September 2019

book coverAs explained here and here, my book,  Reinventing Crediting, will be published September 18, and this month I’m previewing the book by sharing a set of excerpts from the book.   By contract, I’m restricted to sharing only a total of 5000 words here on the blog, ten percent of the book as a whole.  

Here, I offer an excerpt from one of my favorite chapters, Chapter 6, entitled “Learning from Experience:  Case Studies of Competency-Based Learning Transformation.”  In this chapter, I provide case studies of transformation– competed in some cases, recently undertaken in others–  for seven schools and school systems. After these seven profiles, I conclude the chapter with seven key insights for educators preparing to, or already immersed in, these change efforts. 

In the excerpt that follows, I share two of the shorter (due to my contract limitations) case studies, and four of the seven themes I’ve identified as especially important in this work.  The five other case studies in the book, not included here, come from the Putney School (VT), Christchurch School (VA), New Zealand,  Lindsay Unified School District (CA), and School Year Abroad working with Global Online Academy. 

Leading schools and school systems through this competency-based  crediting and transcript transformation won’t be easy. Some educational leaders may find this project the largest and longest exercise of substantial instructional leadership in their entire careers; we can expect and hope that it is also their most consequential and proudest accomplishment.   Fortunately, a number of schools and systems have begun this work, and their experiences provide illuminating lessons for the work.  

Note that these short case studies are not limited to new crediting and transcript models alone, but look more widely at examples of both competency-based education and competency-based crediting shifts. 

In Alaska, a remarkable story of educational transformation comes from a school district that is among the very largest districts in the nation in area, nearly the size of the state of Virginia, yet serves an enrollment of only about 500 students.  These events are chronicled in the fascinating book, Delivering the Promise.  Alaska’s Chugach School District, in 1994, was a failing district in nearly every statistic one could imagine; in the previous twenty years only a single graduate had enrolled in college.   Ninety percent of students were below grade level in every assessed area. That year, new leadership arrived, and the transformation began. (DeLorenzo, 2009)

51wJSle2gwLAll previous incremental efforts to improve performance had gone nowhere.  New Superintendent Roger Sampson and new Assistant Superintendent Rich DeLorenzo determined that “change had to happen at the system level.”  They didn’t know what the change would entail, but they did know they needed the kind of people who could handle the challenge, and so they set out to hire people “who were problem-solvers, who were resilient, and who had a moral purpose to serve students.” (DeLorenzo, 2009)

Stakeholders were engaged, particularly the business community, who were asked to define as specifically as possible their concerns and needs from the district; the faculty, to whom “the brutal facts” were fully addressed;  and parents, with whom real relationships were developed for the first time. DeLorenzo, deeply curious and a fan of educational research, read widely in Hunter, Maslow, Deming, and Bloom, and brought that research to the work at hand     In 1996, a new vision was declared that included “Basic Skills; School to Life Transition; personal, social, and character development; meeting the individual needs of students; and technology.” The vision, though, was relatively the easy part; the next task was creating a set of detailed standards, from scratch, in ten domains: math, reading, science, social studies, technology, service learning, career development, cultural awareness, and personal/social development. (DeLorenzo, 2009)

For each area, they determined graduate proficiency levels, backward-mapped developmental levels, and began to design aligned assessments for each level.   As they did all this hard work, the energetic DeLorenzo encountered educational research expert Robert Marzano’s thoughts on a standards-based grading model in which students only progressed upon mastery of each standard.  Marzano cautioned that this model “is very difficult to implement because of the massive changes requires in scheduling, reporting, and resource association. It is for this reason that no school or district has seriously attempted to implement this model.”  DeLorenzo happily accepted the challenge. After a half-hearted attempt to manage dual report card systems, letter grades were dropped over some objections, a waiver was sought and received from the state for ending Carnegie unit requirements, and students could only progress and graduate upon demonstrated competency in all ten standards. (DeLorenzo, 2009) (more…)

book coverAs explained here and here, my book,  Reinventing Crediting, will be published September 18, and this month I’m previewing the book by sharing a set of excerpts from the book.   By contract, I’m restricted to sharing only a total of 5000 words here on the blog, ten percent of the book as a whole.  

Nearly 6000 words in Chapters 2 and 6 discuss the New Zealand NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) program, which is the national secondary school crediting for competency system.   By not requiring, crediting, or recording conventional coursework on transcripts, but rather organizing learning and crediting by competencies, schools are given great latitude to design schooling to engage and enrich students in deeply meaningful and authentic ways.

