July 19, 2015 by Brian Stack
Five years ago, when my high school first implemented its competency education model, we as a faculty reached consensus on our purpose of grading. We believe that the purpose of grading is to communicate student achievement toward mastery of learning targets and standards. Grades represent what students learn, not what they earn. This helped us establish a common set of grading practices that every teacher agreed to use in their classrooms. They include things like the separation of formative and summative assessments (with formatives carrying no more than 10 percent weight for an overall course grade), the linking of summative assessments to performance indicators which link back to competencies in our grade book; the use of reassessment; the use of a 4.0 letter rubric scale for all assignments and assessments; and the separation of academics from academic behaviors. This article will focus on this last grading practice – from how we developed our academic behaviors to how we assess them and how we are using these grades to better prepare our students for their college and career futures.
At my school, we believe in the importance of separating what it is we want our students to know and be able to do (academics) from academic behaviors like working in groups, participating in class discussions, and meeting deadlines. While we firmly believe these behaviors are critical to academic achievement, comingling them with academic grades does not give us an accurate picture of the level of achievement our students have reached with their academic course competencies. When we first proposed this idea five years ago, separating behaviors was a big mind shift for many of our teachers who were accustomed to giving participation points as part of a course grade or taking points off of an assignment when they were turned in after a deadline. Early in our design phase we were charged with the task of finding a meaningful way to hold students accountable for these important work study practices without compromising the purity of our academic grades that we set out to establish. (more…)
April 21, 2015 by Brian Stack
I am the Principal at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH. Our district has used a competency education model for the past five years and is one of the districts that is part of the exciting PACE (Performance Assessment of Competency Education) pilot program for school accountability. I am often asked by administrators who are looking to transition their schools to this kind of a model what it is like to communicate it to parents and families. This is something our school tries to do on an ongoing basis. Just this week, my two assistant principals and I held an evening coffee hour sponsored by our Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) to discuss the topic in more detail. It was a very well-attended evening. Below is a summary of how that evening was structure. It was first written and shared on my Principal’s Blog for parents who were unable to attend, but I am also sharing it with all of you on CompetencyWorks in the event that it could help you structure a similar event in your own schools.
Last night’s PTO meeting agenda said that school administrators would be available to lead a discussion on competency-based grading, but really it was all about chocolate chip cookies. What makes for an exemplary cookie, the one that is over-fresh with a sweet, rich, buttery flavor? The one with a real chocolate taste in each bite that complements that rich and flavored dough? You can’t teach someone how to make such a cookie until you take the time to define the criteria that you would use to assess it. It was through the lens of this scenario that Sanborn Regional High School Principal, Brian Stack, and Assistant Principals, Ann Hadwen and Michael Turmelle, helped everyone in the room understand the big picture of competency education, grading, and assessment and how it is working to provide a more rigorous education for all students.
Competency Education – The Big Picture (more…)
March 4, 2015 by Brian Stack
This past week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with school principals from Henry County, Georgia in an effort to help them get ready to start their own competency education and personalized learning journey. Henry County has committed to a redesign structure framed around five personalized learning tenets: Learner Profiles, Competency Based Learning, Project Based Learning, 21st Century Skills, and Technology Enabled Learning. Work is now underway in their schools to move their plan into action from just a few cohort schools to all of the schools in their county. As a high school principal from New Hampshire who underwent a similar school redesign just five years ago, I came to Georgia to offer these great principals some words of “wisdom” from a practical sense, using my own redesign journey as a guide. The experience for me personally was an opportunity to reflect back on what I have had to do as a school principal to help support this massive change process in our school community. The focus of this article is to share some of that advice for other principals who are likely to start this kind of work in the coming months or years.
To frame my advice, I will use the work of Kotter (1996) on leading change in an organization. Although Kotter’s work was written originally for the business world, it can easily be transferred to education. It is a perfect guide for principals who are leading a transition to competency education in their school. To illustrate his research in a practical manner, Kotter (2005) later wrote a fable about a colony of penguins living on an iceberg off the coast of Antarctica who discover that their iceberg is going to melt over the coming season and they need to convince the colony that they need to relocate and change how they live. Five years ago our school district used this fable to help our administrators, myself included, understand their role in the redesign and change process. The fable follows Kotter’s multi step process for successful change and will frame my advice for principals.
