Top Five Competency Takeaways from RSU 2 Superintendent Virgel Hammonds

Posts from WOL - Tue, 2015-03-10 11:11

CBE insightThroughout the past two months, competency education has been gaining a lot of attention.

With shout-outs in an ESEA discussion draft by Sen. Lamar Alexander, potential pilots proposed in Ohio, a new study released by KnowledgeWorks and Nellie Mae Education Foundation and today’s webinar on K-12 Competency Education and Policy (shameless plug), competency education is a growing movement throughout the country, intriguing leaders and educators on local, state and federal levels.

Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down with Virgel Hammonds, a superintendent who implemented a competency-learning model in RSU 2 school district in Maine. Throughout the hour, he shared his insights into building, modifying and sustaining a competency-learning model within his district.

We chatted about how RSU 2 developed support among parents and community members, and a pumpkin cannon competition Virgel attended to talk with parents to help build public will. Parents were apprehensive about competency education, especially since the district was already seeing steady academic success from students. During the local pumpkin cannon competition, he explained to parents that with higher expectations of a competency system, students would not only be able to fire pumpkins in homemade cannons, but also be able to predict the distance and velocity during flight.

We also discussed the equitable side of competency education, and he explained how students are placed in learning cohorts for the best academic progress. We talked about local difficulties and challenges of scaling, but also about the incredible potential to helping all students succeed.

Here are my Top Five Competency Education Takeaways from our conversation:

  1. Students in competency-based settings are learning more quickly and retaining more from summer to fall. RSU 2 assesses all students in the spring and early fall to ensure retention to prior learning. In the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, primary students showed a 30 percent gain in growth scores from the previous fall. According to Virgel, this shows that, by holding students to higher expectations at cognitively appropriate levels, learning is accelerated and allows teachers to spend more time teaching new material, rather than reviewing previous content.
  2. No matter what you think about NCLB, it inspired us to think about personalized education and outcomes differently.
  3. Building competency-based systems isn’t necessarily about fixing outcomes, but about doing what is right and what the data shows is best for students.
  4. Competency education is in its infancy phase, but it’s where the country is heading because of the growing success of this personalized learning model.
  5. For policymakers to help districts and states build competency systems, we need to create policy that takes away timecard and grade level. Learning communities will, in turn, take advantage of flexibility and run with it to create systems that benefit local students.

Measuring student success by seat time and grade level is outdated. We need to move to a new system, one that recognizes each student as an individual with interests, learning styles and needs.

Competency education seems like a good option. And one that schools and districts throughout the country, like RSU 2, are already seeing success in helping each student succeed.

– – – – – – – – –

Today, the KnowledgeWorks policy team will host a webinar to explore how to support K-12 competency education through current federal policy. The webinar is free and will feature panelists from iNACOL and CCSSO. There’s still time to register! Join us by registering here.

And, don’t forget to check out our new report, “Building Consensus and Momentum: A Policy and Political Landscape for K-12 Competency Education.”



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District Conditions for Scale: Exploring the Meta-Themes

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2015-03-06 15:34

In the falMatt Williamsl, KnowledgeWorks released the District Conditions for Scale: A Practical Guide to Scaling Personalized Learning. The report focuses on the conditions a K-12 school district should put in place to support the scaling of personalized learning.

Last week, Matt Williams shared deeper insight on three meta-themes throughout the paper with Getting Smart. These themes — vision, culture and transparency — are the reason that a district must implement each of the 10 conditions in order to successfully scale practices to improve teaching, learning and student achievement.

Matt writes:

“It is our hope that these conditions begin to help districts from across the country to implement a more aligned, supportive education system that is oriented towards putting the student at the center of the system through an expressed focus on personalized learning. A systemic focus on personalized teaching and learning demands a coordinating move from pilot phase to true scale. To truly get to a focused, sustained scale we need better alignment between school and district, district and state policy, and state policy and federal policy; only then will we fully unlock the potential of our education system.”

Read Matt’s full post on Getting Smart, “Moving Beyond Pilot Phase: District Conditions for Scaling Personalized Learning.”


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Helping parents navigate the system to find best learning for students

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2015-03-06 15:05

How would education change if families had access to learning sherpas?

cutmypicKatherine Prince explored the topic on Getting Smart, a website that explores accelerating and amplifying innovations in teaching and learning that puts students at the core. In her column, she shares her own experiences of choosing the right neighborhood and school experience for her three-year-old daughter, Chloe.

Katherine shares:

“It isn’t realistic to expect parents to navigate the expanding learning landscape without guides. And it’s irresponsible to hope that somehow parents and kids will create their own solutions. Some will.  But a lot of parents and kids, from a lot of different circumstances, will not. If we don’t create new educator roles such as learning sherpas, we’re pretty much saying that we’re okay letting the learning ecosystem fracture. Accepting that some kids will have access to highly personalized learning while others will find their full potential stifled in limited or simply ill-fitting learning environments. We can’t afford to let the learning landscape fracture in that way.”

Read Katherine’s insight on Getting Smart, “I Need a Learning Sherpa.”


