This article is the fifth in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based 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.
Competency-based education (CBE) systems define competencies and learning progressions to make learning expectations more transparent and accessible to students; but such transparency can be prone to the unintended consequence of creating a “check the box” mentality that compromises depth and relevance.
To better understand how competency-based systems balance the desire for transparency with the need for depth, I sat down with Elizabeth Cardine, Lead Teacher and Advisor at Making Community Connections (MC2) Charter Schools in New Hampshire.
MC2 Schools consists of two campuses – Manchester, serving grades 6-12, and Monadnock, serving grades 9-12 – each with around 70-80 students. Built on a competency-based, community school model, MC2 attracts students who benefit from greater flexibility of pacing in their learning. The school serves higher percentages of Special Education students and students with social-emotional challenges than surrounding schools.
Cardine has been at MC2 since all but its first year of operation. Currently, she serves as a classroom teacher, student advisor, and partner in the shared leadership model at the Monadnock campus. She also helps spread lessons learned from MC2’s structure and philosophy through her role as Coaching Director, Master Learner at the QED Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded by MC2 CEO Kim Carter in 2007.
In our interview, adapted below, Cardine describes how MC2 has designed its competency-based model to ensure that student learning is deep, ongoing, and integrated – not a “check the box” exercise; and how it supports learners with a diversity of needs to reach mastery.
Jennifer Poon: How did MC2 come to discover – and desire – a competency-based model of teaching and learning?
Elizabeth Cardine: Our founding committee, which was inspired by Dennis Littky of the Met School and Big Picture Learning, wanted to build a learning environment that provided kids more choice and options. They wanted it to be more personalized and practical – not just vocational, but really meeting each kid where they are while also opening their horizons.
In 2005, when New Hampshire changed state law to require high schools to award academic credit based on demonstrating mastery of competencies, not on seat time, we were already in the trenches figuring this out. Our first class graduated just in time for the new state law, and we naturally received a spotlight for one way how to do it.
JP: So how does it work? How do students encounter learning at MC2, and how is their progress represented?
EC: We don’t do “grades” in either sense. Instead of grade levels, we have four “Phases” which are defined by collections of academic competencies and Lifelong Learning Habits that students can move through at their own pace.
We also don’t give letter grades. Instead, students have a checklist of working tasks and competencies they must master for the Phase that they’re in. The work is either Met or Not Yet. They don’t do as many assignments, but they have more rounds of feedback on the assignments to help them get to Met.
The Habits, too, are very important to us. They are based on 21st century skills and the Antioch Critical Skills, such as Community, Ownership, Critical Thinking, Quality Work, and so on – there are 17 in total. We have them woven throughout school privileges and promotions. Kids won’t progress through the system unless they’re paying attention to how their Habits are developing.
Students can satisfy their checklist requirements through any of four different types of learning opportunities that we recognize. These include studios, internships, off-site treks, and personal learning opportunities.
Studios are 9-week courses offered by our teachers that are project-based, community-focused, and interdisciplinary, such as “If I Were In Charge” or “Climate Change Action Plan.” They tend to be the most contained and predictable offerings of Academic and Habit content. Kids are heterogeneously grouped in studios by their checklist needs. If you need the competencies, you can be in the class. Studios average 20-23 kids.
Internships weave in academic content through the help of the Advisor and Qualified Teachers. Off-site treks and personal learning opportunities are negotiated by the teacher and student and must identify the project, product, benchmarks and competencies covered (including Academic and Habits), and how students are going to evidence their mastery of the competencies. When students propose new or unique learning opportunities, they use the same template that our staff use when planning their studio projects.
So for example, chemistry competencies could be learned at a water treatment plant, or through a college-level chemistry course, or through a studio.
Our student reports at the end of each 10-week quarter include a page-long narrative describing their progress, an updated checklist of competencies they’ve met, and a “heat map” that follows a rubric describing the Habits by performance levels (Emerging, Progressing, Proficient, Exemplary, and Life-Long). The heat map shows how many times the student was observed at each performance level for each habit over the quarter. It is not a summative average across levels, but an opportunity to show trends over time. Colleges have told us that this is the most interesting and relevant thing we send to them.
JP: How does MC2 structure time and space to accommodate so much flexibility in how kids are learning?
EC: Each day at MC2 starts with students gathered in Learning Advisory (about 17 students per Advisor) talking about goals, family life, everything. The day also ends in Advisory writing daily reflections, which are the lifeblood of MC2. Did you meet your goals? What did you learn?
Tuesdays and Thursdays are flexible but structured around career exploration so that students have full days available for internships. Students can also work with teachers on career-related topics like finance, maker space, or independent projects on marketable skills.
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are studio days, with three 1.5-hour studio blocks each. Kids can also be working on independent projects or taking college-level courses on studio days, often working alongside other kids in the studios.
JP: Given that MC2 literally does have a “checklist” of tasks, how do you ensure that learning is deep, ongoing, and integrated – not superficial or rushed through?
EC: For us, the checklists are completely self-paced and are negotiated by a learning team that includes the student, parent, and Advisor. The team meets regularly to help the student identify what should be tackled next. So it’s not just what students want, but it’s a dialogue that begins to help the students pay attention to which things they might need to prioritize in their goal-setting. Then, as Advisors we take those goals and help break them down into weekly and daily goals.
