Implementing competency-based learning the New Hampshire way

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Education Next featured an in-depth report on competency-based education in New Hampshire and how the state is leading the nation in innovative educational models. Most notably, the report emphasized the way that the state has stayed true to its roots and allowed local districts to lead the way in implementing the new model and understanding the advantages and challenges that go along with it:

New Hampshire’s commitment to competency-based education grew out of more than two decades of conversations at the state and district levels about what and how New Hampshire students ought to be learning. In particular, parents and educators were concerned with how to ensure real-world relevance in New Hampshire’s curriculum and assessment. These conversations culminated in statewide meetings starting in 2003–04, during which students, parents, educators, and administrators proposed guiding principles that would refocus the school system on students’ needs…

About half of the schools have invested deeply in building competency-based models—creating opportunities for students to move at a flexible, personalized pace; providing supplemental content for students who are struggling or who want to move ahead; and making assessments more frequent and formative, with a focus on demonstrating mastery in real-world examples and settings. Other schools have remained tethered to time-based practices such as end-of-unit summative assessments and fixed, whole-class pacing. Students at these schools still move through material as a class, rather than at a flexible pace based on their individual mastery. Consequently, they still stand to accumulate gaps in learning that the state’s competency-based policies were intended to prevent.

Ed Next highlighted how the move to competency-based education prepared Milan Village School’s students for 21st century life:

…Milan Village School, an elementary and middle school in northern New Hampshire, turned to competency-based education as one component of a fundamental redesign. Although the elementary school was not subject to the original 2005 high school mandate, David Backler, the principal of Milan Village, wanted to prepare his students for the new economy by infusing technology into instruction. In his words, “In the past, all our high school programs were geared toward the idea that 80 percent of students would go work at the mill [Milan and the surrounding area were home to a number of sawmills throughout the 19th and 20th centuries]. That’s completely changed. Blended learning is at the core of what these kids need to become engaged learners.” Backler led his teachers in designing a blended curriculum to meet these new needs. For example, math students in grades 2 through 6 use online playlists and off-line projects at the discretion of their teachers. Students in a single classroom may be working on entirely different portions of the curriculum depending on their level of mastery. For Backler and his team, competency-based education undergirds the flexible pacing that is inherent in their particular blended-learning model.

Some administrators and teachers within New Hampshire see what other districts are doing and are under the impression that they can’t do the same in their classrooms. But really, the state says it’s not true, and is in fact encouraging every school to personalize their learning framework:

One interpretation of the range of practice in New Hampshire is that the state has effectively lifted barriers to innovation. Rose Colby, a competency-based education consultant, says that is a good thing. “I think the advantage we [New Hampshire] have is that we have much broader policy so that as different schools are talking about doing different things, there’s nothing that stops them,” Colby said. She has worked extensively with a subset of school systems eager to embrace the new policy to aid in their implementation of competency-based learning.

The department has also attempted to bolster the incentives and requirements laid out in policy. “We realized that our competency-based policies were not urging schools to focus on personalized learning to the degree we had hoped,” [Deputy Commissioner of Education, Paul] Leather said. “Schools were articulating competencies and awarding diplomas based on mastery, but in many classrooms, instruction still looked similar to the old, time-based system.” As a result, in early 2014, the department further amended its regulations to mandate that districts solidify their competency-based approaches.

The regulations place renewed emphasis on districts’ targeting of individual students’ needs. “The latest regulations include more levers to encourage schools to offer multiple pathways to competency and more forms of assessment, in order to meet different learners’ needs,” Leather said…

Specifically, the state now requires districts to create local policies that ensure that they are “meeting the instructional needs of each individual student” and to show that they provide alternative means of demonstrating achievement such as extended learning opportunities, career and technical education courses, and distance education.

Read the full report here.