Reading widely about project-based learning in 2008 motivated me to spend many days that year visiting New Tech Network, Envision, High Tech High, and the Center for Advanced Research and Technology schools. Investigating social emotional learning in 2014 led me to spend multiple days in Salt Lake City, sitting in on Leigh VandenAkker’s extraordinary class, “Techniques for Tough Times at East High School.”
Scott Looney, upon first introducing the Mastery Transcript Consortium to a large group of educators in Spring 2016, waited less than 24 hours before leading us all on a field trip to Cleveland’s Lerner College of Medicine, where we could witness and examine that school’s competency-based transcript and grade-less assessment system. At Lerner, medical students explained to us the sense they had of being in the driver’s seat of their education, that they could chart their own pathway toward developing and demonstrating the competencies Lerner had identified as key outcomes. They also spoke of the value derived from the regular reflection required of them in the school’s formative assessment system.
Scott believed that this approach was better for learners and, when supported by an MTC Mastery Transcript, presented “a once in a generation opportunity to offer students a new path.” Scaled across MTC’s ever-growing network of member schools, the Mastery Transcript had great potential to “move the boulder” (the traditional transcript), which he said had long been in the way of effectively preparing today’s students for college, career, and life. It is exciting to see that vision coming to life today.
Inspired by Scott and the distinctive approach I witnessed at Lerner, I was determined to learn more, and a year later, I took advantage of a week-long visit to New Zealand to visit a slew of schools there and speak to dozens of educators about that country’s system of crediting and reporting only standards students have mastered, not courses completed.
In my new book, “Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education: The Mastery Transcript Consortium Model and Beyond” (Routledge Press/Taylor & Francis, September 2019), I write at length about Lerner College of Medicine (LMC), New Zealand’s National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), and another exclusively competency-based crediting system, that of Western Governors University. As educators near and far, public and private, advance initiatives towards new forms of crediting, recording, and reporting mastery in defined competencies, I believe they would do well to study carefully comparable models like these, all of which have been operating for more than a decade.
All three programs demonstrate excellence and inspire imitation (though not exact replication!). Western Governors does a fine job honoring the knowledge and skills students already have acquired, and allows for tremendous differentiation in the pace of learning. Lerner College of Medicine developed a beautifully balanced set of cognitive and noncognitive competencies, a comprehensive and deep philosophy of assessment, and a thoughtfully designed parallel system of formative and summative assessment. New Zealand’s NCEA’s were built to support far greater creativity in curriculum design and to make it easier to credit interdisciplinary, project-based learning. This vision for NCEA can be seen brilliantly when visiting the exquisite Hobsonville Point Secondary School on the outskirts of Auckland. Listening to students speak about their program was fascinating; students could tell me very specifically how the work they were doing tied to the specific standards they were seeking to acquire credit for, and why they had chosen those particular credits.
That said, we study history both for inspiration and to learn what mistakes to avoid—and any inquiry into mastery or competency-based crediting certainly reveals important pitfalls to be aware of, several of which I explore thoroughly in the book. At Lerner College of Medicine, the faculty discovered as they implemented their system that they needed to spend more time developing assessment proficiency in their faculty, give more attention to carefully ensuring greater reliability among the members of their summative assessment panel, and had to establish a committee to monitor effective and consistent assessment practices. They also came to recognize—after establishing a broader set of competencies than is the norm in most medical colleges such as reflective practice, communication, and personal development— that they had to ensure they were providing quality learning experiences in which their students could develop and demonstrate these attributes.
In New Zealand, after about 15 years of implementation, many pitfalls have been uncovered. Among them is the concern that the baseline requirements of fundamental skills, literacy, and numeracy particularly may have been set too low, and too many students are graduating without these critical competencies. Another is that the assessment demands the system places on teachers can be onerous, and teachers need support to be more skilled and efficient in this work. A third parallels that of Lerner: changing the transcript doesn’t by itself necessarily change the form of instruction. Clare Amos, formerly of the aforementioned Hobsonville Point, suggests her colleagues are “sleepwalking through NCEA,” and using excuses to maintain the status quo, rather than leveraging the greater flexibility NCEA provides to creatively design curriculum to engage, challenge, and enrich students. Reinventing crediting permits but doesn’t by itself reinvent teaching.
There’s much to learn from these and other examples of how new transcripts and crediting systems can and should work—and how they can go awry. Let’s keep these in mind and continue to share more lessons learned with one another, as we advance this important transformation and at last move the boulder out of the way.
Jonathan E. Martin has recently published the book “Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education” to explore the need for school transformation along with the implementation of promising models, particularly the Mastery Transcript Consortium.
Many argue that the conventional high school transcript has become irrelevant to today’s best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment. With more and more school leaders turning to alternate, competency-based approaches for learning, crediting and transcripts can follow suit by drawing on badging, micro-crediting, digital portfolios of student work, and other emerging tools.Written by an experienced consultant and former school leader, this book will assist school and district administrators in making a forward-thinking crediting and transcript system work for their students’ futures.
“Jonathan Martin’s experiences in the realm of learning are extensive and varied, including being a classroom teacher, leader of multiple schools, think tank researcher, published writer, prolific blogger, and consultant to numerous schools and national educational organizations―an academic polymath if there ever was one. He possesses an extraordinary ability to distill and synthesize information from disparate sources and cohere them into unique and compelling insights, and this does him good stead in weaving his way through this tangled educational thicket.” ― Kevin Mattingly, Director of Co-Curriculum at Riverdale Country School and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, USA, from the Foreword