We also have a culture of “feedback until it is done.” Our staff is clear and explicit about expectations for demonstrating mastery. Students understand that if they receive feedback on their project or portfolio, and they haven’t addressed even the most basic suggestions, the teachers aren’t going to look at it again until they’ve done so.
In this way, the feedback loops become a slowing mechanism. Sometimes you will get kids who try to rush the system and want to get their project done as quickly as possible to get the checkmark. But what we find is that the kids who try to rush end up needing so many more rounds of feedback because they aren’t demonstrating the Habits of Critical Thinking or Quality Work. So students start to realize that they need to go slow to go fast. The more time they take, the fewer the feedback loops. You can’t “D-minus” your way to a checkmark.
JP: Suppose a student really is mastering competencies quickly, including strong demonstration of Habits. How does the MC2 system accommodate them to learn at an accelerated pace?
EC: For kids who want to accelerate their pace, they have to be exceptionally thoughtful in the design of their learning. If a student wants to design a research project in English without taking an English class, he needs to work with his Advisor to plan out the project, identify good benchmarks, and identify how he will demonstrate the competencies he’s trying to master. He needs to understand, “What am I really trying to accomplish, and how will I show it?”
For a kid who is an Upper Phaseman moving through a studio quickly and showing they’ve met the competencies, we often ask them to design a related project building off the theme of the studio but hitting other competencies. Or we might let them go and do a completely independent project. They remain in the structure of the studio but are able to complete more advanced or integrated work.
JP: What supports are provided to students who are struggling to make progress in one or more areas?
EC: Learning teams are key. Ideally, the learning team is like a War Room where the Advisor and parent sit down with the student and strategize. It doesn’t always work this way because sometimes parents are trained away from this kind of involvement in their child’s education, and it’s something we have to focus on. Sometimes it takes time for learning teams to understand their power and their flexibility.
If a student is struggling, the learning team will have clear conversations with the parent and student about their progress. We talk about what are the sticking points and what are some tools or strategies we can use as a learning team to help.
We don’t have a firm boundary, but if kids are taking longer than 1.5 years in the same Phase, the learning team usually will talk about whether the pace is really appropriate for the child, whether MC2 is the right place, etc. At the same time, we understand that just because one Phase goes more slowly, it doesn’t mean they all will. One of my advisees took 1.5 years in her first Phase and was comfortable with this, but she’s an older learner and was taking almost a year in her second Phase. My role on the learning team was to suggest meeting every week to make sure she’s turning in her work, look at her goals, and have her accountable to someone other than herself for a while.
JP: How are students promoted from one Phase to the next – and can it happen at any time for any student?
EC: We have rolling promotion through the Phases which occurs through a portfolio and exhibition process. Students typically take anywhere from 2-6 quarters to move through a Phase.
As students work through the competency checklist of their Phase, they build a Gateway Portfolio with evidence that makes a case for being ready for the next Phase. In each portfolio, we have students “select and reflect” on their top three learning opportunities from the Phase, and we have no requirements for which ones they choose. Sometimes they select challenges they have overcome, not just their shiniest, best work. We treat this like “updating your resume” for a job promotion.
The portfolios go through rounds of feedback and are looked at by at least two different teachers. Once the portfolio is considered finished, it is sent to a panel consisting of staff, parents, Advisors, and outside experts from the community. The panel observes the student give a 20-minute Gateway Exhibition.
If the portfolio is like a resume, the exhibition is like the interview. Students reference the portfolio but add other stories to the mix. They also sit for Q&A with the panel to probe deeper. The panel then decides whether the student earns promotion to the next Phase.
JP: Are there situations in which, despite the supports provided, a student does not meet the requirements to be promoted? What happens then?
EC: It has occurred when the decision on a Gateway Exhibition was not to promote the student. In such cases, the student had insisted on doing their exhibition after being advised that they weren’t ready and needed more work.
When we designed our model, we debated whether we could let a student go to exhibition if we didn’t think they would pass. We decided it wasn’t authentic if the result was pre-determined, but we would do our best and have routines in place to help students get ready. For the student that didn’t pass the exhibition, they had to re-do it. They regrouped, revised, re-presented, and eventually did pass.
Again, we try to avoid these situations through our system of feedback loops. We also have quarterly exhibitions, which are smaller versions of the promotion exhibitions that aren’t as high-stakes. It is not uncommon for kids not to pass their first quarterly exhibitions. They are able to revise and re-do them right away.
JP: How do you support teachers to hold rigor in their expectations for what meets the competencies and what earns promotion?
EC: That is hard. We try to use teachers’ strengths in their disciplines. We do things like writing across the curriculum where we collaborate among teachers. So I as a science teacher may ask the English teacher what I should be looking for and coaching on the writing portion so it is a consistent set of expectations.
We also have at least two different staff members look at student work to determine what competencies they have met.
We build authentic quality controls into our exhibition process. For example, say a student is developing a climate control action plan. We invite community members and experts on climate control to come in and help judge the exhibitions so it’s not entirely on staff.
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.