Five Things for Big Districts to Think About

This blog originally ran on CompetencyWorks.
It always happens. You finish a big report and then do a bit more research or have a few more conversations…and realize you didn’t get it quite right.
That’s what happened to me. I finished the report on Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders in June, and come November when I visited Lake County, Henry County, and Charleston County School Districts, I realized I would have organized that report somewhat differently if I’d had the opportunity to learn from bigger districts (these still aren’t the mega-districts) before I started writing.
Here’s the scoop–much of the first wave of districts making the transition to competency-based education (CBE) have been small districts. They’ve been able to engage their communities at the district level. They often asked teachers to vote before they moved forward. It’s relatively easy to bring in the leadership from different schools to help co-design implementation. It’s been a powerful strategy for districts in communities without big employers, foundations or intermediaries. But what about bigger districts? How do they think about getting going and scaling strategies?
Below are a few thoughts developed from talking with the incredible group of leaders from Lake, Henry and Charleston Counties. I’m still learning, so my thinking is likely to continue to develop about how big districts can move forward toward personalized, competency-based education.
1. School Autonomy
In the same way we encourage schools to have developed PLCs before they get started, districts should evaluate how well they are doing in terms of enabling school autonomy. Is it okay for schools to try different strategies? How about if some move faster forward than others–are you going to hold them back? Can schools hire their own teachers? Create their own staffing patterns? Manage their own budgets and use resources as they see fit to meet student needs? Can schools design their own community engagement strategies?
Certainly, you do not want to make all the schools implement at the exact same pace–that’s the old way of doing business. And you certainly do not want to hold back schools that are ready and able to make the transition. Also the rationale and entry points may be different. Kathleen Halbig from Lake County explained to me that it is important to have community engagement at the individual school level because communities have different histories, different narratives, different concerns and different appreciation about competency education.
2. Tight and Loose
Districts big and small will need to know what they want to hold tight to and what is loose for schools to determine on their own. But do we know exactly what should be tightly held in a CBE district? Here are some starting thoughts.

  • Instruction, Assessment and Calibration: Most districts see the Instruction and Assessment system–the set of competencies, standards, common assessments and systems of performance assessments–as a district function that is co-designed with schools/educators. I’d add to that calibration. Although calibration will be a shared responsibility, districts definitely hold the responsibility to ensure that schools serving poorer communities aren’t determining proficiency at lower levels than the rich communities. In fact, as we think of building the beams of the new system (NMEF has introduced the metaphor of building new houses to tell our story), district-led calibration and managing other forms of quality control mechanisms are way at the top of the most important things needed to make competency education viable. So as we start to think about district accountability and not just school accountability, let’s put district responsibility for inter-school calibration high on the list.
  • Integrated Learning System: If we are really designing for students who are impoverished, which is often accompanied by high mobility, let’s put the integrated learning system, including student profiles, progress, and knowledge about their learning, as a district function (with the actual metrics of course co-designed with schools and teachers). Given that most mobility is within districts, students can just pick up where they left off if their parents have to move for a new job or better housing. Again, it should be co-designed. The practice of people at one governance level designing for those at a lower level of governance is soooo over.
  • Overarching Pedagogy: Districts will have to decide whether there is a shared district-wide pedagogical philosophy or if that is something that is understood as a school responsibility. For example, many schools are shaping their habits of work and social-emotional learning approaches at the school level. Yet, if those are going to be graduation requirements, you want to make sure they align in some way. They don’t have to be the same, but there still needs to be some rhyme and reason to them. (FYI, some states are setting the frameworks by establishing graduation requirements that include transferable skills [Vermont], guiding principles [Maine], or work study practices [New Hampshire].) Districts may want to take a role in co-designing with schools to ensure that there are developmental approaches to these skills and strong tools for helping teachers support students in developing the skills.
  • Self-Directed Learning Practices: I’ve had interesting talks with districts about the practices that support self-directed learning and enable teachers to manage personalized classrooms. In some cases, their strategies see this as something teachers develop on their own, while in other districts, there is a strong emphasis on offering professional development on a set of practices to be used across the school and system. I tend to lean toward a common set of practices, as I think the predictability and transparency of those practices mean a lot for students being able to take responsibility. Also, students who have been traumatized will do better in environments that are more predictable and that don’t require them to navigate a different set of explicit (and implicit) rules in different classrooms.