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Testifying for Competency-Based Education Pilots in Ohio

Posts from WOL - Thu, 2015-03-05 09:20


Ohio Statehouse

Yesterday I testified before the Ohio House Finance and Appropriations Sub-Committee on Primary and Secondary Education in support of the broad contours of Governor Kasich’s proposed FY 2016-2017 education budget as contained in House Bill 64.  In particular, KnowledgeWorks is especially supportive of the Governor’s call for up to 10 Competency-Based Education Pilots for K-12, which would be funded in aggregate at $2.5 million per year. The following is an excerpt from my testimony:

“KnowledgeWorks believes that competency-based education provides a significant opportunity for Ohio’s children. Our ability to compete as a state—and for communities’ ability to attract growth industries and create jobs—demands a fresh approach to public education. The one-size-fits all philosophy of our past and too much of our present doesn’t ensure our future economic and democratic success. Personalized, student-centered approaches to teaching and learning are on the rise in schools across Ohio. We encourage policymakers and applaud the Governor to advance competency-based practices that give all students the opportunity and intensive supports to master the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and career.

KnowledgeWorks defines competency education by the following elements (aligned to the definition created by iNACOL and CCSSO):

  1. Students advance upon mastery, not seat time.
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

By integrating all five elements, high quality competency education ensures that each student graduates with the knowledge and skills he or she needs to be successful in college and career.

The pilots, proposed by the Governor, would breathe greater life into Ohio’s personalized learning and education innovation investments by offering new opportunities to districts, schools, and, most importantly, students.

These pilots should ensure districts address the following elements in their respective plans:

  1. Focus on high quality implementation of competency-based approaches that emphasize mastery while closing achievement gaps between subpopulations of students.
  2. Administer a balanced system of summative, interim, performance, and formative assessments that measure student mastery of academic knowledge and social and emotional competencies.
  3. Build capacity of the state and districts to continuously improve competency-based approaches, identifying what works and refining strategies to maximize success.
  4. Implement a personalized and adaptive system of learning and supports to close achievement gaps and ensure all students remain on pace to graduation.

Furthermore, to ensure that the investment is both systemic and sustainable, KnowledgeWorks calls on the General Assembly to enact two specific recommendations essential to the success of the Governor’s competency-based education proposals:

  1. The competency-based pilots should not only plan for implementation, an important element in success, but be implemented at a district and not just at a school level. For example, in larger districts this could be within a feeder pattern (elementary, middle, and high school) with support and alignment from the district central office. This approach will allow for greater scale and sustainability post-pilot.
  2. In addition to the current recommendation of $2.5 million included in the Governor’s budget, 2.5% ($2.5M/Year) of the recommended Straight A allocation of $100M/Year should be allocated to support these competency-based pilots to not only ensure that grants are district-wide, but also to invest adequately in essential tools, assessments, and professional development needed to support the move to competency-based instruction; provide an evaluation to allow for the data needed to scale this approach further in the state; and lastly provide connective tissue between the proposed competency-based investments in K-12 and higher education.”

I underscored that this is a critical moment for the state of Ohio. Ohio has the potential to invest in pilots that begin to build a system that can transform the way we educate all of our students. A competency-based pilot is the next step in this transformation – one that will help districts identify high-quality strategies while empowering policymakers to build a policy framework that will work in Ohio to maximize student success.



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Rebuilding education’s future to serve students rather than politics

Posts from WOL - Mon, 2015-03-02 13:29

guaranteeThe first time I laid eyes on a KnowledgeWorks forecast was a game changer. While doing research for the Donnell-Kay Foundation’s ReSchool Colorado initiative, I stumbled across this treasure trove exploring our education system’s potential.

Leading up to that moment, I had been in a slow spiral of despair over education. As a teacher, I saw the deep inequities that my students faced daily when showing up to a school permeated by low expectations. In the policy arena, I learned the reality that good ideas do not win on merit, and I experienced the preference for shredding others’ ideas rather than collaborating towards solutions. When I started to understand that we do not have to be permanently bound to the disheartening chaos of today’s education system, my hope and enthusiasm began to be restored.

Fast forward to today when I have the privilege of being on a team that is not hindered by the often discouraging reality of education. In the classroom, I backwards planned to the end of the school year when my students would be ready for second grade. Now, I backwards plan my work to a future education system that serves students rather than politics or the interests of industrialism.

My research on the future of education, as well as innovations towards a personalized approach to learning, has set a powerful foundation from which to consider what education could look like in the not-too-distant future. As I build on this foundation, my perspective has been fundamentally shaped by my former students. I was a teacher in schools where the zip code led many adults, teachers and otherwise, to believe that success was unattainable and that failure was a guarantee.

Too many students are being failed by their schools on a daily basis. There is no time to waste in creating better education options, and spending time considering an ideal future could seem like an indulgence. While not an excuse to halt current efforts to create equity in the education system, I would argue that the greatest amount of future thinking needs to include these very students and their communities. In the realm of competency-based education, for example, Jobs for the Future (JFF) and RAND Education released a paper demonstrating a proactive approach to equity concerns.

In our recent KnowledgeWorks Twitter chats, so many individuals recognized that a more equitable system is needed, but similar to the JFF and RAND paper, there seem to be more questions than answers. Instead of facing these unknowns with discouragement, these questions create an incredible opportunity for those interested in actively shaping the future of education.



