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Aurora Institute

Insights from the RTT-D Personalized Learning Summit

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Design for Educational Equity, Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

district reform support networkI had the chance to participate in the Race to the Top District Personalized Learning Summit sponsored by the US Department of Education last week. I learned so much and am quite honestly still processing all the conversations. However, given that we are wrapping up the equity series, I think it is important to share these insights about creating a more equitable system right now.

#1 Suburbanization of Poverty

If you have had a chance to visit NYC, San Francisco, Portland, OR, Denver, Boulder, or any other city with a strong economic base recently, the changes are absolutely visceral – more affluent people are moving into the city center, rents are skyrocketing, and the folks who work the restaurants, clean the apartments, and drive the cabs are all living an hour or more away from their work. Although this does not bode well for our country (one can’t wonder if we are going to look like South Africa with cities and townships one day if we don’t do something about this trend), there is a significant opportunity for competency-based education. The suburbanization of poverty means that there are going to be more and more medium- and small-sized districts looking for help to respond to a changing demographic, just as Adams 50 did seven years ago. However, we need to understand what needs to be in place to ensure that a competency-based district is going to generate more equity. We need to do that now.

#2 Moving Resources to Students Who Need the Most Help

One of the speakers said, “Once you start to individualize, every kids looks underserved.” Initially, I thought it was just a profound insight into personalization and all the ways we can personalize education so students are always operating in their zone and reaching their potential. As I thought about it more, however, I realized that a student’s potential isn’t a finite thing, as there are so many things to learn, so many things to know, and so many things to explore. So if every student is going to have unmet needs, how are we going to ensure that the disadvantaged students – those from low-income families, who have significant learning challenges (disabilities or language), or who have experienced bumpy lives that move them from school to school – are going to really get the help they need?

We know that the likely pattern will be to serve the students considered “at the top” first. Given that resources are more finite as compared to the potential of students, choices will have to be made. We need to figure out metrics, processes, and analytical tools to make sure that resources get to the students who have gaps in pre-requisite skills. For example, every educator I’ve spoken with about this topic says that given current practices, a growth rate of 1.25 is reasonable to expect for most students. That means for every four years (unless you start to use the summer time, as well), students can expect to gain a grade level. Thus, we should be providing adequate resources to make sure this is happening for students who enter below grade level as a minimum expectation. Our challenge is to see if we can do better than that as a common practice.

#3 What We Need to Do to Ensure Equity

There isn’t a silver bullet to kill off the bias each of us carries in the shadows of our mind or all the itsy-bitsy details that create institutional racism. It requires a collaborative commitment and a multi-pronged, comprehensive attack. Here are some of the ideas that came up at the meeting.

Not About Us, Without Us: That is a principle we should all embrace. Co-design, vision, input before decisions are made, and robust community engagement that offers opportunities to talk about direction are all important. Steve Abbot of Great Schools Partnership emphasized that we need to commit to multi-lateral decisions. When we begin to think about community engagement, we create a plan so that community members can be part of the process of shaping the community engagement process itself. I heard the NEA is creating tools for deconstructing racism that can help with this.

Cultural Responsiveness Should Replace Bias (of all kinds) and Patterns of Institutional Racism: There are a number of ways we can do this.

  • Include in the values that undergird a personalized, competency-based system that ‘Students need to feel valued, respected and safe.’
  • We all need to take responsibility for knowing about our own biases. The first step is to take the Implicit Association Test. Don’t wait – go do it right now.
  • Educators need to know their students. We talk about relationships as being an important part of effective instruction, but how do we get to know our students well enough to understand the ways they interpret the world around them that are different from our own? A few examples include home visits, inquiry-based instruction, and plenty of opportunities for choice and for students to express their voice. An educator’s responsibility is to really listen and seek to understand.
  • Data can help us uncover bias in our districts, schools, and classrooms. Look for places where students of one race aren’t doing as well as another race. This is a clue that something isn’t working right. It’s an opportunity for you to tap into your culture of learning and implement continuous improvement. Bottom line: Fix the problem.
  • Cultural responsiveness should be included in non-negotiable skills that educators and educational leaders need to effectively implement competency education. Even if you live in one of the mostly white states with eighty or ninety percent of the population is white, than means twenty or ten percent isn’t. Everyone needs to be competent in cultural responsiveness. More and more districts are creating personalized, competency-based professional development for teachers. Let’s make sure that cultural responsiveness is included. To make this easy, let’s find a couple of examples and share them widely so no one needs to start from scratch.

Empowered Students Are Our Allies: John Duval at the NYC Department of Education has really helped me understand the power behind transparency to transform classrooms. The power dynamics instantly change with transparency – and do so even more when teachers design for choice and voice. It of course starts with self-directed learning practices so students build the skills to own their education. Inquiry-based curriculum and an emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving mean that students will be well-prepared to engage in confronting challenges as partners. As the Center for Secondary School Redesign suggests, engaging in students in governance and design will help schools find better solutions as well as create a culture that starts by respecting and valuing students.

