population, we knew we needed a model that was fundamentally designed around equity practices. We believe there are four Equity Drivers that are essential to our model: competencies, student advisories, experiential learning, and professional collaboration.
Over the past two years we worked with Big Picture Learning around building an advisory model for our students. More recently, in partnership with Envision Schools, we have developed a graduation-by-portfolio model that includes pathways to graduation and portfolio defense. Two summers ago, we took a team to Boston Day and Evening Academy where we developed a competency-based teaching and learning model. From these experiences, we began establishing our competency model which was rolled out last year and implemented more coherently this year.
We have Benchmarks aligned to state standards that are articulated over a 4-year plan with multiple opportunities for students to master the Benchmarks over all four years. We also identified “Core Benchmarks” that students would have the opportunity to practice and master in a variety of content areas.
We are beginning to build an aligned assessment model that – for now – looks like quarterly assessments with multiple opportunities for formative assessment and feedback. Students receive a lot of timely feedback on their Benchmark progress through these assessments and the formative feedback processes included in their classes.
We’re now building clarity around what Benchmarks might be for the non-cognitive competencies. We’re also starting to explore how project-based learning will inform our school design and align to mastery of the Core Benchmarks.
JP: What steps have you taken to ensure that the respective visions and competencies you’ve created are inclusive and meaningful to the diverse stakeholders in your communities?
KSG: In her first five years as district Superintendent, Jennifer Cheatam created a Strategic Framework that required every school in Madison to develop an Equity Vision. At Capital High, we took this seriously.
To create the Equity Vision we first started with our school-based leadership team, then engaged our entire staff, then our students. As we began to design what our school would look like, we relied heavily on our students to give us lots of feedback on what they’d like to see. We continue to pressure-test everything we do against our Equity Vision.
CG: As a district, we strive to be inclusive and intentional about the student groups we’ve under-served. Our data for a number of years have showed that we haven’t been serving African-American students well. The rewrite of our district’s Strategic Framework in July 2018 gave us an opportunity to intentionally set a goal for African-American student achievement. We did this not to put the onus on them or highlight them in a deficit way, but to ensure that we as adults were responsible for and paying attention to what we needed to do differently to better serve this student population. We also called out anti-racism and anti-racist behaviors and put forward the idea of Black Excellence.
JP: Equity and anti-racism can be difficult things to talk about. How have you worked with stakeholders in your community to come to consensus around your goals?
CG: “Equity” is something we’ve continued to try to define over the past few years. We understand that some people may see it as taking away something, or losing out while you’re off supporting others. We’ve really had to do some work to help people understand what equity means. We also had to proactively message to our Hispanic and English Language Learner population that setting a goal around African-American achievement doesn’t mean we’re leaving them out. It just means we’re drawing attention to those we’re currently serving the least.
Talking about race and equity as a system has been ongoing work for us over the last 3-4 years since we started working with the National Equity Project. We started first with Principal groups across all schools, then added quarterly leadership institutes for which each school brings a portion of their school-based leadership teams (300 people total), and that work has since permeated out. We’ve used anchor texts such as Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain and Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning to help build common language and understanding across the district. We also invited the National Equity Project to work directly with our Board of Education.
We are now in the process of creating a coalition that is made up of members across our entire community. This coalition is spearheaded by our lead for Community and Family Engagement and is charged with helping us think about what it means to be anti-racist and what Black Excellence means for our youth and community.
KSG: Professional collaboration has been a key driver for our equity work. We’re working with a team of teachers who are deeply committed to changing the way school is done and to changing the narrative for students who are historically underserved. Our staff is majority white, but our commitment is to do deep-end equity work to understand how schools have contributed to racialized outcomes for students. Capital High wants to disrupt these narratives and practices.
What has become clear to us – and what district leadership has given us the support to do – is to recognize that we can create a competency-based system, but if we don’t ask ourselves the question of what it means to be an anti-racist school, we’re not really doing the work we need to do to disrupt current narratives and practices. The equity work is essential for all of the other work we need to do.
Superintendent Cheatam often reminds us that, when the decision is hard and we don’t know how to make our way forward, that’s when we have to lean back on our core values and beliefs in order to re-approach the challenge. And so, as a staff we are constantly reconnecting with our core values and beliefs so that each staff member understands their “why.” Why do they want to do this work, here? It has to be revisited constantly in order for people to connect with the day-to-day work they’re doing with our kids.
JP: How have you involved students in the design of your respective visions and competencies?
KSG: We’re growing Capital High’s student leadership model so that our students can help us design our model and improve. We’ve only been tinkering around the edges of this up until now. This year will be a significant year of growth because we are placing greater emphasis on student leadership and student voice. We have a growing student leadership team and are working with Youth Engagement Consultant Adam Fletcher around what it means for students to have shared voice and shared power in designing and running a school. We would like to build processes for engaging our students in all aspects of school design, including decisions that are made related to competencies, hiring practices, budgeting, etc. We see this as essential to our success.
CG: As a district we’re also focusing on youth voice and youth leadership. We put together a Students of Color Advisory Group and held a kickoff training for our middle and high schools focused on hearing from students, learning from them, and doing more work side-by-side with them.
Read the rest of the “In Real Life” series at the following links:
- Series Introduction
- Part 1: Who Gets to Decide Which Student Outcomes Matter?
- Part 2: Designing Outcomes Aimed for Equity
- Part 3: How can CBE systems ensure learning is deep, ongoing, and integrated?
- Part 4: How feedback loops and student supports help ensure learning is deep, ongoing, and integrated.
- Part 5: How do CBE systems manage differences in pace?
- Part 6: How do CBE systems support all students to reach mastery?
- Part 7: How do we know if competency-based education is working?
Jennifer Poon’s mission is to effect social justice by modernizing the public education system to be more responsive to the needs of all learners, especially those most historically underserved. Currently, she is consulting on projects of interest while serving as a Fellow with the Center for Innovation in Education. Previously, Jennifer directed the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Prior to that, she taught at King/Drew High School in Compton, CA. Tweet to her @JDPoon.