(part 2 in a multi-part series)
Way back in December I wrote Looking at the Ingredients, Not at the Label, a post asking all of us to suspend our judgement on the merits (or absence of merits) of a proficiency-based system in favor of an examination of common practices and goals that have emerged from this change we are navigating. I relied heavily on a 2015 publication from the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) at EDC for that post, as I will do again here. I encourage the more curious among you (and those who have time to read a long report) to view it in its entirety. For the rest of you, read on, as this series of posts is meant to give you a curated sample of its findings.
The Regional Educational Laboratory at EDC report discusses key elements for the “successful implementation of competency-based learning”. Perhaps I am completely unable to escape my own biases, but I will suggest that while these findings might lead to successful implementation, I read them as a partial roadmap for student success in any education system. The key elements focus largely on clarity, transparency, rigor and professional support. It’s hard for me to imagine how striving for those elements in our practice, whether we embrace or eschew proficiency-based learning, fall somewhere in between, or have yet to take a position, is not in the best interest of our students.
The report tells us to be utterly clear in defining what it is we’d like our students to learn. That means clarity with our daily learning targets and also our longer term goals. Then, we need to communicate those targets and goals to our students so we are certain they understand what we are asking of them. Those targets and goals should be set to the appropriate rigor levels so we are intentionally asking students to move into higher order thinking along any of the taxonomies we’d use in our practice. Think Bloom, Marzano, Webb, and Wiggins and McTighe.
And as we learn from studying Wiggins’ and McTighe’s model of backwards design, our courses and content areas should aim for transferable skills and concepts that extend from content area to content area and beyond school. It’s hard for me to see how being clear in our expectations and asking our students to think deeply are not good practices to strive for in any educational model.
Our practice should include careful development of assessment tools that help students and teachers clearly and easily see what has been learned and what remains to be learned. Our formative assessment tools should give our students and their teachers, actionable data for next steps in teaching and learning. Those tools should help us identify gaps as well as adequate progress toward targets. An open-minded teacher who uses a well designed formative assessment tool will see where her instruction has been effective and where it is less so, and it will indicate the same with respect to student learning. In addition, we are urged to design and adopt summative assessment tools aligned to our targets and our formative tools. An extension of our formative assessment tools, these should help us draw fair and reliable conclusions about student learning. The most robust summative assessment tools assess students’ abilities with higher order thinking and address those transferable skills and concepts mentioned above. And just like our instruction, it’s best to maintain transparency in our assessment tools and systems, so students as well as the wider community are clear on our expectations for success (page 23). Again, it’s hard for me to see how developing robust assessments that are both clear to students and that bare out useful data could be seen as anything other than good practice.
The work described above addresses individual instructional and assessment practices. And while it’s fair to suggest that the work of our day-to-day instruction and assessment is made better through collegial collaboration, it does not demand as much. The REL report indicates, however, that the success of a competency-based system does demand a wider school- or district-based effort, one that provides necessary and useful support for students and teachers. (page 24) I think it’s safe to argue that any district-or school-based initiative bound for success requires an investment in time and resources.
Finally, the report reminds us that clear communication to external audiences benefits the entire community, whether the school or district is undergoing a transformation, or it is simply trying to stay connected to its stakeholders. Toward that end, many high schools have worked hard to clearly communicate their proficiencies and graduation criteria through a thoughtfully written school profile. (page 23) I read this recommendation with my parent hat on, thinking that as my own child rises ever closer toward college, I want to feel confident that her school’s unique qualities and her experience of them are easily ascertained by the college admissions personnel reading her application materials.
Putting aside discussions in favor of, or opposed to, a proficiency-based model, I hope that our aims for how to conduct business in schools continually come back to topics such as clarity of goals, rigorous learning, useful assessments, support for school personnel, and transparency with our students and the communities we serve. The REL report brings each of those things to mind and helps me remember what is vital in teaching our children.
Brett, Cox, Scheopner Torres. “Competency-Based Learning: Definitions, Policies, and Implementation.” Regional Educational Laboratory at EDC, 2015, http://ltd.edc.org/sites/ltd.edc.org/files/Competency-Based%20Learning.pdf. Accessed 3.14.18