Author: Brian Stack

Separating the Facts from the Myths in the Competency-Based High School Transcript

September 12, 2016 by

Sample Report CardDistricts are creating a variety of grading practices and transcripts that are being described as standards-based and competency-based grading practices. Some are hybrids retaining elements of traditional grading. Many convert to traditional points in order to produce a GPA and rank students. Most importantly, some districts attempt to create new grading practices without putting adequate supports and policies to personalize education into place. At CompetencyWorks, when we think about grading, we think about the question, “How will you ensure that students are progressing?” Grading is one of the practices that is needed, in addition to many others. (See Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education.) Increasingly, colleges and universities are supporting proficiency-based transcripts. (See information on the Collegiate Endorsement of Proficiency-Based Transcripts.) In the following article, Brian Stack, principal at Sanborn Regional High School, addresses misconceptions based on their experience with redesigning grading. 

– Chris Sturgis

After many years of experience as a high school principal in a competency-based high school, it is the transcript that generates the highest degree of inquiry from outsiders seeking to understand our system, and for good reason. In both traditional and competency-based models, the high school transcript represents a student’s ultimate cumulative record of learning, a record that must be communicated in a clear and concise manner to both admissions officers at post-secondary institutions as well as potential employers. Over the years I have encountered several misconceptions and myths about what a transcript for a competency-based program should look like. It’s time to dispel these myths and set the record straight.

Myth: Reporting measures such as grade point average (GPA) and class rank cannot be computed in a competency-based school.

False! These two measures can be included on a competency-based transcript. There is often a fear from outsiders and newcomers that because most competency-based schools report assignment grades using a four or five point letter rubric scale, there isn’t an opportunity to compute a GPA. This is simply not true. In my school, a student can only earn one of five letter grades on individual assignments based on their performance level as indicated on a rubric, but in the background, those letters correlate to the numerical values of 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4. As the student completes multiple assignments, we are able to compute an overall course grade and thus a GPA that is a numerical value between 0 and 4. From the GPA, it is then easy to compute a class rank statistic. This, however, leads to another popular myth.

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Evaluating Your School’s Competency Education Journey and Answering the Question: Are We There Yet?

March 30, 2016 by

Are We There Yet?I’m sure this is a story we can all relate to: Mom and Dad have packed up the gear and the kids into the family minivan (or station wagon, depending on your frame of reference) for a long trip. In less than an hour, one of the kids asks, “Are we there yet?” The trip continues with at least one kid asking this same question every half hour. With five kids under the age of ten and countless road trips, my wife Erica and I know this story all too well. We try to patiently answer them the first time they ask, but as the hours pass and the question keeps coming up, our patience begins to wear thin. We can’t fault them because they don’t know where we are going. This past summer on a ten hour car ride from Boston to Washington DC we finally found out how to appease the oldest of our children and silence the question once and for all – we gave them each a road map so they could chart our journey.

As the principal of a high school that started on a journey to transition from traditional to competency education six years ago, I am often asked if our school is “there” yet. Surprisingly, my response has two parts: It depends on who you ask, and it depends on where we are trying to go. Over time we have found that a competency-based structure has led us to several directions of improvement. For example, we learned that we could be more responsive to our ninth graders by creating accountability of our ninth grade teachers to prepare students for high school rigor. We realized that our assessments and instruction needed to be lifted up to meet the higher depths of knowledge. Now our district is on a new journey to create greater personalization. This is all happening because we started on the journey to competency-based education.

