Five Big Take-Aways on Implementation from New Hampshire

February 19, 2014 by
Chris Sturgis

Chris Sturgis

I just got back from amazing travels to five districts/charter schools in New Hampshire – Making Community Connections Charter School, Pittsfield School District, Rochester School District, Sanborn Regional School District, and Virtual Learning Academy Charter School. Truly it was a delight to see what it looks like as an entire state moves down the path to transformation. To all the New Hampshire educators and leaders — thank you for your courage, creativity and persevering leadership! Here are my five big take-aways with more detailed posts to follow:

 1.Personalization Required

I don’t think competency education works well without personalization. They go hand in hand. Personalization requires an infrastructure that enables us to understand how students are progressing and to keep a keen eye on equity. Competency education requires us to personalize education to make sure students are getting the help they need when they need it. When schools try to implement a competency-based approach while still delivering a curriculum (rather than teaching students) with a schedule of assessments, they can get stuck in talking about re-assessment and relearning rather than on improving instruction and organizing adequate supports so that more students learn on the first cycle of learning. Those schools that embrace personalization upfront begin to design classrooms and organize school resources to be able to differentiate instruction and provide “just in time” supports.

The culture of schools that have embraced personalization is all about the students, about learning, about teachers working together and learning together. The culture of schools without a strong spirit of personalization is rife with frustration – about grading policies, bureaucratic alignment, and struggling with how to deal with re-learning and re-assessment policies.

Insight #1: Take the time to think about what it means to be student-centered or personalized and why competency education is going to be a valuable structure before diving into competency education.

 2. Information Management Providers Are Not Responding to Changing Customer Needs

Every school I visited complained about the reluctance (or inability) of their information management providers to provide the functions needed to track students’ progress along competencies and standards. It didn’t make any difference which company or product – Infinite Campus, Power School, or others; the complaints were the same.

Just about every school was beginning to explore other products but worried that as many were built by start-ups, the new companies wouldn’t be able to provide the needed support capacity or were too narrow in their functionality.

Insight #2: Individual district and school complaints aren’t going to do it. We need to create a collective voice to demonstrate to these providers that the needs of their customers are changing and they need to step it up. States, intermediary organizations or national associations are best positioned to organize the collective voice, set up the meetings to outline our specifications, and establish a timetable for providing what we need.

 3. Getting the Words Right

We have had a hard time figuring out how to create effective messages around competency education – many of the sound bites are easily corrupted when heard through a lens of the traditional system. We get caught up in discrete topics and quickly lose the big picture.

I was thrilled to see how elegantly Pittsfield School District is describing its redesign – it is dynamic, inspiring, warm, and inviting. And it starts with emphasizing redesign to best educate their young people. It starts with student-centered learning and personalization. If you are having a hard time figuring out how to engage communities, take a look at their Explainer.

Insight #3: Creating the right message shouldn’t be rocket science. As we get better, we need to share with each other. The more we use a common message, the more it can be easily spread through community networks, across state lines, and in the media. We need to take a look at our communication strategies and do some formal evaluation to make sure we are being as effective as we can be. I pulled together some examples here to get us started.

 4. Learning to Create and Use a Big, Bright Shiny Shared Vision

Districts and schools are bureaucratic beasts. Bureaucracy is what we know how to do. So when tackling competency education reforms, it’s easy to start down the path of aligning competencies, assessments, and rubrics. It makes sense to start to set new policies regarding grading. However, bureaucracy is on the far end of the spectrum from student-centeredness.

The schools that have not only created but are using their shared vision as a criteria for addressing the numerous issues that pop up as reforms are put into place are able to create a culture where conflict and tension are opportunities for creative problem-solving. That bold, shiny vision acts like the heart of the culture of learning.

This may be a challenge for some district and school leadership who are skilled bureaucratic administrators. They may find that they have to step out of their own comfort zone to build up adaptive leadership skills and create decision-making structures that engage others in the early discussions, not as input, final feedback or buy-in.

Insight #4: At CompetencyWorks, we have a number of school leaders talking about their leadership practices and reflections. I’m not sure how to do it, but can we take the next step and share as discretely as possible how decision-making structures are being created and community engagement is embraced as an ongoing capacity of the district and schools?

 5. On a Learning Progression towards Competency Education

There are efforts underway to create definitions of competency-based education that can be used for research. These definitions are to help us discern between what is a competency-based school and what isn’t.

Yet in my travels in NH, I was humbled by the different designs and directions districts and schools are using. Two of the schools were pushing the envelope of how we think about organizing education, while others tried to create competency-based credits with few other changes to the structure of the school day. All were dedicated to making it work and all were learning as they encountered challenges along the way, requiring them to make corrective actions.

Insight #5: We may need definitions of what is and isn’t competency education, but we are also going to need some type of continuum or crosswalk to help us communicate about our lessons learned as we try out different approaches. Quality implementation and addressing those sneaky unintended consequences that can undermine effectiveness require us to be able to talk about what we did, why we did it, what happened, and how we improved it.

About the Author

Chris Sturgis is Principal of MetisNet, a consulting firm that specializes in supporting foundations and special initiatives in strategy development, coaching and rapid research. She is strategic advisor to the Youth Transition Funders Group and manages the Connected by 25 blog.

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