Competency matters

Specifics vary widely as ‘competency-based’ learning gains steam

In a suburb just outside of Denver, Principal Sarah Gould stands outside a fifth-grade classroom at Hodgkins Elementary School watching students work. This classroom, she explains, is for students working roughly at grade level. Down the hall, there are two other fifth-grade classrooms. One is labeled “Level 2 and 3,” for students who are working at the second and third-grade levels. The other is for students who are working at a middle-school level.

But some of these students won’t necessarily stay in these classrooms for the whole school year. The students will move to new classrooms when they’ve mastered everything they were asked to learn in their first class. This can happen at any time during the year.

“We have kids move every day. It’s just based on when they’re ready,” Gould said.

Six years ago, Hodgkins Elementary worked the same way most schools and districts do: Students were assigned to a class for a fixed amount of time and were promoted when the time ended, assuming that they had gained the skills they needed for the next class — and sometimes even if they had not.

Now, the school is part of a growing movement toward “competency-based education,” which replaces “seat time” with skills as the main standard for whether students are promoted. Competency-based education goes by many names — mastery-based, proficiency-based and performance-based education — but the idea is the same: Students are measured by what they’ve learned, not the amount of time they’ve spent in the classroom.

Innovations in technology and how teachers can monitor students’ progress, along with changes to regulations about how long students must spend in class, have made it possible for schools and districts to adopt competency-based systems in an effort to use students’ time in school more effectively.

At least 40 states have one or more districts implementing competency education, and that number is growing, according to a 2013 KnowledgeWorks report with the most up to date numbers on the trend.

But competency-based education doesn’t look the same across the country. In fact, advocates say schools and districts fall on a “competency continuum,” based on which aspects of competency education they’ve implemented.

When advocates talk about a “pure” model of competency education, they describe a model that isn’t bound by grade levels or the Carnegie unit, a measure of the amount of time a student has studied a subject in class. At that end of the spectrum, schools like Hodgkins or New York City’s Olympus Academy have essentially gotten rid of standard K-12 grade levels and only move students to the next learning level if they’ve proven they’ve mastered the concepts. (The schools generally must track students by grade level for funding and state testing purposes, even if their classes are not designed for single-age cohorts. Some advocates, including officials in Hodgkins’s district, want state policies changed to allow competency-based learning schools to track students differently.)

“Education systems in the past have been notorious for jumping on bandwagons but nothing substantially changes under the surface. In our model everything has changed under the surface,” said Oliver Grenham, chief education officer of Hodgkins’s district, Adams County School District 50 in Colorado.

But at the same time, advocates acknowledge that the “full system overhaul” is a heavy lift and that schools need to start from a place that makes the most sense for them based on their time, resources, and community support. For some districts, the clearest path has been to create new schools based on the model, as Philadelphia did this year when it opened three high schools that assign students to “workshops” rather than classes.

The schools retain some of the traditional school organization, but are working toward replacing standard grading with a detailed, competency-based matrix that lets students know at all times where they stand and helps them understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

Traditional letter grades don’t give students much information about what they know and can do, said Thomas Gaffey, the technology coordinator at Building 21, one of the three Philadelphia schools. The competency-based evaluation he helped design “makes the learning process transparent,” he said.

More often, schools have nestled a competency-based philosophy within their existing operations, maintaining their grade-level arrangements while adapting how they assess student learning.

“We’re a hybrid, which is what I think appeals to people who look at our model,” said Brian Stack, principal of Sanborn High School in New Hampshire. “It’s not vastly different from what they do with a traditional model, but it’s not so far out on the spectrum that it’s unattainable for them to get to where we are.”

At Sanborn, students are still enrolled in traditional classes and still receive credit for class at the end of the year. But all the courses have defined core competencies and if students don’t gain those competencies, they have to do extra work in order to earn credit for the class, rather than simply accepting the lower grade. The school is also in the process of doing away with numerical grades in favor of a scale that ranges from “limited progress” to “exceeding expectations.”

“We grade kids every day,” Stack said. “The difference is, what are you doing with that grade? Are you using that as feedback to tell students how they’re doing and to inform instruction or are you just using it as a determination to say did they know it or not?”

Stack said as much as he would like for his school to be totally unbound by seat time, its model is still dictated by the school calendar.

“If we can’t move kids when they’re ready, we can at the very least try to personalize instruction to the extent possible when they’re with us,” he said.

Other schools offer their own reasons for maintaining grade levels while rolling out a competency-based approach.

After a competency-learning pilot in math yielded major gains for California’s Summit Preparatory charter schools, the network adopted the approach in most academic subjects — and considered going further.

“We thought eliminating grades was the gold standard ideal,” said Adam Carter, chief academic officer. “We thought, ‘Those stupid grade levels are holding us back.’”

That changed when Summit officials thought through what they would lose by doing away with grade levels and realized that students benefit by belonging to a fixed cohort that advances together. “If students can plug into a project that is rich and full of layers, we don’t need to get rid of grade levels,” he said.

Schools operated by Rocketship, a national charter school network, regroup students four to six times a day based on their academic skills, in a robust example of how educators can use student data to foster competency-based learning.

“But we still have grade levels because of the social-emotional needs of students, especially early elementary,” said CEO Preston Smith. “Five-year-olds need to be with 5-year-olds most of the day so they can develop the life skills they need to be successful.”

Advocates of competency-based learning say the diversity among schools’ approaches should be expected — and appreciated — as more experiments take shape.

“Each school and each district is on its own journey and they’re going to have different entry points,” said Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, which champions online and blended learning models that are often part of competency-based programs. “Most school leaders who are implementing this well … had been working on the building blocks for three to six years.”

