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Five Things That Changed At My School When We Adopted Competencies

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

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

Jumping into the deep end of competency education

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.

The second best time is now.”

This ancient Chinese proverb sums up my view on why, just three years ago, it was time for my school, Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, to stop “talking” about making the change to a competency-based grading and reporting model, and why it was time to start “doing it.” With a leap of faith in support of the latest educational research from authors Colby, Marzano, O’Connor, Reeves, Stiggins, and Wormeli, our school community “jumped into the deep end of the pool” of high school redesign. Looking back on this now, I firmly believe it was the best thing we could have done. While we haven’t solved all of our issues yet, I think we are well on our way toward realizing our vision of “learning for all, whatever it takes.”

As you might expect, our leap of faith into the deep end of the pool didn’t happen without some advanced strategic planning and groundwork. In the years leading up to our jump, teachers in my school spent a great deal of time developing common course-based competencies and making sure they were aligned to the New Hampshire Grade Span Expectations (GSEs) and ultimately the common core. They worked in teams to develop common assessments and common rubrics to measure student learning. As a school, we talked about the importance of focusing our professional work on student learning and mastery of competencies. Still, we were only scratching the surface of our potential. We knew that if we truly wanted to impact student learning on a large-scale in our school, we were going to have to operate differently.

Last year, we developed a blueprint to help us become a premiere high school in New Hampshire. We identified three “pillars” of success, and we recognized that if we could do these three things well, then everything else would fall into place:

Pillar One:  Our LEARNING COMMUNITIES work interdependently to advance student learning and academic performance for which we are collectively responsible and mutually accountable.

Pillar Two:  Our STUDENTS ARE ENGAGED in learning tasks and performance assessments that accurately measure learning and mastery of competency.

Pillar Three:  Our community fosters a POSITIVE SCHOOL CULTURE AND CLIMATE for each of our stakeholders that promotes respect, responsibility, ambition, and pride.

Since the adoption of our pillar model, we have made some great strides toward becoming a premiere school. Here are five ways our school has changed since we went to a competency-based model:


1. ) Our school is now structured into small learning communities for all students in grades 9 and 10. There are plans to look at career-path learning communities for grades 11 and 12 in the next couple of years.

Why this matters: In the past, we organized our professional learning community (PLC) teams by content-area (departments). While this model was useful for discussing curriculum and engaging in vertical planning within specific disciplines, our teams were never able to get to the heart of the conversations they needed to have if they were truly going to be a PLC – conversations about student learning. By making the shift to small learning communities and reorganizing our teams by grade level, we have created the natural groupings that we need in order to advance as PLC teams. Currently at Sanborn, there are 7 small learning community teams that in some way share common students:  Freshman, sophomore, junior/senior, math, career and technical education, world language, and fine & performing arts.


2.) We all use a common set of grading procedures that are “competency-friendly.” These procedures include language for the use of formative and summative assessments that link to competencies, a requirement that at least 90% of a final grade is based on these summative assessments, the use of reassessments for students who do not score at a proficient level on a summative assessment on their first attempt, and the elimination of the “zero” from our numerical system.

Why This Matters:  Since the teachers in our PLC teams now share common language and common expectations for grading, it makes it easier for them to have the serious and meaningful conversations about student learning. It makes it easier for each PLC team to develop common performance assessments that assess student mastery of course-based competencies and to use those assessments as part of a data cycle that includes the following action items:

  • Establishment of targeted learning goals;
  • Development of instructionally relevant assessments;
  • Generation of valid data;
  • Analysis of that data; and
  • Implementation of targeted improvements


3.) We report student progress based on mastery of common course competencies and school-wide expectations for learning.

Why This Matters:  A lot of schools in New Hampshire will tell you that they “do” competencies. By that, most schools mean that each team or department has worked together to define competencies and develop common assessments to measure these competencies. Students are relatively aware that their grade, in some way, is connected to these competencies. At Sanborn, we “do” competencies too, but for us the act of “doing” is at a higher level. Mastery of course-based competencies is not just part of a student’s final course grade at Sanborn, it IS their grade. In order to receive credit for a class, students must be at a proficient level in each of the competencies assigned to that course. The report card allows us to be crystal clear with students about the skills and the learning that they are responsible for in each of their classes. This raises the bar for academics at our school.


4.) Our grades separate academics and behaviors. Final course grades are now purely based on what it is our students know and are able to do.

Why This Matters:  Years ago, parents and students would express frustrations over the varying grading practices that teachers used to calculate a final course grade. Over time, in my community, they came to use the phrase “Sanborn A” to represent a phenomenon of grade inflation that they were experiencing at Sanborn. Although teachers would do their best to try to raise the academic bar in their classes, their efforts were met with limited success because our school was using a very flawed set of grading practices that melded together both academic and behavioral grades. Most teachers at the time would put quite a bit of weight into cumulative tests designed to measure a student’s ability to access, synthesize, and extend the material that was presented in class. Doing well on these tests was the obvious way to get an “A” in the class. I met a lot of “A” students; however, who openly admitted they were not good test-takers. For them, they were able to rely on “behaviors” and “good study habits” such as turning in homework on time, participating in class, and doing extra credit assignments to boost their grade.  While admittedly these are all desirable behaviors that “good” students should have, using these behaviors to calculate a final course grade was resulting in a misrepresentation of what it is students knew and were able to do. It led to gaps in learning and, over time, the concept of an “Easy A” developed at my school. By separating academic and behavior grades, we have helped restore the validity that an “A” has in our grading. An “A” now means that a student has exceeded the academic standard or skill for that competency or course. This shift is having a huge impact on learning at our school.


5.) Our teachers have recommitted to the ideals of the professional learning community (PLC) model and are well on their way toward implementing these ideals in a way that focuses our teams on student learning and mastery of competencies like they never have before.

Why This Matters: Rick DuFour, one of the leading experts of the professional learning community model, once defined a team to me as a “group of people working interdependently to achieve a common goal for which members are collectively responsible and mutually accountable.” In all areas of the public and private sector, we organize ourselves into highly-functioning teams because we know that is the most efficient way to operate. Why then, in schools, do we treat teachers as independent contractors of student learning? Rick DuFour believes that when schools can organize themselves into highly functioning teacher teams that are focused on learning, great things will begin to happen. As a school administrator, my job is to provide teachers with an organizational structure and the time to be able to meet in these teams. This was as true for us at Sanborn as it would be for any school that wants to take their PLCs to the “next level.” I can see first-hand from some of my amazing staff members that when you give teachers time and structure, they really will do amazing things. I often tell people that my role as the principal is to give them wings and let them fly. My teams amaze me every day.


As a building principal, I feel such a renewed sense of confidence in our system that when I am talking with parents about concerns they are having in one of our classrooms or with one of our staff members, I can say to them that it doesn’t matter which teacher their child has, our school is committed to the same goals, and our teachers all hold students to the same academic, social, and civic expectations.

With that same level of confidence, I can openly tell parents that regardless of the teacher or the course, grading is an exercise in professional judgment wherein an educator seeks to ensure that the grade each student receives is an accurate representation of his or her learning.

Our system isn’t perfect yet. We have much work to be done in the areas of developing quality performance assessments based on higher-order thinking, we plan to continue to grow and refine our professional learning community model, and we need to focus more efforts on addressing students who struggle with learning as well as those who excel. Having said all of this, I am confident we are well on our way toward being a premiere high school in New Hampshire and beyond.

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.