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Aurora Institute

Juggling Frogs

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Read the first post on Spaulding High School.

Organizational change is always a case of juggling frogs. As I continue to reflect on my visit to Spaulding High School in April, I’m increasingly humbled by the enormous change they are involved in and the amount of respect and thoughtfulness that the administration, teachers, and students offered one another. Here are a few more insights into the competency education practices being introduced at Spaulding High School.

Competencies and Staff Cohesion: A number of different issues emerged as we talked about the scheduling of courses and their design. Spaulding is using Understanding by Design to help them design courses.In the foreign language department, teachers realized that it was no longer helpful to pull out the folders of years past from the file cabinet to pass on to the new teachers. Instead, they revitalized the courses so that students were using the language to express themselves, not to just fill in the blanks on a worksheet.

Rob Seaward, principal at Spaulding, highlighted the tremendous work the math department has done in upgrading the curriculum using the Depth of Knowledge  framework and ensuring consistency among teachers for the Algebra 1 course.  (Spaulding’s video shows examples of before and after). The passion, dedication, and mutual respect of the math teachers was truly inspiring. The teachers were very clear that redesigning a course around competencies was a lot of work. It was certainly easier to share the burden with a team. When asked if the creative process was important or could someone just take their Algebra 1 course and implement it, there was a pause, and then someone commented that the process was important for understanding competency education and consistency across their classrooms. A long-time teacher said, “It brings you to the heart of the work. It helps you avoid complacency.” But it was clear that they wouldn’t want to do it every year without additional resources or time.

Rolling Semesters and Real-Time Feedback: As we all know, feedback and planning for keeping students on pace for learning are critical in competency education. In order to help teachers, students, and parents communicate student progress in the course, Spaulding is using a “rolling semester” and updating the grade book every two weeks so parents can follow along how their children are doing in school.

Teachers are exploring ways to provide real-time feedback. In some of the science courses, teachers are using technology as a tool. While students work in groups on curricular tasks using Google applications, the teacher is popping in to provide them with comments. If they have done an exercise incorrectly, they are asked to rework it and then explain why the first way was wrong.

Every Moment Counts: Both teachers and students commented that there is more responsibility put on students now for their learning. There is very little downtime in the classroom as students can turn in work as they complete it and move on to the next set of work. As one teacher explained, “Every moment counts.”  Students said that school seemed “more straightforward” and “It’s not a surprise; you can’t get lost.”

This stood out against a comment from a student who was missing the old 100-point system. “Every point counts in the regular A, B, and C system. Homework counted more. Everything counted.”

Next Generation “Grades”: Taking a peek into their science department, the ecology rubric gives a great sense of how Spaulding is communicating with students and parents about expectations. Advanced levels begin with statements such as “I can predict,” and “I can infer”; Beyond Competent statements are “I can explain,” and “I can apply”; and Competent starts with “I can identify,” or “I can explain.”  And then there is NYC – Not Yet Competent with “I cannot yet” marked in each section of the rubric.

Spaulding also has the “grade” IWS, which means insufficient work submitted.  Many of the students I talked to explained how coming to class and submitting homework allowed teachers to assess how well the student is mastering the material.  Formative and summative assessment has become common language at Spaulding, especially since formative assessment counts for 25 percent of the final grade.

Try, Try Again: The power of competency education is that when students are not yet competent, student and teacher keep working together until they are. Spaulding High has seen an increase of students staying after school to meet with teachers and get some extra help. Each quarter there is an opportunity for students to “catch up.” If  students are NYC at the end of the course, the “relearning opportunities” are the responsibility of the students to organize.

Yet for those students who want to be at the top of the class rank, “try, try again” starts to mean something else. It means not accepting the “grade” given to them. They want to keep trying until they meet the standards of Advanced. As one student explained, “It’s easier to pass, but harder to get an A.” Spaulding is handling this by giving students who are Not Yet Competent as many relearning and reassessment opportunities as necessary. But once students hit Competent, they get only one more reassessment to try to hit the higher levels.

Is there anything better than students who want to demonstrate excellence in their ability to apply learning? Probably not. Yet, there is a tension at play here between the preference of some students to excel at their studies and resources for re-learning and re-assessment that need to be distributed among the entire student population. If students are Beyond Competency and can move on to the next level of study, would that be a better use of school resources than having a teacher spend time reassessing them within the current course.

What if Spaulding had a more flexible entry and exit so that students could move on to higher levels of coursework? Given the focus on class rank, I can imagine that the top 10 percent of students at Spaulding would rather keep working to meet the highest bar (and get the points for their rank) than accelerate learning and begin to access college-level work earlier in their high school careers. And what is the implication for colleges? Might a student who “moves on when ready” have a lower “ranking” but also a stronger pursuit of learning? How will college admissions tell the difference?

 __________About the Author__________

Chris Sturgis is Principal of MetisNet, a consulting firm that specializes in supporting foundations and special initiatives in strategy development, coaching and rapid research. She is strategic advisor to the Youth Transition Funders Group and manages the Connected by 25 blog.