The tight/loose question is bound to become something we need to clarify by learning from each other – we would love everyone’s opinion about what things need to be held tightly at the district level, school level, or classroom level.
3. Personalized, Competency-Based Professional Development
It’s expensive to retrain a lot of teachers, so districts will need to be smart about this. From what I can tell, it’s best to either start with a co-design process with your launch schools or keep PD loose in the first stages of implementation to allow for innovation, with the understanding that a district-wide approach will be developed. Essentially, co-design is the way to go, although how much experimentation is allowed along the way may differ.
As we are seeing in districts both big and small, it’s important to walk the talk. What is good for the students is most likely pretty darn good for teachers as well. If districts are leading the charge, they are creating personalized, competency-based (and sometimes with online modules) PD with some type of a ladder, sequence, or badging for teachers. If they just want to let their “all-in” schools go, then schools are creating this mechanism for PD. What’s important is to minimize, even eliminate, the amount of non-personalized PD that teachers have to sit through.
As much as you can, give schools the autonomy to do personalized coaching and training. Let them use their PD budgets based on the stages of implementation and where teachers want to strengthen their skills. One person told me that sending teachers to district-wide training can actually move you backwards if you are one of the few schools doing competency education. As more and more schools become personalized and competency-based, it definitely makes sense for the district to start to take on more responsibility, especially for helping to retrain all those new hires who only know the traditional system.
4. Commitment First
IMHO, I think we are making a huge mistake if states create RFP for innovation pilots that allow a district to select a school that then selects some classrooms for the pilots without having evidence that the school board and district leadership team have investigated and committed to personalizing their system with the support of a competency-based structure. Just about everyone I speak to (there have been some alternative perspectives) agrees that school boards and superintendents need to commit to competency-based education first before investing in pilots. These aren’t pilots to test out new ideas; they are for district and school leaders to provide some concrete examples and engage others in what it means to become competency-based. I would argue that if a district is going to start with a few classrooms, they either need to be considered demonstration classrooms, agile development or, if you have to, a prototype (which isn’t done until it works). However, there has to be a strategy for getting all the other teachers on board as well as developing the structures that are needed in the district and schools to support competency education.
In the case of Charleston, they created demonstration classrooms as part of a scaling strategy in which educators in the first cohort who volunteered to be “all in” received a lot of personal coaching and PD to be able to integrate as many of the powerful concepts as possible–practices to support self-directed learning, transparency, meeting kids where they are on their performance levels, creating units rather than lesson plans, focusing on performance rather than activities, habits of work, etc. The expectation is that all the other teachers in the schools are working within a more personalized process to try out new practices, beginning to build their skills along a ladder of skills needed to thrive in a personalized, competency-based structure. Thus, Charleston created a both/and process for piloting and scaling.
Why is developing pilots in a few classrooms without commitment at the top of the district the wrong thing to do? First, if everyone else thinks the idea is just the latest fad, they’ll be able to ignore it or, worse, undermine it if they can. Second, at CompetencyWorks, we take the position that competency education should be a district-wide strategy and–at a minimum–a schoolwide strategy. Asking students to be juggled through some classrooms that are CBE and others that aren’t doesn’t make any sense for building student agency or self-directed students. More worrisome is to ask teachers to be responsible for helping all their students meet grade level standards, even if two-thirds of their class is well-below grade level. This ends up with teachers and students frantically trying to find time after school or during lunch, which often doesn’t work for any of them. Third, as this article argues, pilots often build in errors, rely on an early understanding of the ideas and, most likely, still operate on many of the assumptions guiding the traditional time-based system. So instead of a constant cycle of learning, we get something that is at best a poor understanding of what a personalized, competency-based system can be.
All of this means that states that want to invest in “pilots” should be looking for districts that a) demonstrate commitment through evidence of engaged school boards and key community leaders, as well as formal evidence (beyond the letter that is produced for every grant proposal) that they have decided to make the transition to a personalized, competency-based system; and b) clearly define any so-called pilots as part of the scaling process, not one-offs that may or may not lead to full school or comprehensive district reform.
FYI, it looks to me like funding really can make a difference in both the quality of the understanding of personalized, competency education and scaling strategies. I have received several affirmations that funds from Race to the Top, Gates NGSI and other innovation funds applied to learning, coaching and supporting personalized, competency-based professional development are making a huge difference. So states might want to consider spending more funds on a few districts in the first wave of investments in innovations.
5. Co-Design, Co-Design, Co-Design
I’ve heard some rumblings from schools or educators that they have been held back from innovating. My first instinct is to say “don’t hold anyone back!” However, a lot of energy can be expended designing innovative approaches that don’t quite meet the need, aren’t research-based, or don’t take into context other larger issues that the innovators don’t see or may undervalue. So there need to be ways to engage others with different perspectives (school and district) early on in any new design process to agree upon the design goals and principles early on. The key is for district and school leadership to create processes in which new ideas can be heard, expanded upon, and then supported if they seem to have enough value.
Vice versa, I’ve heard of district people sitting in their offices designing their ideal personalized, competency-based system or the scaling plan without engaging school leadership and teachers. This practice just needs to stop. Call those folks who already have a vision in your schools to help you come up with the process to ensure there is effective engagement and the core elements of the structure that need to be put into place to enable schools to begin to innovate.
What I’ve seen at Henry, Lake and Charleston Counties is a strong commitment to co-designing between districts, schools and educators. There are different ways of organizing this: with district teams in charge of the transition to CBE, with more comprehensive district teams that are thinking about the broader set of systems, with school leadership teams, with coaches and with those “all in” educators who are demonstrating (or figuring out) what works. The mix seems to be different, but the theme is the same. Keep innovating, but do it in a way that draws from all the expertise, creativity, and perspectives within the district. Thus, Charleston’s personalized, competency-based PD has drawn upon all of the launch schools in creating a district-wide strategy that all teachers will be eventually tapping into.
For more, see:

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Chris Sturgis

Chris Sturgis was the co-founder of CompetencyWorks, the go-to source about competency education. Her knowledge of modern education models have developed by visiting over 100 schools that are leading the way in the U.S. and New Zealand. In 2018, she was awarded Outstanding Individual Contribution to Personalized Learning Award by iNACOL (now Aurora Institute). You can find more articles about personalized, mastery learning approaches at LearningEdge.

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