Armed with swag and ready to learn all about competency-based systems, attendees from across the country poured into the Marriott Westminster for the Westminster Public Schools (WPS) Summit. The room buzzed with anticipation.
The WPS Summit is a three-day conference focused on competency-based education. Located in Denver and in its third year, the summit provided an opportunity for teachers and education leaders to visit schools at all levels, engage with national speakers and deepen their knowledge during breakout sessions. This year’s theme of “Surviving the Extremes” focused on the pivots that educators made during the pandemic and the pivots that will be continued so that students are prepared for the VUCA future.
Featured speakers for this year’s event included Dr. Mark Elgart, Cognia; Dr. Robert Marzano, Marzano Resources; Dr. Scott McLeod, CASTLE and members of the WPS staff. Sessions were grouped by focus areas centered around shared vision, leadership, competency-based design, learner-centered classrooms and continuous improvement. Participants also had the opportunity to visit WPS schools from elementary to high school, including the innovation school Metropolitan Arts Academy.
From the beginning, summit participants were challenged to imagine a knowledge revolution. Emphasizing that education has shifted and the focus needs to be more on adding value through knowledge, Dr. Mark Elgart led a keynote about the importance of going beyond being informed. “Kids are in creation mode. They have to be knowledge workers, which means someone who can learn and adapt to a shifting workplace.” The conversation at the conference regularly returned to this theme: continuing to change the competency definition to ensure that students were able to pivot in the workplace.
Participants were able to choose from over 35 breakout sessions during the summit. Sessions were personalized and presented by various stakeholders, from practitioners to vendors. Sessions contained valuable lessons — for example, in “Providing Effective Feedback to Teachers in a CBE Classroom,” attendees were able to learn not just what effective teacher feedback looks like in a competency-based system, but also what it means to coach vs. evaluate. “I start with hopes, fears and expectations when first talking to my teachers. I ask them what they expect from the process and I convey my expectations as well. I make sure I’m very clear on what I’m coaching on,” said Shannon Willy, a WPS administrator.
Other sessions centered around supporting educators in using a competency-based system toolkit to increase student agency and industry validation of competencies. Participants walked away with concrete examples of how to use tools such as The Parking Lot, Affinity Diagram and Power Voting that they could immediately implement in their classrooms. They also learned how to connect career and technical education programs to competencies to ensure that students met standards, received credit, gained internships and earned industry certifications.
Students who benefited from the enhanced career and technical education programs were present to share their experiences. “I took both the Inventor and Revit test and now I have an internship with an engineering company. We use Revit every single day. Being able to take the credential test helped set me up for success. It was hard. That test was really, really hard. They’re amazed that I know some of the same things that engineers do. Everyone is looking for experience. The fact that you can show them a credentials test is amazing,” said one WPS Graduate of the Class of 2020.
Attending the varied sessions not only allowed for participants to hear from students and teachers but also helped to make the connection between a traditional education culture to one that is built on a competency-based approach. Participants were able to understand that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to education and the value of students showing what their “genuis” is in a way that outweighs a letter grade.
To enhance the conference experience, participants were able to tour local Westminster schools. During the school visits, participants heard how students and teachers interacted in a competency-based system. Teachers explained the proficiency scales and students as young as kindergarten explained their data notebooks and showed how they access their learning platforms. During the Metropolitan Arts Academy tour, participants saw firsthand the energy of the administrators and heard the passion from the students. “It’s nice to be at a school where my identity isn’t tied to my grade,” said an 8th-grade student leader at the Metropolitan Arts Academy.
With plenty of educational options to engage in, from math to dance to drama, the love of learning and the positive relationships were apparent. Instantly welcomed into the schools’ culture, participants were able to engage in stretching exercises with the drama class, paint galaxies with the art students, learn about Cesar Chavez through a virtual reality session, and watch students build bridges out of toothpicks and glue.
Students couldn’t wait to welcome visitors to their school. “She (the designated greeter) has been waiting all day to say welcome and hello,” said a kindergarten teacher who serves “Culturally and Linguistically Diverse” students. Middle school students served as tour guides, talking about their art-filled morning meetings, the buddy system where the middle school students are paired with elementary students, and their passions for music and art. Participants also heard 4th graders having high-level pre-writing conversations making sure they noted what they heard and saw when describing their rollercoaster experience with their class. “Something I saw was people recording and people with their hands up. Something I heard was people yelling.”
Students understood their goals and how to communicate their progress at any point. They understood the competency-based terminology and how to effectively use the tools to manage their workload. With competency-based components in place such as agency and individualized student plans, students and staff have learned to document their success, collaborate as much as possible and measure everything they do.
The presenters, the sessions and the school visits created a powerful learning environment for all participants. With the added benefit of being able to have a personalized session of how best to implement or maintain a competency-based system, the experience felt well-rounded and impactful. The many opportunities to connect, create new networks and share experiences and resources created momentum and a sense of community that was openly received by all. We definitely recommend adding this conference to your list for next year!