As we work to transform the education system, the processes that we use need to be transformed as well. No longer should we be creating committees and boards made up of the most highly-educated and powerful. The questions around equity need to be answered by groups representing the students being served. When the voices shaping the future of education are as diverse as the students we serve, we will be that much closer to a more rigorous dialog that will form a better, more equitable system.

I could not be more excited for the day when the students in neighborhoods like Denver’s Montbello and Five Points will be known and highly valued in their communities. I will know that we are on the way to educational equity for all students when communities rally around students, of all income levels and races, to actively support them to discover their passions and to meet their full potential. To achieve this vision, we must use collaborative approach that includes diverse perspectives and ideas. Working together, we can attain this vision for our education system.


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Moving Personalized Learning out of “Pilot Phase”

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2015-02-27 09:44

Broadly speaking, personalized learning is stuck in the school pilot phase. There are countless examples of personalized learning environments, models and schools from coast to coast. But how do we reach a level of scale that provides these environments for all students?

Yesterjesseday, Jesse Moyer shares his thoughts with Personalize Learning, a blog founded on the idea that personalizing learning is the key design element to transform learning. For more than two decades, the team at Personalize Learning has worked toward empowering every learner to support and direct his or her own learning.

Jesse specifically discusses KnowledgeWorks’ District Conditions for Scale, which was developed based on an extensive listening tour with school and district leaders who are leading personalized learning movements and scaling success.

Read Jesse’s complete post on Personalize Learning, “Scaling Personalize Learning.”


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Highlights from second #FutureEd Twitter Chat

Posts from WOL - Mon, 2015-02-23 14:39

On Friday, Feb. 20, KnowledgeWorks hosted its second #FutureEd Twitter chat. This chat focused on the second five Innovation Pathways, which revolve around transforming supporting systemic structures to better serve student learning in the future.

KnowledgeWorks Senior Director of Strategic Foresight Katherine Prince hosted the chat. More than 90 people participated, sharing their insight, hopes and dreams for #FutureEd.

For reflections on the chat, see this summary by Jason Swanson, KnowledgeWorks Director of Strategic Foresight.

Below is the Storify for the Feb. 20 #FutureEd Twitter chat. Thanks to all who participated! If interested in participating in upcoming chats, sign up here for more information.


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Twitter Chat Wrap-Up: Transforming Supporting Systemic Structures

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2015-02-20 15:58

A wrap-up of the #FutureEd Twitter chat discussing transforming supporting systemic structures, hosted by KnowledgeWorks' Katherine Prince.

And that’s a wrap! I have just finished participating in the second installment of our #FutureEd Twitter Chat looking at Katherine Prince’s Innovating Toward a Vibrant Learning Ecosystem paper.

For this chat, the focus was on the second set of innovation pathways which focus on transforming supporting systemic structures. It was great to see such a varied audience and to read such thoughtful contributions.

Something I found particularly interesting was the importance of relationships in creating systemic change. The theme of relationships came up quite often across all the pathways we explored today.

Looking across the innovation pathways that we covered today, here were some themes that were highlighted during the chat:

  • Funding: Funding needs to follow the learner and span learning environments. Funding should also move away from the property tax model.
  • Quality Assurance: The teaching profession could play a key role in quality assurance. There is a need for new learning credentials and new assessment structures. Competency based education was also a key component, with quality and equity are demonstrated by the focus on mastery.
  • Community Ownership: We need to create a shared vision for learning, establish partnerships and encourage collaboration between the education system and community. Transparency will also be a key component, as well clear lines of communication.
  • Leadership and Policy: Leadership should focus on the long view, and work to be active agents of transformation rather than protectors of the status quo. Other interesting ideas included the establishment of community-based governance structures.
  • Public Will: Surfacing and extending innovations, setting visions, and taking the long view will help to cultivate public will.

I had a wonderful time exploring the future with all of today’s participants. Dealing with change, let alone systemic change, is a difficult task. I am reassured by the responses of today’s participants that the future of education will be a bright one as there are so many great ideas on how to move things forward. It is tough work, but the consequences keeping the current system the same, of only reforming rather than transforming, are much worse. This is work that every one of us has to have a hand in, to ensure every child has positive learning experience and the best chance at success.


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Breaking down the Policy Barriers Facing K-12 Competency Education

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2015-02-20 11:03

When I ask advocates of competency education what they see as the biggest hurdle to its adoption, the answer is almost always the same:

CBE LandscapeToday’s education system is not set up to enable competency education. Its policies are in direct conflict, and it’s impossible to build a new system while spending time and resources propping up the old one.

But despite clear consensus of the problem, the field still lacks a clear policy solution that will support this work at scale.

Fortunately, in partnership with the Nellie Mae Foundation, the policy team at KnowledgeWorks decided to launch a deep dive into the three most challenging policy areas – Accountability, Assessment, and Student Supports – to provide a landscape scan of the points of consensus and emerging issues clouding policy conversations about competency education. Our goal was to establish a greater sense of ownership around the policies necessary to support competency education at scale. Thanks to the involvement of many talented thought partners and practitioners, we believe our final report does just that. You can access the full document, Building Consensus and Momentum: A Policy and Political Landscape for K-12 Competency Education, or a shortened abstract on the KnowledgeWorks website.  