1) Set the stage by creating a sense of urgency and pulling together a guiding team. (more…)
December 11, 2014 by Brian Stack
I work for the Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire, a district that was an early adopter of a K-12 competency education model, one that is now in its fifth year of implementation. My fellow administrative team members and I regularly receive questions from educators around the country who are looking to implement a similar model in their schools. One of the most popular questions we receive is, “What kind of leadership is necessary from district and school-based administrators in order to effectively implement a competency education model?” When I am asked this question, I am reminded of a passage in Dufour and Fullan’s (2013) book on sustaining reform, known as Resolute Leadership:
“Ultimately, the most important factor in sustaining reform is the willingness of leaders at all levels to demonstrate resolute leadership in the face of adversity. Resolute leaders anticipate opposition and honor opponents rather than vilify them. They don’t quit in the face of resistance. They don’t become discouraged when things don’t go as planned. They don’t divert their attention to pursue the newest hot thing. They stay the course. They demonstrate determination and resilience. They maintain their focus on core goals and priorities, and they continue to work, year after year, on improving the system’s ability to achieve those goals, but they are also open to innovations that might enable them to go deeper. More than ever, our educational systems need leaders with the collective efficacy that enables them to persist in the face of problems, plateaus, and paradoxes.” (more…)
October 28, 2014 by Brian Stack
I worked for a school district and high school that made the transition from a traditional to a competency-based grading and reporting system about five years ago. As one of the early adopters of what has now become a national educational reform movement, my fellow administrators and I often get inquiries from colleagues around the nation who are looking for advice as they make a similar transition in their own school or district. One of the biggest categories of questions we field from other administrators is on communication with parents about the competency education model. In this article, I will share with you some of the most frequently asked questions that we get from our parents and how we typically respond.
How is a competency education model different from a traditional one?
Competency education is based on the principle that the grades a student receives measure what the student knows and is able to do. Courses are organized into competencies that measure a student’s ability to transfer content and skills in and across content areas. Students are assessed on these competencies through performance assessments—multistep assignments with clear criteria, expectations, and processes that measure how well a student transfers knowledge and applies complex skills to create or refine an original product. Teachers use rubrics to measure student learning on these assessments and report that learning on report cards and transcripts by skill or competency.
Competency education diverges powerfully from the traditional “one size fits all” approach. In the best examples, students are given many opportunities and many pathways to demonstrate that they have reached competency. They are able to progress at their own pace. Their teachers provide individualized instruction and coach them through their learning progression. Teachers collaboratively develop the assessments that will measure how well students have performed. The result is a more rigorous education that identifies exactly what students know, are able to do, and to what degree.
September 18, 2014 by Brian Stack
One of the keys to the early success of our competency education model at Sanborn Regional High School has been the inclusion of a flexible grouping period that is built into our daily bell schedule. For the past four years, our Freshman Learning Community teachers have benefited from having this flexible time to personalize instruction and provide students with support for intervention, extension, and enrichment as needed throughout the school year. Three years ago, we added this flexible time to our Sophomore Learning Community structure. Now as we enter the 2014-2015 school year, this flexible time model has been expanded to include all four grade levels in our high school.
Our flexible grouping period is known as the Focused Learning Period at Sanborn Regional High School, and it operates in a forty-minute time period each day. The Focused Learning Period is time for our students to engage in the following activities:
- Intervention: Small groups of students work with the teacher on content support, remediation, or proactive support.
- Extensions: Whole class groups in which the teacher extends the current curriculum beyond what is able to be completed during a class period.
- Enrichments: Above-and-beyond activities that go outside of the curriculum to expand the experiences of our students.
