What’s Your Framework? Your Competency Framework?

by Chris Sturgis

There is a lot of framing to be done when you are moving towards modern schools. It’s not so different than putting in a new foundation, load bearing walls, and new windows when rehabbing a house.

The most important is the mindset frame — the one that is built on your beliefs about people, about how we learn, about the purpose of schools. If you think some people are smarter (as if there is only one way to be smart), or that children are empty vessels into which we simply pour knowledge, or the purpose of school is to figure out who should go to college, then the traditional system is going to work just fine for you. Those seeking to modernize schools have rejected those ideas and embrace new beliefs: there are lots of ways of being smart and with effort we can get even smarter; we learn best when we are actively engaged and putting forth effort; and the purpose of school is learning, growth and helping students to discover and develop their potential.

A second critical step is setting the vision for what students should know and be able to do upon graduation. Most states, districts and schools are familiar with the term graduate profile. Some stop there with pretty posters on their walls and website. But nothing much is going to happen until you creating a framework for what that means students should know and be able to do at different stages of their progression.

This third type of framework, often called a competency framework or simply the curriculum, articulation of what students should know and do with levels of performance set forth.  Some districts choose to continue to use standards alone within this framework.  What’s important is that it is explicit (there is intentionality that instruction is organized around learning goals), transparent (with examples of what it means to be proficient available to students), aligned (the learning target and rubric aligned around the appropriate depth of knowledge) and commonly used across the district (calibrated by teachers so that everyone understand what it means to be proficient).

Why bother creating a framework around competencies?

Why should you bother creating competencies when there are already standards around which to organize learning? Because there are too many standards and they are mind-numbing to read them. Standards are a technical part of how schools operate. They should, if well developed (and lots of state standards are not — too many continue to have a list of dates and events in their social sciences/history standards) be able to offer a progression on how students learn concepts and/or provide the core concepts and procedural knowledge students need to know. Most importantly, they should be able to offer a clear understanding of levels. What’s the difference between 10th grade and 12th grade reading? The standards should be able to make that very clear. If they don’t, then teachers need to work together to create a clear understanding of what it means to be proficient. (It’s worth considering if we always need grade level standards based on 1 year of growth or if there are times when a band might work better. It makes sense to differentiate between 10th and 12th grade writing but does it really make a difference to say that somehow 11th grade writing can be clearly differentiated from 12th grade?)

Competencies are larger concepts of what students should be able to use and do. Let’s take New Hampshire’s competencies or example. For symbolic expression they created a statement: Students will reason abstractly and manipulate symbolic expressions and models to represent relationships and interpret expressions, equations, and inequalities in terms of a given context (including real-world phenomena) for determining unknown values.

They then added several I can statements that students should be able to do by the time they graduate:

  • I can write, apply, and provide a rational for a mathematical model representing a given situation (e.g., linear, quadratic, exponential, trigonometric)
  • I can analyze and symbolically represent complex numbers (both real and imaginary numbers)
  • I can interpret and use symbols to express relationships and justify reasoning when solving problems (e.g., evaluating expressions; modeling equations, inequalities, systems of equations/ inequalities).
  • I can apply properties of arithmetic and algebra to simplify and manipulate symbolic expressions or models involving real/imaginary numbers.
  • I can analyze and use the structure of expressions to generate equivalent forms which emphasize different properties of the quantity represented by the expression (e.g., factoring, completing the square, various linear/nonlinear forms)
  • I can analyze, symbolically represent, and use vector and matrix quantities in problem solving

There are of course lots and lots of standards throughout the 13 years of school that students will need to learn to achieve these I can statements. If you’ve got gaps in the early standards it will be increasingly heard to reach these learning goals.

When districts develop graduate profiles they include other types of competencies such as collaboration, problem-solving, communication, global citizenship and even character traits such as compassionate. If they take their graduate profiles seriously, districts and schools will start to think about how they develop the academic competencies and the skills they need to apply academic knowledge into new and challenging contexts. This will take them into the realm of performance tasks, performance-based assessment, project- and problem-based learning, and real-world opportunities in the workplace and community.

One of the most challenging steps, and one only a few districts are taking, is to create a gradation of what it means to be competent in these transferrable skill competencies at different stages. What does competency in communication in 4th grade look like compared to 8th grade? What makes a student competent in collaboration in 8th grade compared to what we want to see at 12th? Bravo to the Kentucky Competency-Based Education and Assessment Consortium for creating performance indicators for their Anchor Competencies that have been co-designed with Shelby County Public Schools and Trigg County Public Schools.

Is there a best practice for competency frameworks?

What does it mean to have an excellent competency framework? I don’t believe this has been clarified yet. We are still at the stage of innovating with different states, districts and schools creating different models. Here are a couple of thoughts:

Measurable: Certainly, we would hope the competency can be assessed. But what if you have a competency that is very important but difficult to assess in ways that are valid and reliable? Should you not include it? If it’s important to your community and what you want for your students then keep it. But you will have to figure out a way to embed it, make it meaningful, make it matter. What we measure sends the important about what is important. So find some way to monitor it along the way.

Meaning and Connection: Try to write the competencies in ways that can help students understand how all those standards build up to something more meaningful. New Hampshire, co-designed with districts, did a nice job creating meaning meaning with 8 math competencies. The competencies are organized around a short, more memorable phrase such as Symbolic Expression or Algebraic Functions,Patterns, and Relations. Other states, districts and schools are selecting other ways of organizing academics and the broader transferrable skills that push beyond the silos of academic domains we are used to. I think it might even help if the competency statements made some connection to how the knowledge and skills can come in handy in the post-graduation world.

Aspirational: Standards are technical units of learning and not written to be aspirational. Changing them into I can statements helps but they feel disconnected from real life. So consider trying to write the competency framework in ways (including visually) that can inspire students. Icons and I can statements can help. Use language that vibrates. Which would you rather be — an empowered learner or someone with agency?

Below are links to several different ways frameworks are being organized — some around competencies and some more on learning targets. Look at them and try to develop your own list of what makes an effective competency framework.

New Hampshire State Model Competencies

Kentucky Anchor Competencies

South Carolina Prototype Competencies

EPIC North Competency Framework (scroll down to find the 19 competencies)

Building 21 Competency Maps and Progression

Champlain Valley School District Learning Targets (includes a broad set of electives)

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