Competency-Based Education: The Break from Tradition that Our Schools Need

October 22, 2018 by

At this year’s iNACOL 2018 Symposium, I will have two opportunities to share my thoughts and experiences after spending a decade leading a New Hampshire high school through a transformation from a traditional to a competency-based system. The first will be in a Sunday morning pre-conference session entitled “Learning from School-Based Practitioners: Building a Successful Competency-Based Education System in your District/School.” There, my colleague Jonathan Vander Els and I will share resources and tools from our 2017 Solution Tree book entitled Breaking With Tradition, the Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work. On Tuesday morning, Jonathan and I will join our good friends: competency educational specialist Rose Colby and Ace Parsi of the National Center for Learning Disabilities for a breakout session entitled “Leveraging Competency Education to Promote Equity for ALL Students by Prioritizing Academic and Personal Competencies Supported by Effective Leadership, Personalization, and PLCs.” (more…)

How One New Hampshire District is Leveraging Success Skills in a Competency-Based System

May 17, 2018 by

Sarah Kiley

By Jonathan G. Vander Els, Director of Innovative Projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative and Sarah Kiley, Epping School District Teacher and Work Study Practices Coordinator.

New Hampshire Overview:

Over the past three years, a number of New Hampshire schools have been focusing on how the integration of success skills (or Work Study Practices, as they’re called in New Hampshire) can be levers for students’ success. The intent was to intentionally integrate these deeper learning competencies into instruction, assessment, and curriculum to increase student agency as a lever for equity. (more…)

What’s New: What’s Happening in State Policy

April 18, 2018 by

This article reviews some of the new state policy resources and highlights the types of discussion and initiatives taking place in the individual states. Nevada is joining the group of states that are supporting innovative districts, and Mississippi is supporting an innovation network. The most important thing to pay attention to is the discussion and debate in Maine as they decide whether they are going to continue to believe that their students and educators can learn to high standards and will keep learning how to support students in doing so…or if they modify expectations. Fingers crossed that the discussion moves from what’s wrong to what we need to make sure all of our students learn!

State Policy Resources

Across the country, state policymakers have been engaged in thinking through how they can strengthen their policies and infrastructures to better (more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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…)

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