Below, I’ve share about a third–only a third– of the book’s extensive New Zealand NCEA discussion.   In addition to quoting from official NZ NCEA documents, the section below also quotes Richard Wells book, A Learner’s Paradise: How New Zealand is Reimagining Education: A Guidebook for Parents and Educators Everywhere, and Grant Lichtman’s blog post, “High School of the Future.”   The photos of Hobsonville Point Secondary School are  my own, from my visit there in 2017. 

Secondary education in New Zealand experienced a massive shift almost fifteen years ago when the nation’s education ministry adopted the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). It is the main qualification for secondary school students in NZ: in effect a high school diploma, the only high school diploma, available for Kiwi students.   NCEA is administered by the NZQA, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, a government entity tasked with providing leadership in assessment and qualifications. (National Certificate of Educational Achievement). 

NCEA operates, in a sense, in two dimensions.  In one dimension, as practiced in a high proportion (90%, one NZ educator estimated) of high schools, the innovative model has been corralled and configured into traditional modes of teaching, learning, and assessing.  Though the bottles may be new, the wine is old: little has been genuinely transformed. This is a caution and a caveat to US and global educators seeking to transform secondary schooling through the vehicle of an alternative transcript.  [Much more about this “caution and caveat” is explained and explored in the book, but has been cut for space in this post.] But in a second dimension, powerful transformation is occurring, made available by the flexibility that NCEA affords and inspires.   

NCEA academic subjects are divided into standards, literally, “thousands of purposefully open ended competency and knowledge topic standards” defining what students need to know and show they can do.    (Wells, 2016)

Some example English written language standards from Level 2: 

  • Analyse specified aspect(s) of studied written text(s), supported by evidence
  • Analyse significant aspects of unfamiliar written text(s) through close reading, supported by evidence
  • Produce a selection of crafted and controlled writing
  • Analyse significant connections across texts, supported by evidence
  • Use information literacy skills to form developed conclusion(s)  (NCEA Standards website)

And some example Level 2 Science standards:

  • Carry out quantitative analysis
  • Carry out procedures to identify ions present in solution

Each standard is worth some small number of credits, usually between three and six, that students earn and accumulate toward gaining a certificate at Levels 1, 2, and 3. Transcripts list the credits they’ve earned for each standard achieved.  Different NCEA levels achieved establish student qualifications for career and/or “uni” (i.e. postsecondary) tracks: Level 2, for instance, might suit some employers just fine; universities typically demand level 3. Attaining each level requires earning 80 credits. 

Image result for how ncea works

As explained by NZQA, “Credits may be accumulated from different learning institutions or workplaces towards a single qualification. All organisations with consent to assess against standards recognise credits awarded by others.”  

What about assessment of students meeting standards, and the consequential awarding of credits?   This happens in two ways: external assessments, via national exams or portfolio submission to a national agency panel, or internal assessments. Many students earn their credits for NCEA standards through national exams, called external assessments, administered by NZQA.  These national exams, or portfolio submissions, are  loosely analogous to AP or IB exams in the US.  

Internal assessments open the door to much more innovative and interdisciplinary learning. Wells provides examples of teachers and students leveraging NCEA this way, evaluated and credited by “internal assessments.”  In one example,

“Teachers began to design projects that encapsulated two or more standards in larger pieces of work. Learning areas such as technology were able to switch from assessing isolated skill competencies (such as making a webpage or robot) to large, product-development projects issuing credits for developing briefs and analysing markets and stakeholders for their technology products.”  (Wells, 2016) (more…)

book coverIt was my great pleasure and honor when Kevin Mattingly, (Riverdale Country School and Klingenstein Center, Teachers College, Columbia University), an esteemed mentor of many including myself, agreed to compose the forward for my forthcoming book, Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education.  Kevin and I spent many hours discussing the Mastery Transcript Consortium and its model of competency-based crediting at meetings in 2016 and 2017, and certainly a good deal of my thinking about this model has been informed by Kevin’s observations.

Forward by Kevin Mattingly

The term “wicked problems” entered the lexicon of organizational leadership almost fifty years ago, and has been a central concept in the field since that time. What are wicked problems? They are highly complex, often involve much uncertainty, are hard to define, have many causes, and can never be truly solved. What makes these situations particularly tough is that they frequently bring together constituencies with different value positions that do not agree about the nature of the problem. In other words, wicked problems are found whenever people come together and try to make things better.


