Rantoul Township, Urbana getting feet wet with competency-based learning

Rantoul Township, Urbana getting feet wet with competency-based learning

For area school district officials, traditional education functions like an algebra equation: Time is a constant, and learning is a variable. Students are expected to sit through 18 weeks of a given class, but how much they truly learn in that class varies.

When staff at Rantoul Township and Urbana High School learned there was an opportunity to upend that tradition, they decided to give it a try.

After the application opened in late 2016, RTHS applied — and later was given a chance — to be one of the first 10 schools to implement "competency-based learning" as part of its programming. Officials said they've spent the past school year figuring out how they'll implement the program, which they plan to debut for the 2018-19 school year.

Urbana, recently selected by the Illinois State Board of Education as another test site, may also join in launching competency-based learning as early as this coming school year.

"It's gone fairly well, but we're learning as we go," RTHS Principal Todd Wilson said.

Competency-based learning upends traditional classrooms and grading styles in at least two ways: Learning is student-led, versus teacher-led, and measured in more detail than a grade letter provides, according to RTHS Superintendent Scott Amerio.

"It's a matter of developing not only academic competencies, but also looking at other competencies like employability skills — these behaviors basically that students exhibit to be successful once they leave here," Amerio said.

Originally, RTHS administrators planned to pilot competency-learning through traditional classes like English and math.

Amerio said it became clear that career and technology courses would be a better initial fit for the program because students in those classes already have to demonstrate measurable skills to pass. What the program will look like, then, is similar to a situation students in an industrial technology course recently used as an educational experience.

"We partnered with Hope Meadows, a neighborhood that caters to elderly people and those who take in children," he said. "One issue they were having is that (one person) was having to choose between paying the utility bill and buying food."

One of the industrial tech teachers from Rantoul learned about the issue and trained his students to use thermal imagery to determine where the person's house was losing heat and energy, resulting in a higher utility bill. The students got OSHA 10 cards and ended up insulating the house to make it more energy-efficient, Amerio said.

"They spent part of the time identifying the problem and then actually solving it," he said. "What our teacher found was that they got to putting in insulation, he had blocked off a specific time to do that, and the kids finished it in half the time."

To Amerio, this exemplifies what competency-learning can do: reducing the time some students have to spend "proving" that they've learned something in a given semester. Instead of 18 weeks and a grade, students demonstrate competency in a subject quicker and prove it against a rubric that will detail what skill-sets they've demonstrated instead of just a letter grade with little explanation.

"What you're looking at is kids developing their own portfolio where they have examples demonstrating their competency," he said.

In the fall, Wilson said, RTHS plans to partner with the wastewater-treatment plant, meaning some students could practise this new program by working there throughout the semester.

"The plant manager came up with problems that the students could work on," he said. "There's math and writing and chemistry involved — so those are the competencies involved with this problem."

Megan Anderson, RTHS' assistant principal for curriculum and instruction, said that having students learn by solving real-life problems at places like the treatment facility hasn't been a hard idea to sell.

"We are looking at such specific areas where we have some ideas about who might be interested," Anderson said. "We have kids who would love nothing more than to feel like they're working and accomplishing an adult task."

Amerio added that administrators and teachers involved with the program have to build in safeguards to ensure students can't fake competency.

"If you were in a music class and someone was going to demonstrate competency on playing piano, they would have to be competent on playing the piano, they couldn't fool us — they would have to understand everything that's going to understand that performance," he said.

In Urbana, this kind of coursework could be available to more than a hundred students this fall, according to assistant superintendent of student learning Samuel Byndom.

"Right now, we're looking at possibly starting out with maybe anywhere from 150 students in a conservative estimate, but that could increase," he said. "It's going to be a unique opportunity for students who are looking to accelerate their learning or trying to catch up in credits."

Byndom said the district is looking to capitalize on partnerships it already has with the University of Illinois, Parkland College and Carle Foundation Hospital. He added that, in particular, the health care option would be unique to students in the district.

"We're looking at students who are in the health care field, and we're looking to put students in the driver's seat," he said.

ISBE hasn't provided the districts with extra funding for the programs yet, but the board said it would request $1 million for fiscal year 2018.

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