Colorado and Illinois Look to Take Learner-Centered Education Statewide
Practice | Insights 25 August 2016
By Julie Renkoski
HOW DO SCHOOL-CENTERED SYSTEMS TRANSFORM INTO LEARNER-CENTERED ENVIRONMENTS?
Can a state make it happen, and, if so, how? These are a couple of the questions with which Colorado and Illinois stakeholders—from all levels of education—are grappling. And, they’re going about their quest for answers in very different ways.
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a small, collaborative meeting in Chicago to explore what these two states have been up to—Supporting Competency-Based Pathways in Illinois and Colorado (sponsored by Achieve, with support from The Carnegie Foundation). I got to be a fly on the wall as district leaders, state officials, and higher ed representatives from both states reported on their respective strategies for supporting routes to competency-based education. They shared their many hopes, challenges, and questions—it was a day of new ideas, emerging partnerships, and much reflection.
Illinois is focusing its efforts on the policy track. In 2012, the Illinois P-20 Council created the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Committee to develop recommendations that would ensure every Illinois graduate is prepared for life beyond high school. The diverse group of 89 participants included agency, community, and business leaders, as well as representatives from teachers’ unions, state- and district-level education departments, and higher education. Interestingly, competency-based learning was not even in this group’s initial scope; rather, CBE emerged organically from discussions about what students need to be prepared for post-secondary paths.
Thankfully, four years of brainstorming and negotiations were rewarded. In May 2016, both the Illinois House and Senate unanimously passed HB 5729: The Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act. The Governor signed it into law on July 29, 2016. Rather than mandating CBE, part of this bill establishes a pilot program for districts interested in implementing competency-based high school graduation requirements. Participation in the pilot is limited to 12 districts per year in the first two years of implementation and is set to expand to 15 districts per year after that. These pilot districts can seek waivers from some state laws, as needed. Gathering with us just two weeks after the bill had become law, the Illinois participants’ smiles and passionate presentation showcased their excitement that their hard work had paid off. The next step, they shared, is to inform districts about the pilot program and see how many of them show interest.
Colorado, on the other hand, is beginning with district interest. As participants explained, local control is highly valued in their state, so taking on competency-based education and other learner-centered practices must be field-driven. Thanks to the 2007 law HB 07-1118, each district already has the authority to develop its own unique high school graduation requirements, so long as they meet or exceed the state’s minimum guidelines. Essentially, this means that districts may choose to adopt a proficiency- based diploma. Still, the state goes beyond granting flexibility—it provides three levels of resources to districts interested in CBE. For those just getting started and wanting to learn more, the state offers the Achieve Study Group, through which districts access informational webinars and sign up for site visits to districts with well-established competency-based systems across the country. Next, a district can engage with the Great Schools Partnership for training on initiating competency-based learning. For districts that are already implementing CBE and desire higher levels of sophistication, the state offers targeted coaching through the Great Schools Partnership. It was clear that the Colorado principals and district leaders in the room saw these resources as pivotal in their pursuit of CBE and were grateful for the state’s trust, flexibility, and support.
It requires a paradigm shift….Only then can we step into a new way of seeing, thinking, and acting.
A Common Hurdle: Stakeholder Engagement
Despite their differing strategies, similar challenges and questions emerged from all district leaders in attendance. One that stuck out to me involved stakeholder communication and engagement. There was a common theme of encountering pushback from stakeholders of all types—parents, teachers, leaders, and even students themselves. Focused and undeterred, these individuals were not without proposed solutions, but, as I listened, I couldn’t help feeling that their ideas would fall short.
Then, one struck a chord with me. A participant wanted to reimagine community engagement by moving from a method of “decide and defend” to true collaboration, through which the community would be genuinely involved in decision-making processes. Making the shift from school-centered to learner-centered education is a giant leap, and everyone involved needs to see the possibilities of going to the moon. Seeing beyond the school-centered atmosphere necessitates a paradigm shift.
Converging Through a Paradigm Shift
At Education Reimagined, we know the shift from our inherited school-centered model of education to one of learner-centered learning cannot be made by implementing a list of practices. Instead, it requires a true paradigm shift. Let me say that again and shout it from the mountaintop—it requires a paradigm shift. It entails removing the old lenses we didn’t even realize we had on—impacting how we view the world, education, and, most importantly, the learner. Only then can we step into a new way of seeing, thinking, and acting.
We have heard from pioneers all over the US how difficult it is to communicate with someone operating in a different paradigm—not because one of you is right and the other is wrong. Rather, you are standing on two completely different geometric planes and operating under two completely different sets of assumptions and possibilities. To further exacerbate the disconnect, you may even be using the same words and terms to mean entirely different things. Operating in a common paradigm is key to effective communication and action.
Colorado and Illinois are pursuing different tactics to support competency-based learning, and it’s clear that excitement is building. Still, they are both encountering barriers rooted in stakeholder engagement. Is it possible that all the stakeholders—from state-level leaders to teachers, parents, and the students themselves—are operating in different paradigms? It is becoming ever clearer to me that—whether a governing body begins with policy to encourage learner-centered learning or with freedom for pioneers to innovate—there is no way to bypass a paradigm shift. No stone can be left unturned, and no stakeholder left unshifted.
Research and Mapping Consultant, Education Reimagined
Julie Renkoski was privileged to spend seven years as a teacher, which allowed her to experience both the joys of kids and the limitations of the school-centered paradigm. Her passion for education has been reignited by the possibilities of learner-centered learning, and she looks forward to the day when it’s a reality for every child and adult.
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