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Aurora Institute

Hand in Hand: Pittsfield Integrates Personalized Learning and Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

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(This is the second in a series about Pittsfield. See Part 1, Part 3 and Part 4.)

One of my big takeaways from my visit to New Hampshire is that personalized learning and competency education go hand in hand.  When personalizing education, you can’t be sure you are helping kids reach proficiency without the competency-based infrastructure and you can’t help each and every student become proficient without personalization.

Pittsfield School District (PSD) understands this. Building upon their competency education infrastructure, they are personalizing the educational experience for students in at least these four ways:

#1 Taking Student Voice Seriously

PSD focuses on student voice as much as choice.  As described in the first post, there is a pervasive belief that engagement is core to academic success and sustainability.  Engagement starts with respecting and listening to different perspectives – so much of the engagement is directed at including student voice and investing in their leadership development.

PSD has prepared for student voice in two ways. First, structurally, they are creating formal avenues for youth participation. At the Pittsfield Middle and High School (PMHS), the majority of the School Council members are students.  PMHS also has brought in consultants to help the school support students and adults in working collaboratively on the Council. It doesn’t stop there – students have the majority on the school’s Advisory Council, Impact Team, and Justice Committee.  These all give students the voice to make changes in the school so that it develops into the school they wish it to be.

There is also an ongoing discussion, let’s call it professional development, among educators on the implications of student voice and choice within the learning process.  Sue Graham, Dean of Instruction, explained that it starts with teachers unpacking the standards and competencies to identify the enduring questionsTeachers begin to ask, “What are the different ways students can get to those competencies?” She pointed out that the depth of knowledge teachers have in their content area makes a difference.  The more knowledgeable teachers are of the discipline and the competencies, the more comfortable they are in offering flexibility to their students. Increasingly, teachers are starting to understand that if they don’t know where students struggle and where the misconceptions are occurring, they are limited in how they can help the students overcome them.  

Rose Colby, who joined me on the visit, observed that teachers are changing some of their practices for unit planning.  In the teacher-driven, time-driven practices, on Fridays, teachers turn in their plans for what curriculum they plan to cover over the following five school days. In the personalized, competency-based environment, the curriculum is a roadmap, but teachers know that they have to build in flexibility – in case students raise unexpected issues or want to explore more deeply or if they need more time and support. Rose explained, “There is a resiliency that develops in order for educators and administrators to respond to student agency in the moment.”

Pittsfield has done extensive work in upgrading their teacher evaluation process. However, as they further institutionalize personalized, competency-based education, it’s likely they will want to rethink teacher evaluation. One of the emerging issues is that personalized instructional approaches are not entirely consistent with the Danielson model upon which the New Hampshire teacher evaluation system is based. Furthermore, personalization has not yet been integrated into the state professional standards. PSD uses the CCSR Transformational Roadmap to guide conversations with educators about where each is on the continuum and to design professional development to help them move towards the student-centered model.

#2 Structuring Personalization Through Advisories, Personalized Learning Plans and Student-led Conferences

Pittsfield Middle High School (PMHS) thinks deeply about how to structure the school and operations around students.  They start with daily advisories that have their own set of competencies. Advisories are organized around two-year bands – grades 7-8, 9-10, and 11-12. Students work with each other and the same teacher for two years, allowing relationships to grow.

Within the advisories, students develop their personalized learning plan.  Each semester, the advisers facilitate student-led conferences in which students reflect on their academic, personal, and social growth. They create a portfolio that is a collection of their work, reflections and evidence of their growth and includes examples of competency-based assessments that reflect the strengths and/or weaknesses of the student.  Once PMHS implemented student-led conferences, with students owning the process and describing their growth, hopes, and dreams, parent participation jumped from 10% to 90%.

Advisory is the foundation of PMHS – Advisory is based on building community and preparing students for college and career success. This was accomplished through the creation of five competencies. The competencies have assisted in the development of curriculum and assessment that is meaningful to students and relevant to their post-secondary success. The assessment of competencies is done through student self-reflection as well as the collection of evidence which is stored in the portfolio.