Lillian Pace, senior director of national policy for KnowledgeWorks, said, “Naturally, you’re going to see a tremendous amount of diversity in implementation. … That’s healthy. We need to try different approaches. We need to figure out ultimately which methods are the most effective.”

For now, the experience of schools like Hodgkins suggests that competency-based education might help engage students in their learning.

When kindergarten teacher Jenn Dickman recently asked for volunteers to share their “data notebooks” with a visitor, her students rushed en masse to grab the binders.

Jayleen Vasquez was first in line. She flipped quickly through the pages—each a mini-progress report of her skills. At the top were headers such as, “I can read a Level D book with purpose and understanding” or “I can read 50 sight words in 100 seconds or less.”

Underneath were columns shaded in colorful crayon hues showing whether she’d met the goal, and if not, how much farther she had to go.

“I passed these. I got those two right and this one I just forgot one. I did not pass this one,” she said, gesturing to one page. Then she concluded with pride: “I passed all this.”

This story was produced as a collaboration among all news organizations participating in the Expanded Learning Time reporting project. Reporting was contributed by Sue Frey for EdSource California, and Dale Mezzacappa for the Philadelphia Notebook.

Belittled as a child, this Memphis teacher sets a high bar for her students

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell poses with her Aspire Hanley third-graders. Terrell has been teaching for four years and will move to Aspire East in the fall.

Some 20 years ago, Ginny Terrell’s third grade math teacher called her “stupid.” Now, Terrell laughs as she names her current position: a third grade math teacher.

“I was that kid in school that everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” said Terrell who has been teaching at the local charter Aspire Hanley for four years and will teach at Aspire East in the fall.

Terrell was held back in kindergarten and struggled from there on. Luckily, she had teachers that stayed with her after hours to give her the support that she didn’t have at home. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be like them.

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell and her Aspire Hanley students.

As middle and high school loomed, Terrell told herself she had two options: sink or swim. So she worked hard — often twice as hard as her classmates, she said — and eventually enrolled in the University of North Texas in her home state.

During college, which took her seven years to complete, Terrell spent time in New Orleans doing service projects, where she often interacted with local youth. Then, she interned at a Title I school, where she noticed that her fellow teachers were unprepared to handle disciplinary issues, and that the “kids weren’t getting what they needed.” (Title I schools, eligible for certain federal funding grants, enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.)

“I felt like it was the blind leading the blind,” she said.

That work, Terrell said, prepared her for a career in urban education. After graduation, she signed up for Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher licensing program that places college graduates at urban schools.

“They endure more than I could ever dream of,” she said of her students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “… I can relate a lot to their home lives, their struggling in school and their not wanting to even be there.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Terrell about why her decision to teach in urban schools was such a personal one. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by really utilizing my first month of school. I really try to use every moment and every conversation to truly understand each of my students. I give them a little survey that is like a Facebook page on paper the second day they are at school. I send home a survey [for parents to fill out] about his or her child and that helps me know even more. I spend time talking with them at lunch, recess, and moments during instruction. I try to observe how they respond to my questions, how they respond to hard situations, how they respond to their peers and how they handle learning. I use morning meeting time to know each of my students by playing getting-to-know-you games and simply letting them do a show and tell.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

For a lesson on perimeter and area, our class took a little trip to the playground.They counted blocks and other items around the playground and added them up to get the perimeter. My students tried teaching each other and asked questions during the lesson on the playground. They told me at the end of the year that was their favorite lesson because they could understand it. This idea came from reading a book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wished You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms,” by Tracy Johnston Zager. In the book it discusses the importance of including real life examples students can relate to in math and gave multiple examples in other classrooms. I thought that we should use the playground, which will stick with them because they use it every day and they love it!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

An object I would be helpless without during the school day would be our clip system [moved up and down to track student behavior]! They could see where they were at behaviorally and how they can improve at every moment of the day. I could not live without a behavior system in my classroom. It is the basis of giving students structure and consistency. If you do not have a behavior system that is a well-oiled machine, you will not be able to get to your instruction and plan the engaging lessons. The culture you set, from day one, will drive your classroom.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Something that is happening in the community that affects my classroom is the crime rate. I have heard students coming in telling me they could not sleep because of the gunshots or abuse in their homes. Some of the crime happened on our [school] property between parents. This [hurts] student’s ability to focus, and [discourages] parents from coming to the school or even being involved. Students will start following what they see in their community, [so it] is hard for them to learn how to treat their peers or even teachers in a different way.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One of my students had a hard time functioning in my classroom. She could not really get along with peers and was sad a lot of the time. I reached out to the mom and discussed what was going on with her. Mom shared with me her life story and what has been going on at home. She wasn’t at all playing a victim or making excuses for her child. She instead asked me for help and support. We prayed for each other and I built a beautiful relationship with that family. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to snap or get angry with a student if he or she is not following directions. It showed me to seek to understand first, then take action. I could have done a lot more damage to the student in the classroom if I did not seek to understand. From that point on, I always make sure I take a step back and understand the situation instead of snap judgements. It taught how I can love each student in the way that will benefit them as future contributors to our society.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job would be not having enough parent involvement. There will be some parents that were very involved and supported the best they can in and outside the classroom. However, it has been difficult for some parents due to working three different jobs, not having enough resources or just not having the mental capacity to support. I cherish their thoughts and their support, so not having that [makes it] difficult to hold my students accountable outside the classroom.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I thought I had to dumb down my lessons so other students can learn. It is actually the opposite; having high expectations, students can reach the bar you set. I think I viewed my students as “low” academically, but they are not. Maybe they’re behind, but never low. They are so smart and can do anything you ask. It might take some time and you have to go back, but they are able and more than ready.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Nothing to Prove” by Jennie Allen and “Hope Heals” by Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

If you think you have arrived in teaching, you need to retire.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.