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An Inside Look at 1 State’s Journey to Transform Its School System

by Staff

A group of 54 Nevada educators and community leaders have a difficult task ahead of them: kickstarting a transformation of their state’s public school system.

Known as the Nevada Competency Fellows, the group gathered on Tuesday, July 25, to determine what it means to be a successful graduate of Nevada’s public schools. For a year, they have been meeting to workshop competencies—the skills and mindsets that Nevada students should take with them as they enter the adult world.

It’s early, foundational work on the state’s path toward adopting competency-based learning, in which students progress through school by demonstrating mastery of subjects and skills that increase in rigor rather than by putting in a set amount of seat time. Fully adopted, competency-based learning has the potential to upset the traditional school structure of grade levels, course credits, and the 13-year timeline. It’s long been championed by a number of high-profile education leaders, but progress toward it has been slow and uneven from state to state and within states.

Nevada is one of a number of states that have recently embraced competency-based learning in some capacity. Earlier this year, Wyoming became the final state to allow for competency-based learning, but each state has approached implementation differently.

Some, such as California, New York, and Texas, merely allow school districts the flexibility to adopt competency-based learning. In others, such as Nevada, Washington, and Wyoming, the state is taking a more active role by setting up pilot programs and taking on the intricate work of determining the skills they expect students to master to show that they’re worthy of a high school degree.

That work isn’t easy and requires years of developing goals and engaging with stakeholders, including educators, students, parents, and community members, so the entire state is on board with the change. In Nevada, educators are in the thick of the process with the hope of having pilot schools in six of the state’s 17 districts incorporating competencies into school instruction decisions at the start of the 2023-24 school year.

“It’s [about] meeting every child where they’re at, making sure they have the resources that they need, and that they can demonstrate their competencies to be able to move forward,” said Jhone Ebert, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction.

Deciding what makes a successful graduate

Last October, Nevada released its portrait of a learner, a guiding document that determined four overarching abilities Nevada students should have when they leave school—making an impact on the world around them, connecting with others and the community, empowering themselves to grow in their learning, and thriving through resilience and growth.

Tuesday’s meeting was one of seven that the Nevada Competency Fellows, who volunteered to participate in the process and were chosen based on their knowledge of education in the state, are attending to develop the state’s competencies, which act as more specific stepping stones to the broader goals outlined in the portrait of the learner. Throughout the afternoon, the educators worked in small groups to write, rewrite, and revise competencies so they were clear, aligned with the portrait of a learner, and easily understood by the general population.

In one group, educators toiled over the use of the phrase “learn, unlearn, and relearn” in a competency related to students’ adaptability (a skill within thriving through resilience and growth). Some educators worried the phrase was too wordy and would alienate the general population. Others felt that the ability to “learn, unlearn, and relearn” is central to the state’s goals for its K-12 graduates.

In another group, educators developed attributes they decided each student should have. They workshopped the expectations students would meet to demonstrate curiosity, creating specific expectations at different grade levels.

In pre-K, the group decided, students should focus on play, as it encourages them to be curious about their surroundings. Moving into kindergarten, the group considered adding problem-solving to the mix to increase the rigor of expectations as students advance through school.

The idea behind the process is to ensure schools have a clear sense of how their students can attain the goals in the portrait of a Nevada learner, said Laura Hilger, a director of teaching and learning at KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit that consults with state agencies and schools to shift education toward personalized and competency-based learning.

“This is really not an instructional framework. It’s not necessarily what the learning is going to look, sound, and feel like, per se, but it is about what they’re going to focus on and prioritize and centralize,” Hilger said. “What we usually see is a lack of guaranteed and viable curriculum where people are just flying through things and hoping along the way [students] get it. … We’ve narrowed it down, and we have more of a focus on what mastery is about.”

Ensuring everybody has a voice

Ebert is adamant that the shift to competency-based learning in Nevada is not a mandate from the state. Rather, she said, it should be a collaborative process driven by local communities.

When the state has developed its competencies, it will be up to local districts to determine how they apply them in the classroom, Ebert said.

“The premise is that if it’s locally based and developed, still understanding that there are these expectations that the state has, that it will stay with that school district and it’ll stay with the state of Nevada and we’ll be able to grow and move a lot quicker than any sort of top-down mandate,” she said.

That’s the idea behind the fellows, who represent districts from across the state and a variety of roles in education, including teachers, university leaders, district administrators, and state education department representatives.

Engaging in a collaborative process creates a sense of shared ownership over the process, said Syd Young, a director of teaching and learning at KnowledgeWorks, who is helping the Nevada fellows develop the competencies alongside Hilger.

“That experience, the journey of going through it, knowing that they have input and a voice in this whole process, makes it much less of a ‘have to’ and more of a ‘get to’ when it comes down to implementation” of competency-based learning, Young said.

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