/ June 6, 2017

Competency-Based Learning – Another New Hampshire Advantage

Michael J. Turmelle
Curriculum Director and Assistant Principal
Sanborn Regional High School

New Hampshire is a national leader in the Competency-Based Learning movement, having piloted CBL practices in the late 1990’s and moving, as a State, to universal expectations for Competency-Based Learning beginning in 2009.  New Hampshire is engaged with the United States Education Department in a first-in-the-nation Competency-Based Learning assessment program known as PACE – Performance Assessment for Competency Education.  Engaging in CBL and PACE provides opportunities for educators to transform and redesign schools and districts from within.  

For years, disparate groups have laid claim to the term The New Hampshire Advantage.  As a result, this term has come to mean different things to different people.  Those who want to reduce taxes, use the term to underscore the importance of keeping a low tax burden on Granite Staters, stressing the need to keep broad-based taxes, like a sales tax or an income tax, at bay.  Those who wish to promote economic growth, highlight the importance of enacting business-friendly statutes in our state legislature.  More recently, proponents of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), have insisted that The New Hampshire Advantage is linked to New Hampshire’s high-tech sector and the highly skilled workforce required to innovate in that field.  Teachers, school administrators, central office staff, and State education leaders know, however, that there is at least one important aspect of The New Hampshire Advantage that is often under-reported and undervalued.  As educators, we won’t lay claim to the term The New Hampshire Advantage.  If designing a world-class education system that is targeted at preparing students to thrive and excel in college, career, and citizenship is part of The New Hampshire Advantage, we’ll let others make that case for us.  What we will do is quietly go about transforming and redesigning our schools to meet the needs of New Hampshire’s students and to prepare them for life in a 21st century global marketplace.

The transforming and redesigning occurring in New Hampshire schools, today, is centered, largely, on implementing the tenets and practices of Competency-Based Learning (CBL) for students.  Make no mistake about it, though, New Hampshire isn’t simply transforming and redesigning education for its own students.  We are also blazing a path of innovation for other states to follow.  The first rumblings of this CBL movement occurred in our state in the late 1990’s and took the form of individual schools piloting competency-based transcripts.  The learning from those early efforts was invaluable.  Some ten years later (circa 2007), our State Board of Education began crafting language into the Minimum Standards for School Approval that stated that credit for high school courses be based on competency and not on seat time.  The Minimum Standards established an aggressive timeline for New Hampshire’s high schools, setting the target of August 2009 for implementation.  Soon thereafter, similar standards were created, establishing ambitious timelines for the implementation of CBL for New Hampshire’s Elementary and Middle Schools.  As a result of these bold moves, our state has gained nearly a decade of experience in how best to improve education outcomes for students.

As educators in an “early adopter” district, my colleagues and I quickly discovered – through an exhaustive review of the research and literature, as well as a self-examination – that we would need to engineer significant changes to our schools and to our district if we were to become a Competency-Based Learning system.  As most fledgling efforts go, we had false starts and we made mistakes.  Throughout those early efforts, there was one phrase that motivated our work.  “If students are failing, they are failing in the system that we created.”  This is a powerful statement.  Embedded within the statement is HOPE.  If we created a system that was failing students, don’t we also, then, have the power to create something different?  This desire to create something different became a will to overcome and this, in turn, evolved into the resolute leadership that has powered our transformation and redesign.  As our district began to implement changes, we started to experience positive gains or, as we called them, “wins.”  Wins, even small wins, make the hard work seem worthwhile and they make the impossible seem, somehow, possible.  We developed strong Professional Learning Community teams in all of our schools.  We established smaller schools within a school for students, when possible.  Our district purchased a software program that allowed us to track proficiency on competencies.  We wrote competencies for all of our courses (at the secondary level) and for all of our disciplines (at the elementary level).  We separated academic competencies from behavior competencies and we began reporting on them in the form of separate grades to students and parents.  We migrated – over four years – from a 100% grading scale to a more competency-friendly, rubric-based grading scale that was modeled, loosely, on a four-point college scale.  As a result of those early wins, our educators told us that they knew more about their students as learners by the end of September than they had previously known at the end of the year.  That was a BIG win.  As win after win compiled, we found ourselves poised to participate in a first-in-the-nation assessment project called PACE (Performance Assessment for Competency Education) in partnership with the New Hampshire Department of Education and three other cohort districts (Souhegan High School, the Rochester School District, and the Epping School District).    It was this convergence – the joining of districts that were poised to transform with a specific goal, PACE, that propelled our work forward.

