By Melissa Slater
reDesign has partnered with the South Carolina Department of Education’s Office of Personalized Learning to support educators in creating a sustainable learner-centered model, supporting all students in achieving the Profile of the SC Graduate. This work has included competency framework design, network-wide professional learning, systems leadership coaching, and school-level instructional and leadership coaching.
You can learn more about this initiative by listening to the #PersonalizeSC Podcast, which features stories from the field to move the work of personalized learning forward in the state of South Carolina.
When introducing the Profile of a South Carolina Graduate Competencies to teachers we notice a pattern. When teachers first look at the collection of competencies their reaction is somewhere along the lines of “Wow. I love these. These are the skills my students need!”
After that initial spark, things sink in a little and shortly after, two big questions come up:
- “I love these, but how am I supposed to teach all my standards and these as well?”
- “These are great, but how would I assign a numerical grade to this?”
Teachers can get stuck here, and we have found that by addressing the standards question upfront, we are able to show that competencies don’t just work in theory but can also work in practice.
What’s the difference between standards and competencies?
At reDesign, we work with states and systems to create learner-centered competencies designed as a positive, developmental set of transferable skills that support higher-order thinking and depths of knowledge beyond what the standards currently offer.
What makes competencies different from standards? Quite a lot, actually.
Standards identify the subject-specific what and when for a given content area. They organize the skills, concepts, and knowledge by grade level or grade band. Competencies, on the other hand, organize the transferable skills, strategies, and processes that are important within and across disciplines along a developmental continuum.
Shifting the focus from standards to competencies has had a profoundly positive impact on the engagement and excitement of teachers we coach. Competencies reinvigorate practice because they enable teachers to put the needs of students’ first and support the design of authentic learning experiences and assessment.
A process for bringing competencies and standards together.
In our coaching work with teachers in South Carolina we developed a process to help teachers see that competencies and standards can work together to create clear competency-based learning targets for students.
1. Unpack the standard
We begin by unpacking the standard and we do that through a simple highlighting activity. Teachers highlight the content in the standard in one color and the skills in the standard in another. Some standards are heavy on the content and light on the skill, others are skills-based with more flexibility around content.
2. Matching standards with a competency.
Once teachers have analyzed the standards, we look at the collection of competencies and identify which competency best aligns to these transferable skills or processes and find a match. Sometimes, this is a really easy process if there are skills identified in the standard and other times we have to think about what skill students need to demonstrate this content.
Note: This is an excerpt of 3 Competencies from the Profile of a South Carolina Graduate which includes a total of 12 Competencies.
3. Establishing levels of a competency.
Now that teachers have their standard and a matching competency, we need to look at the levels of the competency. Selecting the performance levels and corresponding indicators requires teachers to have a sense of how well their students can demonstrate these skills. Where are we starting? Teachers identify a level range for their students by looking at prior assessment data.
For South Carolina, the table below shows how each competency — in this case, the Learning Independently competency — contains a set of skills that are broken down into a student-friendly continuum. Each skill contains readiness levels that can be used to explore and analyze growth in that particular skill.
4. Merging standards with competencies: “skill-fill” and “blend.”
The final step is to figure out how to merge these two, standards and competencies, together. We share two approaches with teachers, skill-fill and blend.
a. “Skill-fill:” If the standard is devoid of skill and is more content-driven, teachers can use the language of the competency indicators to add skills to that standard. A standard that asks students to solve two step equations now becomes “I can break down a two-step equation into smaller parts and identify my starting point for working out a solution.”
b. Blend: The blend approach is for standards that are already skills-based. An ELA standard around collaborative discussion will often have identified discussion skills (questioning, responding, etc.). In this case, the competency indicators can provide helpful details about skill application or development by looking at the increasing levels. It can also help refine the language in a way that is most useful for students.
Modeling the process for teachers is essential.
The first few times it can feel wonky, but we have found something does click for teachers after a little practice. One of the teachers we work with in South Carolina said she’ll never look at standards the same again. We laughed about that, and right after she said that her new competency-aligned standards were much more clear to her and students. That sense of clarity was a common theme among teachers who worked through this process with us.
Competencies help clarify which standards to prioritize.
Inevitably, with clarity other questions around standards begin to emerge. This process of merging standards and competencies leads teachers to take a more critical approach to narrowing down the standards. It provides an avenue for teachers to evaluate which standards are most essential for their students. We have seen teachers become more comfortable with the reality that there just isn’t enough time to cover all of the standards in a way that is authentic for students. Teachers become more strategic around which standards to prioritize. As teachers realize that competencies can help them clarify and evaluate their standards they begin to see them more as a tool to support their work rather than an additional thing they need to do. We have found this shift to be particularly impactful on the level of engagement and excitement of the teachers we are coaching, and in turn, on the engagement and excitement of their students.