In the book that follows, Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education, Jonathan Martin has boldly tackled one of the educational world’s increasingly urgent wicked problems—how we document and communicate student learning in the form of the traditional transcript composed of grades. It is no doubt a complicated problem, fraught with the competing interests of various stakeholders—students, teachers, parents, coaches, college admissions deans, boards, and others—all with their own values and goals, each focused for different reasons at different times on this entity called the transcript, and all probably aware—to one degree or another—that it is an inadequate and outdated educational and decision-making tool. This book is not the first to decry the anachronistic nature of the academic transcript as a communication form for student learning in terms of its ambiguity, inconsistency, reductionism, and tendency to focus students on achievement (“doing school”) and high grades at the expense of deep and durable learning in transferable ways. But what this book does do is discuss at length what needs to change and how, providing plentiful models, exemplars, and suggestions for next steps.

It is a propitious time to be grappling with this set of issues. The college admissions world knows things are broken and need to be fundamentally retooled. Witness the two recent reports assembled under the guidance of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and supported by over 140 admissions deans of selective US colleges and universities. Among other recommendations they make is to affirm the meaningful consideration and re-weighting for admission purposes of student accomplishments and commitments in addition to grades and test scores. Another promising current circumstance for traditional transcript transformation is the ongoing digital revolution, which provides the means for ePortfolios in K-12 schools to more richly, complexly, and in varied formats capture and convey student learning, both for within-school student growth, but also as a way to convey student learning to admissions teams and employers. The newly formed Mastery Transcript Consortium, discussed in detail in this book, is one example of this sort of initiative, and now involves several hundred schools around the country. In addition, current conceptions of twenty-first-century learning goals are another change enhancer (e.g. P21, Hewlett’s Deeper Learning), expanding the notion of “what’s worth learning” beyond the purely academic into character qualities and the social-emotional realms, and into life beyond the confines of academia, none of which can be captured in the traditional transcript in readily interpretable forms. The ground is fertile for change.

That said, few people I know in the educational world are as well equipped as the author of this book to struggle with this enormously complex set of issues just described. 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. (more…)

book cover

Available now. 

Let me share a bit of the backstory that led me to writing the book, and a brief overview of what it contains.

In spring 2016, with the encouragement of friends and colleagues including Tim Bazemore (Catlin Gabel School) and Nanci Kauffman (Castilleja School), I accepted the kind invitation of Scott Looney, Head of the Hawken School, to attend a convening of educators to launch the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC).  About 60 of us–mostly school leaders, but some writer/consultants too–spent several days at the Cleveland Botanical Garden to learn about Scott’s vision and explore aspects of what such a new form of crediting and transcript-writing would look like, how it would function, why it would be so transformative, and what it’ll take to bring it to fruition.

Like many others there, I was greatly impressed with the model Scott Looney and some of his colleagues,  including Doris Korda,  were designing, and enthusiastic about its potential.   In the year and a half that followed, at Scott’s request, I assisted in the early phases of the project’s evolution, including by

  • preparing draft competency rubrics that the MTC distributed to its members in 2017-18;
  • participating in a two-day planning meeting at Phillips Andover in summer 2017 with, among others, Scott, Trish Russel (then MTC Executive Director), Kevin Mattingly, Eric Hudson, Nicole Furlonge, and Nigel Furlonge, during which we prepared MTC informational programs and resources for the first set of MTC Site Director meetings; and
  • researching, curating, and composing a set of draft competencies that could be used for those Site Director meetings in 2017-18.

That same year, in the Fall of 2017,  I had the opportunity to tour New Zealand for a week, during which I visited four schools, inquiring about and studying the New Zealand National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) system, which, as is explained at length in the book, has many parallels to, and lessons for, the development of a competency (or mastery) based crediting system in the US.   I should express here my gratitude to my many guides and informants in NZ, especially Richard Wells and Claire Amos, two remarkable Kiwi educators.

Accordingly, when an editor at Routledge Press, Daniel Schwartz, with whom I’d been working on another (stalled) project asked me what else I was working on, about what I might like to write a book proposal for, the topic of competency and mastery based crediting was top of mind.   Dan was intrigued, and assisted me greatly in moving this project from concept to, now, completion and publication by Routledge/Taylor & Francis.

I should be clear, and this is carefully explained in the book’s acknowledgements and in the (one) chapter dedicated to the Mastery Transcript Consortium, I have no current affiliation with the MTC  (and haven’t since 2017),  and the book is not in any way authorized or approved by the MTC.   It does not purport to present the MTC as it exists today in 2019 (or whenever it is read in the future) and should not be used that way, given that the MTC has been and will likely continue to be fast-evolving, but instead looks at MTC as described in presentations and meetings I participated in and on its website in 2016-17 as a model of competency-based crediting.