Empower Educators to Meet Students Where They Are: It simply does not make any sense to force a student who doesn’t understand fractions or other pre-requisite skills to take algebra over and over and over unless there is a complementary strategy to help them build proficiency in those pre-requisite skills. It would be much better to use that time spent repeating a course in a different way that ensured the student was making progress. This is just one example of what we mean by “meeting students where they are” (rather than, as Susan Patrick calls it, firehosing them with grade level curriculum). The concept of advancing upon mastery starts by actually knowing where students are in their own learning trajectory. A few of the recommendations for making this happen include:

  • Create systemic policies and operations that know where students are on their trajectory. Vendors of information systems are not our allies – in fact, they are an outright barrier at this point – as they only focus on what teachers deliver, not what students learn.
  • Monitor growth rate of all students. This is just as important (or possibly more important) than knowing whether students are on grade level or not – not just how much they grew, but the actual rate. It gets tricky when we also include backfilling pre-requisite knowledge, but I’m sure there is some way to figure it out.
  • Assess when ready strategies (such as interim assessments offered when students have demonstrated proficiency or adaptive approaches to summative assessments) can help make sure that assessments are meaningful to students and their learning.
  • Ensure all students have access to deeper learning through mapping backwards from competencies, aligned rubrics that are crystal clear about the depth of knowledge, assessments (including performance-based and portfolios), and grading.

We also need investments in research and knowledge dissemination on the most effective strategies to help students meet grade level expectations by becoming proficient in pre-requisite knowledge (by age, domain, size of gaps). This is so important because if students don’t fully build the foundational skills, they are always hamstrung as they encounter each new academic challenge.

Make It Easier to Implement High Quality, Equity-Producing Competency Education: Although we needed to go through a process of districts developing different strategies and models for competency-based education, the time is now right for us to begin to think more carefully, to actually research, what parts of competency-based education make a difference in terms of quality and impact. (See Under the Hood for an example of this kind of research). When I use the word quality, I mean it produces greater equity for historically underserved students while also benefiting all students. It doesn’t make sense to use the word quality or effective if, in fact, some students do not benefit.

We know some of these pieces. For example, calibration of what proficiency looks like for each performance level or grade level is a non-negotiable. Without calibration, bias or attitudes will mean some teachers pass students on without reaching proficiency, and then we are right back where we started. Investing in helping students build their habits of work is another one. We can talk all we want about students owning their education, but unless they have the skills to do so, it doesn’t mean very much. And we all know how hard it is to break habits or learn new ones. It takes time, practice, feedback, encouragement, and reinforcement.

Whites Need to Deal with Their White Privilege: The one place where I heard a sense of hopelessness at this meeting is people of color talking about how hard it is to work for district leaders who either don’t understand their white privilege or choose to use their power and privilege to stamp out efforts to address institutional racism. The question then is what we can we do as a field. Whites have a responsibility to challenge white privilege. As Nick Donahue reminded the audience, when whites give up their white privilege, they get more back. Whether you are taking responsibility for your white privilege or feeling a bit heated reading this section, it’s always good to read Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. If you really want to unclutter your mind of the blinders of privilege, take the time to participate in or organize an Undoing Racism workshop. If you are a person with power and influence in your district, begin to institutionalize practices to undo racism and build more equity across all the areas of potential bias by integrating anti-racism and anti-bias practices into evaluations and performance reviews (the military does this), using protocols for meetings and decision-making, and ensuring that race and racism can be discussed at every meeting.

#4 What We Need to Do to Build Accountability Systems that Reinforce Learning and Growth

Time for Coalition Building: Most districts in states that have not embraced a vision of a personalized, competency-based education will stay that they have to stay under the radar in order to serve kids. Every time I hear that comment, my heart misses a beat as I think about what that says about our country and our communities. It would feel so absurd if it wasn’t such a tragedy. I understand why this has been important, but it is now time to begin building a coalition within each state and across the states. We need coalitions to educate policymakers, to meet with vendors and demand they respond to the needs of educators and students as well as eliminate bias in their products, and to engage in conversations with higher education and scholarship programs. I personally think we should begin to build the coalition but not push too much publicly until we have an idea of how to define levels of quality and some strong evidence that competency education is going to make a difference for students. First things first, let’s pull together some strong common messages as well as prep ourselves to deal with the opposition who are against most things and for very little.

Take Advantage of ESSA: ESSA is creating opportunities for us to create an accountability system that helps us solve problems of inequity, not just tell us about them. There are things that ESSA requires and there are a whole boatload of things that it will allow. It is really important to engage state policymakers in understanding what is possible and provide recommendations to them. Certainly, co-design is the way to create meaningful accountability systems.

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In closing, many educators at the RTT-D meeting in one way or another emphasized that leadership matters. Anyone involved with personalized, competency-based systems knows that the most important thing is to stay focused on learning no matter what the state level policies demand.

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