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Going All In: How to Make Competency-Based Learning Work

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New Hampshire is the first state to change its education policies to credit high school students -- and soon elementary and middle school students, too -- for progressing based on what they've mastered, not the number of hours they spend in school. Known as a competency-based system, the idea is to define the core skills and concepts students should master and only move them forward once they’ve achieved mastery of every competency rather than their "seat time."

In traditional schools, students progress if their average grade is high enough, which may leave room for holes in their understanding of concepts they’ll need in future classes. In the most alternative application of a competency-based system, age-based grade levels would disappear and students would move through concepts at their own pace, regardless of age or grade.

Advancing students based on their mastery of subjects is now the state policy of New Hampshire, but a long history of local control over education means the policy is being implemented very differently in every school district. “Local government, whether at the town, city or county level, takes a state mandate and interprets it locally,” said Julia Freeland, research fellow at the Christensen Institute and author of From Policy to Practice: How Competency Based Education is Evolving in New Hampshire. “It creates an interesting dynamic in terms of uniformity across the state.”

Some New Hampshire schools were already reorganizing school instruction, schedules and expectations around teaching competencies before the state passed its policy in 2005. Those schools -- often charters or alternative schools -- had a big jump start over traditional comprehensive high schools that had been operating the same way for more than 100 years. A few of those traditional schools embraced the move to competency-based education as a way to improve struggling performance. Others found ways to design their competencies to fit in with what they were already doing. Those schools still look very traditional.


“What we saw really lacking was the core concept that students would be advancing upon mastery,” Freeland said. “If they truly were moving by mastery they would have flexible pacing.” Schools that stay on the semester system, divided by subject area and age, and assigning grades on a 100-point scale aren’t embracing the spirit of the state’s move to a competency-based system. “There are schools calling what they’re doing competency-based but aren’t really allowing for flexible pacing,” Freeland said.


New Hampshire education officials originally laid out the competencies they expected schools to cover along with how they should be assessed through state law. But those directives were taken out of the legislation when school administrators balked at losing some of the local control central to New Hampshire’s identity. That change took away the state’s ability to enforce its competency-based system uniformly. Instead, the state education department has tried to create resources and support for districts as they implement the law.

“The state is taking a really proactive role as technical support for those districts that do want to move more in the direction of a fully competency-based approach,” Freeland said. Education department officials drafted recommended competencies that districts could adopt or revise. They have been bringing teachers and leaders together -- possible for a small state like New Hampshire -- to talk about the challenges and opportunities different districts are facing and to share best practices. The state has tried to play a think tank-like role, doing the research and development work that can take so much time.

“They’re being hands-on in terms of providing resources and being hands off in terms of telling people what to do,” Freeland said. One of those resources is flexible online professional development, meant to allow teachers to learn about what the policy shift means for their classrooms whenever they have time.

“The mistake we made early on is we probably didn’t do enough professional development as we should have,” said Paul Leather, deputy commissioner of education. Leather is in charge of implementing the department’s programs, and he knows educator buy-in is crucial to making this dramatic shift in teaching practices, and that his department does not have that buy-in everywhere.

“One of the things we forget is that the current batch system has been in place for 100 years and all the infrastructure was created over time to support it,” Leather said. “It doesn’t work that well but it’s easy to implement.” Supporting a move away from the familiar has been a challenge without any power to enforce the law.

“It’s got to be meaningful to [teachers],” Leather said. “They have to choose that this is something that will make education better for their kids.” He’s trying to make his department the most effective resource it can be so teachers see the value in moving along the path to a more pure form of competency-based teaching.


One key change is how teachers assess student work. At schools where very little change has taken place, teachers are grading in the same way they always have, although they may be looking for the competencies the school had defined as they do so. The focus is still on end-of-course tests or essays and on the state exams-- soon to be the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests. Leather is trying to encourage the state’s educators to use performance-based assessments.

“Schools will be determining proficiency of students over time using a bank of validated performance assessments and we will have a calibration and moderation process that is multi-district and within schools and districts,” Leather said.

New Hampshire’s department of education has been working with Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond and the Innovation Lab Network to build up a bank of worthy performance assessments that districts can use. “We want to be able to validate and demonstrate reliability around demonstrations of proficiency in one school and classroom versus another school and classroom,” Leather said.

Leather hopes that once this bank of assessments is complete, schools will use them as the primary means of assessing competency. If the assessments are validated by outside researchers and used statewide, he hopes educators will feel more confident that they measure learning as well or better than the tests that some teachers still rely on now.

“If you are going to go to scale with this work then you really have to create the environment and the infrastructure to support the work,” Leather said. He doesn’t think teachers should have to reinvent the wheel every time they try to assess student learning. He’d even like to eventually have a bank of benchmark performance-based tasks that teachers could use mid-year when students are ready to demonstrate mastery on a particular competency.

Leather said he’s been careful not to tie any of the innovation work on competency-based learning to teacher evaluation. “You can’t design it in a way where [teachers] are held accountable to a summative-based assessment,” Leather said. If teachers were evaluated based on student scores on end-of-year tests, their evaluation system would be out of sync with the goal of allowing students to show their learning in a variety of ways.


Ultimately, Leather doesn’t believe education in the United States will ever be personalized without a competency-based system. “You can’t truly do personalized learning and also continue to have common expectations without competencies,” Leather said. “They take state standards and put them in the hands of students, teachers and parents and make them real for them.” But the sporadic implementation of a competency-based system across New Hampshire shows that even with supportive statewide policies, on-the-ground progress is a slow process.

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