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Strategic Reflection on the Field of Competency Education: Lessons Learned

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

In this third post on our annual strategic reflection, the focus will be on how our understanding of competency education is deepening (i.e., lessons learned). Click here for the discussion on our progress and the growing number of organizations and literature in the field. You can hear the entire webinar on this topic here.

When it comes to competency education, everyone is learning. Below are just a few of the areas around which our learning has been deepening over the past year. We are very interested in what you are learning. Please leave comments or consider writing an article on three things you learned about competency education this year. 

1. Developing diverse leadership requires intentionality and changes in practice and processes. As a field, we got off to a bad start in terms of diversity with way too many meetings and panels that were filled with white people relatively comfortable with the fact that we were missing critical expertise and perspectives. At CompetencyWorks, we’ve been working hard to correct that situation, including ensuring that the Summit reflected the beautiful diversity of America. We surpassed our goals and learned a lot along the way. To sum it up – we had to change our processes and had to keep the commitment to diversity front and center in our decision-making. I’ll write more about this later.

2. Invest in building the culture as much as the structure. Agency and empowerment matter. We’ve known the culture of competency education is important. I used to call it the spirit of CBE. At the Summit, there was consensus in the group working on the issues related to quality that we can build a perfect technical CBE structure, but if it is rooted in the traditional culture, there is no reason to believe that there will be changes. Thus, CBE is both a cultural and structural transformation (and still requires effective instruction, by the way!). We will now start thinking and learning about what really goes into this culture and how schools are making the cultural shift. One thing we know is that it requires a commitment to equity and inclusivity.

3. We need to be able to directly confront the institutional practices and bias that leads to inequity. During the Summit process, we did a lot of research on equity, and the participatory Technical Advisory Group process introduced us to even more. We realized that you can design for a more fair system but it requires more than that. First, we have to make sure we are drawing from all the research on how to best serve students who have been historically underserved into the core instructional practices, not as add-ons. Second, it’s not just about doing the right thing. We also have to dig out the problematic practices in the institutions and be upfront that we all have biases that shape our behaviors and decisions. By committing to air out biases, we can engage in conversations that don’t have to be colored by shame, but by the shared exhilaration of working together against racism and other isms.

4. Pedagogy first – if there is a shared understanding of the principles of learning and teaching based on the learning sciences, every part of implementation will go easier. As I wrote in the paper Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems, schools that convert to competency education begin to focus on aligning and improving instruction, learning experiences (curriculum), and assessment soon after they build a shared and transparent continuum of learning. However, we have discovered that some schools clarify their pedagogy – creating a shared understanding of the principles of teaching and learning based on learning sciences (including engagement and motivation) – before they convert to competency education. They begin the commitment to doing what is best for kids by leading with instruction and assessment – the core function of schools. It’s much easier to understand and value CBE when the district or school shares the commitment to doing what is best for kids in the classroom.

5. Pay attention to holistic definitions of student success and habits of work early in the process of implementation. When we only focus on math and ELA or even all the academic domains as what schools are supposed to do, we get off on the wrong foot. Schools should be about teaching students, not delivering the K-12 curriculum. If our goal is to teach students, then we have to think in a different way about what it means for a school to be successful. Many districts that convert to CBE start with community conversations that ask, “What do we want for our children upon graduation?” The answer is broader than math or ELA. It is broader than college and career ready. It includes lifelong learners and healthy, civically engaged young adults. This understanding is then turn into the graduation profile or a more holistic definition of student success.

In order to create lifelong learners, districts need a clear understanding of those skills and a strategy of how to nurture them from kindergarten through graduation. Although we need to do a lot more work to synthesize the research and practices on this topic, we learned that one important step is to think about the habits of work in the planning stage. The minute you start talking about every student learning, then every students needs to be coached in the skills to do so. It’s too late to start talking about habits of work when you separate out academics and behaviors in standards-based grading. Put the habits of work in place and support your teachers in how to use them and how to coach them before you change grading policies.

6. Don’t start with changes in grading until you have the culture and infrastructure in place. We follow a lot of local news at CompetencyWorks to see how competency education is introduced in local communities and what the reaction is. It’s pretty clear that when schools introduce standards-based grading as the first change without doing more work on the culture and structure – engaging communities, building a new culture of learning and inclusivity, and putting into place a transparent learning continuum and operations to make sure students get the help they need when they need it – they are going to get waves of pushback.

7. It’s important to meet students where they are in a way that considers their social-emotional skills, their growth mindset, their performance levels, where they are in age-based grades, and how to best motivate and engage them. This change to meeting students where they are – developing personalized strategies to help students build all of the necessary academic skills, not just access grade level curriculum – is a more profound change than we had understood. There are several considerations in shaping the strategies that respond to students where they are, not just their academic skills. These considerations will include where students are in terms of their trajectory toward graduation (including their age and their performance level skills), the degree to which they are able to use a growth mindset (because if they have a firmly fixed mindset, they may not believe that they can learn), and the degree to which they have developed the social-emotional skills to manage the feelings that erupt when learning feels out of reach. Four other things are going to have be taken into consideration: the academic domain, the relationship between teacher and student, the instructional toolkit of the teacher, and the distribution of skills of students in the classroom.

I’ve written before on how amazed I am at the breadth and depth of knowledge and skills we expect teachers to have. It feels like too much for any one person to have until they have had years and years of experience. Thus, I think it may help us to begin to think about professional expertise as a school or district capacity as well as something that individual teachers bring to their classrooms.

8. You can begin without a supportive state policy context; however, once you have a more fully developed CBE model, you will run into major policy barriers. Enabling state policy is needed to support CBE practices for mature implementations. We need to start having more precise conversations about what state policy is needed and what it looks like so that it reinforces the values of competency education. The areas we need to be focused on are: accountability and new systems of assessments; modifying time-based regulations and line-of-sight restrictions to fully support anytime/everywhere learning; enabling schools to meet students where they are in their learning academically and in terms of lifelong learning skills; and aligning graduation requirements so that the credential of a high school diploma is aligned to college and career and broader definitions of student success. Finally, for states that have invested in pilots, we need to clarify the next step to move to district-wide and state-wide strategies.

Read the entire series:

Part 1 – Reflecting on The Field of Competency Education: Where We Started and Where We Are Now

Part 2 – Reflecting on The Field of Competency Education: Organizations and Literature

Part 3 – Strategic Reflection on the Field of Competency Education: Lessons Learned

Part 4 – Strategic Reflection on the Field of Competency Education: Emerging Issues

Part 5 – Strategic Reflection on the Field of Competency Education: Future Action