Can Melrose Go Deeper with Competency-Based Education?

June 1, 2016 by

Melrose Public SchoolsMassachusetts is often recognized as a leader in education – although that is not so in the case of competency-based education. Even though it is home to two of the early competency-based innovators – Diploma Plus and Boston Day and Evening Academy – Massachusetts to date has been slow to engage in making the transition to competency-based education.

That may be changing.

While I was in New England, I had the chance to talk with Melrose Public School Superintendent Cyndy Taymore and twenty or so others – teachers, principals, parents, union leaders, school board members, and special education specialists – involved in their exploration of what a competency-based system might look like. It was a wonderful experience for me, as I rarely get a chance to talk to districts in the early exploration stage.

It was also eye-opening, as they helped me understand that higher income and higher achieving districts might be interested in competency-based education as a means to introduce greater rigor and greater personalization into their system.

Why is Melrose Interested in Competency-Based Education?

Many districts come to competency-based education because of demographic changes that are bringing more low-income families into their communities and their realization that they need a better way to respond to greater diversity. Melrose is experiencing the opposite trend – it has been increasingly becoming more affluent, and parents are becoming more demanding that the schools provide high levels of rigor and more opportunities for their children. Melrose is considering competency-based education as a strategy that can benefit the traditionally high achieving student while opening the door for traditionally lower achieving students to thrive.

Given Taymore’s own educational background, describing herself as an “alternative education person,” she holds a deeply held belief that the personalized strategies of Gifted and Talented programs are good for all students, not just for some. Of course if you want to have richer personalization, increased flexibility, and more opportunities for students, it’s important to have a way of making sure they are reaching proficiency that is aligned with deeper levels of knowledge. Interestingly, she also sees competency-based education as valuable to creating more rigorous, deeper learning experiences as well. It makes sense – competencies are about the application of skills to new contexts.

Thus, she started investigating whether competency-based education could provide the structure to help the system, especially the high school, move from a traditional, within-the-school-walls model to a more dynamic one. In late 2015, she brought the idea of competency-based education to the school board. (See presentation.) The school board gave approval for a Task Force to explore competency-based education with the caveat that it not just about acceleration. They want to make sure students have more opportunity to follow their interests and go deeper by engaging in challenging real-world application of skills. For the Melrose Public School Board, faster is not better; high engagement is what counts.

Taymore was able to tap into people with expertise from the community as she put together a strong Task Force that includes resident Ken Templeton from the Great Schools Partnership. Another resident,Jenny Curtin from the Barr Foundation, has also provided advise along the way.

The Process

The Task Force, made up of community members, educators, and district staff, were charged with addressing the following questions:

  • Is this a worthwhile change in education model for MPS?
  • Is it a change that should be wholesale or some combination of CBE and traditional models?
  • Does this change apply to all grade spans? If not, what does that look like and why?
  • How do we ensure equity of access and opportunity in a CBE model?
  • How does this change impact DESE regulations regarding graduation requirements, time on learning, school year, and standardized testing by grade?
  • How do we collect data on the results of the change and report out mastery and proficiency ratings for each grade span?
  • What training is needed for staff to make this change?
  • Do we need any additional resources?
  • How does this change impact our class sizes, enrollment, and use of our buildings?
  • How does this change impact contractual obligations?
  • What policies and procedures need to be changed to accommodate such a change?
  • If the change is supported, what would the transition timeline be?

Taymore also wanted to determine what they already had in place that could serve as a foundation. They found that many pieces had already taken root throughout the school system, including aligning curriculum, creating common assessments, and using Understanding by Design principles. They had also been creating more opportunity for students using this infrastructure with online and blended courses, community service, and project-based learning. Taymore reflected, “We were evolving, but we were a mish-mash of practices. The question was how could further institutionalize so that we offered a cohesive and consistent set of educational experiences that also allowed for personalized learning experiences?”

The Task Force should be bringing their findings and recommendations back to the school board at the end of the second quarter of 2016.

Questions and Considerations

During our conversation, a number of the primary questions and considerations popped up. Of course it started with a discussion on, “What exactly is competency-based education?” Below are highlights of our conversation.

What laws and regulations are we breaking if we move to competency-based education?

The Task Force is working through the MA laws regarding graduation requirements to investigate the implications of credits that are competency-based rather than time-based. There are also questions about the implications if students need an extra year of high school or don’t need a full four years. There are also questions regarding the time-based definitions of 180 days and 900 instructional hours for elementary school and 990 hours for secondary school. The regulations do not say it has to be within the brick and mortar schools – but what makes up instructional hours in highly active classrooms where there might be access to educational software or when students are learning through doing projects?

Where do we begin?

All districts have to figure out this question. Size matters, of course, for shaping this strategy. Melrose is relatively small in size with seven schools. We talked about the benefits of starting with elementary – it’s not as big a change and gives time to the upper level schools to prepare. The benefits of starting with high schools can be huge, as transparency bundled with student-directed learning practices immediately becomes more motivating to students. We also talked about just starting with the “coalition of the willing.” Which of their schools wanted to make the change? Which of the principals have the adaptive leadership capacity to create the empowering, transparent culture of learning that is needed?

