Highlighting Deeper Learning Competencies in New Hampshire

March 12, 2018 by

It is hard to argue the importance that being a strong collaborator, an articulate communicator, a self-directed learner, and a creative problem solver has on a person’s success in today’s world. In fact, a recent analysis by Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post on an article written by Cathy Davidson highlighting how Google culled data to determine the most important qualities of its top employees and found that the top seven were non-academic cognitive competencies, or success skills. Coaching, communicating and listening, empathy, critical thinking, problem solving, and making connections across complex ideas all came out on top.

In a competency-based system, we must hold both academic competencies AND these deeper learning competencies, or success skills, as integral in preparing our graduates to be successful in work, college, and life. (more…)

Our Quest to Personalize Competency-Based Learning in New Hampshire

February 27, 2018 by

This article was was originally posted on January 9, 2018 at Education Week in the Next Generation for Learning blog

Photo from Parker Varney Elementary School in Manchester School District.

New Hampshire’s Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) has been a quest to deepen and personalize competency-based learning for all students. During the 2016-2017 school year, we attempted to confront two significant barriers hindering the advancement of competency-based learning, namely age-based grade level configurations in schools and traditional assessment and grading practices that restrict students from “moving on when ready,” a key tenant of competency-based learning.

Our five pilot elementary schools intentionally implemented innovative practices that blurred the lines between grade levels by moving to multi-grade bands.  Teachers developed learning progressions that guided learning for individual students within these bands and helped to foster assessment practices as integral components of the learning process, rather than as strictly summative measures of learning. (more…)

3 Lessons Learned from PACE

September 6, 2017 by

Principal Amy Allen

Parker Varney Elementary School in Manchester, NH has been involved in the PACE initiative since 2015. (You can read more about Parker Varney here and here.) PACE, or the Performance Assessment for Competency Education, is an initiative designed to transform classroom practice to improve college and career readiness by building educator capacity and increasing student engagement through the design and use complex performance tasks. The initiative is also helping to build a shared understanding of proficiency for ELA (third and eighth grade) and math (fourth and eighth grade) across New Hampshire by using cohorts of districts that work together for a year.

As we moved to personalized, competency-education, there could have been many missteps. However, the strong network of district leaders, principal, and teacher leaders proved invaluable. With a powerful network supporting us, what might have been missteps instead became powerful lessons learned.

#1 Making the transition to personalized, competency-based education with performance assessments is paying off.

Our students are more engaged in learning than ever before. The result has been deeper, more authentic learning opportunities and greater student engagement. At Parker Varney Elementary, students in a multi-age 2/3-grade classroom exhibited significant progress in reading achievement. At the start of the 2016 school year, 29% of Grade 2 students and 75% of Grade 3 students were proficient in reading as measured by the district’s benchmark assessment. By March 2017, 77% of Grade 2 students and 85% of Grade 3 students were proficient in reading as measured by the district’s benchmark assessment.

From September 2016 to April 2017, special education referrals declined by 21%. At the start of the 2016 school year, our Grade 2 and Grade 3 English Language Learners were 54% proficient in reading as measured by the district’s benchmark assessment. By June 2017, 85% of those students were proficient and making at least one year’s growth as measured by the district’s benchmark assessment.

In the student exhibitions, you see students shining as they take on the role of experts. During a tour, I brought two national visitors to our innovation-learning lab. Eighty-nine students were showcasing their Jr. Steam projects in which they had designed robotics to solve environmental problems. With 100% of the class participating, the room was filled with students excited to share their ideas, learning, and success. These deeper learning opportunities removed the barriers encountered by students in special education, English Language Learners, and poverty.

One of our parents called me after the presentation and told me that they had to move across town and would have to enroll in a different elementary school. She said she was concerned that her student would not have the same experience at the other school as she did at Parker-Varney. I asked her to clarify and she said, “My child has never been so excited for learning. He has always felt that he was not as smart as his classmates. We moved a lot and he has always been catching up. I saw him today and he was glowing. He was so proud to show off his robot and how it would improve pollination. He loved talking to every visitor and answering questions. He used words that I have never heard but more importantly, he knew his information and he has never felt so smart.” Every parent wants their child to love to learn and feel good about themselves; competency-based personalized learning has opened that door for our students.

