Promising Practices and Considerations for Districts in Competency-Based Education Webinar Questions: Part 1 – Data Systems and Curriculum and Instruction Resources

On July 16, the College and Career Readiness and Success Center at the American Institutes for Research and the American Youth Policy Forum co-hosted a webinar, “Promising Practices and Considerations for Districts in Competency-Based Education.” A brief summary of the webinar is available here.

This post is the first in a two-part series in which presenters Thomas Rooney, Superintendent of the Lindsay Unified School District in California; Linda Laughlin, Assistant Superintendent of RSU 18 in Maine; and Dr. Matthew Lewis and Dr. Jennifer Steele of the RAND Corporation respond to questions submitted by participants.

Many data systems currently lack the capacity to collect the type of information necessary in a competency-based system. What did the process of switching your system and what were the major challenges in making the change?

Thomas Rooney: One important part of the process is to ensure you are working with a company that understands and shares the vision for why competency based education is needed.  Most companies have a product that is based on a time-based system and philosophy. We worked with a couple of these companies before realizing that even though they look good and have some neat bells and whistles, if they do not believe or understand the key tenets of competency-based education, then their product will ultimately not provide what is needed in the data tracking system.  Lindsay Unified went with the Educate product from for this reason.  The company does not allow us to use time-based practices and regularly modifies the product to be unique to Lindsay Unified.

The main challenge to using a new data system is getting staff and learners to understand, embrace, and use all that the system has to offer.  People are used to using a grade book, not a progress monitoring system.  One of the most difficult things to do in public education is to get all stakeholders to effectively use a new system that initially requires more work than a former system.  Influencing and ultimately changing practices and belief systems that have been in place for decades is difficult work. 

Linda Laughlin: We added a system to specifically support our competency-based system. The system we added is the Educate Software Program. We work closely with the developer, Scott Bacon, to customize the program to meet our needs. This program communicates with our student information system, PowerSchool through a Schools Interoperability Framework agent.

RAND: When we talk to districts that are working to create competency-based systems, we hear that system interoperability is a key hurdle. In other words, the challenge lies in integrating data about students’ progress along defined learning pathways with existing student data and grade book systems that are accessible to students and parents. We also hear that this work is not accomplished overnight. Developing robust, well-integrated data systems involves trial, error, and refinement.

How much of your curriculum and assessment work have you had to build from the ground up and how have you interacted with others that have already done thinking on this issue to make your transition easier?

Thomas Rooney: In Lindsay Unified most of the curriculum development work has been done from the ground up with our own staff.  Various consultants were used to confirm the alignment, quality, and viability of the curriculum decisions made by local experts.  However, the resources provided through the state frameworks and now the Common Core documents makes the curriculum development and selection work difficult, but do-able at the local level. 

Assessment development work has involved various partners for at least 80% of the work.  We contracted with Action Learning Systems to develop specific assessments that were aligned with our curriculum.  Any assessments that are developed locally are sent to the Marzano Research Laboratory (MRL) for validation of alignment to the content.  The work with both of these organizations (and a few others) has been critical to developing local expertise, deepening our understanding of assessment development, and in responding to local learning facilitators or learners who may be concerned with the difficulty or alignment of an assessment. 

In Lindsay Unified, we are just beginning to work on the Level 4 assessments. These assessments are the application of knowledge assessments that will be much more like what learners will face with the Common Core assessments. Since level 3 knowledge was our requirement, those were the assessments that Action Learning Systems and MRL helped us with. Now our learners are “asking” for more Level 4 learning opportunities and assessments. These will be developed in partnership with our local County Office of Education, MRL, other districts throughout the country, and many of our own learning facilitators.

Linda Laughlin: We created our content-area curriculum from the ground up. We are a collection of school districts in Maine. We started by working with Bea McGarvey, an associate of Dr. Robert Marzano. We have brought teachers from each of our school district together to work with Bea to develop the first draft of our content-area curriculum. Since then, curriculum leaders in each of our schools have facilitated revisions to this curriculum each year for the last two years. Since Bea McGarvey has had significant experiences and training with schools across the country, and with Dr. Marzano & Associates, she made the transition much easier.  We have two additional parts of our curriculum, habits of mind and reasoning processes (critical thinking skills). The reasoning processes/critical thinking curriculum was created by Debra Pickering (Marzano Associate) and Bea McGarvey worked with a number of resources to organize a habits of mind curriculum for us.

RAND: The districts in our study (which is still ongoing) have taken a variety of approaches. That means purchasing or commissioning the development of competency-based curricula. It also means providing professional development and high-quality lesson templates to help teachers create and share their own standards-aligned lessons, tasks, video lectures, and units.

Check back on Friday, August 9, when the presenters address higher education engagement in competency-based education systems.

Andrew Valent is a Program Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.


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