Leading the Redesign of the American High School Model: ESSER Funding makes this a perfect opportunity to meet the needs of this moment

It’s an early fall afternoon in 2020, and I am meeting (over Zoom, of course) with…

By Antonia Rudenstine

It’s an early fall afternoon in 2020, and I am meeting (over Zoom, of course) with the leadership team of Círculos High School, an XQ school in Santa Ana, California, where students have attended zoom school for three weeks. Santa Ana was in lockdown due to sky-high COVID-19 rates, and while so many schools were struggling to engage their students, well over 90 percent of Circulos’ learners were showing up, every day, to participate. The leadership team knew the names of each of the missing young people, and were discussing the specific needs of each one, trying to identify a strategy or tactic that might help them reconnect and re-engage with school. I was moved to tears as I listened to the deeply caring, strengths-based, and personal way that the team held each learner in their hearts and minds.

But that’s not why we were meeting. This meeting was about how to shift the school’s project-based curriculum, and develop the Zoom-based pedagogy, so that Círculos’ young people would continue to attend and remain engaged after the fall honeymoon period faded away. Our purpose was to collaborate on a rapid design of a student-facing version of one of the school’s projects. Our goal was to create a resource that learners could access on their own, at their own pace, but with attendant support from a host of teachers, counselors, mentors,, the school’s leadership team, and the extensive array of partners that Circulos connects with as they undertake projects. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that the school realized they could develop partnerships with organizations around the country, or even around the world. This past year, the shift to remote school meant that the range of learning experiences available to Circulos’ learners both contracted in the real world, and expanded in the virtual realm.

There are stories like this emerging from all corners of the country. Círculos is just one school where learners are known, where the pivot to remote learning was viable, and where leadership teams are engaged deeply with each of the learners in their buildings. Looking across the many schools (and a few districts) where beautiful, deep learning emerged from the pandemic, one can see the clear potential of competency-based learning systems to provide an anchor that makes it possible for schools to adapt to the emergent needs of learners, even under terrible, and rapidly shifting, conditions. 

Even if your state, or district, is not formally engaged in creating a competency-based learning system, most of us would agree that one of the purposes of education is, put simply, to help young people get good at things. For myself, this is the definition of building competency, and looking at policies, regulations, practices, and achievement data through this lens is typically an eye-opening experience.At reDesign, we have spent much of the pandemic thinking deeply about how to support high schools, districts, and states in leveraging the anchor of competency-based learning to meet the set of current and near-future circumstances that will continue to create significant challenges to daily, site-based schooling what  educators and families know as  normal. The pandemic remains a formidable force in our lives, and scientists are already looking beyond it, trying to predict the next global health crisis. The increasing frequency and seriousness of climate-related disasters will only continue to interrupt school in ongoing, local ways: tornadoes in Alabama, forest fires in California and beyond, flooding in Tennessee.

In March 2021, the Federal Government allocated $122 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). ESSER funds are being distributed to states and districts, and are intended to support the safe operation of schools, and to address the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s students. XQ’s Choose High School Now initiative recommends that investments in high schools match the percentage of enrolled students.

This is the world we are living in, and the three years of ESSER funding presents states and districts with an incredible opportunity to plan forward, to use this bounty of resources to reimagine high schools so that they can adapt in truly responsive ways to the needs and hopes of young people and their families, during moments of in-person and remote learning. This creative, responsive boldness is what families are asking for, and establishing robust, competency-based learning systems is a powerful way to meet this moment.

Círculos High School, as well two other XQ schools—Crosstown High School and Grand Rapids Public Museum School—have embarked on this journey in some ground-breaking ways, as have states such as South Carolina and Idaho

What’s different about the approach of these schools and states? First and foremost, they understand that a full transformation to competency-based learning takes years, and success is dependent on several key variables:

  • Flexible and responsive state policies and regulations
  • Robust district support for teachers and learners by leveraging flexible state policies, and simultaneously removing barriers embedded in their own policies
  • Leaders’ willingness and ability to both commit to their own learning and to allocate significant, sustained professional learning investments

Flexible and responsive state policies and regulations regarding reporting, assessments, graduation requirements, seat time, and calendar and attendance policies, as well as policies that govern educator qualifications and credentialing, hiring, recruitment and evaluation. Most often state-level agencies engaging in CBL will focus on alleviating seat-time requirements, and while this is a critical policy, there are many others that create insurmountable barriers for districts seeking to truly develop young people’s competency.

