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Aurora Institute

When Tears Don’t Stop Flowing

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

I can’t stop crying this morning.IMG_0073

For the Dallas police officers who were killed and their families. For Philandro Castile and his family. For Alton Sterling and his family. And for all the police who live in more fear today and for African-Americans who live in fear every day that they or someone they love could land in jail or worse be killed by someone who has made an oath to protect them.

I don’t know what to do to stop this slippery slope into violence, fear, and anger that is tearing at our country. And I don’t know what to do to scrape out the racism that is in every nook and cranny of our society. But I can talk about what we at CompetencyWorks are trying to do in our small piece of the puzzle.

Get the Values Right: The more Susan Patrick, co-founder of CompetencyWorks and President/CEO of iNACOL, and I talk about competency education, the more we understand that the traditional system is based on sorting students and that the fixed mindset can also be a racist mindset. We have heard comments along the way that make us realize it isn’t just that some students can’t learn as well as others. There are those who believe that some students shouldn’t learn as much as others as it reshapes the educational and economic playing field.

We’ve been talking to educators across the country to try to deeply understand the culture and values that are needed to make competency education effective and to ensure that personalized learning will result in greater equity. In mostly white communities we hear discussions about the growth mindset, transparency, empowerment, and responsiveness to students. In communities with rich racial diversity, there are others values. At Merit Prep, we heard about safety and making sure students feel valued. In New York City, there is discussion about cultural responsiveness and making sure students feel respected. These values are important because the lives of African-Americans, Hispanics & Latinos, Asian-Americans, and new immigrants are tremendously different based on the color of their skin, their language, or their clothes.

Now, we really do need to think about this – the color of skin is no different than the color of your eyes, the shape of your nose, or the length of your toes in terms of who each of us are as a human being. But in our America, we have made the color of skin the thing that shapes our lives and our identities. Whites who haven’t schooled themselves in white privilege might not understand how much being white shapes their identities and their lives. But deep inside they worry – maybe I haven’t deserved everything I’ve gotten. And therein lies some of the fear.

A few days ago, in a conversation with Susan about how to strengthen the list of values we raise as conditions for competency-based education, I raised the question of whether it was better to describe the value as “cultural responsiveness” or “students feel safe, respected, and valued.” Her reply? Both. We need both. I agree. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of ridding our schools of patterns of institutional racism and ourselves of bias.

Thus, here is our updated list of values needed in a competency-based system:

  • Cultural responsiveness
  • Students feel safe, respected, and valued
  • Growth mindset and robust culture of learning
  • Do what is good for learners (even if it requires being brave and taking risks)
  • Active learning
  • Transparency
  • Empowering
  • Embedding accountability (taking responsibility and having the systems to ensure pace, progress, and proficiency)
  • Agile

Get the People Right: When you go to a meeting about competency-based education or any of the other sub-fields of next generation education (deeper learning, blended learning, student-centered learning, personalized learning), it’s shocking how 90 percent or even 100 percent of the people are white. There are reasons for this, of course – some based in where the models developed, some because foundations for all their visions and missions about equity continue to fund organizations that have little racial diversity on their boards and management teams, and some because we think it is okay. Yes, we think it is acceptable to have all whites in the room because we are all benefiting from being there to build knowledge, networks, and career opportunities. This is white privilege at its finest.

At CompetencyWorks, we have spent over a year tracking down great educators working in competency-based states, districts, and schools who also happen to be African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and Native American. As we organize events and meetings, we are trying to make sure that they are invited, elevated to leadership roles, and supported in being successful as local, regional national leaders. We’ve tried different approaches in the past to increase diversity that didn’t work well. So now we are just advancing step by step – and doing our best to implement practices that are more inclusive.

Most of all we are holding ourselves accountable as whites to be anti-racist allies.