While the journey to finalize this paper was long, it was necessary in order to fully capture the expertise and opinions of the field. Our year-long study included the following steps:

  • A field survey of forward-thinking practitioners across the country to better understand the demand and barriers in competency education. The survey (not surprisingly) found that nearly 89 percent of respondents were interested in implementing competency-based education, but despite this high interest, 63 percent said they have not been able to take action, citing accountability and assessment policy barriers as the primary reason.
  • A convening of practitioners and policymakers working on the front lines of competency education to unpack the policy barriers uncovered in the survey and react to potential policy solutions.
  • Interviews with several dozen superintendents implementing competency-based models to better understand the system of supports necessary to make competency education work for every student.

Each step of the process helped solidify a set of policies that will enable the shift to competency education. The process also uncovered a number of emerging issues that we explore in depth in the report. We believe these issues should serve as the new starting point for conversations focused on building a policy framework that enables the growth of competency education.

In the meantime, KnowledgeWorks and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation believe there are enough compelling points of evidence and policy consensus that federal policymakers should empower states to begin building, evaluating, and refining competency-based education systems. As such, our organizations kick off this new report by calling on the 114th Congress to establish a set of state-level pilots that focus on high-quality implementation of competency-based assessment and accountability systems. A competency education pilot is the next logical step in this movement – one that will help states identify high-quality strategies while empowering federal policymakers to build a policy framework that will maximize student success.

Read Building Consensus and Momentum: A Policy and Political Landscape for K-12 Competency Education as a PDF or e-book. Learn more about Competency Education resources on KnowledgeWorks website.


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A game-changer for education: Personalized learning and the common core

Posts from WOL - Thu, 2015-02-19 15:37

Every child deserves high-quality, personalized learning that focuses on how he/she learns best. Since the development of common core, we have seen a huge increase in personalized learning models, such as blended, competency and project-based, says Lillian Pace, KnowledgeWorks Senior Director of National Policy.

This week, Lillian writes on the Alliance for Excellent Education blog about how common core can be the gateway to personalized learning. The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, D.C.- based national policy and advocacy organization that works to promote high school transformation so every child graduates prepared for postsecondary learning and success in life.

Lillian also focuses on four reasons why she believes common core can be the gateway to personalized learning. She writes:

“Since the development of the common core, there has been a huge increase in personalized learning models such as blended, competency, and project-based learning. Classrooms across the country have replaced rows of desks with vibrant learning centers that encourage collaboration and help students follow customized pathways to mastery. These classrooms are busy, noisy, and at first glance, distracting. But the closer you look, the more you realize that the noise and activity are signs that every student is engaged in his or her learning journey. There are no struggling students who can’t keep up or bored students who can’t engage. This is a game-changer for education.”

But according to Lillian, there’s more work to do to ensure every student – regardless of neighborhood, background or socioeconomic status – has an equal chance to succeed.

Read Lillian’s complete blog post, “Common Core: The Gateway to Personalized Learning” to see why she thinks common core can be the gateway to personalized learning.


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Storify: First-ever #FutureEd Twitter Chat

Posts from WOL - Tue, 2015-02-10 12:16

On Friday, Feb. 6, KnowledgeWorks hosted its first-ever #FutureEd Twitter chat, focused on the Innovation Pathways. With almost 90 participants, the chat provided a venue for different voices to share their stories, thoughts and hopes for the Future of Education.

For reflections on the chat (and thoughts on her first-ever experience moderating a chat), see Katherine Prince’s recent blog.

Below is the Storify for the #FutureEd Twitter chat. Thanks to all who participated! Join us Feb. 20 for our next chat, focused on systemic structures.


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A Blueprint for a New Ohio: Competency Education Pilots Proposed in Ohio

Posts from WOL - Mon, 2015-02-09 13:13

photoEarlier last week Governor John Kasich of Ohio released his budget recommendations to the General Assembly. The recommendations, entitled “Blueprint for a New Ohio,” are incredibly strong on education.

In reviewing the blueprint, I’m impressed with the foresight and the focus on innovation exhibited. Gov. Kasich calls for investments in education innovation, blurs the lines between K-12 and higher education, and calls for increased funding in quality early childhood education.

Some of the highlights in the Department of Education budget:

  • Continue funding for the Straight A Fund providing districts and schools with grants to implement innovative practices.
  • Promote College Credit Plus by helping teachers in economically disadvantaged high schools get the credentials needed to teach college level courses and reward districts and schools that increase student participation in College Credit Plus and Advanced Placement courses.
  • Provide more funding for early childhood education and increase the number of opportunities for economically disadvantaged students to enroll in high quality preschools.
  • Increase the focus on the importance of career counseling by identifying best practices, funding professional development and regional workshops for school counselors on career counseling.
  • Engage students in learning by funding ten sites to pilot competency-based education programs that advance students when they master course content.
  • Fund the new adult diploma program to help Ohioans earn a high school diploma and an industry recognized credential. Extend the program to include up to five additional pilot sites at community colleges or technical centers.

The Department of Higher Education (Ohio Board of Regents) budget recommendations from the Governor have an expressed focus on affordability and innovation. Some of the highlights follow:

  • Fund the Student Debt Reduction Program for the purpose of reducing debt and financial burdens on students attending Ohio public institutions.
  • Fund a Competency Based Pilot Program to provide affordable, online, competency-based degrees for adults.
  • Provide Higher Education Innovation Grants to public institutions of higher education for innovative administration redesign proposals which will result in cost savings to students.
  • Increase the number of students who have access to a college education by providing need-based financial aid awards to over 90,000 students via the Ohio College Opportunity Grant.
  • Increase articulation of career-technical programs with programs provided at colleges and universities. This will be accomplished primarily through continued work on the articulation and transfer agreements that allow students to earn college credit for appropriate career-technical program coursework.

I’ve been pleased with a number of investments and strategies that have emerged in the state over the last few years including the Straight A Fund, the Innovation Lab Network (ILN), Alternative Accountability Waiver for ILN districts (HB487), investment in performance assessments, and, of course, the implementation of college and career ready standards and assessments. The state has a strong foundation of educational investments and strategies to build upon to help Ohio become one of the leading states in the country. Gov. Kasich’s budget recommendations build on that strong foundation.

I’m particularly excited by the funding of pilots at both the K-12 and post-secondary levels focused on competency education. Competency education provides a framework for learning with the goal of mastery of academic standards through personalized learning and differentiated supports for every student. This is a fundamental shift that allows for greater personalization of learning.

Gov. Kasich’s recommendations help to advance a competency-based system that has the ability to be a game changer for all students. The Governor, along with Congressional leaders Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Representative John Kline (R-Minn.), are all supporting a pilot-driven shift from a time-based system to a competency-based system.

KnowledgeWorks has been focused on competency education for the past few years and the future has never been brighter.


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Reflections on Transforming the Core of Learning

Posts from WOL - Fri, 2015-02-06 16:56

On February 6, Katherine Prince hosted a #FutureEd Twitter chat about transforming the core of learning.

This Week’s Learning Journey

Wow! I’m a little dizzy from hosting my first #FutureEd Twitter chat about transforming the core of learning but wanted to highlight a few of the themes that emerged thanks to the thoughtful contributions of many participants.

Comments about what a vibrant learning ecosystem might look like in ten years’ time emphasized the need for equity along with the need for learning to flow around and with students. Customized pathways, flexibility, and unbounded learning independent of set time or place also stood out.

For each of the innovation pathways that the chat highlighted, here were some more particular themes:

  • Learning Cultures – We need networks and partnerships in order to connect traditional schools and other environments in intentional and transparent ways.
  • Learning Structures – We need to foster common visions and goals, along with new mental models that help people re-imagine ways in which learning can extend beyond the walls of traditional schools. In addition, teachers can be leaders in creating new learning structures, and accountability systems should support rather than dictate those structures.
  • Human Capital – In an expanded and highly personalized learning ecosystem, educators will need strong capacity in areas such as empathy, data literacy, and innovation. They will also need time and systemic supports, along with new cultures of teaching that enable the creation of new cultures of learning.
  • Data Infrastructure – While our current data systems and incentives are far too narrow, an enriched and more interconnected data infrastructure will be most meaningful in the context of relationships among people who are using it to support learning.
  • Assessment and Credentialing – Context, granularity, and demonstration of mastery are essential for meaningful assessments and credentials. We have opportunities to think not just about new possibilities for students’ credentials but also for teachers’ credentials and community partnership assessments.

On February 20, we’ll be delving into another #futureed chat on the five innovation pathways that focus on transforming supporting systemic structures. Maybe, having hosted one chat now, I’ll feel more prepared to read and synthesize lots of great ideas at high speed!


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Learning Ecosystems: High-Need Geographies, Common Challenges, Unique Needs and Constraints

Posts from WOL - Thu, 2015-02-05 16:21

In working with our current forecast on the future of learning, Recombinant Education, KnowledgeWorks has developed a visios trying to adapt to school. In our ideal future, that vibrant learning ecosystem reflects diverse learning formats and structures, while integrating talent and resources to support every learner in preparing for college, career and life.

To help expand our thinking, KnowledgeWorks’ entire Policy and Strategic Foresight team got together a while back for a day-long workshop with friend and contributor, futurist Andrea Saveri. Using the adaptive cycle to help us imagine what sustainable transformation in learning ecosystems might look like, the group generated ideas about the kinds of high-need geographies that can present challenges to learning. Below is the list of geographies that we came up with and whose needs we felt were particularly pronounced:


Poor Rural Communities:

Poor rural communities can include areas such as farming communities, rural towns, mountain villages and other locations that are geographically isolated.

Disrupted Suburbs:

Disrupted suburbs include suburban communities that are experiencing some manner of disruptive change, such as economic decline or a shift in demographics.

Poor Urban Neighborhoods:

Poor urban neighborhoods typically have very few economic resources despite being in such close proximity to the resources and institutions of the surrounding city.

Incarcerated Settings:

Incarcerated settings include learners who are confined to settings such as jails or prisons.


After identifying the above list of high-need geographies, we began to brainstorm ideas about what unique needs and constraints learners in each of the high-need geographies might face. From the initial brainstorming session, we began to see that the unique needs in each of the high-need geographies stemmed from what might be described as a common set of challenges that are often felt in across all the geographies.

