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Aurora Institute

Stop the Nitpicking and Other Things We Are Doing that Are Undermining Our Efforts to Advance Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

Lock“We don’t share the details of our work anymore.”

I was more than a bit shocked and stopped taking notes. I had heard from a national organization that districts weren’t sharing very much information anymore. I had assumed that the leading districts were working so hard to get their systems right or that examples of their competencies, rubrics, and policies had been pulled off their websites because they were undergoing a revision process.

This very honest superintendent told me they didn’t share their artifacts and the details of their system anymore because so many visitors to his district nitpicked. They’d look at their standards and question why something was set as a kindergarten goal rather than second grade. Or they’d question whether something was really written to be measurable. Or they’d say these are written at lower levels of rigor – why aren’t you assessing for higher order skills?

He explained that their teachers work hard and are in a nonstop learning trajectory. They have been absorbing and transforming to personalized learning and classrooms, building growth mindsets for themselves and their students while shaking off the practices of the fixed mindset, learning about student agency, creating more opportunity for voice and choice in the school and the classroom, becoming comfortable with the Common Core State Standards, figuring out new ways to grade using standards, learning how to build relationships with students that have the strength to address behavioral issues (since points aren’t used as much), strengthening formative assessment and learning to provide more productive feedback, strengthening their instructional strategies, exploring how to use educational technology (including how to use data from adaptive software)…the list goes on. They aren’t prepared for the nitpicking by visitors who have rarely had experience themselves in trying to convert a district to a personalized, competency-based approach. They find it demoralizing and counter-productive. So they’ve just quit sharing.

His honesty helped me to understand the problem. And it sparked me to write about the other things that state policy leaders, district leaders, and educators have told me can be problems created by national organizations.

Keeping Ourselves Safe from Criticism by Critiquing Others: Someone asked me this summer whether I was still in support of competency education. I was taken back by the question and enthusiastically affirmed that I still felt it was absolutely the right direction (plus we know the traditional system is reproducing inequity, so we definitely have to do something else). I asked why she posed the question, and she replied, “The implementation is so mediocre.” And I realized that she was afraid – afraid of being on a losing initiative. It is much easier to critique than to dig in and figure out what might be causing what she referred to as mediocrity. This is all the more complicated because what one person might call mediocre might actually be early implementation. Districts and schools have to do a number of adjustments after the first year, and there isn’t any handbook about how to do competency-based systems, so they are creating every step of the way.

Another situation came up recently where some PhDs in a university decided to critique competency education, but after a long-winded discussion through comments, it became clear they were actually critiquing adaptive software. They had bought into the vendor descriptions of their adaptive software products as competency based without understanding the state, district and schoolwide conversions. In general, I think this situation was an honest mistake. They had never visited a competency-based district and didn’t understand the comprehensive structure that is being put into place to support student learning. These situations develop because we are all in a new world and things aren’t always clear about how everything fits together. The language is fuzzy and is used differently and inconsistently. And there are a lot of initiatives to stay on top of – Common Core, online learning, competency-based education, personalization, deeper learning, social-emotional learning, and now with the growing focus on Black Lives Matter, we all have to be prepared to work together to eradicate every inch of racism and institutional racism left in our thinking and systems.

It’s hard to be an expert in this type of rapidly changing world. Our old patterns of being experts are failing us. And many are turning to critiquing others using our previous or narrow expertise, when in fact this is a time for listening, exploration, analysis, and, most valuable of all, synthesis. In most cases, the skills used by expert may be more valuable than knowing a few things deeply. So when we have a critique, let’s take a step back and try to understand what might be causing the problem. And see if we can provide more support and insight to the districts and schools doing this amazing work.

Putting Us in Your Box: I am probably one of the worst transgressors at this, although I’m trying to change my style as quickly as possible. Those of us lucky enough to visit districts and schools on behalf of our organizations, projects, or clients walk into the schools with our blinders on – looking at things only through the perspective that we have constructed (or are funded for). This helps us go deeper, compare different approaches, and build up knowledge. However, it is disrespectful. Districts and schools have their own perspective – it’s based on their community and the forces at play, the way they have constructed meaning, and the vision for what they want to accomplish. A state policymaker told me that it is very frustrating to do interviews with people who are only listening for evidence for their position or initiative, as they leave without understanding the full context or strategy. Furthermore, what gets written about them later is likely to contort the issues or miss major insights.

Based on this feedback, I’ve adjusted my approach to district/school visits so that the first ten to fifteen minutes are spent in an open conversation that allows them to tell their story the way they want to. Furthermore, instead of focusing only on the strategy and approaches to building a competency-based infrastructure, I now listen more deeply for how all the pieces fit together. I go out of my way to use the language they use, quote people directly, and highlight the efforts they feel most proud of, even if I don’t quite see how it relates to competency education. I’ve decided it is safer to assume that I’m not going to see all the connections in a three-hour site visit.

The most difficult situations are created by foundations when they insist grantees use their frameworks or umbrella concept (the focus is at the top and every other things fits underneath it). Of course it is helpful to see how a foundation is thinking about transformation, but not when a district or school is forced to embrace it as their own. We need to make sure that districts and schools use language that is powerful in their own communities. It’s our job to do the translation, not them. They need to stay focused on what’s best for kids.

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Nitpicking, narrow critiques and boxes come naturally to experts and national players in a silo’d world. It’s how we share what we know. However, in the same way that districts and schools are making this enormous shift from fixed mindset/compliance orientation/recall and comprehension focused factory model to a growth mindset/empowered/higher order skills personalized model, those of us working at foundations, intermediaries, associations, think tanks, and policy organizations need to learn a new way to support the districts and schools. I’m not sure what we might call it, but I know it starts with listening, using the language and frameworks that are meaningful to districts and schools, and ensuring that policy is informed by practice.

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