A high school where teens behave like adults?

How competency-based learning empowers more students toward success

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A high school graduate raises his diploma in celebration as he walks back to his seat during a commencement ceremony Wednesday, June 10, 2015, in Pittston, Pa.

A high school graduate raises his diploma in celebration as he walks back to his seat during a commencement ceremony Wednesday, June 10, 2015, in Pittston, Pa.

High schools are graduating more students than ever before. Eighty-one percent of students received diplomas in 2012-2013, the highest percent of graduates in recent history.

Still, many poor, minority and disabled students continue to fall behind: Only 62 percent of students with disabilities, 61 percent of students with limited English proficiency, 76 percent of Hispanic students, and 68 percent of African American students graduated in the same year.

The highly publicized 81 percent graduation rate belies the reality that many high schools still lack the capability to support all students in reaching college and career.

Related: How schools can lower suspension rates and raise graduation rates

All adolescents need supportive learning ecosystems that will help them develop the skills and knowledge to reach graduation.

The completion of college-ready standards at a mastery level is a minimum for advancing to college and career; success in adulthood also depends on young people’s resilience, self-awareness, and agency.

Most high schools do not do enough to develop these competencies. If learning environments are designed with adolescent development in mind, they can more effectively scaffold student progress toward healthy adulthood, college, and career.

Related: Teen pregnancy is still a problem, school districts just stopped paying attention

Everything we know about adolescent development tells us high schools must embed opportunities for them to develop resilience and agency.

The tenets of positive youth development theory — that youth need caring relationships, high expectations, choice, voice, engagement, and a consistent adult presence — compel us to develop schools where students can actively drive their own learning.

Adolescents must be at the center of an instructional model that leverages relationships with adults and peers to maximize student engagement and effort.

Related: Learning more outside the classroom than in

We have seen that new schools are the best places to embed these tenets.

When we think about designing new school models centered on positive youth development, we begin to see how we might reimagine the traditional comprehensive high school model.

While students in a traditional high school are evaluated based on their ability to complete assignments on time and in a pre-arranged order, students in new school models might be given a choice among possible pathways through a curriculum, with asynchronous assessments measuring their progress along the way.

Related: A student’s death leads a teacher to open a new kind of high school

Rather than advancing after a year in a given course, students in new models would be able to advance asynchronously after demonstrating mastery of rigorous standards.

This approach, often referred to as competency-based learning, is one of many ways to embed positive youth development supports in an academic model.

The approach focuses on students earning credits based on their skills and knowledge, rather than time they’ve spent in a course or school. In a competency-based environment, students are not grouped by grade (ninth, 10th, etc.). Rather, each student is able to articulate their individual progress toward graduation (“I have earned 12 of 44 credits” or “I’ve mastered the first 10 standards and I’m working on this one”).

Credits are earned as students master standards, and students are continually assessed with the support of learning facilitators in small groups or individually.

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Assessment in this environment is always formative. Students are motivated by the ability to try and re-try until they reach mastery, and learning facilitators actively guide that process.

Without time-based constraints, students can earn credits in a timeframe based on their knowledge, skills and motivation. Some students may graduate in three years, others may graduate in five. In either case, students see high school as a pathway toward their futures, rather than as a hurdle.

In practice, competency-based learning gives students many more opportunities to develop positive relationships with adults and peers, and to practice making positive decisions.

Related: Can we really prepare kids for both high school and a career?

At JFK E3agle Academy, a competency-based high school in Cleveland, Ohio, students confer with their learning facilitators each week to develop individualized learning plans. Learning facilitators know where each student is on his or her path to college and career.

To promote student voice and choice, students at E3agle elect to participate in one of several standards-aligned seminars. These seminars are led by adults and culminate in standards-aligned performance tasks.

At Springpoint, a national non-profit organization that supports the development of new competency-based high schools, we are establishing competency-based schools in Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Denver Public Schools, Internationals Network for Public Schools, Providence Public School District, The School District of Philadelphia, and The Urban Assembly in New York City.

Related: How some high schools are closing the income gap among graduates

Later this year, we will begin to support this approach in a charter context, as we help launch two new competency-based charter high schools in New York City.

We look forward to developing more of these schools as research and insights into these methods continue to grow.

In our global economy, students must reach ever-higher levels of skill and knowledge development. They must have opportunities to practice and master agency, carving an individual path in an environment that offers more possibilities than any other. Competency-based schools have the potential to give all students the tools to succeed in this environment, enabling them to succeed in high school, college, and beyond.

JoEllen Lynch is executive director of Springpoint, a national organization that partners with school districts, intermediary networks, and charter management organizations to establish innovative high schools.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about High school reform.

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JoEllen Lynch

JoEllen Lynch is executive director of Springpoint, a national organization that partners with school districts, intermediary networks, and charter management organizations to establish innovative high… See Archive

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