In 2008 I was asked by the City of St. Louis Mayor’s Office to consider starting a school for youth who had dropped out. I agreed. These youth deserved a quality education. The school would be hard to build and harder to sustain, but worth a try. Given that our students were all over-age and under-credited, we knew that seat-time meant that many would age-out of the system before they could graduate. Hence, we decided to be competency-based. (Click here for the 21 by 21 model overview, FAQ’s, Youth Readiness Taxonomy and the Design Process)
Hundreds of local volunteers and over a dozen community-based organizations poured sweat equity into planning and start-up, pledging their ongoing support. A private technical college agreed to house us. The state declared us a needed demonstration project. We had mayoral endorsement and a sponsor.
Thus Shearwater High School was born. All signs suggested we would work. And at first we did. We had passionate staff, community support, private money, and resources. Youth applied, showed up, learned. Applicants bloated our waiting list. We worked tirelessly. Most of the time we enjoyed what we were doing.
If you had told me that just a few years later we would close, I wouldn’t have believed you.
So, what happened? Here are the four primary reasons that my school failed:
1. We were reactive when we needed to be generative
Like many schools, especially ones that work with youth in high-risk situations, we had little time to reflect on our work and the bigger picture. We needed our energy to address pressing needs.
We got stuck in a crisis-and-response feedback loop. Meetings focused on circumstances and frustrations. We rarely explored the root causes behind urgent issues.
While we got good at crisis management, we started to perpetuate a false sense of achievement. Success meant surviving the daily grind. It was a victory when lesson plans were turned in, testing went smoothly, students stayed, fights were stopped, and a project spiked unanticipated student engagement.
Competency-based education was seen as a way to shift from swimming in an infinity pool of day-to-day events to swimming in open water. By claiming ourselves as “competency-based,” we thought we’d gain the latitude we needed to do what we thought was best for our students.
With that as our entry point, we fixated on what competency-based education would correct, rather than how it would affect and challenge how we did “school”. We neglected the uncomfortable work of examining, unpacking, and scrutinizing the mental models that we – the founders, staff, and students – subscribed to: our beliefs and assumptions about what school is and how it should operate. We underestimated the range of emotions and struggles that came from making the transition from slightly innovative but mostly traditional high school to competency-based high school.
The crisis management mentality that originally galvanized the staff to embrace a full transition to competency-based education eventually cooled. We were left with divergent views on mission, purpose, and practice. This strained our original commitment and excitement.
We hoped for easy solutions and fast results. We got complicated problems and incremental growth. Small gains coupled with pressure to change longstanding practices left folks defensive, discouraged, and, finally, defeated.
2. As a leader, I tended to be an incessant change-maker
In his book on the history of school reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack shares this tidbit: “when reforms come in staccato succession, they often have brought incoherence or uncomfortable tensions. They have unsettled the balance between different forms of decision-making … they have made new demands of time and effort on heavily burdened teachers.”
Here’s where I went wrong: I held on to a belief in “mission over model”. This led me to push my team to course correct any time our results didn’t support our mission. I was worried about the risks that could come from shifting too quickly from a traditional time-based system to a competency-based one. Full transition to “competency-based” required permanent changes to the nuts and bolts of our school: such as how we graded and graduated students, and how we organized learning. To soften the change I decided to break it up in small parts – define competencies, then change classroom practice, then grading, then technology systems, and so on.
This backfired. Instead of being seen as a gradual, supportive transition, these small but persistent shifts placed increased demands on an already busy staff. It led them to question whether I valued their time and effort. In the end, this staccato succession of transition from traditional to competency-based caused a loss of faith in my leadership, and lost motivation and enthusiasm for the work.
3. We needed different professional skills and resources
We tried two really hard things: (1) running a competency-based charter school, (2) doing quality youth programming for students overage and under-credited. Each is difficult on its own; together, it was a mess of brokenness and possibility.
This was new terrain. Missouri had no competency-based schools that we could learn from. Teacher and social worker prep programs weren’t familiar with competency-based practices. We were limited in who we could hire. We were holding the staff we had accountable for skills that were novel to them, and often contrary to their training and past experience.
We did plenty of reconnaissance work – calls and visits to similar programs across the country – yet we were left by ourselves to contextualize what we had seen from others. We pieced together professional development with trainers who were friends we could afford.
We went online and to the literature, in search of what our school leader, teachers, and social workers needed to succeed in our school. We looked for hiring and evaluation tools for competency-based high schools – to no avail.
There is extremely limited research on which professional skills and practices best predict high-quality competency-based implementation. We ultimately failed because we lacked the professional know-how to execute a range practices that are critical to competency-based education.
Thought leaders, researchers, and foundations must help practitioners address this gap. In the trenches it is hard to find the time to do this research and build the tools we lack. We also needed guidance on how certain environmental conditions (i.e., policies) helped or hurt our attempts to get it right.
4. We needed more guaranteed flexibility
The latitude that came with claiming to be “competency-based” was temporary. Even when we won flexibility on state and local policies, we lacked the accompanying state-issued interpretation.
When we started, we got state-issued waivers (exemptions to the law) for things like tying time to credit (seat time) and tying credit hours to graduation. We also secured new “flexibility” language in Missouri’s charter school law. But we failed to take it to the next level. We needed the state to issue official guidance on how it interpreted these laws. When times changed and the state steered away from non-traditional charter school approaches, we suddenly found our practices being called into question or revoked.
Our governor championed competency-based education when chair of the education committee for the National Governors Association. But we struggled to survive as his state’s only example. The differences between the governor’s political agenda, the law, and various interpretations of what was allowable and beneficial remained unaddressed.
After we closed, I got calls from colleagues across the country running similar schools. Their experiences in this area were strikingly similar to my own.
Commit to share
We have to share our successes and failures with one another. Making the transition to competency-based education is exciting and terrifying. It redefines schools and challenges our habits, beliefs, and ways of doing education. It is also timely and unbelievably promising for kids. Robert Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” I believe more than ever, that the competency-based education movement will achieve great success. We must continue learning from one another and daring to fail greatly.
Stephanie Malia Krauss is a Senior Fellow at The Forum For Youth Investment focusing on issues of youth readiness and competency-based education. She was previously President and chief executive officer of Shearwater Education Foundation.