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State Paths To A Competency-Based Education Approach

July 16, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 2.07.26 PMThis post was originally published on the College & Career Readiness & Success blog on July 10, 2013.

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) and the College and Career Readiness and Success (CCRS) Center recently hosted a webinar on implications for state policy in competency-based education systems. The discussion brought together national and state leaders to share what progress has been made in states, what has been learned in doing such work at the state level, and guidance on where other states might begin. The session covered topics ranging from setting a vision, capacity building, policy changes, and assessment and accountability, but what may have been most interesting were the contrasting narratives of scaling approaches across states. There is no standard approach that researchers can yet point to—implementation methods have varied dramatically across contexts, though certain common themes have emerged.

Common Vision

Presenters highlighted a common starting point when moving toward competency-based systems – developing a common vision. As states rationalized the move to a competency-based system, they first needed to come to consensus on what they wanted for all students. In order to achieve  buy-in across a very diverse set of stakeholders, including everyone from teachers to governors and legislators, states have  worked across a wide range of stakeholders in K-12, higher education, and elsewhere to develop a collective vision for what their students should know and be able to do. (more…)

The Three-Legged Stool of Competency Frameworks

April 11, 2013 by

three-legged-stoolI don’t know how I missed it, but in February New Hampshire released competencies that will be used as the infrastructure upon which they will out their balanced assessment systems. Remember that, at first, New Hampshire left the decision about competency frameworks for districts to decide. But after a couple of years of local efforts it was clear that with the Common Core it made sense to have a set of default ELA and math competencies – there are 9 for English and 19 for math.  These competencies are overarching across levels to help students and teachers to provide purpose and meaning as students build their skills on specific measurable learning targets such as the standards outlined in the Common Core.

So this is a good opportunity to take a moment to think about what competencies are and why they are important.

What is a Competency?  A competency is a statement of the knowledge, skills and/or behaviors students must master in a specific content or performance area. They explicitly explain the expectation for what a learner should be able to know and do.  A competency statement represents essential, enduring, transferable concepts that are at the upper end of knowledge taxonomies such as Webb’s strategic thinking or Blooms’ analyze, evaluate and create.

Launching School Boards into the 21st Century

March 19, 2013 by
Screen Shot 2012-11-21 at 9.22.12 AM

From Making Mastery Work

Several weeks ago, I attended the CCSSO Innovation Lab Network meeting as a member of the New Hampshire team.  At that meeting, Nick Donahue of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation spoke about how we must effectively message our work.  After researching several of the resources he outlined (see wiki for the Frameworks Institute report Preparing America for the 21st Century: Values that Work in Promoting Education Reform), one important thought emerged and resonated with me as I prepared for a retreat with a school board and Principal of a traditional high school who wanted to know more about competency education.

I followed Nick’s advice as I designed the three hour work session with the first third of the meeting based on why we must prepare our students for the future.  After doing a visioning exercise for the board to imagine what learning will look like on the campus in ten years, the members engaged and voiced many futuristic thoughts and ideas.  It laid the groundwork for the discussion on college and career ready skills, competency frameworks, rich performance assessment and grade system reform.

At one point in the presentation, the board members became my ‘students’ and I launched them into a rich performance task (see below), having them unpack what they would have to do to tackle the problem, and then showed them how this work fit the competencies and the assessment plan I would use as a teacher.  All of a sudden this school board was launched into 21st century learning using a competency based learning design.  They got it!   (more…)

The Karate Studio: An Excellent Example of a Competency-Based Classroom

February 19, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 7.27.02 PMAt least twice a week I have the opportunity to do a formal observation of the karate instructors that help my wife Erica and my two oldest boys, Brady (7) and Cameron (5), as they work towards their black belts. There are so many parallels between how their karate classes are structured and how we as administrators would like to see our teachers structure their twenty-first century competency-based classrooms. I think we can learn a lot from the karate studio environment. Here are some tips I have gleaned from countless karate classroom observations that I have completed:

1.    Embed the School’s Core Values and Beliefs Into the Classroom
As administrators we spend a lot of time working with our schools to develop documents that identify our school’s core beliefs and values and student expectations for learning. These documents are usually printed with catchy phrases or mnemonic devices on eye-catching posters and banners to help our staff and students remember them, but how often do our teachers refer to them in their classroom? At the karate studio, each class starts with everyone (students and parents alike) standing up to face the American flag and reciting the karate school’s core values and beliefs in unison. Throughout class, the instructors regularly refer back to these values as needed during instruction. There is no question that every stakeholder at the karate studio knows exactly what the school stands for and believes in. As a school administrator I am not suggesting that we make our own students recite our school’s core values statement each day, but I do think we need to find better enduring ways to embed these values into the daily fabric of our students’ lives. (more…)

Our Competency-Based System Has Changed the Face of IEP Meetings

January 24, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 12.53.06 PMCarter’s Story

This past week I had the privilege of attending an IEP meeting for Carter, a student that I have come to know quite well over the past three years. Carter has a learning disability and was diagnosed with ADHD back in fifth grade. School has always been a struggle for him, particularly the parts of school that require him to be focused and attentive in class and to meet assignment deadlines for his teachers in a timely manner. When he is focused, school comes relatively easy to him. With the help of his case manager and the support of his parents over the last two years, Carter has managed to earn all of his freshman credits and sophomore credits. The final course grades that appear on his transcript aren’t stellar, but regardless no one can argue with the fact that he reached proficiency for each of his course competencies and thus received credit for each of his courses. (more…)

Upcoming Webinar on New Hampshire’s Competency-Based System

January 11, 2013 by

nhThe Alliance for Excellent Education is sponsoring a webinar on Tuesday, January 22, 2013 on Strengthening High School Teaching and Learning in New Hampshire’s Competency-Based System

The webinar is featuring Brian Stack, Principal, Sanborn Regional High School, Sanborn Regional School District (NH), Erica Stofanak, Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Coach, Rochester School District (NH) and Paul Leather, Deputy Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Education. This webinar will examine New Hampshire’s high school redesign, which included the introduction of competency-based learning as a means to determine student progress. Ultimately, teachers and school leaders claim responsibility for the close-in work of engineering personalized learning experiences that enable students to demonstrate mastery of rigorous content knowledge and higher-order skills.

