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Aurora Institute

The Courage to Confront Equity Issues in Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

EPIC Schools NY
From the EPIC Schools NYC Website

Innovators and early adapters of competency education want to do right by kids. The vision of personalized education is that every student will be able to engage in meaningful and highly engaging learning experiences – with the right mix of instructional supports when they need it – so that everyone is successful. Failure is not an option; it’s just part of the learning process.

However, my stomach turns when I hear these very same incredible education leaders dismiss equity because “every student is getting what they need.” In the same ways the police and criminal justice systems have betrayed African-Americans for decades, so too have our schools betrayed low-income communities, African-American communities, Hispanic communities and Native American communities. People may not be in the streets because of their schools, but the distrust is there.

So here are five equity issues I think we are going to need to tackle. They aren’t new or created by competency education. They just get raised in competency education because of the transparency system and our need to constantly nurture respect and trust so that educators can partners with students, families, and communities to resolve issues as they develop.

Keeping Students in School: Policies regarding the graduation crisis have improved greatly over the past decade. Uniform ways of measuring graduation and dropout rates are helping us to be more honest. There have been investments in credit recovery to try and find a way to improve the probability of kids who get off to a rough start in high school still reaching graduation. As a result, graduation rates are increasing…except when they aren’t. Our African-American students, specifically young men, and Native American/Alaskan Native students aren’t seeing much of an increase. Students in ELL and special education hover around 61 percent.

There have been efforts to re-engage students into school (some call it multiple pathways to graduation; some refer to it as serving over-age, undercredited students; others use the terms re-engagement or recuperation). No matter what you call it, these are all efforts designed to help students get back into school and stay there. Competency education must take into account the structures needed to make sure students can climb back on board the college/career track, picking up where they left off.

The Christensen Institute highlights areas of non-consumption as a place to derive the benefits of disruptive innovation. Indeed, online learning can be beneficial, but only in the context of high-quality blended learning that draws on the best of face-to-face instruction for older youth who may have experienced substantial challenges and trauma in their lives. Too many districts are focusing solely on online credit recovery when they should be developing schools such Apex, Schools for the Future, Our Piece of the Pie, and Bronx Arena.

Addressing Inequity in Educational/Social Capital: How much of a child’s learning takes place in school compared to that of their community and family? What type of learning is happening in families and communities, and how does it impact students’ abilities to succeed in school?

Students whose parents went to college are going to have a leg up in terms of getting help on homework (Sal Khan argues that homework is one of the main ways we reinforce inequity), use of academic language, and navigating the college admissions process. Students from families with higher income are going to have a lot more opportunities to learn by participating in high-interest activities (sports, arts, clubs, etc.) as well as to make connections through travel, festivals, and networks of other middle class families. It’s not just money – low-income families are either juggling several part-time jobs that leave little time for low-cost activities, or are struggling with the issues that may be causing their financial difficulties in the first place (such as health).

Thus, it is likely that as we bring competency education to scale in communities with large economic gaps, we are going to see the value of the educational and social capital on school-based learning. This isn’t a new situation. It’s shaping our schools today. Competency education will put a spotlight on it because we monitor student progress so closely. This dynamic then  becomes an incredible opportunity for us to innovate around ways to mix types of instructional experiences to see if we can find more cost-effective ways to organize learning.

As an example, EPIC Schools invested up front in leadership development in Summer Bridge. So-called “at-risk” kids turned into young leaders over the first two months of school, proving to all of us that we can expedite the process of development that social and educational capital produces.

Balancing Personal Choices and Equity in the Transition from High School to Life: When we embrace an equity agenda, we are committing ourselves to find ways to serve all students, regardless of their different abilities, learning challenges, and family lives. It’s the core of competency education – personalizing education so that all students succeed.

However, once students are in high school, it can start to feel like a time-bound system. The required standards students need to reach may take them longer then four years, requiring either more time during the year, more years of schooling, or focusing in on essential standards rather than trying to have them meet all requirements (e.g., should a student not graduate because they haven’t met all physical education requirements?). Most students want to graduate with their peers, so even if we say they can stay in school longer, are they going to be willing to do so in order to get a proficiency-based diploma? Or are we going to segment diplomas in a way that is both door-opening and choice-offering?

