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Aurora Institute

What Needs to Happen so that Schools Can Meet Students Where They Are?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Antonia Rudenstine, Sydney Schaef, and Dixie Bacallao

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

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

This is the sixteenth blog in a series leading up to the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from Meeting Students Where They Are. It is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and what might be missing.

At the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, one of the key emerging issues we will explore is meeting students where they are. CompetencyWorks released a paper titled Meeting Students Where They Are, written by a team from reDesign, which provides school and district leaders with an in-depth exploration of the relational, pedagogical, and structural dimensions of meeting students where they are along their learning trajectories. We invite your insights and feedback on two sets of questions:

  1. Anything Else to Add? In the paper an approach to organizing schools and reaching students based on their personal academic and developmental trajectory is explored.
    • Are there any important points to raise regarding the approach provided in the paper that are missing or need to be revised or strengthened?
    • Are there other approaches to meeting students where they are that should be included in the final paper?
  2. What Should Be Done? What needs to change in the broader education system (accountability policies, systems of assessments, teacher pre-service, etc.) to enable schools and educators to better meet students where they are, and what actionable steps can be taken to expedite these changes?

In the following discussion, we offer some initial ideas for the second question with the expectation that they will be substantially enhanced at the Summit. Below, we identify five strategies that schools must put in place in order to minimize the impact of the traditional environment’s focus on organizing learning by age and time, which most districts operate within.

A. Educator Capacity

Teachers need access to personalized, competency-based professional learning that allows them to build the skills they need to better support students within their classrooms. This should include strategies for scaffolding, differentiation, knowledge of instruction in their academic domain, coaching in lifelong strategies, and knowledge of equity strategies.  

Many districts are beginning to create modules and units on a range of different issues. An initiative that would enable knowledge-building and knowledge-transfer regarding these efforts and the design of their modules would expedite the ability of districts to shift to personalized, competency-based professional learning.

B. Develop Capacity of Education Field to Access and Use Research

There is substantial knowledge on learning sciences, learning progressions, engagement, motivation, UDL, and other strategies that can inform school design, instructional and assessment design, and policy. It is unacceptable to continue to educate students without using the very best of what we know about learning and teaching. The entire field of education will benefit from becoming more familiar with research, engaging in conversations about the implications, and learning how to use it effectively.

Furthermore, where there are gaps in knowledge, it would be helpful for funders and government to invest in research to ensure that we are building on the very best knowledge available.

C.Track Students Based on Growth

The external accountability systems monitor student achievement based on grade-level cohorts and does little to provide insights on the growth of students who are two or more levels below grade level. Under ESSA, states have the option for multiple measures to inform accountability and should balance the grade-level proficiency indicators with growth rates. Systems should be designed to monitor students on performance levels that can then easily indicate the percentage of students at proficiency-based on age or grade level. (See section on Progress, Proficiency, Pace, and School/District Performance on page 22 in the In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency-Based Education.)

In order to support states and districts to develop these multiple measures, an initiative should be developed that researches how districts and schools are monitoring growth and the types of “dashboards” or metrics that are being used, and then proposes options for states to include student growth rates over time (not as cohorts) as a method of informing and comparing district/school performance. Together with sub-group analysis of students at proficiency and above by grade-level, this provides a much richer understanding of the dynamics and performance of a school.

D. Build Capacity Within District to Offer Learning Experiences at Wider Set of Performance Levels

In the traditional system, teachers were expected to deliver the grade level coursework to every student with scaffolding. In a competency-based system, which assumes that educators are using strategies to meet students where they are, they will need to be familiar with instruction in the academic domain for at least three grade levels (above and below what they are teaching), and students will need access to units for the same.

Strategies and resources that can help students become fluent in applying skills to higher performance levels also need to be available to support educators and students when students have gaps in foundational skills.

E. Student-Centered Information Systems

Districts and schools need more sophisticated information management systems to monitor student performance levels in each domain, show growth based upon achievement of standards over time, and produce analytical reports that can both enable more rapid response to students who are struggling and identify potential patterns of inequity.

Three activities are needed to put pressure upon information management systems to upgrade their student information capacity. First, demand should be aggregated that includes both competency-based and personalized learning schools. Second, a survey to all competency-based and personalized learning districts and schools should collect information about the capacity and effectiveness of student information systems to support meeting students where they are. Third, a convening should take place in which districts and schools explain exactly what they want the student information systems to do (including the functional requirements and use cases) and vendors to explain what they can do or are planning to do to update or add to their systems. This information should then be shared publicly to help districts and schools select among vendors.

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