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Aurora Institute

Superintendents Leading the Way in Connecticut

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation, Learn Lessons from the Field, Engage Community

NextEdThis is part of a series on mastery-based learning in Connecticut. See posts on New Haven Public Schools,Windsor Locks Public Schools, Naugatuck Public SchoolsSuperintendents 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.

Why is Connecticut turning to personalized, mastery-based learning? Because superintendents had the courage to be honest that there wasn’t any way to reach the policy goal of every student ready for college and careers within the traditional, one-size-fits-all, time-based system. As Larry Schaefer and Janet Garagliano of the Connecticut Association of Public Schools Superintendents (CAPSS) explained it to me, “Superintendents came to the conclusion that they couldn’t guarantee that all kids are going to be college and career ready without some major changes. The best way to reach our goals is through a personalized, mastery-based system.”

Sometimes superintendents are seen as holders of the status quo. However, when the superintendents released their first report NextEd: Transforming Connecticut’s Education System in 2011, they demonstrated forward-thinking leadership. They demonstrated that they were innovators, not the barriers to change. With over 150 recommendations, the report explained step-by-step how once you put students at the center of the system, just about every aspect of the system had to be re-adjusted. Personalization wasn’t a new program, it was re-engineering the system.

CAPSS also engaged other educators in creating a vision. In the next report, A Look to the Future: Personalized Learning in Connecticut, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) and the Connecticut Association of Schools (CAS), with principals as their members, co-created the vision for a personalized, mastery-based system. At the end of March, CAPSS released a more detailed plan called NextEd: Next Steps, which is filled with action steps.

CAPSS Four Pillars of Work

How are the superintendents advancing the transformation of Connecticut’s education system? Through four pillars of work described below:

Policy: The policy work started in 2009 with the superintendents studying the issues and creating the vision for personalized, mastery-based learning. They brought in experts, read articles, and began to outline their vision. They produced NextEd, but more importantly, they began to engage in conversations with leaders throughout the state about why personalized, mastery-based learning was needed. In 2013, they were able to make one important policy change – students could get credit for demonstrating competency and school boards could decide what competencies must be mastered in order to be awarded credit. With that, the doors opened up to mastery-based learning in Connecticut.

Public Will: CAPSS knows that the success of introducing a personalized, mastery-based system depends on the public’s understanding the need for the system as well as how it works. In addition, Connecticut has strong unions, which need to be engaged and have their interests addressed early on. (Interestingly, CT has a law that students can’t do internships unless they are paid – which eliminates the possibility of earning credit for competencies mastered outside the classroom. However, there is now a pilot with twenty-five districts to explore the impact of internships without pay.)

In order to fully engage school boards in creating the capacity for mastery-based learning, district leadership teams started with the community. Garagliano emphasized, “Sometimes, superintendents think that if they engage the community one year, they are done with community engagement. But there is a new group of parents every year. We have to be committed to engaging the community and parents for the next twenty years.”

CAPSS is doing a lot to increase the understanding of personalized learning and mastery-based education through its reports. They also know that districts themselves have to build their capacity to engage the community. Two of the districts that have been making the transition, Farmington and Windsor Locks, have invested heavily in community engagement. Even so, Superintendent Susan Bell at Windsor Locks suggests that in hindsight, she wishes she had done even more. (See post on Windsor Locks.)

One of the things CAPSS did was to run contests for students to prepare short videos about how schools should be changed so they can learn better. This is a powerful way to begin to change the discussion about schools, school improvement, and what the education system should be able to do. (See the Student Voice videos.) They have also started a High School Reimagined project, with students in twenty-three school districts developing proposals on how high schools could be better. This will open up public discourse in 38 percent of the districts in Connecticut, placing students in a position to talk directly to community leaders and legislators on what they want for their high school education.

One of the lessons learned in the community engagement work is that it is important to bring in experts who understand community engagement and schools. Just because someone can do great community engagement in public health doesn’t mean they are going to understand the relationship that parents and community members have with their schools, or how memories of their own school experiences will affect their reaction to proposed transformation.

Proof of Concept in Connecticut: CAPSS knows that schools and districts can demonstrate that a personalized, mastery-based system can work – and can work for all students. They have been working closely with Great Schools Partnership and its networks, the New England Secondary Schools Consortium and the League of Innovative Schools, to support educators in building their knowledge and capacity through summer institutes and workshops during the school year. To date, they have trained leadership teams from approximately thirty secondary schools in the basics of mastery-based learning and supported them in plans to begin implementation. (I visited New Haven Academy, which is one of the participating schools.) Interest is growing – in March, CAPSS offered a workshop for districts to learn more, and over 80 participants representing over 15 districts signed up. These “proof of concept” schools and districts will be critical in building public will and momentum for policy change.

As we know, as more districts and school start to make the transition, there will be more approaches, strategies, and models. In general, this is a good thing, but there is always a risk that some of the schools may develop poorly designed plans that are poorly implemented, or that only certain practices will be implemented and fail to create a comprehensive system focused on improving student learning. CAPSS is responding by helping districts better understand what it means to be personalized or mastery-based as well as investing in research to help guide implementation.