Students also have pressures in their lives: needing to take care of siblings, raising their own children, getting a job to help the family. Some students may also wish to take a “leave of absence” from school with the goal of returning at a later date. (Even though we may want everyone to go to college, not everyone is going to share that goal to or able to afford college the first year after high school.)

Furthermore, as students have more agency, they may also have interest in moving faster rather than going deeper…or they may wish to go deeper even if it takes them another year. With the explicit focus on depth of learning that is inherent in competency education, we are going to have to find careful ways of talking about achievement gaps and growth that recognize agency and push for opportunity and equity.

Language as Asset and Advantage: Being an English Language Learner is currently seen as a deficit. (Certainly, the graduation rates suggest that we haven’t yet figured out how to educate ELL students effectively.) Designing competency education for ELL students provides us with an opportunity to check some of our assumptions.

First, what if we see having a home language other than English as an asset instead? We know that competitive colleges want students with at least two years of a foreign language (or in competency-based terms, a specific level of skill). We also know the global economy means that speaking more than one language is a highly marketable skill. And research shows that once you know two languages, it’s easier to learn a third. This means that even if a student’s home language is a native language that may not provide advantage in the job market, it’s going to be easier for them to expand their language skills.

Second, evidence shows that learners acquire content skills quicker in their first language as they learn English language skills over a longer period of time. (There also is evidence that children in early child development programs benefit the most from dual language, as well as those in K-12.) If dual-language approaches are equally effective with English-only, then wouldn’t it make sense to turn to bilingual approaches so learners will have two languages by the time they graduate, given that it’s one of the expectations for admissions into elite colleges? One of the constraints is that not enough teachers who speak other languages are ready available, but that is exactly where online learning can help.

Overcoming Racism: We know we haven’t cleansed our education systems of patterns of institutional racism. We know we all carry bias that results in us seeing deficits when there are only differences. It’s easy to turn race-neutral policies into a new form of institutional racism if we don’t keep an eye on how policies and practices are impacting students.

One of the concepts that we need to be very careful about if not eliminate is “readiness.” That’s a concept from the time-based system in which we fit students into the school system. It’s a concept that can easily be applied in ways that provide some students with more opportunities and others destined to stay behind trying to become ‘ready.’

If we are going to work with students where they are in terms of academic skills, habits or maturity then we have to move from adults determining if kids are ready (or not), have transparency about what they need to demonstrate to move to the next level so they can share in the responsibliity, and then focus more on strategies that help them become ‘ready’. Certainly Making Community Connection’s strategy for intensive investment on habits up front and then letting the learning accelerate as students build the skills to own their own leadership comes to mind.

We also know we have a real problem in our networks in competency education (and related issues of deeper and blended learning) in that we are horribly racially homogenous. Throughout my investigations, I’ve found that, as a field, we don’t take on anti-racist positions within our organizations (and in many cases, our boards and staff are at best at a level of tokenism). The power of white privilege is that we can stay in our comfort zones and say it’s not a problem. However, this is an enormous issue for our organizations, our clients, our students, and our country.

As a racially homogenous group, we are likely blinded by our privilege, even while making decisions that will have impact on the effectiveness of competency education (and thus risking that we’ll have to wait for another twenty years for the next window of opportunity).  If we aren’t hiring people of color on our professional staff, why should communities believe we are going to be respectful or honor them in delivering high-quality education for their students? We are going to have a hard time providing services to communities of color and their schools if we don’t address these issues within our own networks.

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Right now, we are at the cutting edge of understanding the equity challenges in competency education. We are going to need to guard against implementation strategies that create barriers for students. For example, I visited one high school that did not have time for instructional support. Students could only get help during lunch of after school. Given that the majority of low-income students came by bus, the after-school option may have been reinforcing patterns of economic inequity.

We are also going to want to look for ways to discard our deficit thinking and challenge our assumptions about how school is organized so that we can continue to innovate. As Ty Cerene from Bronx Arena said, “We aren’t done innovating until 100 percent of our students are graduating.

This a reminder to all of us. Competency education isn’t really competency education until we figure out how to get all kids to proficiency.