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Greatest Threat to Competency Based Learning Part II

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By Sajan George, Founder & Chief Executive Officer for Matchbook Learning

In my last post I shared what I thought was the greatest threat to competency based learning scaling across America:

 "The greatest challenge is our accountability systems which are deeply rooted in grade-level proficiency. Our accountability systems, for the most part, do not reward meeting every student where they are and progressing them based on mastery.  In fact, most accountability systems punish you for this because it can appear that students who are behind grade level are falling even farther behind.  Absolute grade-level proficiency, measured annually, is akin to expecting a marathoner to sprint 26 consecutive one-mile bursts.  No marathoner competes like that.

The hat-trick for those of us providing competency-based learning for children who are way behind grade level (see: Matchbook Learning) is to be able to do enough of both--meeting students where they are AND progressing them to and through grade-level proficiency--in accelerated time frames to satisfy the state authorities and still adhere to our methodology's ideology."

Over the past year, Matchbook Learning, the non-profit I run, has experienced this threat first-hand in connection with two schools we managed. These were both turnaround situations--schools that had been performing poorly, but that were still important pillars of their communities.  That's Matchbook's niche: rather than starting new schools from scratch, we work within existing, distressed schools to turn around student performance while maintaining the presence of schools that have roots in and value to the community. 

In situations like these, a culture change is necessary, as is communicating a different message and providing a different level of support to students and families.  Doing that--as we strive to bring children to proficiency who may be several years behind when we begin--obviously takes time.  But in the case of both of these schools, despite stabilizing them within a year and achieving significant double-digit gains in proficiency within two years, the authorizing entities closed the schools. The states' rigid proficiency testing failed to register the type of improvements we had achieved.

We know school turnarounds take time--at least five years.  We also know competency-based approaches are effective for closing the gaps and accelerating students who are significantly behind grade level. Time frames of two years or less for succeeding on absolute grade-level proficiency tests are insufficient and, simply put, a recipe for failure.    

The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we can reconcile the two forces: the short-term proficiency testing demands required by many school districts with the long-term needs of low-income students who have been trapped in low-performing schools for years and are so far behind that even with rapid progress, it's going take several years to catch up. We agree on the need for milestones and accountability, but what are the best measures of whether a school is truly helping its students progress to the next grade level, college or career readiness? 

Clearly, closing schools is not the answer, as a recent Stanford study referenced in EdWeek  showed.  The majority of students in schools that are closed tend to be minority, low-income children who simply move from one poorly performing school to another. 

Rather than closing, we need to give charter management organizations with experience in turnarounds the opportunity to innovate, iterate, prove, and sustain competency-based models. The resulting models will benefit not only one school, but can be replicated and scaled to schools around the country serving children who are unprepared for the competencies of their next grade level or college/career demands.

That means rethinking accountability systems that are designed to demonstrate their rigor by closing low performing schools quickly. 

Enter Indianapolis. 

Indianapolis Public Schools has a unique approach to sparking innovation in its low performing schools.  IPS tries to identify opportunities where innovative charter school operators can restart, reinvent, and reinvigorate some of its low performing schools.  Operators apply for a charter through the Mayor's office and are vetted by a trusted local partner, The Mind Trust.  These three leaders (IPS Superintendent, Indianapolis Mayor, and The Mind Trust CEO) and their organizations converge on a common problem by providing the time necessary (at least a five-year contract with the first three years based solely on growth) to enable innovative models and approaches like competency-based learning to incubate and prove themselves.  They want to see growth initially and absolute proficiency achieved over time.  The initial growth emphasis (first three years) and longer contract time frame (at least five years) means Indianapolis can have its cake and eat it too.

Aspiring, innovative education entrepreneurs should apply.

States and cities that want to attract high quality education entrepreneurs and their models should look to their accountability systems and gauge whether the conditions and surrounding ecosystem provide the time necessary to flourish at the highest levels.  Our schools need the same thing our students need--meeting each of us where we are and enabling us to progress to the highest levels of proficiency and accountability. All this in a system that promotes growth over time and seeks to reward those who assume the risk of trying to get it right for the children who most need us to succeed. 

 Matchbook Learning is in The Mind Trust's 4th class of Innovation Fellows and is applying for a charter restart with the City of Indianapolis and IPS. 

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