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Aurora Institute

Update from Iowa

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones

Sandra Dop
Sandra Dop

Thanks to Sandra Dop at the Department of Education for helping me understand how competency education is developing in Iowa. However, any errors are all mine. We’d love to hear from others involved in competency education in Iowa so that we gather different perspectives and insights into your efforts.

The Iowa state legislature opened the door to competency-based education three years ago when they eliminated the Carnegie unit as the only way to earn credit in Iowa high schools and instructed the Department of Education to establish the Iowa CBE Collaborative to investigate CBE and develop pathways for others to engage in the transformation. The Collaborative has five years to complete two goals: establish Iowa demonstration sites and develop a Framework for Transformation to a CBE System.

The first year or so was spent with the ten districts of the Collaborative exploring together what it means to be personalized and competency-based. They brought in speakers such as Susan Patrick, iNACOL; Rose Colby, New Hampshire; Laurie Gagon and Gary Chapin, the Center for Collaborative Education; Kim Carter, QED Foundation and founder of Making Community Connections Charter School; the Reinventing Schools Coalition, and yours truly. The state provided resources such as Delivering on the Promise, Community-Based Learning: Awakening the Mission of Public Schools, Make Just One Change, and Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.

Districts developed a variety of pilots that emphasized different aspects of competency education: personalized, blended learning, and transparency of learning goals, rubrics, and progress. For example, Cedar Rapids moved well beyond the pilot stage when they developed Iowa BIG, which takes advantage of the competency-based structure to support students in taking on big, interesting projects while ensuring they are building their skills. Mason City started with one sixth grade math teacher engaging in blended learning and are slowly and purposefully expanding. Van Meter is investing in project-based learning, using twenty-first century skills as the framework to guide student learning, and is also remodeling their building to provide open space for peer and student/teacher collaboration. Spirit Lake started with a two-week project-based January term (J-Term) in secondary, and Franklin Elementary in Muscatine did a two-week intersession to connect their students to community mentors and real world projects. Each district is finding its own way into the transformation.

The Iowa Department of Education realized that trying to accomplish both the district transformation and developing the Framework for Transformation was too much for the districts to do at the same time. So they invited several Collaborative members to form the Coordinating Council to coordinate the work of developing that Framework. The Council includes Randy Peters from Drake University and Linda Allen from Hawkeye Community College, who work specifically on transitions to post-secondary and other post-secondary issues; Lisa Wilson from the Grant Wood Area Education Agency (AEA) and Bev Berns from Keystone AEA, who guide the work around learning environments; and Tim Felderman, a principal from West Delaware Community School District, who leads the work connected with things like how to get started and engaging stakeholders. The Council recently defined the Elements to include in the Framework as well as the Components that will make up the content of each Element. (Elements: Getting Started, Stakeholder Engagement, Collaborative Inquiry, Structures and Supports, Professional Learning, Learning Environments, Competencies, and Assessment.) They are currently engaged in developing action plans and considering ad hoc committees to do different parts of the work.

The Department of Education also contracted with WestWind Education Policy, an Iowa-based consulting firm, to work with the Coordinating Council and the Department to develop that Framework, which will be housed at the Department website. The starting point and north star for this work is the State Guidelines for PK-12 Competency-Based Education, which include the Principles and Characteristics of a CBE System as well as definitions and examples to guide re-design.

The Department of Education is also supporting higher education as they consider competency-based education. They invited representatives from both community colleges and four-year institutions to join the CBE Collaborative team to consider transitions from PK-12 to post-secondary, teacher and administration preparation, and the transformation of higher ed itself. Many of the community colleges are ready to become competency-based or establish competency-based programs, but the four-year schools are much more cautious, as they are concerned about knowing just what incoming students have experienced that prepared them for post-secondary success, funding and scholarships based on the Carnegie unit, the enormity of the task, and that possibility it might simply result in a three-year degree. (See Michael Horn’s The Liberal Arts Have a Bright Future in Competency-Based Learning.)

The process of developing competencies has been challenging, as the Department and their district partners have learned that each discipline has its own personality – there isn’t just one way to develop an understanding of what graduation level competencies are and how to organize them so they roll back all the way to kindergarten. They got started with what they refer to as the universal constructs, or twenty-first century skills, such as communication. They’ve developed an interesting structure of “gateways” that students should be able to demonstrate at the intermediate level, to middle school, to high school, and to college and career, which they call Scoring Documents. This is the first time I’ve seen a state begin to think beyond grade levels and establishing benchmarks for students to meet. I can easily imagine students creating a portfolio and coming home with great pride to tell their parents they passed through the middle school gateway.

They have also started developing competencies for mathematics, bringing in math specialists from kindergarten through higher education to help identify the big ideas and big steps that happen in math. (If you are interested in this topic, you might want to read up on learning progressions.) They found that just having the experts at the table wasn’t enough; they also needed to bring in high school math teachers to help clarify how the ideas connected (or didn’t). By the end of the process, they had developed thirteen competencies for high school mathematics alone. Now they are cross-walking these big ideas to the Iowa state standards.

The science team decided to start with one concept and write all the competencies from physics back to primary based on the Next Generation Science Standards that Iowa is using (with a few stipulations). They are still in the act of working through this cross-walking process to develop the competencies and the scoring guides.

The Department of Education and their district, higher education, and area agency partners are learning a lot along the way, including managing organic processes, co-designing with state/district partnerships, and learning how to manage just-in-time expertise. Most of all, they have learned that it is absolutely essential to engage community at the very beginning and to continue to work collaboratively and let the process evolve rather than control it. In other words, they are finding themselves engaged in exactly the learning environment they hope to provide for students.

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