The Focused Learning Period is not optional at our school. All students are expected to participate. Since the time is built into the school day, all teachers are available to students at the same time. Students are scheduled into a Focused Learning Period with approximately fifteen other students in the same grade level and/or career interest. A teacher is assigned to each group of students as an adviser. (more…)
July 11, 2014 by Brian Stack
At a summit hosted by Bainbridge Consulting in San Diego last week, research fellow Thomas Arnett of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation talked about the power of disruptors in shaping our future world. Borrowing an example from the auto industry, Arnett talked about the rise to power of the Korean-born Kia Corporation. Introduced to the American market in the 1970s, Kia cars quickly developed an undesirable reputation as being cheap and poorly fabricated. Since then, Kia began focusing on building high-quality cars at affordable prices. Their products have gotten better, and as we move into 2015, Kia car sales are expected to be among the highest of any auto manufacturer in the American market. Similar to the Lexus Corporation, which recently overtook Mercedes in the luxury car class, the Kia Corporation has been a disruptor in its industry because it has found a way to produce a better product more efficiently and at a lower cost to the consumer.
Bainbridge organized last week’s Disruptors in Education Summit to engage some of the industry’s most visionary entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, policy experts, and practitioners in meaningful dialogue around key disruptive trends impacting K-12 and higher education in 2014 and in the future. The summit focused on the future of post-secondary education, blended learning, gaming in learning and assessment, MOOCs and badges, and the rise of competency-based learning. It was the last topic on competency education, however, that drew some of the biggest interest and excitement among those in attendance. (more…)
April 28, 2014 by Brian Stack
Welcome to May, the month when most school administrators begin the process of filling open positions in their schools for the upcoming school year. Maybe my administrative team and I are getting picky as we mature as a team, or maybe we are just getting wiser, but we honestly believe that our hiring practices have changed dramatically since our school made the shift to competency education four years ago. For those of you who are thinking about applying to work in a school like ours, we would like to offer you some words of advice before you get your résumés and cover letters together for us.
1. We need team players. In our school, very few big curriculum, instruction, and assessment decisions are left to teachers to make on their own. Most are made by teams of teachers as part of their Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). If you join our school, be prepared to share and collaborate with your PLC on just about everything you do. With your PLC team, you will build common performance assessments, you will administer them to your shared students, and you will analyze the data with your team. We strongly believe that PLC teams work far more efficiently than individuals ever could towards advancing our vision of learning for all. Our PLC teams are organized by grade level, not by subject area. This allows them to share kids and focus their work on student learning. At our school, there is no such thing as a traditional department meeting. (more…)
March 26, 2014 by Brian Stack
Sanborn Regional High Principal Brian Stack
Amanda is a typical high school student who loves spending time with her friends, participating in a variety of clubs and activities, and doing well in school. Since a very young age, she has wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become an emergency room nurse. My school is preparing her for that demanding career with a competency-based model that has been designed to help her master a series of academic competencies, academic behaviors, and college and career-ready skills. Our competency-based model engages Amanda in her learning in ways that traditional high school models never could.
Five years ago, the administrative team in my school district and I began suggesting that our school make the move to a competency-based grading and reporting system. We knew that was going to be a monumental shift for some of our elementary and secondary teachers, but that it wouldn’t be such a bold move for others. The career and technical education (CTE) teachers and administrators who work at our regional CTE center, for example, applauded our efforts to move the school district to the model that they had always used to define their work. (more…)
January 6, 2014 by Brian Stack
I have a very compassionate boss. I spent several weeks working on my school’s budget for the upcoming year and I had been sending her updates on my progress throughout. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, though, that on the week that the budget was due my high school had a series of unexpected student issues that consumed most of my time and resources. As important as that budget due date was, I knew I just wasn’t going to make the deadline. As much as I hated to admit defeat, I made the call to her on Friday afternoon to ask for an extension (or at the very least, forgiveness). She was quick to respond to me with this: “Brian, I know it has been a tough week for you. I know through our check-in meetings over the past few weeks that you have been actively working on it. It is ok if you need a little bit more time. Could you have it to me by the middle of next week?” As she uttered those words I could feel the weight of the world lifting off of my shoulders. “Of course I could, thank you for your flexibility!”
What happened between my boss and I that day happens in all aspects of our lives as adults. It is normal behavior to expect that every once in a while people are going to miss a deadline. In the classroom, we as teachers know that students will miss deadlines from time to time. When they do, we do what any normal teacher would do—we become compassionate and flexible. Just like in real life with adults, we only start to worry about the behavior of missing deadlines when it goes from once in a while to chronic. (more…)