#2 Meeting students where they are is a whole school commitment.


PACE Sees Early Evidence of Student Achievement Gains

September 5, 2017 by

Susan Lyons

Please note: This article was corrected on September 6th to accurately reflect the findings on PACE.

According to the presentation by Susan Lyons of the Center for Assessment to the New Hampshire State Board of Education, early evidence is showing improvements in the PACE districts in the Smarter Balanced assessments over the past two years. The mean of students demonstrating proficiency in PACE districts has increased from 48 to 63 on the 8th grade ELA and from 35 to 48 on the 8th grade math. The PACE districts are inching above the state mean. Another researcher, Carla Evans, is seeing significant improvement for students with disabilities in PACE districts compared with non-PACE districts. Evans’s research, based on early results, is showing that students with IEPs in PACE districts are significantly outperforming their peers with IEPs in non-PACE districts on the SBAC assessment in both math and ELA. Despite these gains, achievement gaps between students with IEPs and students without IEPs are still apparent in the PACE districts.

Lyons believes that two elements of the PACE theory of action are driving the changes:

  • implementing the performance assessments as intended enhances and extends desired instructional practices; and,
  • student engagement and student learning increases/deepens when performance assessments are implemented as intended.

Notice the language of implementing performance assessments as intended: PACE is focused on ensuring high quality implementation of performance assessments. It is a partnership of the state and local districts to commit to high quality instruction and assessments for the children of New Hampshire.

We’ve all become so accustomed to state systems of assessments that are designed to compare apples with apples and make student outcomes transparent (with the idea that by making them transparent, school performance will improve). The problem is that those state assessments have been used to blame and shame schools, and are not actually designed to directly help improve student learning. Thus, we’ve gotten used to assessments being something other than part of the cycle of learning. (more…)

Amidst Opioid Addiction, Plummeting Morale, One Elementary School Reinvents Itself

July 6, 2017 by

This post and all photos originally appeared at EdSurge on June 19, 2017.

When you enter Parker-Varney Elementary School, you are immediately struck by the relaxed atmosphere. Make your way to the office to check in, and you’ll see students walking by and waving, moving in and out of community spaces with confidence and ease. There’ll be a buzz of excitement in the air, the mark of students highly engaged and doing work that is important and relevant to their lives.

It wasn’t always this way. Four years ago, in 2013, Parker-Varney was listed as a “School in Need of Improvement.” The school had seen five principals in six years and achievement scores, morale and attendance were sinking. Local families were struggling economically, with 72 percent of students qualifying for Free and Reduced Lunch, and across the district, we were battling an opioid crisis (a problem that continues today, with six parental overdoses at Parker-Varney this year alone).

Rather than crumble, however, we chose to embrace change and focus on what mattered most: whole child development. We honored student needs with multi-age classrooms and competency-based projects. As principal, I encouraged the staff to take risks and to rekindle their passion for teaching and learning. Teachers identified problems of practice and prototyped solutions, and focused on what could be done rather than what couldn’t.

At Parker-Varney, we have a saying: “Learning can be messy, and we must work through the mess.” Today, although the walls of the building are the same, the “spirit” and sense of collaboration have transformed.

Here are a few key ingredients to our success. (more…)

Adult Learning: Creating Buy-in

June 27, 2017 by

This post and graphics originally appeared at 2Revolutions on May 17, 2017.

Designing and facilitating high-quality professional learning experiences is such important and challenging work. I must admit that in my first year of formally leading professional development, I cried a few times in school bathrooms during session breaks — not so dissimilar to swallowing back tears in the teacher’s lounge during my first few months of teaching in the Bronx. I remembered (and often forgot) lots of mediocre professional development experiences as a teacher. How could I avoid repeating this pattern and actually make a difference with the little precious time I had with busy educators? On a larger scale, this question weighs upon the United States educational system, with much research pointing to huge wastes of time and money poured into largely ineffective efforts to develop teachers. (See TNTP’s The Mirage and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development.)

