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Aurora Institute

Where Things Can Go Wrong

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

csbouldersmallIn the last three days, in three different meetings, I’ve been asked to summarize what I’m learning about competency education. In yesterday’s meeting with RTT districts I shared the following list of things people starting off in competency education need to think about earlier than later in their process…i.e. this is a place where implementation can go wrong.

1) Start With The Students:  We think a lot about college and career readiness, Common Core curriculum, and what we expect students to know and do.  If we want to get students there then we need to start with where they are.  This means when students enter your school, doing assessments to understand where they are on their learning progression and what gaps they have is essential. Teachers will need to do pre-assessments when students enter their classroom to understand how they are going to need to differentiate, group/regroup.

This is one of the game-changing dynamics of competency education. At today’s meeting with Race to the Top districts this kicked off a huge conversation. Once you do this we can no longer ignore the fact that some students are 2,3, 4 or 5 years behind or don’t have the prerequisite skills they need to do the grade-level curriculum.  Scott Benson, Gates Foundation referred to this as the “design and accountability challenge of our time “.  I call it the Elephant that we’ve been successfully ignoring for decades.  There are many ways of trying to accelerate learning…but we haven’t been systematic in researching this so that districts and schools can be sure they are deploying resources most cost-effectively.

2) All Five Elements of the Definition of Competency Education are Important:  Competency education is entering the realm of being the new sexy idea. This is good and bad. Good because it will be good for kids. Bad because a lot of things are being called competency-based because students can click their way through a software program.  Susan and I  test our thinking about the definition all the time—growing a deeper understanding about the implications and testing if any elements is more important than another.  And so far we are coming back to the same conclusion – all five elements are essential. Without them we are unlikely to generate real achievement gains.

3) Include Interventions, Supports and Opportunities From the Get-Go: The question to ask early on in planning for competency education is What is Going to Happen When Students Don’t Reach Proficiency.   Too many schools start down the path and find at the end of the year that there is a whole group of students that still need help.  In competency education, students may be in a grade based on their age, but they may be learning at all different levels of the curriculum. Thus, retention is no longer an option.  It doesn’t make any sense.  It’s all about embedding supports and just-in-time interventions.  (See The Learning Edge for more information about systems of support).

4) Common Core and Competencies:  Every practitioner I’ve spoken with says that the Common Core can be easily converted into competencies. In fact some of the standards are written as competencies. The few things that have to be considered are focusing in on power standards as the designers of the Common Core still left us with too many standards. In competency education when there is a tension between students learning and covering the curriculum, students actually becoming proficient always wins. The other thing is creating powerful user-friendly language.  Many schools are beginning their competencies with “I can…”.

5) Grading and Ranking: One of the big pivot points in a school is the implementation of scoring as compared to grading.  Many schools use a 1-4 scale to indicate not enough evidence, not yet proficient, proficient, or exceeding proficiency.  Others use the 1-4 to indicate depth of knowledge.  Parents and students may think this is just the same as A-D, but it’s not. Designing your grading strategy and communicating it effectively is an important step in reshaping the culture of schools and districts. Now, ranking is a tough one. In hindsight, one school leader wished they had implemented the cum laude structure used by colleges. We’ll be tackling grading/scoring/ranking in our next paper.

6) Include the Kids: I always thought this meant within the school and with the community. After my visit to Lindsay, I know understand this means a shared vision between educators, community and students.  Students really feel it when they know the whole school is working to make sure they are successful. Tom Rooney, Supt. at Lindsay says students can also help communicate the system to their parents and are crucial to working through kinks in implementation.

7) Changes in Culture and the Classroom: I always get asked if there is enough capacity to do competency education in schools. In a competency education system, with a growth mindset, the answer is:  Of course there is going to be enough capacity as it is just a matter of everyone learning what they need to do to help students learn. Everyone is a learner, right? What this means for teachers is learning classroom management techniques and new norms for a personalized classroom as well as strengthening formative assessment/adaptive instruction skills. If you don’t think about creating new norms for your school and for the classroom, it may feel like an uphill battle. I’ve seen the classroom management techniques promoted by Reinventing Schools Coalition working in the rural districts in Maine and in the Barack Obama Charter School in south L.A.. The only difference I saw was it was referred to as Code of Conduct in Maine and Code of Cooperation in L.A..

8) Continuous Improvement: Again, this is a natural outgrowth of a learning culture. There is lots of data generated in competency education and there are going to be different ways to use this data.  There is an emphasis on pacing, learning about how to best support students without the prerequisite background knowledge (i.e. kids with gaps), rethinking units of learning by creating meaningful modularity that allows students a sense of progress, ease in scheduling to meet student needs, while keep the transactional costs of this level of flexibility down.

9) Race, Class and Trust:  When you sit around the table with competency-based folks, it’s very white.  Partially because the model has been developing in places where the demographics are just that.  But partially, we aren’t doing the necessary work to engage and include leadership that reflects the diversity of our country.  Honestly, who is going to trust that competency education, often mistakenly introduced as self-paced, isn’t just going to leave underserved students even farther behind.  This loops right back to Interventions, Supports and Opportunities. If you haven’t put those in place right up front, are you really committed to equity? Are you using continuous improvement techniques to make sure you aren’t letting institutional racism practices seep in? There is no time to lose, we need to do make a mid-course correction right now.

I do my best to share what I’m learning on CompetencyWorks but of course it reflects my learning…based on my experience, interests, and perspectives. It doesn’t capture what WE are learning in the field.  We’d love to hear what you are learning.