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N.H. School Official: Competency-Based Education A Work In Progress

Bryan via Flickr Creative Commons

The Exchange spoke with New Hampshire teachers and administrators about competency-based education (CBE), which was adopted by the state board of education more than ten years ago.  Some districts have fully embraced the approach; others are just getting started.  

As our discussion revealed, some parents still have plenty of questions about a system that dispenses with many of the traditional ways of measuring progress and achievement and encourages students to pursue what Superintendent John Freeman of Pittsfield calls "personal pathways." 

See the Q & A below, and for the full Exchange conversation, listen here.

Please explain what competency-based education means.

Brian Stack, principal at Sanborn Regional High School, which adopted CBE in 2011: I think of competency education as student-centered learning; it's a philosophical shift where we're really as educators trying to be laser focused on what kids know and are able to do -- and finding an assessment system that matches that so that we really feel good about the product that kids are walking away with. It's definitely a philosophical change though. Schools have to take a really hard look at how they approach competency education from the student level, the teacher level, and the administrator level.

John Freeman, superintendent of the Pittsfield School District, where the middle school has been working with CBE since 2011: I think on the most fundamental level it goes to the purpose of schooling. The traditional system was designed to sort students and to categorize students so that they would be all set on a career track or job track at this point in our history. Now, we don't know what we're preparing our students for. And so we've changed the assumption of schools from that tracking purpose, that sorting purpose, to a more open purpose, knowing that all students need to have certain skills and certain dispositions to be ready for whatever the future holds for them. And so the design of a competency-based system is based on a  more realistic and updated view of the purpose of schooling.

What’s the problem this is aiming to fix?

Freeman: We're realizing that the traditional system short changes some students sometimes based on where they live, based on financial  resources sometimes, based on different styles of learning, and those sorts of problems have allowed students to be sort of shut out of the system.

How does this work in the classroom?

James Mills, social studies teacher at Hanover High School, which has just recently begun adopting CBE: It's a real challenge to put this into practice in some ways, not because it really is an enormous shift in a lot of the content that you teach, but that increased emphasis on the valuable skills that you want to impart to a student means that you do things a little differently.  You emphasize different things with the student and it's often a process of communicating better to the students what goals you really want them to meet and to make sure that those goals are meaningful in the classroom.

How about homework? Do you still give homework?

Charlie Swift, physics and engineering teacher at Souhegan High School, an early adopter of CBE:  Yes. But rather than just memorizing that F = ma (Newton's second law of motion) and a whole list of formulas, we try to understand  the world we live in. How does it work? How do I interact with that world? And then the physics comes through because that's how I understand how I interact with that world. And I think it's more exciting. The purpose of homework is different. The homework is so that you can have opportunities to practice skills.

I often talk to my students about how your brain is this clouded forest and you walk through it once you can get there. But it's a lot of hard work. The more you keep doing that path over and over again, it gets easier and easier, and the purpose of all the homework and that practice is to make that path easier or make your brain pathways open up for that. -- Physics teacher Charles Swift.

How have parents responded?

Stack:  I think a lot of parents fear that this movement is part of that "every child gets a trophy" mentality that we hear a lot about and that we're looking for a system that rewards everybody for doing good things, and we do have a system where we're not expecting kids to fail and we're trying to make sure that no child fails. But I wouldn't call it a system where we're trying to reward every child with a trophy. We're really just trying to stay laser-focused on making sure that kids don't have gaps in their learning and those gaps don't expand from the elementary years into the middle years into the high school years. And that's a really important thing. Our job as educators is to make sure that every student crosses a threshold of understanding so that they're going to be productive citizens in our local communities, in the state, in our country, and in the global society. And that's a really tall order I think. And parents don't really understand the gravity of what that means at the classroom level and why we're doing things radically different.

In concept- I like the idea of the competency system however in practice it is not holding up to it’s promise. As one of your guests mentioned, they see it as mostly a grading and reporting system, as does Deerfield. However, as designed by the state the grading goes hand- in - glove with self passed learning. If a child is not deemed competent they should slow down and gain the competency before moving on. THIS IS NOT HAPPENING. The class moves on and the child is stuck playing keep-up ( with the new material) and catch up ( on the material they deemed less than competent). This is a horrible, viscous cycle that is demotivating to many students. On the flip side, the “ advanced competent” is often so hard to attain that my very skilled, highly motivated daughters gave up trying for it. -- Exchange listener Nancy from Deerfield

Freeman responds: I don't think that we're expert in this approach just yet. And there are issues that we're working through as we try to take a system that was designed for a previous age that no longer fits students today, communities today,  and employers’ needs toda; and we're trying to make a significant shift while we're still having kids and teachers in that system. So the issue of equity is an issue of a traditional system. And if we had a personalized system that was fully functioning and students were treated in an equitable manner and we had high quality instruction for all students and the ability to meet each student where he or she is coming into the class or coming into the content -- then what your listener described wouldn't be occurring. And so that's where we're headed.

How has the role of teacher changed?

Freeman:  You have to get out of your mind the picture of a teacher standing in front of a class giving a lecture for 45 minutes, five days a week. That really does not happen, although the teacher may lecture on occasion. That teacher really is primarily providing coaching for students as they move through the competency work, so in Pittsfield one of the things we had to do is to redefine the role of teachers. We actually redefined the role of everybody in the school district around a personalized learning environment.

What does it mean to be a student in this system? 

Freeman: Kids have a lot of options, and part of the push here in Pittsfield is to allow students to have options in finding their own pathway through what is considered high school; so we do have kids graduate in three years; we have kids graduate in five years; we have kids who are ready to graduate in three years but then stick around for a year because they like to do high-school sports. We've had kids graduate with a lot of college credits; we graduated a second semester sophomore from Pittsfield High School this past June.

So it's opening up options for kids; it also allows for students to go outside of the school building and to learn from others in the community. For example. we had a student two years ago get a physical education credit around her horseback riding; she didn't just ride the horse but she did a lot of a lot of other work. We had a student years ago receive a social studies credit for his study of the Biblical Abraham and his impact on the contemporary world -- not a course we offer in Pittsfield but we were able to connect him with the religious leaders of the major faiths here in in New Hampshire and with a social studies teacher and with his pastor to conduct this study. So options open up tremendously. Again it's personal pathways -- kids finding their way through school in a manner that's meaningful for them.

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