A Reflection Based on “Leading a Competency-based Secondary School”

A few weeks ago, I had jury duty. Most of the jury experience can be summarized as “hurry up and wait.” Or in my case it was, “hurry up and read!” I chose Leading a Competency-based Secondary School  by Marzano and Hardy for two reasons. First, I read it because I am gathering perspectives on the different ways competency-based education can be implemented. Our one size fits all approach to teaching and learning is not getting us where we need to go. Post COVID, fewer students and teachers are connecting. We need a change, and a competency-based approach provides a framework for deepening and changing relationships between students and learning and between teachers and students. Second, I have had the privilege of collaborating with a state and its contractor to deploy a competency-based model that allows teachers to adapt the content they are teaching to the pace of the individual rather than to the pace of the curriculum. In short, I am a believer.

Leading a Competency-based Secondary School focuses less on the development of the competencies and more on the supportive components required for successful implementation such as grading, learning management systems (LMS), and reporting systems that make it easier for teachers to determine where students are in their learning of a competency. Reporting systems that provide a big picture allow teachers to collaborate with students in setting growth goals within and across a grading period. This sets up teachers as facilitators, motivators, and trusted guides along the student’s learning path. The student owns the journey. When pre-testing is used, the student and teacher can place the student into a stage of a learning progression, and the student has evidence to support why he, she, or they need to engage in learning activities. This practice also allows students to skip learning activities for content they have already mastered.

Blended Learning

If you are interested in having students own their own learning, you might consider how grading practices and LMS structures at the classroom level support your goals. For example, Marzano and Hardy describe recording your instruction in their section titled Blended Instruction on page 106. They define blended instruction as a system that is a hybrid of online resources and direct teacher instruction. Blended Instruction for these authors is fundamental to competency-based instruction. This process can flip face-to-face instruction as a time to support students in different stages of learning. Because learning is social, this allows students to work in differentiated groups to advance them from where they are currently to where they need to go. Marzano and Hardy discuss playlists, a progression of assignments that students access when ready. In this model, homework is listening to the “how,” (the recorded instruction) and perhaps showing evidence that the students engaged with the opportunity. Providing students an opportunity to listen to the instruction again or even ahead of class can support differentiated student learning rates, especially when that recording includes closed captions (e.g., turning this functionality on in Microsoft Teams). This can be a game changer in promoting accessibility for students with hidden disabilities or students who need more repetition to learn. This section resonated with me, because it does not require all students to learn at the same rate to succeed.

Marzano and Hardy describe how this flipped instruction and playlist process can correspond to a particular level of the competency proficiency scale. I believe it is critical that the more complex tasks require more depth (not more busy work and not just higher difficulty!), and they provide students with the opportunity to make choices on projects or tasks that have meaning to them. This lays a foundation of student voice and trust in the classroom.

Photo by Kobe – on Pexels.com

Student Advisory Programs

In our post-COVID era, Marzano and Hardy’s recommendation that schools develop student advisory programs (page 19) is one of the authors’ most important ideas. As we work to help students recover socially-and-emotionally, I wonder why more schools do not take such an approach? The authors noted students need to connect with more than one adult at their school, and quite frankly, one difficult aspect of school for a student can be learning to negotiate how to communicate effectively with a busy teacher, especially at the high school level. This is particularly salient for introverted students, students with disabilities, and English language learners. Learning how to have an uncomfortable conversation with a teacher about the student’s late work, work a teacher mistakenly did not get graded, or self-advocating for an accommodation, can all create a large amount of student anxiety.

We may also not realize how difficult students find it to navigate a LMS where each teacher has set up their class structure in their own unique way. We may not consider requiring students to track some assignments in a LMS and some on paper poses a heavy cognitive load, which may contribute to why a student missed submitting an assignment. Providing students, a safe space and access to an adult through weekly or bimonthly student advisory meetings can allow for coaching conversations that help students more equitably navigate the school culture and system. The treatment of a safe, orderly, and supportive learning environment; the implementation of student advisory programs; and the central paradigm of mastery learning that privileges growing student abilities and perseverance, should move students to becoming (a) more confident in their knowledge, skills, and abilities and (b) more skilled in their communication.

Wrap Around Supports

The competency model I supported provided a framework for teachers on how to differentiate content for students. And, critically, it was developed at the behest of teachers. Teachers reported they needed a better, practical way to track student growth in the classroom. Once teachers stopped assessing just where they were in the curriculum based on the district pacing guide and transitioned to strategically assessing where kids were based on big ideas (the competency) that were measured using learning progressions that covered large portions of the curriculum, they learned something interesting. Many students were ahead of what the pacing guide projected and what they were teaching. Leading a Competency-based Secondary School by Marzano and Hardy can help administrators and teachers recognize that with competency-based education, wrap around supports for teachers and students are essential, and they are just as important to consider as the mastery mindset.



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