This is part of a series on mastery-based learning in Connecticut. See posts on New Haven Public Schools, Windsor Locks Public Schools, Naugatuck Public Schools, Superintendents Leading the Way in Connecticut, and New Haven Academy. Connecticut uses the term mastery-based learning, so that will be used instead of competency education within the series.
“Our young people have already had the experience of being kicked to the curb. They are behind in credits and they are behind in skills. And there is no way for them to catch up in a traditional high school. Mastery-based learning offers a meaningful path to high school graduation. It is also effective in helping students strengthen the foundational skills they need for jobs and college. We are now pursuing dual enrollment with College for America. We can imagine a mastery-based pathway that focuses on building skills that can start in high school and move through college programs right into jobs.”
– Bob Rath
Bob Rath, CEO of Our Piece of the Pie®, Inc. (OPP®) in Connecticut, has dedicated his life to improving life outcomes for young people who have been slipping through the cracks of the public education system. OPP operates at the intersection of youth development, workforce development, and academics, serving young people who need help to finish high school, build post-secondary skills, or gain access to the labor market. At OPPortunity Academy and the other schools run by OPP, a mastery-based approach can further unify these approaches for students by focusing on what they know, what they can do, and what they need to do to advance.
Many thanks to Rath, Principal Rodney Powell, and Chief Operating Officer Hector Rivera for sharing their vision about how competency-based learning can form the backbone of multiple pathways to graduation and beyond for young people..
Bob Rath was one of the co-authors of Seizing the Moment: Realizing the Promise of Student-Centered Learning.
Bob Rath is open about the challenges of creating a comprehensive mastery-based model in an alternative school. “Student-centered learning and personalization have opened a door for engaging and teaching students who are over-age and under-credited (OAUC). To be stuck in a seat-time world is condemning them.” Rath explained that young people become OAUC in two different ways. Some have significant academic deficiencies – they are the victims of social promotion and fail a lot of courses, and suddenly graduation feels like an impossibility. For the second group, life happens. They move a lot, they end up in child welfare, they or their parents get sick, they have a child, or they get arrested. For students with complicated lives, attendance can be a problem. Rath noted, “Mastery-based learning allows them to pick up wherever they left off. It gives them hope. These two groups need different things; some young people need both. We are still working on finding the right model, the right mix of approaches.”
Although mastery-based learning is valuable in its transparency and in allowing students to accumulate credits more quickly than they could in a regular high school, there is also an additional challenge. Rath asked, “How can I in good conscience give students credits when they aren’t near grade level?” In the traditional world we give them a passing grade, but one of mastery-based learning’s core elements is advancement based on mastery. Rath noted, “Getting students through an online course and increasing reading ability are two very different animals. The challenge to help over-age and under-credited students is to do both in a short period of time.” Given that alternative schools usually have about two years to work with students, through policy or simply because students are ready to move into their adult lives, this is even a greater challenge.
OPP has been trying different ways to strengthen the instructional model. They start with a strong foundation of youth development. Rath described the youth development specialists who each youth is paired with to lead them through goal-setting and OPP’s programming, as “magicians.” That’s a must. So is showing respect to students, creating a safe environment, and allowing them to be vulnerable. Areas of improvement have included:
Growth Mindset: They are focusing on growth mindset and helping students see themselves as learners. This can be a significant issue when students’ primary school experience is failure. Rath explained, “Seeing themselves as learners is an important step toward getting them ready to dig into challenging text.”
Reduce Barriers: They are looking at ways to reduce barriers to learning. Instead of students fumbling through courses, they are looking for ways to ease the transitions into courses so that students can get to work as quickly as possible.
Balancing Live and Online Learning: The right mix of instructional strategies depends on teachers as well as students. Online learning is particularly helpful, as OPP is highly individualized to allow students to enter with such a mix of credits and skills. They are using Edgenuity right now. However, creating purpose and meaning requires a social context for learning, dialogue, and an opportunity to work on meaningful projects. Rath noted, “Many students have difficulty with online learning. It feels like learning in a box and they have no relationship with the instructor in the box. The students really need relationships to learn.” OPP is trying to get more tutors; simply having a person sitting with a student can make a difference: the students need opportunities to connect.
There is a downside to the use of online learning, explained Rath. “One of the biggest tragedies is that as we try to fix the academic problems students have, we do so by taking their power away. Online learning programs are great for individualizing, but they don’t provide students opportunities for voice and choice.” OPP is using a number of strategies, including student-led conferences and the capstone (see below), to empower students to see their education as their own.