Several ayears ago reDesign had the opportunity to work with the State Department of Education about their vision of becoming a competency-based state. The first session included representatives from every single department, from early childhood education to teacher preparation, and inclusive of all of the offices that oversee standards, assessment, accountability, and teaching and learning. South Carolina’s state department leadership knew, from the very beginning, that if they were going to develop a system truly committed to developing learner’s competency, then everything about how the state fulfilled its responsibilities was going to need to be examined and reimagined. Their first step was to make their Profile of a South Carolina Graduate more than a poster: bringing it to life in classrooms and schools through the development of a Profile of SC Graduate Competency Framework that would detail a set of important capabilities for college and career, civic engagement, and lifelong learning

The competency sets developed by Crosstown High School, Circulos, and Grand Rapids Public Museum School also break this new ground, using current and recent research to set a pathway that allows for a true reimagining of the high school model. All three schools:

As states begin to decide how they will allocate ESSER funds to support high schools, one place to start is by creating a broad-based team of stakeholders to audit existing state-level policies and regulations, identifying and adjusting those that create unintended barriers to young people’s efforts to develop competency. 

For states already formally engaged in transforming learning communities through the design of a competency-based learning system, ESSER funds can be allocated to create tools and resources that support adult learning about competency-based learning. In 2021, Idaho launched its developmental Staging Guide (reDesign, 2021) detailing multiple entry-points and pathways that support a transition to deeper, competency-based learning. The staging guide includes self-assessments, self-paced modules, research documents, and prototype templates and tools that districts can adapt or adopt, long after ESSER funds have been depleted. 

Robust district support for teachers and learners by leveraging flexible state policies, and simultaneously removing barriers embedded in their own policies. Grand Rapids, Crosstown High, and Circulos have different relationships with their districts: Grand Rapids is a district school, Crosstown holds a public charter granted by the county’s Board of Education, and Circulos holds an  in-district charter. Though their authorizing environments are quite different, each district provided their XQ school with significant support on a few key model design needs: each school’s curriculum is project-based, and projects are deeply embedded in the surrounding community, with active partnerships that greatly expand the array of expertise and experiences that young people have access to as they develop core competencies. Students are learning from curators at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, from the many businesses and organizations housed in the reimagined Sears Roebuck building where Crosstown High is located, and from local Santa Ana organizations that surround Circulos, as well as national organizations they have brought into their community–via Zoom–during the pandemic. 

These schools are actively engaged in ensuring that the learners they serve are not limited by  the expertise and credentials of the professional educators within the schools’ walls. Instead, they have designed opportunities for learners to build meaningful networks, expand their skills and knowledge, and develop social and emotional competencies in relevant, professional, and community contexts: the real world that they will live, learn, and work in after graduation. 

This is only possible in districts that develop and modify policies in order to legitimize the power of linking school-based learning with community-based learning. And, districts can only undertake this work with the partnership of professional unions and associations who also understand that flexibility around hiring, teacher placements, and adaptations to the professional calendar and schedule can create a more dynamic, engaged, and professional teaching corps.

As districts confront teacher shortages, both now and potentially in the near future, there is an opportunity–and I would argue an urgent need–to reimagine the profession. Many districts are planning to use ESSER funds to incentivize teachers to remain in the profession, and to entice new professionals into the field; others are working to make it easier to grant emergency certification; and a few are bolstering low salaries with bonuses and increases. None of these measures address the core reasons why professionals are reluctant to be part of the teaching profession: the working conditions. 

As ESSER funds are distributed, this is a moment for districts, professional unions, and school leaders to take a step back and discover exactly which of their high school policies are creating working conditions that contribute to teacher shortages, and then, to reimagine what’s possible. For example, at Circulos, Crosstown, and Grand Rapids:

At the beginning of the 2021 school year, Circulos decided to support their teachers in making a radical curricular pivot so that they could better meet the needs of learners in a remote learning context: all curricula needed to be developed as student-facing, loaded onto their free learning management system, and accessible anytime, anywhere. 

This was a big ask of teachers, but the leadership team collaborated with practitioners to identify their needs, and provided incredible support. These supports included: coaching; the development of a model project with associated templates; dedicated planning time; and ongoing support from the Director of Curation and Partnerships. I had the honor of attending their Project Feedback event, where each teacher presented their project, and received feedback from colleagues, students, district administrators, and guests like me. 

The quality of the teachers’ projects, even just three months into the initiative, revealed impressive growth in teachers’ capacity to design rigorous, relevant projects that support agentic learning. Each project was designed to support learners to increase their profieicncy on one or two key competencies, projects were organized around compelling, relevant questions, resources were varied and specifically celebrated learners’ cultures and lived experiences. The model project was piloted in a ninth grade research seminar, facilitated by a long-term substitute teacher. Though the substitute was not versed in project-based learning, and was not certified in ELA or research, the project—with its careful scaffolding for learners, and extensive support for the teacher—was a success, as measured by the quality of students’ work, their progress on the competencies, and their reflections and feedback shared during culminating focus groups.  