For more on PACE, click here:  https://www.education.nh.gov/assessment-systems/pace.htm

When New Hampshire schools began taking the first, tentative steps toward Competency-Based Learning, there was a wealth of research in journals and scholarly literature about many individual and somewhat isolated components of what might, one day, become a system.  If you were interested in what education researchers and scholars were saying about grading practices, for example, you could read a treasure trove of articles and books from current scholars and practitioners like Ken O’Connor, Doug Reeves, Bob Marzano, and Rick Wormeli.  Educators in my school did just that.  We read and we studied. If you were interested in what education researchers and scholars were saying about assessment practices, a similar trove of articles and books were available on those topics as well.  And, so, we read and we studied.  Want to know more about how Depth of Knowledge is connected to Competency-Based Learning?  Better read Karin Hess’s work.  Check.  Want to know more about how Performance Assessments are connected to Competency-Based Learning?  Better review the work of Rick Stiggins and Linda-Darling Hammond, as well as the work conducted by the Center for Collaborative Education and the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity (SCALE).  Check, check, check, and check.  The point is, in the early stages of CBL transformation and redesign, there is a lot of information available to guide your work.  At some point, however, the work of transforming and redesigning schools can become less about studying the research and more about being the research.

As our school district continued on a path of transformation and redesign, we came to a point where we had to make a conscious decision to be the research.  In some areas, we had outpaced information available to us in the scholarly research and literature.  Little research existed, for example, on how all of the individual, isolated components of Competency-Based Learning fit together.  As we became the research, we made some unexpected discoveries.  As it turns out, the individual components are woven together into a beautiful and intricate web.  When we first started to outpace the research, we compiled a list of the topics in this web that we believed all schools would need to address as they began their CBL transformation and redesign.  When we first shared that list with participants attending our Competency-Based Learning Design Studio, there were nine topics on the list.  Imagine those nine topics as the individual strands of silk on a spider’s intricate web.  After a couple more years of being the research, the list had grown to include nineteen topics – nineteen strands of silk on the spider’s web.  Today, our list is over thirty topics long – thirty design elements that schools and districts should consider when beginning their transformation and redesign.  We uncovered those design elements and we wove them together through what has, in a sense, become an enormous action-research project.

Turmelle Article InsertAs it turns out, those thirty or more design elements – the individual strands of silk on the web – may just turn out to be the education equivalent of The New Hampshire Advantage.  After seven full years of implementation and action-research (seven with CBL and the three as a PACE Tier 1 District), our district educators can see the web that was not visible to us a few short years ago.  We have used the strands of silk on this web to reconfigure the manner in which we approach teaching and learning in our schools.  And, we are now aware that there are strands of silk that have yet to be woven, for us or by us.  Our district, for example, is still weaving together how personalization and move on when ready fit into our web.  We are convinced, though, that by continuing on our path of transformation and redesign, we will, over time and with much hard work, add those components to our repertoire.  We also believe that our work will be hastened by continuing to share our professional work, practices, and ideas with fellow CBL schools and districts – across our PACE network and beyond.  For New Hampshire schools seeking to transform and redesign their education system, moving toward a CBL model and joining the PACE network will serve as a catalyst for whole system transformation and redesign.  The most critical step is the first step.  Once you begin making initial progress, you will be led to a whole series of next steps, the next strands of silk on the web.

The result for our district is that we have vastly different schools today than we did seven years ago.  Today, we have different structures in place to organize our work and to govern our decision-making, we have a different philosophical approach to teaching and learning, we have a different Leadership mindset around strategic planning and our core values, and we are engaged in different teaching and learning practices in our classrooms.  This transformation and redesign has had a profound impact on our school district culture and the culture within each of our schools.  I’m continually amazed by how much we have accomplished in seven years.  And, I am more than excited to think about what we might accomplish in the next seven years.  What is most exciting, is knowing that we are not alone on this journey.  In the case of Competency Based Learning and PACE, our New Hampshire Advantage may be that others in our State are willing and ready to share their work, to help guide us on our journey of school transformation and redesign.

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