Register and submit questions for the webinar at

There are a lot of webinars coming up if you want to learn more about competency education.

What Happens Once a Student Reaches Proficiency?

January 2, 2013 by
from Making Mastery Work

from Making Mastery Work

During my travels in Maine last fall to three districts in the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning that are well on their way to fully implementing competency education, an interesting question popped up during conversations with students:  What happens once a student reaches proficiency? As I talked to students, they all had different responses to how they used the time that is built into the school day (reading The Learning Edge for more information about how districts are embedding support time):

Faster:  Amidst a gaggle of 7th grade boys, one student clearly liked to power ahead in math.  He emphasized it was only in math (his father was a math teacher) and that he was at “teacher-pace” in his other courses. If he had extra time in the class or in the day he would work on his math. Once he reached proficiency (usually described as a 3 or above), he would move on to the next unit as the learning targets, curriculum modules, and resources were available online.

Better:  In a conversation at a high school, two young women, self-described best friends, discussed how they have a competition among themselves.  They aim to get “4’s” on all assessments, in all classes, all the times.  If they have extra time in the day they work on whatever topics they needed to in order to demonstrate the application of their learning beyond what was taught in the classroom to their teacher.

Passion:  One young man, showing the slumped body language of disengagement, simply said that he does the minimum as he isn’t interested in school. He aims for a 3 at teacher-pace. With his art notebook always at his side, he uses an extra time to do the one thing he really likes – drawing.

Fun: A quiet young woman told me that it was doing the work to get a 4 that was the fun part of school. She felt that she could be creative, explore something new, apply the learning in a way that was meaningful to her.  From what I can tell, the option of a 4 was a door to the joy of learning.  (Check out the video The Box to see what this can mean for students).


Making Mastery Work

November 13, 2012 by

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) is releasing Making Mastery Work: A Close-Up View of Competency Education today. You can find the report here. The report, authored by Nora PriestAntonia Rudenstine, and Ephraim Weisstein, examines several issues through the collected experiences of the ten schools that participated in the Proficiency-based Pathways Project (PBP)  with co-funding from NMEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The PBP grantees are Big Picture Learning, Boston Day and Evening Academy, Diploma Plus, Expeditionary Learning, MSAD #15 otherwise known as Gray -New Gloucester District in Maine, National Center for the Education and the Economy, and Vergennes School District.

Making Mastery Work provides insights into how the schools, all of which have different approaches and are at different stages of development as a competency-based model, are aligning their schools around learning. Topics include the creation of a transparent mastery and assessment system, time flexibility, curriculum and instruction, leadership for competency education development, and the role of data and information technology in a competency-based education model. We’ll be offering webinars in January – March 2013 on these topics so you can hear from the innovators directly. Or check out the wiki to see examples of the tools they use. Stay tuned!

In Making Mastery Work, the authors provide the key characteristics of competency education.  This is an important addition to our understanding as it helps us to better comprehend the nature of competency education and guide us in implementation.

Key Characteristics of Competency Education

1) Students progress at own pace

  • Transparent system for tracking and reporting progress;
  • Flexible, learner-centric use of time, often beyond standard school day and year; and
  • Explicit methods for providing additional support or opportunities for learning

2) Graduation upon demonstration of mastery of a comprehensive list of competencies

  • Courses designed around set of competencies aligned with Common Core State Standards;
  • “Credit” awarded upon mastery of competencies associated with course or smaller module, based on summative assessments; and
  • Transparent system for tracking and reporting progress

3) Teachers skilled at facilitating differentiated learning environments

  • Frequent formative assessments provide real-time feedback to students and teachers on progress toward competencies and help guide instruction; and
  • Development of robust approaches to supporting students as they move through competencies, especially those who progress slowly

What do you think?  Are these the key characteristics that you think about? Are there others you think should be included?


Online Learning Means Extended Learning Time

October 4, 2012 by

Today, I made a visit to New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (NH VLACS) in Exeter, New Hampshire.

As Richard Ayers from SERESC notes, “VLACS has thoroughly developed a profile for competency education that is far reaching and relevant to 21st Century Learning.”

Students can take all of their courses online at VLACS. They can enroll so they learn online for just one or a few courses at VLACS, take additional courses for acceleration, take courses that aren’t offered at their traditional schools, or recover units for credit through online learning to catch up and stay on track. There are more than 15,000 enrollments in courses with 100 of their own full-time students, thousands of part-time students, and even students over age 18 trying to re-engage in public education.

I was able to spend several hours talking to students, teachers, staff, and even a few of the board members.  The teachers remarked that they “purposefully came to VLACS” to do what they enjoy doing best– focus on teaching and instruction, working with students in a student-centered, competency-based learning environment.  VLACS has 126 instructors and 150 staff. All instructional staff are certified teachers, teaching online with the technology tools that enable high quality, personalized instruction that is designed to be competency-based.

Here are a few highlights of my visit:

Statewide Partnership: VLACS’ main focus is to partner with public schools around New Hampshire to create more opportunities for students, and they said that every high school in the state has engaged with VLACS.  Their mission is to provide high quality educational opportunities to ensure students are prepared for college, careers, and citizenship.


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