10 Local Conditions Needed to Scale Competency Education
The districts to watch
By Jesse Moyer
This is part three of a three-part series
Across the country, school districts, principals, and teachers are working to increase graduation rates and improve academic outcomes, while closing achievement gaps and fill an increasingly prevalent jobs skills gap. Districts have a unique opportunity to forge a new path to personalized learning. With competency education, district leaders can help ensure all students are prepared for success after high school graduation.
Building the right environment and learning from success
While federal and state policymakers can help build supportive policy environments for competency education, districts are closest to the schools, students, and educators. Districts have the opportunity to set the vision for personalized learning while creating a culture that is supportive of building leadership and teachers as they work to pursue this vision.
To build and scale competency-based learning environments, the right conditions are needed. While each community is unique, the conditions for success are applicable across unique environments. This proves true through the research on which KnowledgeWorks has focused throughout the past few years. As an organization that believes research and policy must be grounded in best practice, we’ve talked with teachers, principals and district leaders throughout the country. Through these conversations, we’ve aimed to understand better what conditions or environments are necessary to successfully implement and scale competency-based education at a district level.
The 10 District Conditions for Scaling Personalized Learning
From this research came our District Conditions for Scaling Personalized Learning, a list of conditions that, when implemented, will allow districts to scale personalized learning and help every student thrive.
There are bright spots for personalized learning across the country, some of which we will highlight with each condition below.
1. Curriculum: Curriculum must be aligned to the district’s vision for teaching and learning, and it should be reviewed regularly to ensure alignment. Learning targets included should be consistent and easily understood for every student, although the ways in which students meet these targets may differ in order to provide a personalized learning experience for each student. Students should be able to set personal goals, and then educators can help foster engagement. Spirit Lake, Iowa, and Lawrence Township, Indiana, are focusing on multiple pathways and community-level partnerships that align to the curriculum, allowing students to follow areas they are passionate about, explore new topics or career paths, gain post-secondary credit at local higher education institutions and get on-the-job training through internships.
2. Instruction: Having effective instructional practices go hand-in-hand with having a flexible and learner-centered curriculum. Instruction must be rigorous and relevant to students’ needs and interests. This will also help teach students how to learn, shifting from a teacher-led to student-led instructional model.
While districts should set the vision and the desired outcomes for a competency-based system, details about specific instructional strategies should be left to schools. In Bartholomew County, Indiana, and Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin, the district clears barriers to give schools space to determine instructional details that align with the overall vision.
3. Comprehensive Assessment System: Each district should implement a comprehensive assessment system that is aligned with the district’s vision for teaching and learning. Assessments should include formative, interim, and summative assessments. Instant feedback from ongoing embedded assessments should be used to monitor student progress and adjust day-to-day learning activities.
Napa Valley Unified School District (NVUSD) in California is focused on implementing district-wide, technology-infused teaching and learning with an expressed focus on 21st-centry skills. With that approach, the district focused on bringing coherence to the system, which led them to focus on common data and a gradebook that blends content and skills. Additionally, NVUSD implemented digital portfolios that aligned with what students need to achieve.
4. Learning Environments: Districts should cultivate in- and out-of-school learning environments that support high expectations for all students while fostering a culture of trust, support, equity, and inclusiveness.
Flexibility and malleability are key components of learning environments for competency-based learning. It’s important to create space that can accommodate collaborative time, individual learning time and presentation time. In Bartholomew County, Indiana, the district built Columbus Signature Academy in an old auto parts warehouse. The building has flexible, glass classrooms that allow for multi-purpose use and greater transparency.
5. Student Supports: Students should get the supports and interventions they need to be successful when they need them, instead of after a summative assessment at the end of the year. These supports should be informed by instant feedback based on frequent formative assessments and, to the extent possible, be embedded in learning.
In Wisconsin, the Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA) #1 is actively working to support students through shorter feedback cycles, which allows for more effective differentiation of instruction and deeper personalization.
6. Professional Development: Each district should offer job-embedded professional development that aligns with the district’s vision for teaching and learning. The professional development program should foster a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement while also leveraging technology that creates a customized experience for each teacher that is available at any place and time.
CESA #1 in Wisconsin has implemented a system where educators earn badges for professional development opportunities. This allows educators to create professional portfolios of badges that display what credentials they’ve earned as in-service educators. Additionally, CESA #1 offers a technological platform where educators can share lesson plans, assessments, and best practices, and they can reach out to peers with questions.
7. Leadership Development: A district should have a leadership development program that identifies and trains leaders at the classroom, school, and district level. This includes involving educators and other staff members in the visioning process, strategic planning, partnership cultivation and curriculum review.
One of the most important steps of any leadership plan is identifying promising individuals within the district. In Kentucky’s Fayette County Schools, schools identify potential leaders – rather than the district level – in order to ensure that a new leader is compatible with the school and learning environments in which they will be working.
8. Technology Policy: A sound technology policy is becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s connected society. Students are plugged in 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Asking them to unplug and leave the technology they’ve grown up within lockers or outside school is one of the quickest ways to make school irrelevant for them.
Districts must have a technology policy that allows for safe access to the internet at all times of the school day. Districts should also address deficiencies in infrastructure in order to support a more connected student population at scale.
9. Comprehensive Data Systems: Districts should maintain a comprehensive data system consisting of learning management, assessment, and student information systems. These systems should be able to track student achievement history, teacher comments, supports and interventions, and other indicators while protecting student-level privacy.
The key to personalized learning is the use of data to construct personalized learning plans based on information gathered from assessments and other learning activities. For this to work effectively, educators, parents, and students should have continuous access to a comprehensive data system that includes learning management, assessment, and student-level information. Of course, this system must protect student data and identity at all costs.
10. Partnerships: Each district should cultivate partnerships with business, community, and higher education constituents in their communities (including local and county government, recreation, juvenile justice, faith-based, etc.). These entities should be involved in creating a district vision and strategic plan that is aligned with a broader economic and workforce development plan for the community.
Spirit Lake Community Schools in Iowa offers internships, wrap-around services, and other opportunities to ensure college and career readiness for students, while also aiming to meet the economic and social needs of the community. District leaders are careful to ensure that all partnerships benefit not only the students but also the community partners.
For more information about the necessary local conditions to successfully implement competency-based and personalized learning, check out District Conditions for Scale: A Practical Guide to Scaling Personalized Learning.
Additional Parts of the Series:
- Part 1 in the series: A New Federal Role for Competency Education
- Part 2 in the series: Now is the time: State Flexibility to Implement Competency Education