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Aurora Institute

Competency Education Supports Both Traditional and CTE Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction, Learn Lessons from the Field

Sanborn Regional High Principal Brian Stack
Sanborn Regional High Principal Brian Stack

Amanda is a typical high school student who loves spending time with her friends, participating in a variety of clubs and activities, and doing well in school. Since a very young age, she has wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become an emergency room nurse. My school is preparing her for that demanding career with a competency-based model that has been designed to help her master a series of academic competencies, academic behaviors, and college and career-ready skills. Our competency-based model engages Amanda in her learning in ways that traditional high school models never could.

Five years ago, the administrative team in my school district and I began suggesting that our school make the move to a competency-based grading and reporting system. We knew that was going to be a monumental shift for some of our elementary and secondary teachers, but that it wouldn’t be such a bold move for others. The career and technical education (CTE) teachers and administrators who work at our regional CTE center, for example, applauded our efforts to move the school district to the model that they had always used to define their work.In the world of CTE, the idea of holding students accountable for their learning and assessing them on their mastery of course competencies is not a new concept. They have been doing this long before the rest of us in public education started calling it competency education. They had to because in most CTE programs, performance and the product are EVERYTHING. In the real world, no one would hire a contractor to build their house if he or she failed the Understands how to integrate local building codes into construction design competency in school. No one would eat at a restaurant where the chef didn’t meet proficiency on the Understands safe food handling procedures competency. Nobody would send their children to a daycare facility where the childcare provider didn’t pass the Understands how to use knowledge of child development to create appropriate lessons and activities for different age groups competency. In every profession, there are skills and competencies that we as consumers expect professionals to have mastered as part of their career training. They are non-negotiable.

Our American educational system has begun to take a hard look at competency education in the interest of college and career readiness, the educational buzz phrase of recent years that came about with the arrival of the Common Core. In 2013, in a webinar produced by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Deputy Commissioner, Paul Leather, articulated bold new parameters for thinking about how high schools approach college and career readiness:

 If we believe all students must be college- and career-ready…

Then our system must advance students as they demonstrate mastery of content, skills, and dispositions…

               Which requires a comprehensive system of educator and school supports.

In this same webinar, I presented how my school, Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, has begun to think differently about college and career-readiness. We took our cue from CTE and we developed three beliefs to govern our redesign. These beliefs came to be known as our three pillars, and we believe that if we continue to focus on them, we will exceed the expectations that the NH Department of Education has set for all New Hampshire high schools.

The Three Pillars of Sanborn Regional High School:

  1. LEARNING COMMUNITIES:  We believe that our learning communities need to work interdependently to advance student learning and academic performance, work for which we are collectively responsible and mutually accountable.
  2. STUDENT ENGAGEMENT:  We believe that our students need to be engaged in learning tasks and performance assessments that accurately measure learning and mastery of competency.
  3. CLIMATE & CULTURE:  We believe that our community needs to foster a positive school culture and climate for each of our stakeholders that promote respect, responsibility, ambition, and pride.

Our school’s student engagement pillar organizes our school into one that supports competency education, but it is our learning communities’ pillar that provides the structures to ensure that we are able to support competency education for all students at all levels. At Sanborn, our grade 9 and 10 students are organized into small learning community teams, with educators from all content areas meeting regularly as a Professional Learning Community (PLC). These PLC teams work collaboratively to ensure that all students have the resources to master each of the course-based and school-wide competencies.

In grades 11 and 12, we organize our students into small learning communities by career interest. We believe that all students, regardless of their post-secondary plans, can benefit from this model. The Career Pathway Learning Communities at Sanborn are:

  • Arts, Communications, and the Humanities
  • Business and Manufacturing
  • Human Services
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)

Each career pathway can accommodate a range of students, from those who plan to enter the workforce right away to those who are pursuing advanced placement study options in high school, elite colleges and beyond.

Imagine what your high school experience would have been like if you were able to associate with other students who shared the same career interests as you did throughout your high school career. What would it have been like if you had the opportunity to engage in enrichment activities and programming that related to topics you might one day want to pursue? How much different would your high school experience have been if you had pursued an in-depth experience that related to your career interests? This experience could have been tied to an independent project, internship, action research experiment, or similar personalized experience of your choosing.

At my school, this vision is exactly where we are headed. In grades 11 and 12, we connect student learning to career interests. Whether it is courses or other credit-earning extended learning experiences, our students are engaged in learning tasks and performance assessments that accurately measure learning and mastery of competency. All of our learning communities, both the student and the professional ones, work interdependently to advance student learning and academic performance. It is work for which we are collectively responsible and mutually accountable. Through this work, our school community fosters a positive school culture and climate for each of our stakeholders that promote respect, responsibility, ambition, and pride.

Amanda is going to be well prepared for college and a career as an emergency room nurse. Perhaps she may decide along the way to become a doctor instead. All children, regardless of their post-secondary plans, deserve a rigorous learning experience.  At Sanborn, we believe that all students can be college and career ready and we accept the New Hampshire Department of Education’s challenge to us to develop a comprehensive system of educator and school supports for college and career readiness. Is your school ready to accept this challenge?


Alliance for Excellent Education, Strengthening High School Teaching and Learning in New Hampshire’s Competency-Based System, Alliance for Excellent Education Webinar Series, Washington, D.C., retrieved January 22, 2013.



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.