One of the ESSER opportunities that districts can leverage is to engage in a series of design sessions to identify and reimagine the policies and regulations that are hindering high schools—both in buildings and online—from becoming places where talented, dynamic, tech-savvy, creative educators from diverse cultural backgrounds are eager to work and learn. 

Leaders’ willingness and ability to:

  • Commit to their own learning about both competency-based learning and change leadership, and
  • Allocate significant, sustained professional learning investments (i.e., time, money, expertise), for themselves and their faculties, over multiple years.

Too often leaders, at all levels of the system, view CBL as an assessment or policy system change, rather than a transformational change of beliefs, values, culture, and practice. Shifting our core beliefs about pacing, learning, demonstrations of competency, and evaluation is incredibly challenging. Transforming routines, practices, rituals, and celebrations to align with new beliefs and values creates an additional layer of complexity. All are necessary if high schools are truly going to support learners in developing the competencies—the key transferable skills and strategies necessary to get really good at things—that are essential to meeting the challenges of our rapidly changing world. This is change leadership on steroids.

It’s critical to resist the urge to begin this work with the development of a grading system and accompanying technological purchases. Grading is one of the final stages of CBL, as it places the full burden of change on learners. We never want to penalize learners as they transition into a new set of learning experiences and expectations. Crosstown High took a “both/and” approach to the design of their grading system: The leaders wanted to make sure the competencies were truly a north star. As a leadership team, they were acutely cognizant that what you measure is the expression of what you value. At the same time, they wanted to create a grading system that would make sense to learners and their families, as well as to their charter authorizer. To this end, they created a transitional description of Competency-based Assessment @XTH that crosswalks traditional grading practices with their developing approach to competency-based assessment. It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s only two pages in length, and it is adaptable: as their CBL model grows and develops, this document will be revised. 

Technology can quickly become the tail wagging the dog. While it is an essential component of the transition to CBL, in the early stages of CBL it only creates an additional learning burden for educators and families. In the early stages of implementation, using a free Learning Management System that is already in place in the school, and familiar to young people and adults, will help a school keep the focus on the cultural, pedagogical, curricular, and assessment aspects of CBL that are truly the heart of building a learner-centered system. 

While learning about CBL should be deeply personalized for each teacher, CBL only works if it’s understood to be a complex, interdependent system where what happens in one classroom is critically important to everyone in the entire learning community. Developing and measuring students’ levels of competency is a profoundly collective experience that should include families and students, the full faculty, support staff and leaders. In fact, a robust CBL model would also include external organizations where students have the opportunity to develop competency, such as after school programs, churches, or internships.

ESSER funds can be used by leaders to develop robust professional learning plans that will ensure adults also develop essential competencies at high levels, and that the CBL system is coherently designed and implemented. Once there is traction in these arenas, grading and reporting become the way to demonstrate that the transformation was successful.

So, what does professional learning look like in CBL systems? As reDesign works with schools, we start  with the identification of a set of pedagogical practices that center learners and learning and learning by: 

Great teaching is truly complex, requiring both broad and deep funds of knowledge and practice. So many of us who were trained as high school educators—including myself and my colleagues at reDesign—were significantly under-trained, particularly vis-a-vis the complexity of supporting deep learning in highly diverse and heterogeneous classrooms. The leaders at Circulos, Crosstown, and Grand Rapids know this. As a result, they have invested heavily in active, community- and classroom-embedded professional learning experiences where teachers and leaders learn new pedagogical practices, side-by-side, with assistance from coaches committed to meeting adults where they are in their own learning journey.

But we know that pedagogy isn’t enough: the dearth of great high school learning and assessment resources is a tremendous problem for educators attempting to create learner-centered communities. And so, it’s critical to couple pedagogical learning with culturally inclusive, reimagined learning assets that connect learners to their communities, develop essential competencies, and nurture critical consciousness. All of these are exemplified by the projects at the heart of the Circulos, Grand Rapids, and Crosstown High School models. 

All three XQ schools were committed to developing tools and resources that would support teachers in leaning into these new practices, long after their soft revenue streams are depleted: 

The Federal Government’s allocation of $122 billion for elementary and secondary education is unprecedented, and provides communities with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. States and districts can use this moment to take a deep breath, step back, talk with young people, families, businesses, and higher education to imagine a futu