Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Competency-Based Education: A Reading Journey

As Shelby County's journey toward competency-based education (CBE) has become regionally and nationally known, educators often ask about resources we have discovered along the way.  In particular, what books have we read?

This entry is an attempt to compile a useful -- but by no means exhaustive -- list of CBE related books that I personally feel have been either extremely illuminating in pragmatic ways (detailed models, insightful anecdotes, clear "how to's") or it inspired me to stay the course.  Often the same book did both!  Instead of ranking them in order of importance, or even in the order I actually read them, I have put them in what I think would be the most useful reading sequence that would best grow one's CBE knowledge as well as help you strategically plan for implementation in your own classroom, school or district. 

One very important point here: as with all of my Edtech Elixirs entries and my personal social media posts, this is only Adam Watson's ideal list as of this posting.  While my CBE knowledge would not nearly be as robust without my work in Shelby, and although many of these books were part of our leadership reading, this list is not meant to imply any district endorsement of these texts or of the sequence I have described.

1. What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith (2018)

Before getting too deep into CBE terminology and logistics, teachers and admin should be given the chance to ideate for an "outside the box" transformative classroom experience.  This book's title succinctly states its purpose: we need to dream up a different way of doing school.  Dintersmith was the executive producer of the engaging documentary Most Likely to Succeed, which mainly focused on High Tech High in San Diego and how that school challenges how education achievement can be done.  This book is basically Dintersmith's road trip covering all 50 states in a single school year as he searches for inspirational models of educational transformation.  What School Could Be is both a wakeup call to rally against the status quo as well as a potential map of locations to visit.

2. Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education: the Mastery Transcript Consortium Model and Beyond by Jonathan E. Martin (2010)

Don't let the slim nature of this book (151 pages!) fool you.  As Martin describes examples of what a competency-based report card/transcript may look like (in particular, the work of the Mastery Transcript Consortium), you realize how crucial it is to have an effective reporting tool of learning, especially for high school.  Beginning your CBE planning with such an end in mind is highly recommended, as we in Shelby can speak from experience that communicating and creating a new reporting tool was an area of challenge in our journey, especially for some of our high school teachers, students and parents.

3.  How to Grade for Learning: Linking Grades to Standards by Ken O'Connor (4th edition, 2019)

O'Connor has been challenging the idea of what grading should be for many years; in fact, the first edition of How to Grade for Learning came out two decades ago.  This book is likely the most "dense" and longest on this list, but it is chock full of very useful examples, anecdotes, and templates. I would argue that the principles laid out in the book are critical for moving to competency-based learning, as you need strong, clear, and consistent standards-based grading (SBG) practices to get there.  As I discussed in a previous entry, you need teachers and admin to understand the limits of traditional points / percentage / letter based grading and how SBG is more effective for learning.  O'Connor expertly leads you through that shift.  I especially appreciate how he devotes whole chapters to looking at how to calculate grades beyond merely averaging numbers (for example, Chapter 5: Emphasizing More Recent Evidence).  Make sure classroom teachers have a chance to discuss key excerpts!

4. Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards by Bob Lenz with Justin Wells and Sally Kingston (2015)

Transforming Schools was one of the earliest books I read on my CBE journey, as I was learning how instructional classroom models like project-based learning fit into a bigger transformative educational system.  (This is something not to be glossed over; through communication and strategic planning, your journey to a CBE system should make clear how competency-based learning is not "one more thing on your plate" but instead becomes the plate where personalized learning, PBL, blended learning and other initiatives smoothly "sit" on and build toward.)   Lenz and his contributors do an excellent job of sharing their narrative of how they changed learning at one school, which then evolved into a system of transformative schools (Envision Learning).   The book also helped me think more deeply about the importance of advisory scheduling, graduate profiles, and students doing defenses of learning.  Bonus: it includes a DVD with video clips!

5.  Breaking with Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work by Brian M. Stack and Jonathan G. Vander Els (2018)

Stack and Vender Els write from the perspective of principals "doing the work" in New Hampshire, a state well known for its CBE leadership.  (In fact, Stack is still principal at Sanborn Regional High School.)  As the subtitle suggests, it is important to invest wisely and deeply in the professional development of your staff as you shift away from traditional practices, and Stack and Vander Els insightfully outline a successful way to navigate that process.   Helpful examples of competency frameworks, as well as how they were created, are shared in detail.  I also appreciated the book's discussion of what intervention and enrichment looks like in a CBE system, so students can truly "move when ready."  Lastly, both Transforming Schools and Breaking with Tradition explain the need for change in performance assessment practices, and the urgency for creating new performance assessments that better match competency-based learning. 

Bonus: Learning Supercharged: Digital Age Strategies and Insights from the Edtech Frontier by Lynne Schrum with Sandi Sumerfield (2018).

I briefly discussed this book in a previous entry.  While technically not a "CBE book," I found Learning Supercharged to be highly useful when connecting CBE related pedagogies with best practices in blended learning.  Chapters on makerspaces, project-based learning, personalized learning and more allow you to see how crucial digital tools will be when creating an effective "transfer task" culture of mastery learning.

Honorary Mentions of other CBE authors and websites:
  • Rose Colby.  Colby has been talking about CBE for at least a decade and she is often quoted, including in many of the books above.   Her 2017 book Competency-Based Education: A New Architecture for K-12 Schooling is a recent example of her work.
  • Chris Sturgis.  Besides writing the forward to Breaking with Tradition, Sturgis is an author of many influential white papers on CBE; she also helped launch CompetencyWorks, itself an important online resource.
  • Aurora Institute (formerly iNACOL).  The site, and its related conferences, continues to be a leader in sharing and discussing the work of CBE and the educators behind it.   As a starting point, read its updated definition of CBE published in November 2019. 

What are some significant CBE books you have read?  Please share in the Comments below!

Full disclosure:  Over the last few years, Shelby County has nurtured both one-time consultancies as well as ongoing partnerships with several of the authors and organizations mentioned above.

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