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on this entity called the transcript, and all probably aware—to one degree or another—that it is an inadequate and outdated educational and decision-making tool.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. He possesses an extraordinary ability to distill and synthesize information from disparate sources and cohere them into unique and compelling insights, and this stands him in good stead in weaving his way through this tangled educational thicket. My own introduction and initial understanding of these issues began in the late 1980s when introduced to the writings of Grant Wiggins and then later working with him in various capacities for many years. About the same time I began to teach in the professional development programs of the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College Columbia University, and I have been teaching cognitive science in their graduate leadership programs for the past twenty years, having the good fortune to interact with hundreds of extraordinary educators during that time. So I do not say lightly, nor without cause, that Jonathan is among the best of them.

In Lee Shulman terms, he embodies the “wisdom of practice.” This book is quintessentially about moving forward in productive and positive ways in the face of one of education’s most daunting wicked problems. Central to the author’s argument is the concept of the competency- based credit (CBC), which is carefully differentiated from
competency-based learning (CBL) and competency-based education (CBE), both powerful and growing reform movements in teaching and learning.

As discussed in the book, a CBC provides credit for student performances that demonstrate competency or mastery of specifically defined and articulated learning goals achieved through some form of performance-based assessment (i.e. application, use, transfer, creation). Credit is not given for simply passing a course or for “seat time” in terms of class attendance. In addition, the quality of a performance is judged against clear, rigorous, and specific rubrics applied by trained reviewers; the use of formative feedback by the student is key; student reflection is integral; and, student work and assessment are curated in ePortfolios or a learning management system (LMS). Functional adherence to the CBC concept, therefore, assures that student credits directly reflect student learning in enduring and transferable ways. This is transformative and revolutionary.

It is also operationally very difficult. Fortunately, the remainder of the book is a thoughtful treatise on the challenges and potential obstacles along the way to rethinking and redesigning the way we communicate student learning, both for student growth purposes within schools to students and teachers (including assessment and instructional strategies), and for communicating student learning outside schools to parents, colleges, and employers. The author has done an excellent job at each major juncture of the process in providing relevant essential questions, surfacing hidden assumptions, anticipating obstacles, and describing real-world examples to guide the way. It’s still a wicked problem but as the change leadership gurus suggest, a first move in effecting change in complex systems is to identify and begin to consider all the issues at play. This book certainly goes a long way to accomplishing that.