They are also creating opportunities for multi-district efforts. For example, in 2014, multiple districts came together in summer to write graduation expectations. This way, they didn’t have to start from scratch and they reduced the risk of writing a set of expectations that had flaws or weaknesses. Another strategy is to work with multiple districts around geographically contiguous areas. This provides political cover and enhances the ability of educators to learn from each other.

Garagliano mentioned two lessons learned. First, if superintendents aren’t heavily invested, it is likely that the transition will move at a very slow pace and risk petering out. The second is that as soon as districts begin to prepare for implementation, once-a-year summer institutes do not always meet the demand. In response, CAPSS has also added bi-monthly professional learning opportunities.

Leadership Development: CAPSS is dedicated to preparing leaders to lead a personalized, mastery-based school system and are changing the way they do it based on the feedback of their members. CAPSS used to specialize in large statewide conferences. However, as they moved into personalized learning, they received feedback from their members that it would be more beneficial to stop running conferences and create smaller, more targeted learning opportunities. Superintendents wanted smaller events with follow-up support with more opportunities to go deeper and learn from each other. Superintendents knew what they needed in order to learn.

CAPSS began to develop communities of practice for their members to become more comfortable with mastery-based learning. They have had five out of six sessions with about fifteen superintendents, many of whom bring another person from the district office. These sessions have focused on issues such as community engagement, grading, and building support of the board. CAPSS draws on their partner Great Schools Partnership to facilitate the communities of practice and also utilizes their extensive networks to help superintendents find others who have had the same challenges.

Looking Ahead

I asked Schaefer and Garagliano about their hopes and fears for mastery-based learning as they look to the future.

Take the Time to Get It Right: Garagliano cautioned, “Personalized, mastery-based learning is catching on. However, many districts and schools jump in without taking the time to learn from others and think about the implications of changing the underlying assumptions of the current system. If they move too quickly, they risk setting themselves up for failure. It can have an impact on everyone else if people start to think that personalized, mastery-based learning is too hard to implement. Educators need to take the time to learn before they take action.” For example, some districts are turning to changes in grading policies before they clarify what instruction and assessment looks like in a mastery-based system. Grading, instruction, and assessment need to be connected and integrated. Without that, we would continue to have systems that are fragmented or misaligned.

Changes in Roles from Bottom to Top: Schaeffer expressed full support for Commissioner Dianna Wentzell with, “She understands personalized, mastery-based learning and the enormity of the changes to a student-centered system.” Budgetary issues in CT are drawing attention away from transformational work. Even so, the Department of Education has been supportive with funding provided to CAPSS for coaching and workshops. The big change is shifting from compliance to a problem-solving mentality. One of the things happening in CT (and in all the other states that haven’t fully embraced competency-based learning as the new education system) is a disconnect between the old compliance way of doing things and the new empowered flexibility that happens when schools are focused on doing what is best for kids. Schools are still being asked about how much time they are spending on each subject in school even though it has little application in a personalized system. If a student is farther behind in math, they need to spend more time on math and less on the other subjects. If a school has taken advantage of mastery-based learning, they may have created exciting interdisciplinary inquiry-based learning opportunities that are difficult to turn into instructional hours defined by individual academic disciplines as required by the state data collection system.) Teacher certification policies do not match the reality of interdisciplinary or competency-based work.

Re-Aligning Assessment and Accountability: Schaefer emphasized, “Assessment needs to be different if mastery-based learning is going to be of high quality and high expectations. We need to have a strong system of assessments, including performance-based assessments. We can’t depend on paper and pencil tests alone.” He also asked, “Why can’t we have an accountability system that allows students to take the accountability exams when they have demonstrated mastery? The Graduate Record Exam is set up so you can take it any time of the year. Oregon is giving their state accountability exam four times a year. If we are going to personalize, then we need to build up the capacity of systems to be much more flexible.”

Equity, Equity, Equity: Schaefer emphasized, “There are several aspects of equity that we need to pay attention to. First, if you aren’t willing to put unequal resources for kids based on need, you won’t reach equity. Second, you need to pay attention to what we know about child development. For example, covering standards for five-year-olds isn’t practical. We have to meet students where they are. Children learn at different rates; therefore, the whole class will not be at the same place in a unit. Third, equity argues for a district-wide strategy for mastery-based learning so that every student in every school is benefiting. Districts have an important role in ensuring that high expectations are held at every school.”

Garagliano added, “We have to make sure there is a shared understanding of what mastery means and that students reach mastery before they progress. Making sure students have the prerequisite skills is the best way to achieve equity in a system. This means we have to create a different type of remediation. It doesn’t happen later on; we need to reach students quickly and provide help on the specific learning targets they are having difficulty with.”

Student Ownership of Learning: “There is a lot of lip service given to student agency, but are we really invested in students owning their learning?” Schaefer asked. He suggested that more attention needs to be given to what it means for schools to redesign practices around student ownership, including student-led conferences and more choice in how students learn.

Fidelity: Both Schaefer and Garagliano emphasized that understanding what it means to have fidelity in implementation was a critical next step. Schaeffer also added, “We need to have a very strong understanding of what personalized mastery-based learning looks like in districts, in schools, and in the classrooms. We need to identify the non-negotiables.”

See also: