Distinctly Equitable: How This Chicago School Makes Competency-Based...

Competency-Based Learning

Distinctly Equitable: How This Chicago School Makes Competency-Based Learning Work

By Colleen Collins     Jun 9, 2017

Distinctly Equitable: How This Chicago School Makes Competency-Based Learning Work

This article is part of the guide: Real Life Learning: An Up Close Look at Competency-Based Education.

Does competency-based education hold the key to providing an equitable learning opportunity to every student? Count Connie Scalzetti, a middle-school teacher at CICS West Belden in Chicago, among the believers. As she puts it, competency-based learning “gives students the chance. Equity isn’t everyone getting the same thing. It’s everyone getting what they need. Allowing students to move on when they’re ready—or revisit something when they need support—is giving everyone a fair chance at being successful.”

At CICS West Belden, part of the Distinctive Schools network, we have been on a journey implementing personalized learning that takes a competency based approach. In this model, students learn at their level and move on to concepts when they have demonstrated mastery. This differs from traditional classrooms where the pacing is driven by the teacher and a new lesson is taught whether or not the student truly grasped the concept.

One of the core commitments of Distinctive Schools is social justice. Our students and staff embrace, study, and promote social justice and protect the rights of others. Equity was a major driver in implementing competency based learning.

Our K-8 school serves 531 students in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood of Chicago. With a population made up of 98% minority students and 90% low-income students, equity is a lens we overlay onto all of our work. To move towards a more personalized, competency-based environment, we shifted from traditional K-5 classrooms, each serving a single grade, to include more flexible learning environments and multi-grade classrooms where students and teachers move fluidly based on students’ needs. In the middle school, students leverage the Summit Learning Platform which equips them with the tools and resources they need to reflect on what they know and where to go next in their learning.

Students as Active Drivers in their Learning

We realized we needed to move from having students as passive learners to active drivers of their learning. This is especially important with our population as we know this is an important mentality that more affluent peers develop. Scott Frauenheim, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Distinctive Schools, recalls that “if you walked into this building three, four years ago, you would see very compliant students sitting SLANT at their desks. Now you see kids in classrooms who are so excited to learn, so excited to show what they are learning, so excited to use technology to collaborate and critically think with their peers.”

How did that happen? Ms. Scalzetti’s classroom is typical of what happens throughout the school. Students take an entrance assessment and grade it together as a class. Students are then given the opportunity to attend a teacher-led session around the topics addressed in the assessment. Yet instead of the teacher dictating who needs to be at the seminar, each student decides if he or she needs additional help. By putting the onus on students to reflect on their own level, the teacher is empowering them to be the active driver of their learning. See a video of how Ms. Scalzetti uses entrance assessments to drive learning plans in her classroom: LEAP Learning Framework

Teacher created playlists with a variety of activities give students the power of choice in determining how they want to practice or learn. Middle school teachers achieve this through the Summit Learning Platform and elementary school teachers leverage the Google Suite and Google Classroom. In addition, students update their learner profiles created through Google Suite with data from assessments, online learning platforms (e.g. ST Math and Lexia Core 5), and their own interests. Students also leverage their mentor relationships to develop habits of success within their self-directed learning cycles.

It is important to note that competency-based learning, if implemented poorly, can devolve into glorified tracking where students are always in the “low” group or “high” group. This would go directly against our commitment to social justice and equity. “For [students] to say, ‘I’m ready to show what I know’ truly proves they’re not just put into this box. They’re not just told you’re in this group or you’re in that group, but they really have the opportunity on each different skill to show what they know before moving on,” Scalzetti says.

Embrace Ambiguity in the Shift and Dispel Misconceptions

The shift to competency-based education was not without resistance. It was hard to leave the regular structure of daily lesson plans and a regular assessment cycle and move towards a system with a wide range of assessment types and a fluid instructional model. For many teachers the model felt vague and a bit too unstructured.

Our school leaders had to figure out how to communicate our new plan and develop teachers. We made sure they had a voice in the planning process and we invested a lot of efforts into developing coaches who directly supported our teachers. It was a bit unsettling, but diving in and actually doing the work by implementing playlists, learning profiles, and competency based learning structures brought about the most clarity and buy-in as everyone from students to teachers to myself as an administrator experienced the benefits of the system.

It took time for us to realize that competency does not just mean that every student learns at a different pace. There is a depth to learning, and we were forced to question our definition of mastery—and sometimes the technologies we used. What does it mean when an online program says that a student has “mastered something?” Is that really accurate or do they just have a superficial understanding of the concept?

Once students have proved they’re ready to move on, how could we challenge them to dig deeper on a concept or apply the knowledge in a real-world scenario, rather than simply regurgitate new information? Our teachers found ways to collaborate with one another to create multiple means of assessment to evaluate these different depths of mastery from observation based qualitative data gathering to performance based tasks coupled with traditional tests. Contrary to those who believe that competency-based education looks like students sitting behind screens, our classrooms intentionally blended technology, paper, small groups, and teacher-led instruction.

Strong Culture Critical to Success

Our move to competency-based progression would be meaningless without a strong foundation of culture. Investing in supports and habits that allow for trusting relationships between and among students, families and teachers is key. CICS West Belden staff flood the sidewalks and hallways during morning arrival to set a positive tone and create a safety check-in for all students. Families are permitted in classrooms at the start of day to learn alongside their students, and community meetings focusing on relationship-building are held two to three times a day. Weekly celebrations on the small and large successes ensure all students are noticed. We talk about student and family relationships as often as we analyze student data.

As a result, we have seen our students become more empowered and more self-directed in their education. As one indicator of progress, today more than 84 percent of our students are working on grade-level materials on Lexia Core 5, our literacy solution, up from 28 percent from the beginning of the school year. In addition, on the NWEA MAP assessment, 69 percent of students scored above the 50th percentile in math in the spring compared to 52 percent last fall, and there was a similar increase from 58 to 73 percent in reading.

While we have seen similar high test scores in the previous years, what is different is that teachers are reporting that students are asking more questions, self-advocating more, and working better in teams. This has sparked conversation around how we begin to capture multiple forms of assessment beyond just test scores, and we are excited to try out different measures next school year.

“As educators, it is crucial to differentiate and accommodate for all learners in our classroom, regardless of one's performance in any given classroom,”middle school special education teacher Sophia Lutecki says. “While many believe competency-based learning is generally for students at or below grade level, students who are above grade level greatly benefit as well because they are able to push themselves ahead while teachers continue to teach and reinforce the grade-level curriculum to students that need it. With competency-based learning as a crucial component of personalized learning, students are able to have more ownership over their education, which in turn cultivates self-directed learning skills in each student.”

Colleen Collins (Colleen_WB) is the Director at CICS West Belden in Chicago

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