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Aurora Institute

Increasing Student Trajectories

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

from Making Mastery Work

Students Receive Rapid, Differentiated Support – that’s the fourth element of the working definition of competency education.  Without support, competency education wouldn’t be any different than the traditional A-F system, which tolerates students not learning very much or just enough to pass on to the next grade.

For anyone planning the transition to competency education, an essential step is to have an intentional strategy for providing support. Start by asking yourself two questions:

  • How are we going to support the students that don’t reach proficiency the first time they encounter a new skill or content?
  • What is our strategy for supporting students that enter our school significantly behind or with gaps in their academic skills?

Don’t wait to think about it. You can learn from Andrew Skarzynksi, Principal at Medical Professions and Teacher Preparation Academy:

“In hindsight, we would have spent more time identifying additional instructional opportunities for students, and examining the role of anytime, anyplace education. Due to a variety of factors, such as academic need, different learning backgrounds, and a lack of prior exposure to concepts such as ‘the historian’s craft,’ we discovered a distinct need to increase many students’ learning trajectories. We would now incorporate more alternative learning approaches, such as the flipped classroom and extended day learning. We initially began with a summer academy and realized early on that we need to incorporate more opportunities for ‘any time, any place education.'”

Here are a couple of powerful insights from Making Mastery Work to help you get started (italics are direct quotes from MMW):

1) Ground Support in Learning Targets:  A teacher at Casco Bay High School reflects upon an important lesson learned: We learned (or perhaps re-learned) the importance of having all decisions about differentiation/student support be grounded in the learning targets. Only then can we most effectively use time and staff flexibly and create alternate pathways to the course standards so all kids can accomplish authentic projects alongside their peers.

2) Design Systems of Support in Response to School Design and Culture:  There is a continuum across competency-based schools in the degree of how personalized or individualized. Some schools, such as Casco Bay High School, Vergennes, and MPTPA value the community that is formed among students thus grouping students in single-paced cohorts.  These schools ensure rapid support by creating an X-Block, a set time each day for students to get extra help.  For example: At Vergennes, the middle of the day is used for “call-backs,” two 30-minute periods during which students and teachers make decisions about where students go to get the individual or small-group support they need. Not all students need support because they are struggling: at several Expeditionary Learning schools, an “Acceleration Block” has been created to support students who are ready to move at a quicker pace.

On the other hand, schools such as Diploma Plus or Boston Day and Evening Academy are more individualized. [They are] designed to be self-paced, [and] interventions and support happen within the classroom. As teachers discover that a student needs additional support or a modification of an assignment, they immediately work with the student to make adjustments.

Understanding of the different approaches allows for a powerful insight that can help us expedite school design. I do have to wonder why any competency-based school would have to make a difference between time for extra help and acceleration. Seems like a destructive remnant from the A-F culture.

3) Transitions: Students need the opportunity to continue learning material even after a particular course has completed the topic of study. Boston Day and Evening Academy creates windows at the end of each trimester for students who need extra time to show evidence of proficiency.

4) Transparency and Tracking:  Providing students with progress-tracking tools creates a powerful opportunity for them to have agency in their learning trajectories. If students don’t have a map of where they are and where they need to be, there is a risk of lagging behind. Kippy Smith, Casco Bay High’s school coach explains, that with progress-tracking tools, “Students reported much greater clarity in understanding about the role and purpose of habits of work and formative assessment tasks.”

If you are wanting more information on supports, stay tuned for Balancing on the Learning Edge:  Supporting Student Success in a Competency-Based Learning Environment.  It provides design principles to help you think about your systems of supports. It will be released in December. If you want to make sure you are notified, join the CompetencyWorks e-list.