Those common challenges are:

  • Isolation in various forms and barriers to accessing resources can prevent vibrant learning ecosystems from developing.
  • Instability of, or extreme constraints to, an area’s economic base can undermine effective planning and prevent consistent movement toward solutions that could make the local learning ecosystem vibrant.
  • Cultural barriers and stigma can prevent viable solutions from taking hold in meaningful ways. For example, cultural barriers can include how stakeholders in a particular geography define success, leading to conflicting narratives about what it means to be successful along with resulting variation in attitudes towards education. In another example, people who are incarcerated often face significant stigma, such that the general public might question whether inmates deserve access to high-quality education

This exercise helped us develop a lens for considering particular circumstances relating to the question of how we might make the future learning ecosystem vibrant for all learners.

The workshop certainly helped stretch my thinking in terms of imaging what the “connective tissue” might be in a vibrant and connected learning ecosystem. It was interesting to see how the common challenges among the geographies manifested themselves, especially across environments that I would have considered to be quite dissimilar.

As we continue our research, I am curious to know what other geographies might face challenges around equity. What are their needs today? What might their needs be in the future?


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Haircuts and love notes don’t matter, supporting personalized education does

Posts from WOL - Tue, 2015-02-03 17:36

photoThe last few weeks have been a pretty exciting time, both personally and professionally. No, it isn’t because of my family, although my six year-old did give himself a haircut at school and my three year old got his first “love note.” No, it isn’t because of anything I am doing through volunteer work, although I did get to attend a pretty cool leadership conference recently. It isn’t because of any of those things.

What is it you ask?

It’s the Super Bowl and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization, of course! One of my favorite sporting events and potentially the biggest education policy development in the last decade are happening at the same time.

I enjoy monitoring both of these events, not in the least because of the lead-up for each. “Testing is terrible.” “Testing is absolutely necessary.” “Or maybe it’s somewhere in between?” “I’m only here so I don’t get fined.” “No, I didn’t let any air out of those footballs.”

Watching it all unfold is pretty interesting (and sometimes entertaining).

Part of that lead-up are the recommendations KnowledgeWorks and iNACOL published around the support of competency education in the ESEA reauthorization. Several of the recommendations resonate with the research we’ve done about the district conditions necessary to scale personalized learning.

Recommendation four stood out to me because it focuses on supporting learning infrastructure to enable competency education. One of the biggest barriers we’ve identified to scaling personalized learning, which would include competency education, was the lack of data system solutions at the district level.

Here is what our paper says about a comprehensive data system:

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 Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University offers several examples of how increased use of data, made easier by a comprehensive data system, positively impacts student learning, including educators using assessment data to pinpoint knowledge and skills gaps, principals using data to uncover patterns of performance, and instructional coaches using data to improve instructional performance. Without direct funding to help with start-up costs or the “flexibility to use state and district activities funds in applicable formula and discretionary programs to establish or improve learning infrastructure,” it is likely districts will continue to struggle using data and data systems to enable these activities.

However the ESEA reauthorization turns out, whether it involves Senator Alexander throwing a Hail Mary pass to Senator Murray or Secretary Duncan being called for pass interference on Representative Kline, I truly believe comprehensive data systems are the backbone of personalized education and desperately need to be addressed in any version of ESEA.

To learn more about our district conditions for scale, you can visit KnowledgeWorks’ policy page and signup for our email newsletter to stay up-to-date on this developing work.


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How to find balance on mandated testing? Ask the right questions.

Posts from WOL - Mon, 2015-02-02 10:48

testing questionsLast week, I posted, as an Education Insider, for the National Journal, the following in reaction to Fawn Johnson’s excellent post, “The Jockeying Over Testing Mandates Beginson the National Journal‘s Education Experts blog. Fawn Johnson put forth a well-researched and thoughtful post on the current discussions in the U.S. Senate regarding ESEA and assessment policy. She does a great and balanced job in outlining the issue as well as elevating multiple voices across the landscape. The Education Insiders were asked to deal with the following questions:

For our insiders: How do federally mandated tests differ from the curriculum being taught to students during the rest of the year? What do they measure well? What do they miss? How many other tests is a typical student subjected to each year? How do they differ from the federal tests? Is grade-span testing a better way to measure achievement? How can state tests show the progress of a student from grade to grade, rather than comparing one year’s fourth-graders to the next year’s fourth-graders? What is the best answer on testing?

The discussion over testing is a complex one. In our current conversations we tend to divorce testing from discussions of accountability, school improvement, and student supports, and we too often blur the lines between summative and formative assessment.

Much of the testing we currently administer is tied to measures put in place through the standards movement, which generally was propelled forward with bi-partisan support. These policies have been consistent in many ways with a long tradition of American educational reform with an eye towards improving the achievement of all students (see disaggregation of data by sub-groups).

The current tension around testing is fueled by many issues and layers of the system. It is not simply a Federal issue. State and district policy play a role, as well. For example, Ohio recently released a report that outlines some of the largest levels of testing happened in kindergarten, third grade and tenth grade. There are state policies that affect each of those grade levels, including a new kindergarten readiness assessment, third-grade reading guarantee, and graduation assessment. I’m not making an argument against any one of those policies but just illustrating the fact that all levels of the system, and the very underpinnings of our current education system, add to the various tests students take throughout a given year.

