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Aurora Institute

Advice for School Principals on Implementing Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

Brian Stack
Brian Stack

This past week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with school principals from Henry County, Georgia in an effort to help them get ready to start their own competency education and personalized learning journey. Henry County has committed to a redesign structure framed around five personalized learning tenets: Learner Profiles, Competency Based Learning, Project Based Learning, 21st Century Skills, and Technology Enabled Learning. Work is now underway in their schools to move their plan into action from just a few cohort schools to all of the schools in their county. As a high school principal from New Hampshire who underwent a similar school redesign just five years ago, I came to Georgia to offer these great principals some words of “wisdom” from a practical sense, using my own redesign journey as a guide. The experience for me personally was an opportunity to reflect back on what I have had to do as a school principal to help support this massive change process in our school community. The focus of this article is to share some of that advice for other principals who are likely to start this kind of work in the coming months or years.

To frame my advice, I will use the work of Kotter (1996) on leading change in an organization. Although Kotter’s work was written originally for the business world, it can easily be transferred to education. It is a perfect guide for principals who are leading a transition to competency education in their school. To illustrate his research in a practical manner, Kotter (2005) later wrote a fable about a colony of penguins living on an iceberg off the coast of Antarctica who discover that their iceberg is going to melt over the coming season and they need to convince the colony that they need to relocate and change how they live. Five years ago our school district used this fable to help our administrators, myself included, understand their role in the redesign and change process. The fable follows Kotter’s multi step process for successful change and will frame my advice for principals.

1) Set the stage by creating a sense of urgency and pulling together a guiding team.

Not everyone in a school community will believe that a change to competency education is necessary for the long term health of their organization. In Antarctica, the penguins were not all convinced that their iceberg would break apart from the refreezing of cracks in the iceberg core until one penguin did an experiment with a glass bottle to demonstrate how it would crack into pieces when water froze inside of it. That illustration created the sense of urgency that other penguins needed to motivate them to support a change plan. From there, the penguin leader was able to pull together a guiding team from the colony to create that plan.

It is the role of the principal to create the sense of urgency that will motivate others to want to act immediately. For my school, our “glass bottle” moment came from not one but rather several different places. Mediocre standardized test scores were one glass bottle for us. Our school community aspired to be better than “average” on measures such as our state test, the SAT, etc. Another glass bottle was that our classrooms lacked rigor. This became apparent when we realized that our kids were getting great individual course grades but those grades were not translating into increased individual student performance in college and beyond. Our best and brightest were struggling against their peers from other high schools when they got to college. For many, the most compelling “glass bottle” was the realization that our one-size-fits-all approach to education was just not working for many of the students in our system, and our drop out and course failure rates were just the tip of the data iceberg that was telling us that.

As a principal, I worked with my leadership team to turn those glass bottle illustrations into urgency, and that sense of urgency is what allowed our school community to support the establishment of a guiding team to develop our competency education school redesign plan several years ago.

2) Decide what to do and make it happen by developing the change vision and strategy, communicating for understanding and buy-in, empowering others to act, producing short-term wins, and resolving not to let up.

Once a guiding team has developed an appropriate plan, the real work of creating buy-in and empowering others to become part of the solution lies on the shoulders of the leaders. For the penguins, they started marketing campaigns to help penguins understand why their iceberg would soon be gone and what their iceberg relocation options were. They combatted the penguins’ personal feelings and opinions on the problem with facts, figures, and research on the impact of icebergs on melting. They enlisted a brave group of scout penguins to go out and survey the nearby land to find a new home and they took steps to honor those scouts as heroes in the penguin community when they returned. Finally, the penguin leader and the guiding team were relentless with initiating the plan, step by step, until the vision became a reality.

The process of communicating our competency education plan to our stakeholders in our school district took many forms. As administrators, we offered coffee hours and parent information nights with our parents. We held assemblies for our students and countless staff meetings for our staff. As principals in our district, many of us took to writing about the various aspects of the change process on blogs that we shared with our school communities. This act, ironically, is what ultimately led me to sharing my writing with CompetencyWorks!

One of the most heart-felt parts of Kotter’s penguin fable came when a group of scout penguins were honored as heroes with medals by the leaders when they returned home from a difficult scouting mission to find a new home. The medals were a way to create a short-term victory celebration for the colony in the middle of their stressful change process. This is important. At my school, we had a similar experience. Early in our implementation, a pilot cohort competency education team of teachers was honored by the National School Board Association (NSBA) with a first place Magna Award for innovation. The award, much like the penguin hero medals, served to re-energize our school community and remind all of us that we were on the path towards realizing our vision.

In an earlier article for CompetencyWorks, I wrote about the power of resolute leadership, the resolve that a school leader must face when others try to poke holes in the redesign vision or plan. This article underscores that above all, a principal must never let up on his or her commitment to achieving the vision set forth in the redesign plan.

3) Make it stick by creating a new culture.

The penguin colony came to realize that they would never again have a permanent home. Due to global warming, icebergs would no longer be stable enough to last forever. The colony had resigned itself to becoming nomads who would travel year to year to new homes, and they worked hard to help their community embrace that new culture and way of life.

In my school district, we too realized that we would never go back to traditional education. Although it was a difficult transition to make at first, over time our teachers and even our students began to understand that the traditional assessment and grading practices we used to use were doing little, if anything, to promote academic rigor and help our students become college and career ready. Some of our teachers came to understand that what they used to do with grading was just plain wrong and was hurting students, and went against all the research we have come to understand on how students learn. Competency education, for us, is still an idea in its infancy. As the principal, one of my jobs is to help my school community hold on to this new philosophy and make sure the school community can succeed until they become strong enough to put to rest the old traditions and beliefs about learning they grew up with and embrace competency education as our new culture, our new way of acting and being as a school community.

This article was written originally for


Kotter, J. (1996). Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Kotter, J. and Rathgeber, H. (2005). Our Iceberg is Melting, Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Brian M. Stack is the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, an author for Solution Tree, and also serves as an expert for, a division of the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, DC. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bstackbu or visit his blog.