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Aurora Institute

Connecting the Dots: Aligning Efforts to Support Teachers and Students in New Hampshire

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jonathan Vander Els

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Making the shift to a competency-based and personalized model of education is a process that can be daunting to educators, especially those who work in a very traditional system. Last July I made the move from being the principal of a nationally recognized Professional Learning Community at Work school and competency-based learning environment to the executive director of the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to seeding and supporting innovative efforts in New Hampshire schools. I had been fortunate to be engaged in a number of the innovative efforts in New Hampshire while I was a principal, and I understood all too well that many educators did not see how the work that we were doing was connected. Anytime a school or district’s next steps are seen as “another initiative” the work is doomed to fail. I set out to connect the dots for as many as I could in my new role.

New Hampshire is quite well-known for an innovative assessment effort called PACE, but it is truly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the greater ecosystem of personalized learning in New Hampshire. The Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) is the only assessment and accountability waiver approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The results from PACE continue to surprise national experts in assessment, but not the educators directly involved. The results, when compared with SBAC, demonstrate high levels of inter-rater reliability, as well as growth for students in various cohorts, suggesting that opportunities for deeper learning are having a positive impact regardless of where a student is on his/her learning progression. This has been due to a number of factors, but what it comes down to is this: Our teachers, when provided the opportunity to learn deeply, reflect, and collaborate, really know their stuff, and when students are truly given the opportunity for deeper learning, they rise to that level of rigor.

But there was, and is, a piece of our balanced system of assessments that we continue to work on developing. The integration of skills and dispositions into curriculum, instruction, and assessment is an integral component of a competency-based system. There is a growing body of research supporting the absolute necessity of these non-curricular cognitive competencies to success in careers. Employers are identifying these skills as the ones critical to success in the workplace. In New Hampshire, these skills and dispositions are referred to as Work Study Practices (WSP). Our teachers, starting in the PACE schools, took on this challenge over the past two years, and the learning has been monumental. Through the facilitated and guided practice through modules created by 2Revolutions and support through MyWays tools, New Hampshire educators have the opportunity to delve into their own learning, then develop and implement tools and resources within their own classroom environments to integrate these all-important competencies into learning opportunities for students. Teachers from across the State of New Hampshire are then brought together for a facilitated opportunity to share their learning and resources with each other. The number of teachers involved in this effort has doubled over the past two years as educators recognize the importance of these competencies to preparing our students to be successful in today’s world.

Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs) provide students a chance to engage in pathways in real-world situations. In the State of New Hampshire, this work continues to develop, and is seen as an integral component of our ecosystem as it requires significant student agency and the development of the work study practices (above) that are critical for success in careers and in college. These work-based pathways extend into the significant work going on within our Career and Technical Education efforts throughout the state, as we attempt to provide not only a chance for students to learn more about their passions, but also better understand what it takes to be successful in various careers.

The project that is attempting to tie all of these other efforts together (and then some) is called NG2, or No Grades, No Grades. New Hampshire, an Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) grantee with its project (NG2) began to investigate what would happen if we allowed students to “move on when ready”, the first tenet of a competency model, and one that we had yet to really fully explore despite some of the other great work being done in other areas of competency-based and personalized learning. This became a significant focus for the work of NG2 schools, along with assessment of student learning through progressions (formative and summative). The attempt at providing truly personalized pathways based upon learning progressions is the driving force behind this work, and our work moving forward at all levels.

Through all of these efforts, it began to become clear how the work was truly tied together. First of all, each of the efforts directly aligned to one of the five parts within the current definition of competency education from iNACOL and CompetencyWorks. The PACE effort aligned to multiple tenets, #2 , #3, and #4 (competencies are robust, assessment is meaningful, and students receive timely, differentiated support). PACE assessments are given as part of students’ unit of instruction. They can be given anytime during the school year, and they require, through the performance assessment, for a student to demonstrate his/her learning at a Depth of Knowledge 3 or above. Additionally, the assessment itself drives the instruction. Teachers are able to utilize the results of the PACE common tasks immediately and provide the necessary support for students to continue to move forward along their learning progression.

The Work Study Practices effort (aligned to tenet #5) separates and reports on both academic competencies and non-academic cognitive competencies specific to skills and dispositions, allowing both to be given the proper attention each deserves. This effort is directly intertwined within PACE, ELOs and personalized pathways work, and the groundbreaking work occurring in NG2. We know, from multiple points of research, that these skills and dispositions are critical skills for employees to have, and in a competency system, we are able to (and should) bring them front and center.

One of the more successful ways we have been able to build capacity in our State this year has been through Innovation Studios. These Studios allow teachers and administrators the opportunity to bring a school team to an innovation site and see innovative practices first-hand. School teams then are provided with the facilitated time to design their own next steps to develop competency-based and personalized learning practices within their own schools. We have highlighted five of the PACE and/or NG2 schools (Parker Varney, Pittsfield Elementary, Souhegan High School, Maple Street Magnet and Sanborn Regional School District) as they are involved in PACE, have been part of the State’s Work Study Practices effort, and the elementary schools are working in grade bands to allow students to truly move on when ready.

Slowly but surely, we believe we are providing multiple entry points for educators interested in beginning the process of transforming their schools within New Hampshire and beyond. With patience, and focused support, once teachers have begun the process of exploring ways to personalize learning for their students, other questions arise about practices they’ve been traditionally engaged in. This leads to educators seeking resources for themselves to continue to support students in a competency-based system, refining practices related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment along the way. Teachers become the ones who are not only identifying their next steps, but also determining how each piece fits together to fully support personalized learning for all students.

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Jonathan is the Director of Innovative Projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, overseeing the personalized and competency-based work related to NG2: Next Generation Collaborative Learning Design and the State of New Hampshire’s efforts integrating Work Study Practices into curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Formerly, Jonathan was principal of Memorial Elementary School in Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire. Under his leadership, Memorial became a nationally recognized model professional learning community (PLC) on All Things PLC ( and competency-based learning elementary school.

Jonathan lives with his wife and three children on the New Hampshire Seacoast. You can follow Jonathan via Twitter @jvanderels