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Aurora Institute

National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Chris Sturgis
Chris Sturgis

I’m still processing. I find myself waking up several times a night with my brain spinning through conversations and the notes from the Summit. Here are just two of my personal reflections on the Summit. There will be more to come as I work through all of the notes.

Who is in the Room Matters

In the musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr sings about wanting to be in the “room where it happens.” In advancing any social or education effort, there are many rooms where vision, ideas, goals, and strategies are shaped. In the world of competency education (like many other fields), the people in the rooms have often been all or mostly white. We were super-intentional and goal-oriented in how we planned the Summit to bring in four types of diversity – regional, perspective (teacher to national), expertise, and racial & ethnic. The mix of knowledge in the room was extraordinary, with participants actively listening to stretch across their own perspectives.

In terms of the mix based on race & ethnicity, the first Summit was about 95 percent white. The second one was 59 percent. In order to do this, we had to learn to approach the criteria and process of inviting people as well as the agenda differently. We took a “diversity lens” to just about every decision – what is the impact, how would others interpret, feel, and engage. It all paid off – so I was told by many of the participants. It shaped not only the ideas that were introduced, but the comfort of pushing us forward in thinking about what it means to have equity as the core of competency education.

We all want to be in the room where it happens. What I’ve come to realize is that it really matters who is in the room. Yes, we want people who have power and influence in the room in order to commit to making things happen. But unless we have the right mix of people, it’s likely that we are not going to make the best decisions about what will happen.

What is Competency Education?

One of the most important, if not the most important, challenge we have right now is the issue of quality. We have way too many districts and schools doing very piecemeal or poor quality implementation and calling their schools proficiency-based. One of the worst scenarios I heard about recently is a school that turned their A-D grades to 1-4 with a 1 as an A…and then said they had made the conversion to proficiency-based learning.

We obviously need to complete our work on the Quality Framework…and hopefully others will take it and turn it into tools and resources for districts and schools. However, we also need to do a much better job being clear about what competency education is and how we communicate it. At the Summit, I feel that we took a big step forward on clarifying what competency education is.

In the small group working on Quality, there was a agreement that we want to define competency-based education as a combination of culture and structure. Structure alone will not bring about the changes we want for students. I’ve written about the importance of culture (scroll two-thirds of the way down) before – but it was always my personal reflection. After the Summit, I can say that there is now a belief in the field that both culture and structure are essential. Thus, if you are a school that is still sorting students based on 1-4 rather than making sure every student reaches a 1, it is unlikely you have made the cultural shift to:

  • Believing all students can learn and helping them believe that of themselves (growth mindset);
  • Accepting responsibility for helping every student reach success (internal accountability)
  • Creating safe and inclusive environments in which every student is willing to take risks in their learning
  • Understanding the power of student agency, including investing in the coaching and practices that help students build the skills and agency to advocate and navigate their learning (i.e., the ability to ask teachers for more feedback, instructional support, and opportunity to revise until they get it right so that they can truly move from a 4 to a 1); and
  • Drawing on the best research about learning, teaching, engagement, and motivation.

We still have work to do about improving communication and refining working definition. (We didn’t tackle this directly at the Summit, as we learned through a pre-Summit survey that the working definition is being used in many ways well beyond what it was defined for. This is a complicating factor and made us realize there are multiple communication needs, and we need to be more strategic if we are going to meet those needs.) However, starting today we can and should all start talking about the culture and structure of competency-based education.

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