How do we strike the right balance using the right means? I could argue that we should first begin to answer some of the following questions before we throw the good out with the perceived bad:

  1.  What are the salient historical themes of our testing policy over the past 30 years? What was the primary rationale for these actions?
  2. What are the strategic goals (and related rationale) of our current testing policy? What success criteria are linked to this strategy?
  3. Have federally/state mandated tests produced greater local school district accountability for student achievement, which, in turn, has built pressure to identify and utilize more effective strategies to improve student academic outcomes?
  4. How much time do students and educators devote to state assessment test preparation and test taking (formative and summative)? Are test results provided to students and educators in a prompt manner thus facilitating student learning?
  5. How much time do students devote to locally discretionary test taking?
  6. What is the relationship between the federal and state mandates and local discretionary tests? Do they add up into a comprehensive assessment system?

Questions drive the answers we gain. I worry that we aren’t pausing long enough to ask the right questions as we discuss student testing in our country. We are only thinking about “how much?” and not enough about “why?” or “to what end?”. The current conversation on testing is an important one, to be sure.

The discussion is linked to civil rights and equity, student growth, school improvement, and teacher evaluation, just to name a few key issues. This is why at KnowledgeWorks, we are recommending the following as part of our overarching principles for ESEA reauthorization:

  • Maintain a rigorous accountability system that disaggregates data by subgroup and asks states to set goals and performance targets to ensure high expectations for all students. Empower states to incorporate multiple measures and student growth to provide a comprehensive picture of school and district performance.
  • Maintain annual assessments in grades 3-8 and once in high school to provide transparent and useful data for educators, students, and other key stakeholders and empower states to build better assessment systems that drive real-time improvements in student learning.

My colleague Lillian Pace will provide a more comprehensive look at our recommendations later in the week. Check back for her post.




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ESEA discussion draft creates opportunity for wide range of stakeholder input, including competency education

Posts from WOL - Mon, 2015-01-26 15:38

Last week I posted, as an Education Insider for the National Journal, the following in reaction to Fawn Johnson’s post on ESEA, ESEA Overhaul Could Actually Happen This Year,” on the National Journal‘s Education Experts blog. Fawn provided an insightful overview of the current status of ESEA with an emphasis on Sen. Alexander’s (R-TN), Chair of the Senate HELP Committee, ESEA discussion draft. The Education Insiders were asked to deal with the follocompetency education federal policywing questions: For our insiders: How big are the differences between the administration and congressional Republicans on ESEA? Can they be bridged? Is it a good idea to leave testing up to the states with fewer consequences for not meeting their own expectations? Everyone seems to agree that testing is redundant and overused now, but how much testing is enough? Is it possible to redirect more school funding to lower-income schools? How will school choice play in to this debate? Is it possible to get a wholesale rewrite this year? ESEA is moving? What the what? First, I’ll quickly address some of Fawn’s questions before I go another direction. How big are the differences between the administration and congressional Republicans on ESEA? Substantial. There are policy questions as well as the legacy question around ESEA Waivers. The administration has used the waivers to extend its fingerprints on national policy. A reauthorization would roll back the waivers gutting the Administration’s legacy especially with proposed, probable cuts to RTTT, i3, and Promise Neighborhoods. Can they be bridged? Probably not. Is it possible to get a wholesale rewrite this year? It’s possible… I’m rarely the optimist on ESEA reauthorization normally betting on sometime in my lifetime type horizons. It is possible that we see a reauthorization. It is still a 50/50 proposition and I think we will see a bill passed in the House before the Senate even though the Senate has a running start. It isn’t called the “peculiar institution” for nothing. So to change directions, one area that I am excited about is that competency education is getting active play in the Alexander draft. As a growing number of states and districts adopt competency-based models and practices, federal policy must evolve to support education systems that focus on students’ mastery of academic content and skills instead of seat time. I commend Senator Alexander for recognizing this growing interest in a competency-based education system in his discussion draft. Alexander’s discussion draft proposes to give states the option of implementing competency-based assessment systems, as well as permission to use federal assessment funds to build these systems. It also upholds the federal commitment to annual, transparent data. While the discussion draft raises many key issues, it creates opportunity to consider input from a wide range of stakeholders. Building on the foundation in the Alexander discussion, federal policymakers can support the growth of competency education in K-12 education by adopting the following recommendations in the next ESEA reauthorization:

  • Recommendation 1: Pilot Competency-Based Accountability and Systems of Assessments in up to Five States
  • Recommendation 2: Support Systems of Assessments That Align to Competency-Based Approaches
  • Recommendation 3: Include System of Supports and Interventions in State Title I Plans
  • Recommendation 4: Support Learning Infrastructure to Enable Competency Education
  • Recommendation 5: Support Educators and Leaders to Build Capacity for Competency Education

More detail on these recommendations, created and offered in partnership between KnowledgeWorks and iNACOL, can be found at the following link: http://www.knowledgeworks.org/sites/default/files/KW-iNACOL-ESEA-Recommendations-2015.pdf


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Stepping into the complex world of education data systems

Posts from WOL - Thu, 2015-01-22 16:28

In a recent research project, I started to take a few steps into the complex world of education data systems. Previously, my exposure to data systems was as a teacher, when I knew better than to forget to enter attendance at the beginning of the day. The extent of my understanding was that my students’ attendance would find its way to the district and the state, and one magic day per year, that data would determine how much money my school received.

In short, more kids = more money.