As the director of learning transformation at 2Rev, I am lucky to be able to pursue my obsession with designing and facilitating effective adult learning as a core part of my role, which has, not surprisingly, helped me learn a lot about what works and what’s most important when it comes to educator professional learning. In my next few blog posts, I’ll share several key principles that we’re arriving upon as we continue to experiment with different approaches to adult learning. Some of these are likely unsurprising and clearly backed by research, yet worth being reminded of. Others are intuitive but much easier said than done. I’ll share these principles with some broad rationale and then drill down into some specific practices and tools that we’ve found to be effective in living out these principles.

Today I’ll focus on a first, and maybe one of the most important, principles: creating buy-in.


Goodbye ABCs: How One State is Moving Beyond Grade Levels and Graded Assessments

June 6, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at EdSurge on May 16, 2017.

The term “grades” has become almost taboo among some educators in New Hampshire, where seven elementary schools are slowly ditching the word altogether through a program known as NG2. The program—short for “no grades, no grades”—is hallmarked by the schools shifting to a more competency-based assessment structure and removal of grade levels.

Mary Earick, project director for NG2, says the purpose of the program is to create more flexible learning pathways for students through “competency-based multiage schooling,” which allows students to move on to new objectives only after mastering others.

“[NG2] tackles long-standing educational barriers to personalized learning . . . that of ‘Grades,’” Earick writes in an upcoming report on the project. Those barriers include “(1) student assessments that don’t accurately reflect students’ true understandings and skills and (2) methods for grouping students (by age) that often poorly align to their true needs as learners.”

The program follows six key tenets: project-based learning, learner agency, whole person development, blended learning and competency-based assessment. New Hampshire schools participating in NG2 represent urban, suburban and rural parts of the state. While the elementary schools are alike in piloting a “no grades, no grades” structure, each was given flexibility for how it would implement the program specifically.

“We don’t talk about that [grades] anymore,” says Amy Allen, principal at Parker Varney Elementary, a NG2 school. For Allen, moving away from just using the word “grades” has been an important piece of keeping students motivated in the program. So if a first-grade student is attending a kindergarten intervention group, he is not told he is going to a kindergarten class. Instead, he might be going to see “team cooperation.”

Allen says that about 80 percent of the school is participating in the pilot. There are two separate K-2 groupings, one second/third grade group, and a fourth/fifth group. (The other 20 percent of the school, including a standalone kindergarten and third-grade class, are sticking to the status quo.) (more…)

New Hampshire Innovation Studios

June 5, 2017 by

This post and all pictures originally appeared at 2Revolutions.

Depending on the goals of our partners, Discover and Learn Days can take many formats. Innovation Studios are one example. Launched in partnership with the New Hampshire Department of Education and the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, Innovation Studios are half-day workshops at New Hampshire schools that focus on exposing educators and school leaders to innovation happening in their own backyard. Participants explore cutting-edge learning environments that foster personalization, competency-based learning, and student agency and then go on to design prototypes to bring these innovations back to their schools.

Public Will Through Community Engagement

The genesis of Innovation Studios came from New Hampshire’s state educational vision, called NH Vision 2.0, which laid out the foundational goals for the state in 2016 and beyond. One main goal of the vision, is to engage New Hampshire communities in transforming schools in ways that make sense for the kids and families attending them. The NH 2.0 visioning team of state officials, educators, district leaders, business and non-profit organizations, 2Rev, and others, realized that it’s more powerful to help communities create solutions that fit their distinct needs rather than coming to them with an answer. These studios are one mode for how this is unfolding—sparking and encouraging innovation by sharing ideas and approaches that are working in real schools with real kids.


