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Aurora Institute

The Illinois CBE Initiative: Overview and Reflections

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

The Illinois State Board of Education has announced the districts that will be participating in the 2017 Competency-Based Learning Pilot for high schools: Chicago, East St. Louis School District, Huntley Community School District, Kankakee School District, Peoria Public Schools, Proviso Township, Rantoul Township High School, Ridgewood High School District, Round Lake Area School, and Williamsfield Schools. A quick overview of the pilots are below.

This is an exciting initiative although I do have a few concerns:

  • Some (but not all) of the pilots seem too small. At CompetencyWorks we recommend school-wide strategies. There will always be roll-out strategies, of course, but the goal is to have school-wide as quickly as possible. Some of these pilots look more like exploration than transition strategies.
  • I hope that the IL districts will take the time to learn from others around the country. There is a lot known already about how to design high quality competency-based alternative schools and how to help students build the skills for becoming independent learners (such as starting with a growth mindset). Based on the descriptions, there is a lot of emphasis on clarifying the standards (not sure if the focus is still on delivering grade level standards or meeting students where they are), creating flexible learning environments, and expanding formal pathways rather than on building strong cultures of learning, helping students build skills for owning and managing their learning, and supporting teachers in building their skills to personalize instruction.
  • It’s not clear that these districts or their school boards have actually made a commitment to competency-based education or have engaged their communities in defining what they want for their students. We’ve learned that any district taking CBE seriously is going to want to roll back to feeder schools pretty quickly. Once districts shed a light on the number of students coming into high school with gaps both big and small in their foundational skills and take the responsibility to actually help them build those skills and not pass students on, they are going to go downriver to created competency-based middle and elementary schools.

Reviewing these schools got me to thinking: Given that competency education is expanding, and possibly expanding in more programmatic ways, it may be time for us to create a way to categorize CBE in terms of scope; robustness implementation (clear pedagogy, CBE structure, personalized approach, strong culture of learning, etc); and fidelity of implementation. I don’t think we can expect that a CBE initiative aimed at helping students be better prepared for specific career pathways is going to produce the same types of outcomes as a district-wide commitment to a proficiency-based diploma and personalized learning approaches.

Illinois CBE Pilot Participating Districts

Chicago Public Schools: CPS has selected a mix of very diverse schools with very diverse student bodies ranging from high selective to schools serving young people in the juvenile justice system.

  • Gwendolyn Brooks: Selective Enrollment school on the far south side (grades 7-12)
  • Southside Occupational: Transitional school for special needs (ages 16-21)
  • Lindblom Math & Science Academy: Selective Enrollment school on the south side (grades 7-12)
  • York High School: Learning facility within the Cook County jail for young adults awaiting adjudication (ages 18-21)
  • Benito Juarez Community Academy: Neighborhood school with an International Baccalaureate curriculum on the near south side (grades 9-12)
  • Walter Payton: Selective Enrollment school on Chicago’s north side (grades 9-12)

East St. Louis School District: East St. Louis will start with students in the alternative high school and career and technical education program at their primary high school. The purpose of their competency-based education system will be for learning recovery and as an accelerator program.

Huntley Community School District: The Huntley High School pilot plan is designed to include multiple subject areas and to serve a subset of students in 11th and 12th grades by changing their learning experience. The goal is to shift the focus away from what students are learning and toward how they will learn it.

Kankakee School District: Thirty-four organizations, including Iroquois-Kankakee Regional Office of Education, Coalition for Hope & Excellence in Education, Olivet Nazarene University and Kankakee Community College, and local employers are involved in this effort to improve the high school experience. Kankakee High School will expand on career academies that traditionally merely complemented core curriculum. The redesign will reflect the Office of New School Models;the School District of Philadelphia’s Competency Toolkit; the International Center for Leadership in Education’s Redefining College and Career Readiness for 21st Century strategies; and P-Tech, Project Lead the Way, and Bob Pearlman Innovation Labs models.

Peoria Public Schools: The Peoria initiative is expected to engage students in school who might otherwise drop out or find school irrelevant. The goal is to identify those math, English, and science competencies related to the pathway capstone courses for the district’s high school manufacturing, culinary, cosmetology, construction, and Project Lead the Way career programs; integrate them into the curriculum for those courses so that students could be given credit for the math, English, and/or science required for graduation; and develop the assessment measures to determine mastery of the competencies. Peoria Public Schools plans to design graduation requirements in the form of competencies and performance-based assessments tailored to various career pathways.

Proviso Township: Proviso East High School believes that competency-based education, working in concert with the College and Career Readiness Academies, will accelerate the process of students demonstrating mastery of a comprehensive set of rigorous and relevant competencies and will better prepare them to enter the postsecondary options of their choice. PEHS will identify key learning standards, or standards of significance, in all content areas. This approach is designed to facilitate the transition to a wall-to-wall focus on competencies rather than credits. Proviso East will collaborate with its community college and higher education partners to align the standards of significance that make up the content-area and cross-curricular competencies to the colleges’ standards. They will also create learning opportunities beyond the customary high school classroom so that students may gain access to advanced postsecondary and career-related competencies. They are starting with demonstration classrooms and then will begin a 9th grade roll-out the following year.

Rantoul Township High School: Rantoul Township High School has been working on improving their high school for five years. In this pilot they will create competency-based coursework and assessments beginning with specific classes (in the first year Algebra 1, Spanish 1, Government, U.S. History 1 and 2, English 1, and biology) and then expanding to other courses. The hope is to allow students to accelerate their learning to take advantage of post-secondary options while still in high school.

Ridgewood High School District: The Ridgewood High School pilot is focused on creating competency-based credits in their math department. They hope to introduce ways for students to earn credits in other ways than traditional coursework.

Round Lake Area School: Over the past seven years, Round Lake Senior High School has been implementing progressive, research-based curriculum, instruction, and assessment changes to improve student achievement. The core philosophies that have guided the curriculum reform at RLHS have included Standards-Based Grading and Mastery Learning. The pilot is focusing on allowing students who have demonstrated mastery the opportunity to have unique learning pathways that focus on more real-world experiences.

Williamsfield Schools: The Williamsfield Schools pilot program is a collaborative effort with ROE 33’s Regional Alternative Education Services. The pilot will introduce four new graduation pathways to complement the traditional high school diploma (Diploma + Associates; Diploma +College Credit; Diploma + Trade Certification; Diploma + Work Experience). The pilot will introduce a practice of continual ELA/literacy, math, and science course enrollment. Although they will retain graduation requirements based on credits the focus will emphasize skill-building. Pilot partnerships with Carl Sandburg Community College and Northern Illinois University allow for AP and dual credit course expansion.

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