When we started our journey we lacked an important tool: a road map. Six years ago, we were one of the first public schools making the transition. Feeling a little like Lewis and Clark and with no one to help us chart our journey, our first few years felt very much like we were driving without a road map. Our Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Brian Blake, likes to refer to it like we were building a plane and flying it at the same time, and he shows people this video to make light of the situation. Best practice and research was our compass. It navigated us through our early work with assessment, grading, and instruction. As time passed, more and more schools began their own journeys. Researchers began to study this transition and pull together the experiences that schools like us were having with our journeys. Through this work, some of the earliest road maps for schools looking to transition to a competency education model have begun to emerge. (more…)

Dear Future Principal: Here is How You Can Positively Impact Student Learning

March 7, 2016 by

Time TravelThis past school vacation, I introduced my oldest two boys Brady and Cameron to the Back to the Future Trilogy, one of my all-time favorite movie series. Not surprisingly, they have now become obsessed with the fantasy of traveling back in time to connect with their younger counterparts to offer themselves advice on what their future might hold for them. Could they use this knowledge to improve their life? Could it help them avoid some major pitfalls? Like Brady and Cameron, I too dream about how my life might be different if I had knowledge of my future. What would I do differently at my school in my role as a high school principal, for example?

When I speak to school leaders about implementing a competency-based education model, I share a version of this story. In my version, I hypothesize about how the management of Blockbuster, one of America’s largest providers of home movie and video game rental services which reached its peak in 2004, would have played differently their decision to pass on buying Netflix for a bargain $50 million in 2000. “People will never want to order their movies online and wait for them to get mailed,” they might have said. “There will always be a need for a physical store where people can browse the movie and video game titles for themselves,” they might have added. Well, we all know how their story played out. If only they had knowledge about their future and how online subscriptions and streaming services would transform the media and entertainment sector in the first decade of the new millennium.

This year I will celebrate my sixth anniversary as Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire. Early in this role my administrative team and I imagined a new design for our school that would utilize a competency-based, personalized model to engage our students in learning tasks and performance assessments that accurately measure learning and mastery of competency. In the Back to the Future movie series, the main characters often sent themselves letters of advice in the future and in the past. Here is the letter that I would write today to my counterpart who was in his first year as a school leader in 2010 working with his staff on a new competency-education design: (more…)

How My Understanding of Competency-Based Education Has Changed Over the Years

December 8, 2015 by

StairsNext week, I am excited to be sharing the work that my team and I have done in New Hampshire on competency-based education with a group of South Carolina educators as part of the Transform SC institute on Meeting the Needs of Every Student With Competency Based Progression. My preparation for this institute has been an opportunity for me to reflect on what has now been a six-year journey with competency education with Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH. This past week, our school district was recognized for the second year in a row as a “leader in competency education” by Tom Vander Ark’s organization Getting Smart, noting that Sanborn was one of 30 School Districts Worth Visiting in 2015. (more…)

Support for Teachers in a Competency Education School

August 13, 2015 by

LockersAs a high school principal who has worked for the past six years through a transition from traditional to competency education, I am often asked how our school district has supported teachers both in the past through the transition process and also currently as we sustain our competency education model. Our teacher support system has many layers, each designed to support teachers at different points along our journey.

Professional Learning Communities

Perhaps the single biggest investment our school district made prior to implementing competency education was to establish the Professional Learning Community (PLC) model in each of our schools. I keep this quote from PLC architect Rick DuFour on my desk to remind me what role PLCs play in our school’s teacher support system: “A team is a group of people working interdependently to achieve a common goal for which members are mutually accountable.” PLC teams, when implemented correctly, focus their work around four essential questions:

What is it we want students to learn?

How will we know when they have learned it?

What will we do if they haven’t learned it?

What will we do if they already know it? (more…)

Assessing Work Study Practices in a Competency Education School

July 19, 2015 by
Brian Stack

Brian Stack

Introduction

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…)

Communicating With Parents on the Transition to Competency Education

April 21, 2015 by
Brian Stack

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…)

Advice for School Principals on Implementing Competency Education

March 4, 2015 by
Brian Stack

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…)

Implementing Competency Education with Resolute Leadership

December 11, 2014 by

Dufour and FullanI 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…)

Competency Education: Frequently Asked Parent Questions

October 28, 2014 by

FAQI 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.

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