Space for Exploration

Sessions begin with a range of design and learning activities, like this one, which is a play on the periodic table and helps participants identify the skills and dispositions where they shine and those areas where they need support. Creating transformative schools that go beyond academic competencies requires the educators in them to have experiences that tap into these essential skills and dispositions; activities like these are one way into that. After warming up, participants hear from the visiting school about the work they have been doing. Each studio has focused in on a different entry point to innovation: competency-based learning and assessments at Pittsfield Schools, project-based learning at Parker-Varney Elementary School, and student agency at Souhegan High School and Maple Street Magnet School. (more…)

Connecting the Dots: Aligning Efforts to Support Teachers and Students in New Hampshire

May 8, 2017 by

Making the shift to a competency-based and personalized model of education is a process that can be daunting to educators, especially those who work in a very traditional system. Last July I made the move from being the principal of a nationally recognized Professional Learning Community at Work school and competency-based learning environment to the executive director of the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to seeding and supporting innovative efforts in New Hampshire schools. I had been fortunate to be engaged in a number of the innovative efforts in New Hampshire while I was a principal, and I understood all too well that many educators did not see how the work that we were doing was connected. Anytime a school or district’s next steps are seen as “another initiative” the work is doomed to fail. I set out to connect the dots for as many as I could in my new role.

New Hampshire is quite well-known for an innovative assessment effort called PACE, but it is truly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the greater ecosystem of personalized learning in New Hampshire. The Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) is the only assessment and accountability waiver approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The results from PACE continue to surprise national experts in assessment, but not the educators directly involved. The results, when compared with SBAC, demonstrate high levels of inter-rater reliability, as well as growth for students in various cohorts, suggesting that opportunities for deeper learning are having a positive impact regardless of where a student is on his/her learning progression. This has been due to a number of factors, but what it comes down to is this: Our teachers, when provided the opportunity to learn deeply, reflect, and collaborate, really know their stuff, and when students are truly given the opportunity for deeper learning, they rise to that level of rigor.

But there was, and is, a piece of our balanced system of assessments that we continue to work on developing. The integration of skills and dispositions into curriculum, instruction, and assessment is an integral component of a competency-based system. There is a growing body of research supporting the absolute necessity of these non-curricular cognitive competencies to success in careers. Employers are identifying these skills as the ones critical to success in the workplace. In New Hampshire, these skills and dispositions are referred to as Work Study Practices (WSP). Our teachers, starting in the PACE schools, took on this challenge over the past two years, and the learning has been monumental. Through the facilitated and guided practice through modules created by 2Revolutions and support through MyWays tools, New Hampshire educators have the opportunity to delve into their own learning, then develop and implement tools and resources within their own classroom environments to integrate these all-important competencies into learning opportunities for students. Teachers from across the State of New Hampshire are then brought together for a facilitated opportunity to share their learning and resources with each other. The number of teachers involved in this effort has doubled over the past two years as educators recognize the importance of these competencies to preparing our students to be successful in today’s world. (more…)

New Hampshire: Building an Integrated Competency-Based System

February 22, 2017 by

This is the fourteenth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

All children deserve and are capable of a rigorous learning environment where they demonstrate competence and confidence to move on when ready.


new_hampshireNew Hampshire’s move toward competency education started with the pilot of competency assessments in 1997, expanding from the original four high schools to nearly thirty by 2003. The pilots sparked conversation about the importance of measuring what students can do, not just what they know.

Even as one of the top performers in education in the country, New Hampshire knew they needed to do better to stay economically competitive. In 2005, they decided to redefine the Carnegie unit credit based on seat-time and replace it with a competency-based credit. Districts were charged with creating competencies and awarding high school credit based on those competencies by the 2008-09 school year. New Hampshire wanted credits to mean something.

In 2013, they took another step forward, revising the Minimum Standards for School Approval so that the structures of schools within the K-12 system would be designed for students to reach proficiency rather than allowing them to be passed on without addressing their gaps and weaknesses. The updated minimum standards made the expectations explicit that students should be able to access educational opportunities customized to their individualized needs and circumstances. Their boldest move of all was to believe so deeply in their teachers and their ability to create a system of calibrated, performance-based assessments that it opened the door to a new method of accountability.

New Hampshire’s Theory of Action

New Hampshire’s theory of action is two-fold. First, it seeks to create a culture of improvement based on support and incentives rather than blame and punitive techniques. Second, it assumes that state policy and local control must be balanced with formal processes for input or, whenever possible, co-designing. Even

though the Department Education has substantial administrative authority, it consistently uses collaborative processes to create a shared vision, reach consensus on major systems changes, and build capacity within districts and schools. The state consults with education associations and creates formal processes to enable those districts that want to roll up their sleeves to participate. (more…)

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