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Aurora Institute

Reflections on Accelerating the Implementation Process

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Acceleration“We have to figure out how to make implementation easy and faster.”

I hear this statement from time to time and it always makes me wonder. It makes me wonder about a number of things.

1) Quality before Speed: At this stage of development, shouldn’t our concern be more about understanding what high quality implementation looks like rather than methods to speed it up? Perhaps we can speed up the implementation process as we know it, but I’m not convinced that we know what high quality implementation looks like yet. The list of questions I have is worthy of its own blog post, but let me start with two significant issues. First, we have not figured out the best ways or the real cost of helping students who enroll in a school academically behind their age-based grade, those with special education issues, or those learning English. Second, we also haven’t taken the ceiling off the system consistently so that students can actually advance when they have demonstrated mastery. What is preventing us from making sure seventh graders can be doing ninth grade math? One might say that both of these should be considered school-level autonomies. However, I also think they are structural issues about the responsiveness of districts and schools to students’ needs.

2) Speed, Shared Vision, and Deep Personal Growth: Several months ago, someone asked me for feedback on an implementation plan for a district. There were lots of project benchmarks, timetables, specific activities, and ideas for who was going to do what. But what it didn’t have was any time or resources allotted for engaging the community in building a shared vision or understanding why the traditional system is a barrier. Nor did it have any lead time for the district staff and school leaders to deepen their understanding of competency education or strengthen their distributive leadership styles. (See Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders for more discussion on creating shared purpose and leadership styles.)

From what I can tell, it is the shift in values that makes the difference of those schools that have the spirit of competency education and those that are changing operations but not behaviors. It is the values of putting students’ need first, recognizing that we make mistakes and can learn from them, and cooperation based on a clear and shared sense of purpose that makes the difference.

Perhaps the values have always been there, but we didn’t know how to act upon them in a compliance-oriented world. This suggests that another significant change is embracing the empowerment that happens when distributive leadership is embraced and compliance-mentality is eliminated.

There are probably ways we can expedite the big shifts. However, they need to happen school by school, district by district…and person by person. It’s not something that can be boxed up and transported to the next school unless it’s done through career ladders as people carry the spirit with them to their next job. If this is the key to successful implementation of competency education, then we have to honor it by giving this part of the process of transformation the time it needs to take hold. Any chipping away at the Ramping Up phase bears very, very high risks.

The more I think about this, the more I wonder….if we get the Ramping Up process right, will all the rest of it be that much easier?

3) A Different Starting Point: I have been wondering if those districts that have already engaged their communities and educators in the dialogue about what it means to be personalized, with an emphasis on how online learning can be beneficial, might be able to move to a competency-based structure using a different path than the one I outlined in the paper Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. It’s a different entry point and may allow us to move forward in a different way.

When the stakeholders have already become comfortable with personalization and flexible pacing, will it make it easier to introduce a competency-based structure? It certainly seems like it should make the transition a bit easier. If community members and educators have already come to the conclusion that we need a personalized rather than a factory model, and are used to talking about flexible pacing through the use of online curriculum, can we reduce the cognitive dissonance that erupts when you first try to get your head wrapped around a system focused on learning rather than the delivery of curriculum? Will there be less confusion about why grading practices need to change? It may not be faster, but it also might not be as big of a lift.

The success of approaching from a different starting point will likely depend on how much work was done engaging the community to understand a more personalized system, how much the spirit of learning as described above is in place, and how much trust or distrust there is within the school community and between the community and the school. Just as we know that students learn differently, so too will our communities.

4) Integrate the Change Processes so a District Can Become Personalized, Competency-Based, and Blended All in One Fell Swoop: Given that introducing personalized learning approaches, blended instructional models, and competency-based structures will each take several years, is there a way we could create change processes that incorporate all of them? We’d need some daring (and resourced) districts and some come creative and collaborative TA providers to make this happen. And given the lack of diversity in our field (which suggests to me that we are all walking around with a high degree of white privilege and possibly racial bias), I’d add a third element to this mix. We are going to need to be able to fully engage community members (students, parents, advocates who represent the demographics of the children to be served) by offering them a chance to become well-versed on blended, competency education, and personalization to provide the guidance so we don’t re-create inequity while we re-engineer the system.

I obviously don’t have any answers here …but I suppose my musings could be turned into a list of recommendations that the field and our funders might be able to consider.

  1. Aim for Quality: Let’s start to talk about what it means to have high quality implementation and to know where districts and schools are in the process of reaching it. We can use the language of CBE to guide us—Exploring, Emerging, Proficient, Breakthrough.
  2. Create Video and Discussion Tools for Breaking Down the Traditional Paradigm and Introducing Those Needed for the Spirit of Competency Education: We can support the process by creating video tools (animation, those clever hands drawing out the narratives, and interviews) supported by discussion tools, surveys, etc. They need to be top-quality—we can’t do this with a kind-of-good video. It has to make viewers have a big A-HA! It has to create enough agitation that people are uncomfortable operating in the traditional system. It has to be so good that someone watching it starts a dialogue because they need to talk about it.
  3. Invest in TA Providers Learning from Each Other: TA providers are incredibly catalytic organizations, especially when they are large enough to become supporting networks of districts and schools. If they have the chance to build out their capacity, it won’t take much before their organizational creativity will start to think about how we could be better supporting districts. How should funders decide who to invest in? That’s easy—those with racial and cultural diversity on their staff and boards that reflects the changing demographics of America.