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Aurora Institute

Staying the Course

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Lead Change and Innovation

courseThis is the final article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

Many districts are converting to competency education in states that have not yet begun to take the steps toward creating the vision and policies to support competency education. Even in states that have embraced competency education, leaders may need to respond to policies that have not yet been re-aligned. Thus, leaders must learn to stay true to their vision and purpose in navigating state policy. They may turn mandates into opportunities or actively work in partnership to co-create the new policy infrastructure. Essentially, they operate beyond the boundaries of the policies so that decision-making continues to be student-centered.

One of the leadership functions needed to stay the course is being able to turn top-down compliance requirements into opportunities to reinforce the empowered culture of learning and improvement. Superintendent of Chugach School District Bob Crumley talks about how he manages mandates by stating, “I’ve learned to see mandates from the state as opportunities. We will meet the letter of the law, but we aren’t going to let the tail wag the dog. For example, we have a state mandate about including state assessment scores in teacher evaluations. We have a great teacher evaluation tool developed by teachers and our administrative team. I’m not going to make any changes to the evaluation tool that causes a loss of ownership. Instead, I’m going to tell our teachers that there are state requirements we need to meet, and we’ll take this opportunity to see if we can improve the evaluation tool to help us get better at serving our kids. If we said that we were doing it only because the state required us to, it would send the wrong message to teachers and students. We look to see the value and opportunities that develop when outside forces require us to change and adapt. Continuous improvement is a core value and process at Chugach School District.”

States and districts are also finding ways to work together to advance competency education. For example, four districts in New Hampshire are partnering with the Department of Education to pilot the development of local performance-based assessments that will eventually lead to a state-wide system. These assessments, known as Performance Assessment for Competency Education or PACE, are designed to provide richer feedback to teachers and students in a much more timely fashion than state assessment systems.

Sanborn principal Brian Stack advises school and district leaders that, “Making the transition from traditional to competency-based grading is messy. No matter how much you plan for it, administrators and teachers will feel a sense of building the plane while flying it in those first few years of implementation. Stay the course in the face of adversity. Stay true to yourself and to the model. Trust that your teachers will stand with you, and together you will face the challenges that will lie ahead and find a way to work through them as a school community. Your patience and persistence will be rewarded.”

Bottom line, leaders will need to turn to shared leadership strategies to empower educators and engage the community through the ups and downs of the change process, even though there will be pressure to become the sole decision-maker.

Concluding Comments

During our research over the last five years, we have had powerful conversations with extraordinary educators leading the transformation to competency-based education. The conversations with district and school leaders have provided the insights and lessons learned throughout this paper.

The series of posts has explored four stages of the process of converting a district or school to competency education, emphasizing leadership strategies, community engagement, development of a culture of learning, and design decisions for creating an instruction and assessment model. The insights provided by innovators offer a shared recognition of opportunities and challenges encountered in the transition. The evolution to a district-wide competency-based system will not be easy, yet the strategic recommendations from cutting-edge leaders provide a basis to develop strategies to ease and accelerate the transition.

It is important to note that this journey requires a shift in paradigm from a system-centered approach to one that is learner-centered. Leaders and educators must understand the research on teaching and how students learn. They will need to redesign their instruction and practices based on these understandings, placing students at the center. Teachers have described their transition year to competency education as the most challenging year of their professional lives, the most reflective, and also the most meaningful. They have also emphasized that they cannot imagine going back to the old way of doing things.

As your district or school transitions toward competency education, don’t expect to immediately observe wholesale changes in the classroom. Jonathan Vander Els and Ellen Hume-Howard both note, “A visitor checking out classrooms at the Memorial Elementary School might be surprised at how traditional everything looks. It’s the little things that might catch your eye, however: the charts and graphs on the walls depicting student learning targets, the student work displayed with the standards identifying the learning outcomes, and the conversations students have identifying precisely what they are working on.” In these early stages, teachers are busy collaborating with their peers and building new skills. In later stages, as teachers become comfortable in a competency-based learning environment, they will begin bringing new ideas to their leaders and pushing the concepts of what learning looks like as they co-design learning experiences with students that blur the boundaries of school walls, geography, and time, using technology and expanding opportunity for anywhere learning.

It is our hope that the discussion offered here will prepare you to begin the transformational process to design schools where success is the only option for students. As you enter this new phase and develop your own strategies and lessons learned, we hope you share them with your fellow innovators and peers on CompetencyWorks.

Again, thank you to these leaders for their commitment to share their experiences, their creativity in redesigning the system, and their continued vision of transforming the education system into a platform for student empowerment, equity, and success.

For more information, explore this whole blog series:

Blog #1 Introducing Implementing Competency Education in K–12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders

Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?

Blog #3 Investing in Shared Leadership

Blog #4 Constructing a Shared Journey of Inquiry, Shared Vision, and Shared Ownership

Blog #5 Engaging the Community

Blog #6 Creating the Shared Purpose

Blog #7 Investing in Student Agency

Blog #8 Clarifying the Overall Pedagogical Approach

Blog #9 Configuring the Instruction and Assessment Model

Blog #10 Constructing a Common Language of Learning

Blog #11 Creating a Common Language of Learning: A Continuum of Learning

Blog #12 Creating a Common Language of Learning: Rubrics and Calibration

Blog #13 Creating a Common Language of Learning: Habits of Learning

Blog #14 Policies for Personalization: Student Agency

Blog #15 Policies for Personalization: Levels, Pace, and Progress

Blog #16 Empowering Teachers

Blog #17 Preparing for Leadership Lifts

Blog #18 Rollout Strategies

Blog #19 Preparing Teachers for Personalized Classrooms

Blog #20 Leveling and Parent Conversations

Blog #21 Making Mid-Course Corrections and Refinements

Blog #22 Refining the Instructional Model and Enhancing the Instructional Cycle

Blog #23 Three Ways Districts Stumble in Implementation

Blog #24 Continuous Improvement and Innovation

Blog #25 Continuous Improvement: Improving Performance and Personalization through Powerful Data

Blog #26 Continuous Improvement: Addressing the Needs of Struggling Students