I’m a firm believer that until we can determine quality indicators to guide implementation, we are always best off with the coalition of the willing leading the way.

What type of resources are needed?

We’ve seen many smaller districts make the transition to competency education without additional resources. First things first, teachers need to have time to plan and PLCs need to be assessed to help them become as strong as they can be. This is critical for the calibration process. Second, stop spending money on the traditional system and direct everything toward creating the new. All training and professional development dollars should be directed toward competency education. Professional development will become more personalized, with teachers requesting support as they realize they need to build up their skills in instructional strategies, understanding learning progressions in their discipline, learning how to design units as compared to lesson plans, and becoming adept at using performance-based assessments.

Try not to start from scratch. Look at how other schools have organized their competencies, standards, and rubrics. Pick one and then modify as needed.

There are a couple of places that funding can be very helpful. It will expedite the process to have one of the technical assistance providers provide coaching, and some even offer a set of competencies, standards, and rubrics. Direct professional development funds toward providing teachers with training on how to manage personalized classrooms. Districts have turned to Expeditionary Learning and Reinventing Schools for this type of training (and I’m searching for others). In about the third year, teachers will be demanding a better information management system to support tracking student progress and a learning management system to allow students to access units and enable greater personalization.

In the long run, districts want to build up their capacity to become more agile in re-directing funding to meet needs of students who have greater distance to go in meeting grade level standards and to respond to the personalized pathways in how students learn and demonstrate their learning.

Is competency-based education going to impact application to college?

College admissions, scholarships, transcripts, and GPA: this is a big part of the reason it is a bit more complicated to convert high schools to competency education than lower level schools. The other reason is that high school is time-bound as a four year process. Even in states that have demonstrated their commitment to equity with extended graduation rates, prom and graduation are part of the cultural rituals that benchmark the transition to young adulthood. Thus, we still have to figure out how to help students who enter with gaps of two or more years in their pre-requisite skills become college and career ready in four years.

College admissions is really the least of the worries. Districts need to prepare a letter explaining the competency-based approach and how to interpret the transcript. Great Schools Partnership has done an amazing job getting colleges to publicly agree to accept proficiency-based transcripts. We do need to get the Massachusetts colleges and universities to sign on.

Scholarships are a bit trickier, as so many still demand a GPA. Almost all high schools have some type of conversion process of turning the standards-based grading into a GPA. That is, until we are able to engage scholarship programs to realize they are holding the traditional, inequity-producing system in place. As for transcripts, districts can start with simple ones, but consider this a place for creativity so that transcripts can help tell the student’s story.

What does teacher evaluation look like in a competency-based school?

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Everyone is a learner in personalized, competency-based schools. Thus, professional development becomes more personalized based on the feedback teachers receive through the evaluation process.

There are certainly different emphases and even different sets of capacities needed in competency-based schools. For example, understanding the academic discipline and the learning progressions in how students move from one concept to the next become important. Skills are emphasized over content. Designing units that allow for choice, promote active learning, and take into consideration engagement and motivation of students replaces the focus on daily lesson plans. As mentioned above, classroom management practices are different when you give the keys to learning to students.

Many schools find that their teacher evaluation systems need to be upgraded to reflect the new set of values and practices. There is often more emphasis on what the students are doing to help understand teacher effectiveness. (See evaluation tool used by Windsor Locks.) The report Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching is a good starting point.

What will be the impact on teachers during the transition?

Everyone agreed that the teachers were exhausted from the amount of improvements and changes they had been involved with over the past four years. Introducing new standards and new curriculum takes a toll.

So, how to construct an implementation strategy that produces some benefits without making this feel like it is just one more reform? This again argues that the roll-out strategy should be led by the willing. Using a technical assistance provider will definitely reduce the cost and emotional toll of “learning by doing.” The important thing is to think about a roll-out strategy that will most quickly unleash student agency and increase student engagement. Teachers describe the satisfaction they receive from highly engaged students. Empowering teachers to work together to do what they think is best for students also leads to much higher satisfaction and, I would assume, productivity. So start with building student agency, increasing personalized classroom management, focusing on habits of work, and introducing calibration. Leave standards-based grading until a bit later when teachers demand it when the A-F system is recognized for what it is – highly variable and ineffective as a feedback loop on either academic learning or the skills needed to be a lifelong learner.

I was deeply impressed with the Melrose educators and community leaders, especially their curiosity and ability to build off each others’ ideas. I wish I could listen in as they continue to consider ideas, sort through what will work for Melrose, and strategize about implementation strategies that will empower without burdening staff. Thanks to Margaret Adams, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning (and chair of the Task Force); Patty White-Lambright, Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Services; Mary Beth Moranto, Principal, Roosevelt Elementary; Melanie Acevedo, Instructional Coach; Jamie McAllister-Grande, School Committee; Ann Marie Melito, high school art teacher; Teresa Melito-Connors, MPS alumna; Mary Beth Darwin, parent; Tom Scudder, library specialist; Kim Talbot, global language director; Ann McCarthy, parent; Lisa Donovan, MEA President and high school teacher; Deborah DiFruscia, Director of Visual and Performing Arts; Wendy Arnold, librarian; Joshua Cristiano, academic facilitator; and Angela Singer, Director of ELA.

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