I also knew, however, that the value of my attendance data went far beyond the number of copies my school could afford to make in a given year; the chronic absences of some of my kindergartners was beginning a treacherous path of academic struggle. Despite organizations, research, and local campaigns that recognize that attendance data provides valuable insight to student achievement, states and districts often maintain a funding-driven view of attendance, which leaves schools—often individual teachers—to grapple with the deeper ramifications of absenteeism.Boy-at-Desk-data-compliance

One of today’s most hotly contested data points is the annual standardized test score. The vast majority of states compile student assessment data once per year in order to determine the school or district accountability rating. While this data is valuable to bring light to inequalities that exist in the education system, its use is stunted when it doesn’t translate to action that improves schools and student outcomes.

Any teacher knows that the process of supporting students involves constantly checking in and providing feedback. Assessments determine next steps, not the final value of a student’s knowledge. Teachers continually collect data to support student growth, and states should do the same for districts and schools.

In my research to learn more about state data systems, I wanted to know which states have systems that link with district systems to ultimately provide real-time support. As a usually-shameless idealist, I have been sorely disappointed by the word that appears on too many department of education websites to tell the story of their data systems: compliance.

To be fair, I love rules and prefer to follow them to a fault. However, compliance without embracing the true intention—or at the very least understanding the true intention— is a waste of time.

State departments of education can be vehicles of equity and increased opportunities for all children, or they can continue the age-old tradition of honoring high achievers and shaming the strugglers. Some type of middle ground may exist, but when data is pulled once yearly from a few hours of tests, that middle ground is feeble.

This is why I am excited about states like Virginia and New Hampshire (among a few others) that understand that it is not really possible to actualize school improvement when data is collected, analyzed, and acted upon once per year.

States that are serious about supporting schools could take a page out of Virginia’s book, where an early warning system collects student data throughout the year to target interventions to students at risk of dropping out and to identify school climate elements that may contribute to dropout rates.

New Hampshire
As the leader in implementing competency education, New Hampshire recognized the need for a state data system that was better equipped to communicate with district systems and provide necessary supports. The Initiative for School Empowerment and Excellence reduces the burden on schools and gives information back to schools based on regularly collected data to encourage student achievement through rigorous data use and analysis.

By encouraging states to develop data systems with complete information, the Data Quality Campaign has been essential to the first step of creating meaningful data systems across the country. With data collection getting better and better, the next step must address the use of this data. Collection and compliance alone have not and will not support students in reaching their full potential.


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Personalized Learning for Everyone

Posts from WOL - Thu, 2015-01-15 16:38

Katherine Prince, Senior Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks, writes about her work on Personalize Learning, a blog founded on the idea that personalizing learning is the key design element to transform education. For more than two decades, the team at Personalize Learning has worked towards empowering every learner to support and direct their own learning.

That mission aligns well with the work Katherine is doing. In her guest post she writes,

Every child deserves high-quality personalized learning that adapts to his or her needs and interests. But there’s a significant risk that the expanding learning ecosystem could fracture, leaving even more children behind than the education system does today.

Given that concern, my latest paper, “Innovating toward Vibrant Learning Ecosystems: Ten Pathways for Transforming Learning,” aims to help education stakeholders move from vision to action in creating a learning ecosystem that is vibrant for all learners and not just for those with means. It highlights education stakeholders’ tremendous opportunity to reinvent learning for a new era and to create new systemic structures that can help all learners succeed.

Read the complete post by Katherine Prince on Personalize Learning: “Creating Personalized Learning for Everyone.”


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Competency Education Gains a Seat at the Congressional Negotiating Table

Posts from WOL - Thu, 2015-01-15 11:55

KnowledgeWorks and The International Association for K-12 Online Learning have partnered to release recommendations for ESEA reauthorization.

To all of the competency education visionaries working in state governments, districts, and classrooms around the country – this week marked an important victory for you. After years of running up against federal time-based policy barriers, the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander (R–TN), released a discussion draft for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that put your work front and center. While the proposal raises many important questions, one thing is certain – competency education finally has a place at the negotiating table of Congress.

Senator Alexander’s discussion draft proposes two policy changes that would advance the K-12 competency education movement. He is accepting comments on his discussion draft until February 2, 2015 at fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov.

  • The draft proposes two assessment options. The first would maintain current law by requiring statewide testing annually in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. The second would establish a state-defined option where states could develop an assessment system that may include any combination of annual statewide summative assessments, grade span assessments, and competency-based performance assessments.
  • The draft proposes to let states use federal funding reserved for the design and implementation of state assessment instruments to build competency-based assessments.

Competency education advocates who have spent years building two systems should find these proposals encouraging. This preliminary proposal would go a long way to eliminating the barriers that make competency-based models unworkable under current law.

While we can celebrate this invitation to the national conversation, the political process is long, complicated, and at times, messy. This proposal will likely ignite a firestorm of comments that will impact the national discourse for ESEA reauthorization. Competency advocates must engage, educate, and most of all listen. We have a great deal to learn from the stakeholders in this debate. Let’s hope this first step marks the beginning of a healthy dialogue about how to build next generation education systems that uphold the legacy of rigorous accountability while better aligning to the demands of postsecondary and the workforce.

If you want to learn more, I encourage you to review the joint ESEA recommendations that KnowledgeWorks and the International Association for K12 Online Learning (iNACOL) released today.


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