Writing: One area that benefits greatly from live instruction is writing, with students developing expertise as editors as well as writers. Rodney Powell, Principal at OPPortunity Academy, reflected, “Students will struggle with their writing and revise as many times necessary if it is important to them. Writing is their voice to express their opinion and shape their world.” The ELA teacher is going to be reducing the reliance on Edgenuity in the coming year to create more student-centered classrooms where the curriculum is better designed to tap into students’ interests and lives.
Performance Tasks: In order to complete a class, students must do performance tasks. It’s important for students to have confidence that they can apply what they learned in the class. Performance tasks help to build that mindset. The use of online learning means teachers can focus more closely on working with students on the performance tasks.
Capstone: Students do capstone presentations as a final step to finishing their academic programs. It is a transitional step to reinforce that graduation is only a step within lifelong learning. As Powell explained, “The capstone is important, as students pick something that they are passionate about. They are applying their skills to something they care about. That is what it means to be a successful learner.”
Identifying Performance Levels Early: In the coming year, OPP is going to see if NWEA assessments can be helpful in developing stronger personalized plans. The assessment tool isn’t as helpful at the high school level, but so many students enter with elementary and middle school skill levels that it could focus attention on building foundational skills immediately rather than teachers having to discover where students are on their learning trajectory along the way.
One of the big insights that the team at OPP has had is that student populations are not all the same at their three high schools – and that they can change rapidly. This means that schools need to be adaptable. For example, at one school, students have many more behavioral and emotional issues that require greater focus on trauma-informed services, opportunities to build social-emotional skills, and different staffing. Another change they are seeing is that students enrolling at the OPPortunity Academy are increasingly trying to get their last few credits. They don’t understand that mastery-based approaches are harder, with higher expectations than their regular high schools. Thus, they are considering how to adapt orientation to help students understand the importance of skills and that it isn’t just about credits as they have been taught in the traditional system.
Career Pathways: Using Competency-Based Approaches to Strengthen Foundational Skills
Hector Rivera, OPP’s COO, said, “Six out of ten young people graduate from high school not ready for post-secondary. Credits are not valuable; skills are.” That’s why the OPP Pathways to Career Initiative for high school graduates to pursue post-secondary education and training in manufacturing, allied health, and insurance/finance is looking to competency-based approaches to help build the foundational skills. Too many students are graduating from Connecticut high schools with middle school level skills, so OPP is working to get to a minimum of ninth grade literacy. Rivera emphasized, “Low literacy skills are going to hold young people back in their careers. However, low literacy isn’t a reason to not let young people into the program. Young people understand that building their reading skills is an important part of the program. A competency-based model means that students can focus on the specific skills where they are weak.”
Post-Secondary Education: Partnership with College for America
OPP is also pursuing a partnership with College for America to offer a competency-based dual enrollment program for students at OPPortunity Academy. Rivera explained, “We didn’t know colleges could be competency-based. As we began to strengthen the mastery-based high school model, we heard about College for America (CfA). Why don’t we marry the two systems?” To this end, OPP and CfA are working through the details of what dual enrollment would look like for seniors at OPPortunity Academy. Rivera continued, “Our students are going to understand how to navigate a competency-based model. This is a great way to start college.”
This partnership is based on OPP providing a support coach for students as they continue to pursue their Associate’s degree at CfA in either health or business. Students will also get help in finding an internship in the sector and, if needed, help in negotiating permanent employment. Rivera explained, “The goal is to have an expeditious pathway to a college credential with little or no debt.”
OPP is also building a more extensive partnership with their college partners (including CfA, local community colleges, and Goodwin College) to provide more support for students as they continue on with their college education. OPP is trying to organize resources around students who don’t know how to navigate an institution of higher education to get the support they need. Rivera explained, “Our staff will close the loop to make sure students are getting the help they need. Often, referrals get written on sticky notes and lumped into a pile of other sticky notes. We want to make sure no students slip through the cracks.”
A Vision for a New System
Rath believes that we should be thinking about how we can deconstruct the current programming for young people who didn’t get a high school degree or the necessary skills to find their way to a family-wage job. He believes that if we take a step back, we might be able to see a new way forward. As I listened to his team talk about the value of mastery-based learning, I realized that they were in the process of weaving this new system – a competency-based system – that would allow students to be able to move in and out as needed, always starting where they left off. Students would be able to focus on skill building and demonstrating learning, with clear steps toward a job. Imagine if we took off all the other clutter of the college and career pathways and streamlined it so that students were building transportable stackable credentials.