Margaret Raymond Driscoll is a nine-year Melrose School Committee member who is passionate about excellent teaching and learning for all public school students, and considers it a privilege to collaborate with others who share that passion. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc. Just to be clear - opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Melrose Public Schools, the Melrose School Committee, or the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials - they are hers alone.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Cool (and Slightly Wonky) Education Discussion (2/9 Citywide PTO): Part 2 of 3

Second, here’s where it starts to get a little wonky (but really interesting):

Competency Based Education (CBE) is a teaching and learning vision that the Supt. feels is very important for our district to explore. This is not the “tracking” of old; it’s a way to bring all students to mastery in each content area, but they won’t necessarily do that at the same pace for each of those content areas. It incorporates Universal Design for Learning (UdL) which is a framework of principles for curriculum development and is a significant change in the profession of teaching, to the point where teachers may worry that they won’t cover all the required material, or that letting students take a more active role in their own learning will result in poor student performance. Teachers are working hard at implementing this practice, and are gaining confidence in their own skills as they watch students own more responsibility for learning and achieve success as a result.

One consideration regarding implementing CBE is how to meet state requirements around District Determined Measures (DDM’s) that are measures of student learning, growth, and achievement, and in most districts (including Melrose) they come in the form of common assessments (i.e. measures of student learning that are the same across a grade level or course). Rather than using common assessments, CBE looks to UdL’s principle of Multiple Means of Expression (MME), meaning that students select from a teacher-driven list of ways to demonstrate their competence. (For example, students could take a test and/or present a portfolio and/or submit a journal, etc.) The “common” part is that all students must attain competency. In Melrose, a great deal of work has been done on the development of common assessments, and there is now better understanding and agreement among our educators about what competency means and looks like. That work built the foundation that allows the district to consider evolving to a CBE framework.

There is another, more technical question to work through, and that is related to DDM’s and their impact on the “student impact rating (SIR).” (A SIR is a state mandated determination of an educator’s impact on student learning, and is ultimately part of their performance evaluation. More info here: http://www.doe.mass.edu/edeval/sir/.) One element of the SIR is MCAS/PARCC, but only 17% of educators participate in those standardized tests the way the content areas and grades align with the testing, which is why the state required DDM’s in the first place. The good news is that the state may begin to back off DDM’s, to some extent because of the newly authorized federal education law called “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA), which will incorporate “soft measures” of teachers’ impact on student learning (like graduation, attendance, and suspension rates; depression screening results; etc.). Superintendents agree that DDM’s should be used less, but because so much work has been done on them, it’s hard to just abandon them; but this potential shift may make it more likely that CBE could be implemented while still adhering to state regulations.

Data use remains an important element of ensuring that teaching and learning practices are effective. Melrose is fortunate to have a great data specialist, and we also have been able to take advantage of some free data consulting services; the consultant is working with the data specialist to employ the data we’ve collected even more effectively in the interest of improving student outcomes. The Supt. shared that “data is more about the quality of instruction [than an isolated reflection of a student’s performance].”

In sum, exploration of CBE should include navigating state regulations around measuring student performance, and then translating them within a framework that’s acceptable to the state in order to comply with regulations around educator evaluation (even as the federal government may begin to offer more flexibility in this area).

Supt. Taymore talked about CBE being an intersection of Understanding by Design (UBD), which is a curriculum mapping tool that focuses on teaching for understanding, and UdL, ultimately creating a Venn Diagram. Melrose teachers and administrators have spent a great deal of time and effort learning about these educational tools and practices, and also developing and using common assessments, raising standards, employing more rigor, supporting student centered learning, and using data to better instruct students. Last fall, Supt. Taymore held a public forum on CBE to gather community feedback, and following a positive response, the School Committee voted to authorize her to create a CBE Task Force to study the issues around implementing this type of vision in our schools. A Citywide PTO parent, who is a member of the Melrose CBE Task Force, stated that she is “so impressed with the level of expertise” in the group (which includes a variety of individuals with state, private foundation, and other significant credentials). Supt. Taymore believes that Melrose students deserve a chance at CBE, but there is much that the Task Force must explore to vet this significant a shift. She noted that it must be Melrose-based, not copied from another city or town. The Task Force has just started their work (they’ve met once), and will tentatively report their initial findings in late spring or summer.