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Aurora Institute

Competency-Based Education: The Break from Tradition that Our Schools Need

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

At this year’s iNACOL 2018 Symposium, I will have two opportunities to share my thoughts and experiences after spending a decade leading a New Hampshire high school through a transformation from a traditional to a competency-based system. The first will be in a Sunday morning pre-conference session entitled “Learning from School-Based Practitioners: Building a Successful Competency-Based Education System in your District/School.” There, my colleague Jonathan Vander Els and I will share resources and tools from our 2017 Solution Tree book entitled Breaking With Tradition, the Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work. On Tuesday morning, Jonathan and I will join our good friends: competency educational specialist Rose Colby and Ace Parsi of the National Center for Learning Disabilities for a breakout session entitled “Leveraging Competency Education to Promote Equity for ALL Students by Prioritizing Academic and Personal Competencies Supported by Effective Leadership, Personalization, and PLCs.”

I’m excited to share my experiences this year at iNACOL because 2018 marks my ten-year anniversary working in a competency-based education model. It was ten years ago this fall that my New Hampshire school leadership team and I first made the decision to build such a model for our K-12 school system. We have certainly had our ups and our downs, but as I look now at the model we have created, I am happy to report that we have reached a level of implementation where competency-education has become a part of our school’s culture. It is no longer considered “new” but rather it is thought of as “what we do” and “who we are.”

The transition to CBL has questioned my thinking about instructional practices and overall philosophy about education. It has tested my resolve as a school leader as I have been questioned about – and in some cases asked to defend – parts of the model to various stakeholders. Most importantly, the work has given me a great sense of satisfaction as a principal that I am positively impacting my students, my school, and the profession through work that is making a difference.

As an early adopter of this model and this work in the nation, not a week goes by that I don’t get asked by a school leader somewhere in the country if I could offer advice from my own experience making the transition as they engage in similar work in their schools. In my book Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency Based Learning in PLCs at Work, my co-author Jonathan Vander Els and I take on this topic by developing a “top five” list of advice for school leaders:

  • Include all stakeholders in the work. For any change, buy-in is an incredibly powerful prerequisite to have in order to sustain the work. As a school leader, you will need the buy-in and commitment from all of your school’s stakeholders, including teachers, students, parents, and community members, in order to make CBL become the culture in your school. When done correctly, it will be these stakeholders who will “teach” others how to adopt the school’s CBL culture across all aspects of the school community.
  • Be a prophet of research. To engage in this work in 2018, know that you can stand on the shoulders of giants such as Thomas R. Guskey, Ken O’Connor, Douglas Reeves, and Rick Wormeli, among others. They have paved the way for you by providing decades of research to show that these systems work. There will be many in your school community who will struggle with this transition as it breaks from the traditional model for school to which they have grown accustomed. Don’t let them challenge the work with their traditional views. Be a prophet of research, and bring research into the discussion whenever possible.
  • Don’t compromise the model. Too often, schools make concessions and compromises with stakeholders in the community who are not ready to accept the competency education philosophy. This can be a difficult trap for a school principal to get caught up in, particularly if a compromise seems like a way to get non-believers to support the work. Be true to the model and stay the course; don’t let the model get watered down or misdirected by a compromise that doesn’t fit the school’s beliefs.
  • Keep student learning at the center. Aren’t we all here for the kids? When doing this work, people will sometimes forget that. The hallmark of the CBL philosophy is to provide a laser-focus on student learning in ways that we have never had before. As the principal and leader of the change, you will have to constantly remind your school community of this by repeating phrases like “grades are about what students learn, not what they earn” and “learning for all, whatever it takes.” When teams get derailed from their work, remind them to focus on student, not adult issues. Above all, keep students at the center of all that your school does.
  • Start today. There is an ancient Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is now.” No amount of planning will ever completely prepare your school to be successful in this journey, but you don’t have to have all of the answers before your school begins. Start your school’s journey today, even if you start slow. Doing something will be better than doing nothing. Your students deserve it. Your teachers deserve it. You deserve it.

In Dr. Richard DuFour’s book In Praise of American Educators, he writes, “Changing the traditional culture of public schools that has endured for more than a century is no easy task, but at no point in American history have the stakes for our students been greater.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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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.