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Reorganizing teaching and learning

Competency-based Assessment at Young Women's Leadership Charter School

We have long known that whatever it is we are trying to teach, whether drawing or quantum mechanics, individual students will vary in how much they know already, how they like to learn, and the speed at which they can learn more. In a time when we have the capability of supporting learning 24/7 and personalizing the way a student interacts with digital content, it no longer makes sense to give every 13-year-old the same set of 45-minute American history lessons.

How much could we save if students who were ready and interested in moving ahead in their studies were allowed to do so instead of marking time until their classmates catch up? How much more efficient would our system be if students who need extra support in reading comprehension strategies had that support at their fingertips whenever they were reading in the content areas? How many more students would pass their courses and not have to repeat them? These are essential questions we must ask as we redesign education, and it will require rethinking basic assumptions about how our education system meets our goals.

One of the most basic assumptions in our education system is time-based or “seat-time” measures of educational attainment. These measures were created in the late 1800s and early 1900s to smooth transitions from K-12 into higher education by translating high school work to college admissions offices (Shedd, 2003) and made their way into higher education when institutions began moving away from standardized curricula.

Time-based measures were appropriate in their day, but they are not now when we know more about how people learn and we have access to technology that can help us accommodate different styles and paces of learning. As we move to online learning and learning that combines classroom and online learning, time-based measures will increasingly frustrate our attempts to provide learning experiences that lead to achievement and the pursuit of postsecondary education that our modern world requires. Another basic assumption is the inflexible way we organize students into age-determined groups, structure separate academic disciplines, organize learning into classes of roughly equal size with all the students in a particular class receiving the same content at the same pace, and keep these groups in place all year.

The last decade has seen the emergence of some radically redesigned schools, demonstrating the range of possibilities for structuring education. For example, organizing education around the demonstration of competence rather than seat time opens up a wide range of possibilities. The first school district to win the Baldrige Quality Award, Chugach School District in Alaska, achieved remarkable gains in student outcomes after mobilizing its community to identify the competencies it wanted to see in high school graduates and shifting to a performance-based system in which diplomas were awarded on the basis of performance on the district’s assessment of those competencies (NIST, Baldrige, 2001). Since that time, 15 districts and 200 schools have signed up to replicate this systemic reform (

New Hampshire is now moving to a competency-based approach to secondary education across the entire state. The state’s governor asked his school board to come up with the education reforms needed to meet the goal of having zero dropouts by 2012. The board homed in on the issue of unproductive requirements that impede student progress: Why, for example, can a student earn a high school credit by attending gym class but not for the hours spent practicing and performing as part of a gymnastics team? Subsequently, the board changed state regulations to give students the option of earning credit for graduation by demonstrating their competence with respect to the standards stipulated by their school districts. New Hampshire districts are still determining how to implement this system, including its implications for funding, teacher training, and assessment practices. But a new high school position – the extended learning opportunity coordinator – is emerging in schools across the state.

Technology can facilitate implementation of such a competency-based approach to education. At the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago, teachers use a specially designed database to keep track of the proficiency ratings each student has earned. Proficiency ratings are updated daily so that everyone – the student, the parent, teachers, and the school leader – knows exactly where each student stands relative to the competencies required for graduation.

Another way technology can support the reorganization of teaching and learning is by enabling more flexible, student-centered scheduling. At the Huyton Arts and Sports Centre for Learning, a secondary school in the U.K., for example, learning activities are selected and scheduled to fit individual students’ needs rather than traditional academic periods and lockstep curriculum pacing.

Extending learning time

Another strategy for rethinking how teaching and learning are organized involves extending the learning day, week, or year. American students spend significantly less time in the classroom than do students in many other countries, and students – especially low-income students – show a marked drop in their mathematics and reading proficiencies over the summer break. President Obama and other policymakers have questioned the logic of maintaining a three-month summer hiatus originally instituted so that students could provide needed farm labor during the critical summer months.

Since 2006 Massachusetts has had an Expanded Learning Time Initiative under which schools in lower-income districts are adding 300 or more instructional hours to the school year. A number of charter school networks share the belief that extending learning time is key to preparing students from low-income communities for college, and they are instituting longer school days and weeks. Yes Prep schools, for example, run from 7:30 in the morning until 4:30 each day with additional sessions every other Saturday. Yes Prep educators also support extending learning time by giving students their cell phone numbers so that students can call them during the evening to ask questions about homework.

As we seek ways to extend learning time, in addition to considering the amount of time students spend in school, we should also look at whether we can provide engaging and powerful learning experiences through other means. For example, we know that students’ lives outside school are filled with technology that gives them 24/7 mobile access to information and resources and allows them to participate in online social networks and communities where people from all over the world share ideas, collaborate, and learn new things. Our education system should leverage students’ interest in technology and the time they currently spend learning informally outside the regular school hours to extend learning time in a way that motivates them even more.

One way to do that is through online learning, which allows schools to extend learning time by providing students with learning on demand anytime and anywhere, dramatically expanding educational opportunities without increasing time spent in school. With online learning, learners can gain access to resources regardless of time of day, geography, or ability; receive personalized instruction from educators and experts anywhere in the world; and learn at their own pace and in ways tailored to their own styles and interests. Moreover, it enables our education system to leverage the talents and expertise of our best educators by making their knowledge and skills available to many more learners.

In addition, all these benefits can be realized through online learning at considerably less cost than providing students with additional in-person, classroom-based instruction by extending the school day or year.

As schools implement online learning, they should ensure that students’ learning experiences address the full range of expertise and competencies as reflected in standards and use meaningful assessments of the target competencies. For example, online collaborative environments or virtual worlds can facilitate the participatory nature of learning in addition to providing opportunities for content knowledge. State education agencies can provide leadership and technical assistance in this area, and educators also should look to their peers for best practices.

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