This blog post was co-authored by Dr. Stephanie Rosch and Chadwick Anderson.
Student Agency. It’s a buzz word heard everywhere educators gather these days and rightly so. Education is not a thing to be done to students, it’s a thing to be done with students. Creating opportunities for students to own their individual learning trajectories and, from the beginning, making them aware of the skills and knowledge they’ll need to show proficiency is the cornerstone to the competency-based, learner-centered approach to schooling that educational reformers are touting throughout our field.
One school district in the metropolitan area of Denver has put into practice a learner-centered, competency-based system of education and has been refining the concept for 10 years. “Where Education is Personal,” is the tagline for Westminster Public Schools, an urban district of almost 10,000 students with 17 schools where 77% of the students are Hispanic, 46% are English Language Learners, 81% qualify for free or reduced lunch and there is 20% mobility. The Westminster Public Schools Competency Based System (CBS) recognizes that every child learns differently, and their learning should be personalized so they are engaged and involved every step of the way. Instead of being grouped by age, students are grouped by performance level. Students who are ready for more challenging content move to the next level without delay, while those who need extra help get it. CBS requires students to show mastery of learning targets before moving on to the next level. This approach allows some students to progress more quickly, while others may take more time to learn.
Westminster Public Schools challenges the ineffective practice of social promotion, which historically has allowed lower-performing students to “squeak by” with a D minus while lacking the skills and competencies needed to be successful in society. Student agency within such a Competency-Based System is essential. Rather than being passive recipients of knowledge transfer, learners take the driver’s seat plotting a logical and self-chosen course through clearly delineated learning targets within a series of performance levels leading to graduation. This educational reform is catching fire nationwide because it what’s best for kids and families. It just makes sense. Learn more about WPS’ Competency-Based System here: https://www.westminsterpublicschools.org/cbswps.
Clear and explicit presentation of Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs,) termed Learning Targets in our district, is necessary to get at the notion of student agency. At every level and in every classroom, teachers are trained to begin lessons and units of study by assuring student understanding of what skills and knowledge will be attained. Further, learning targets are posted, referenced, and reviewed throughout the lesson and checked back upon for formative lesson closure. In much the same way, students and teachers utilize success criteria, statements, or exemplars that clearly define what proficiency of a given target looks like. It’s the students’ job to check their work/understanding against the clearly defined success criteria and reflect upon whether they are successful or what they need to do to show proficiency. Sound assessment practices guide this process as teachers and students check in on individual goals and weigh student work/skills against success criteria.
In a real-life example of this procedure, consider Julio, a 7th grade student learning about the Pythagorean Theorem. Julio’s math teacher laid out the success criteria he needs to complete to show proficiency. Success Criteria works like a checklist of all the steps to show proficiency for the topic, starting with vocabulary and introductory pieces and working through the more complex pieces and up even higher into error analysis. Teachers are constantly using this depth of knowledge to ensure students can complete problems and use the material in new settings. Sometimes, Julio gets to pick whether to do practice problems through a website, design his own math scenario using the Pythagorean theorem, and sometimes he gets to compete Cornell notes. Julio has always been advanced in math and now, instead of waiting for the teacher to get all of the students to the same place, Julio gets “just right” instruction. He gets the opportunity to choose how to show just what he knows about the Pythagorean Theorem in a variety of ways.
This focus on what is best for kids is a partnership and a blending of data sources analyzed by both the teacher and the student. Sound formative assessment practice helps to create a logical learning plan for students. Putting kids in the driver’s seat with relation to their personalized learning while coaching them through the process of goal setting to attain proficiency is an engaging way to get at student agency to foster great outcomes for kids.