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Aurora Institute

Insights from ReSchool Colorado: Ensuring Quality and Equity

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

reschoolMy conversation with Amy Anderson and Colleen Broderick, the ReSchool Colorado team at the Donnell-Kay Foundation (see Thinking Way, Way, Way Outside the Box at the Donnell-Kay Foundation), has caused me a great deal of agitation. I just can’t stop thinking about how we ensure quality and equity as the education system is re-engineered around learning, pace, and progress rather than time, curriculum delivery, and sorting.

The ReSchool effort is aimed at creating a statewide system of multiple providers designed for learners from birth through young adulthood to allow them to bundle together their educational opportunities. Learners will have highly personalized pathways, which may or may not include learning together in a cohort over time, with a competency-based infrastructure providing the glue to the system. My brain goes a bit into overdrive trying to imagine this, but the overall concept seems sound (really different, but sound)…at least, until I start to think about how one ensures that students are getting what they need and in an equitable fashion. Then I think we need to have very intentional strategies to ensure quality/equity—such as advocacy to make sure students are getting the supports they need and calibration.

Donnell-Kay Foundation has been tackling one element of this through an inquiry process focused on advocates and advocacy. Advocates will play a central role in the ReSchool system (I assume because choice is a strong value undergirding the system they are designing, parents would select an organization or an individual that provides advocacy services), helping parents and students to bundle together the right mix of learning opportunities in support of their making progress within four competency-domains: academic preparedness, disciplined, socially aware, and a solution seeker.

DKF has initiated a pilot on technologically-enhanced advocates that is focused on teenagers and young adults who are not well-served by the current systems of K-12, higher education, or workforce development. The pilot includes teens without their high school diplomas who are out of school, students who have re-engaged in their education, and students in high schools who are getting added support to take them through their journeys through graduation and beyond. This target population has a wide range of needs in a relatively complex set of providers and players (because we certainly can’t think of employers as a provider).

They launched the pilot with several questions: 1) How can we take the role of advocacy to scale with some element of technology to support it? 2) How can technology better coordinate advocates’ efforts? 3) How might technology change the relationships, and might we see students having more agency to connect with people rather than being dependent on the advocates?

This last question is of particular interest to me, as I have a hypothesis that those approaches that teach young people to navigate the world around them are much more effective than those that programmatically match them. I am concerned that the need to help students make connections rather than help them learn to make their own, even if it takes a lot longer, might be a form of good-hearted bias. Of course the best would be to have both—to help students navigate on their own while also creating opportunities and experiences to dramatically widen their pool of potential networks.

The advocacy pilot is in early stages right now, running through June 2016. Over time they engaged five partners. The first partner is Fidelis, which offers a Learning Relationship Manager. The other four are high schools or programs that already had a strong counselor or advocate role: Mapleton Early College High School (a Big Picture School); Generation Schools, who have a lot to offer all of us regarding how to think about re-organizing the school day and year; Project VOYCE, which was founded by students from Manual High School when it was abruptly closed and seeks to empower students to be agents of their lives and their communities; and Zero Dropouts/Denver Scholarship Foundation, which re-engages students to complete their college experience. The pilot includes somewhere around 5 advocates and 275 students.

Already the pilot is raising a number of issues—or, I should say, questions. First, the needs of interests in thinking about their learning experiences may range from the basics (“I need to pass this math course”) to the aspirational (“I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut”). Certainly, there is great value in operating in the world of inspiration and aspiration, expanding the edges of the horizon for students, but how does an advocate make sure all the basics are addressed, as well? Second, the organizational context and practices of each of the organizations shape the understanding of the role of the advocate and how student agency is valued and developed. Third, the partners have started creating apps to support the different functions and choices. However, it can be a steep learning curve to create apps that have enough value and resonate with students to start to go “viral” in a school. DKF is already asking whether other partners are needed to help design the apps. Fourth, questions abound about what is a mentor, the role of the mentor, and whether there might be different types of mentors. Finally, reality has inflicted itself upon this pilot—the ratio of students to counselors is higher than expected, so services are shallower and less comprehensive than what one would hope.

In addition to this list of questions, I started wondering about quality and equity. If advocates and their organizations are the linchpin to the system, how do we know if they are providing high quality and equitable advocacy services? In a choice model, one can say parents and students will use their feet. But we know that doesn’t work out quite the way we think it should (take, for example, poor performing charter schools that have developed a vampiric quality—they are seemingly immortal, remaining open despite demonstrated inability to help students learn). How do we make sure that patterns of institutional racism/classism don’t take root in these advocacy organizations so that choices, services, and opportunities are in fact offered and delivered in ways that benefit students regardless of race or class (and yes, you can add gender, language ability, and disabilities to this list)?

This question is important for those trying to transform the K-12 system as well as those wanting to create an entirely new system. How do we both provide high levels of personalization (meeting students needs, interests, and aspirations) while also ensuring equity? If equitable doesn’t mean equal doses of the same type of service, then how do we guard against the bias that we know we all carry with us into our work? Do we need to build in specific functions, such as advocates, into competency-based districts and schools that will ensure students are getting the instruction and support they need to be successful?

Perhaps the proof is in the learning. An indicator of an equitable system, but not necessarily a high quality one, is if all students are making “equitable” progress and learning at high levels. If they aren’t, then the system we are building should be able to rapidly identify variation in how students are progressing and trigger rapid responses.

Which brings me to calibration. We know all learning isn’t equal, so how do we know students are learning at high levels (i.e., quality)?

We know we have a huge lift in transforming the traditional K-12 system to a competency-based one. We want to create a shared understanding of proficiency so that when a teacher credentials a student as knowing all the learning goals for Level 8 in math or for Algebra 1 (if the school is still using courses), the teacher in the school on the other side of the tracks would make the same determination. New Hampshire is leading the way in helping us to think about what this might start to look like as they help the four districts tune or calibrate performance-based assessments in PACE.

In a much more decentralized system (and I do think we are heading this way—every other industry has become more decentralized as they integrate technology into the core of its operations), how are we going to make sure that the credentialing process is consistent? It doesn’t make sense for the advocates to do it, as that would be opening an enormous door to gaming the system. The providers of the learning opportunities could certainly do it, but there would have to be a mechanism in place to ensure consistency and double check quality. We have to consider that students might have a bundle of services from a mix of providers, some of which include academic instruction, while others might be much more developmentally focused and more difficult to measure in any short period of time.

Thus, one has to consider the WGU model where there is a new function of credentialing learning performed by independent reviewers, or the Chugach School District in which schools (or providers) assess learning within levels but the district (or ReSchool’s statewide system) credentials students as they progress from level to level. In both cases, a third party other than those providing direct services/instruction to students credentials the learning. I can actually start to imagine a consolidation of assessment services, a few organizations contracted by the statewide system, to ensure that students have truly demonstrated proficiency before they advance to the next level.

That’s as far as my thinking takes me today. I’ll stay in touch with DKF about their pilot. In the meantime, if you are interested you can read more about the ReSchool Colorado initiative at Christensen Institute and Bellweather.

Disclaimer: Donnell Kay Foundation financially supports CompetencyWorks and Amy Anderson sits on the board of iNACOL. I have also consulted to the DKF in the past.