#3 Expanding Multiple Pathways of Learning

PSD is expanding the range of learning experiences and offering more choices for students to find ways to connect academic learning with real-world experiences and challenges.

Learning Studios:  PSD has created 20-week long Learning Studios, a once-a-week opportunity for students to pursue interdisciplinary investigations. The studios are designed as project-based learning, assuring that students have the opportunity to develop Level 4 Knowledge Utilization skills. (NH uses Webb’s Depth of Knowledge taxonomy).  Teachers design the studios around essential questions, such as:

  •  What type of mission should NASA spend the majority of its budget on in the future? As members of the NASA Budget Subcommittee, participants study space exploration to research past, present, and future NASA missions, and decide how to spend NASA’s budget.
  •  How can a business or person create a quality event that is both profitable and entertaining? Through project, students design and organize while applying mathematical skills, creativity, and imagination. Students will be responsible for all aspects of producing the event, from creating a business plan that includes profit and loss ratios, break-even points, ticket design, and an advertising campaign.

Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO)PMHS takes advantage of the NH policy that enables students to build skills, demonstrate competencies and earn credit from experiences outside of the school. In some cases, higher education partners have enabled students to earn college credit, as well. PMHS sees this as an opportunity to support student interests and pursue learning in areas that cannot be offered within the school.  Extended Learning Opportunities Coordinator Sheila Ward explained that “ELOs led the effort to personalize education and was offered to the faculty as a model of competency-based education. Teachers were developing competencies based on standards while working collaboratively with students to develop learning activities and assessments based on what was important and relevant to the student. It was a way for both to become more comfortable and experienced with competency-based education.’” Ward emphasized, “Educators were no longer making the decisions about assessment. They were beginning to ask students to think more critically and deeper about their learning by asking the students if they could think of other ways to demonstrate competencies.”

Ward pointed out that “without a competency-based education infrastructure, ELOs can be fluff. CBE has ensured rigor. With the design and required components of an ELO, they are as are as strenuous as any traditional course.”

In designing ELOs, Ward works with students who earn credit in an area of interest or passion. Sometimes they are career-related and sometimes not. In some cases, ELOs build upon what students are already doing outside of school. Some students who need a particular credit to graduate can build upon their extracurricular activities to do so such as for those missing PE credits.  ELOs can also be used for credit recovery by providing students with an alternative to repeating a course. Developing an ELO may start small with job shadowing and informational interviews but typically develop into something much larger by the time the final plans are approved.

“The awesome part of ELOs is we are able to connect the learning experience to core content areas. English Language Arts and social studies are the easiest to connect to because they are so transparent.” Ward continued, “We work with students and teachers to draw standards and competencies from PMHS courses to create ELOs that include academic rigor, personal relevance, and foster relationships between students and their communities. The ELO team develops learning activities and required assessments to evaluate the mastery of said competencies. Rubrics, created with the student and teacher, are then shaped around the specific learning experience and standards.”

Ward explained that students come to her with an interest and together they develop an ELO.  Each ELO is different, based on student interest, what the mentor can do, and where students are in their learning progression. Every ELO, however, involves research, reflection, product/project and presentation that links to Common Core ELA standards. Through biweekly discussions with students, Ward uses discussion-based learning probes to ensure that students are reflecting deeply on their learning, using 21st-century skills and building their writing skills.  The other weeks, the students meet with a highly qualified teacher.  The final presentation is in front of 50-75 people, including school board members, PSD administrators, teachers, mentors, family and community members.  Students practice with a variety of self-assessments strategies including video to fine tune their presentation.

PSD has faced a few challenges, including not having the capacity to provide an ELO to every student every year because of the staffing needs required to do so and the strain on teacher time. Teachers currently use the flexible Wednesday scheduling to work with students on their ELOs.  Ward estimated that one very dedicated coordinator can work with a maximum of 60 students at a time. Ward explained that  running a successful program, one that accommodates a high number of students, has been possible because of her teaching credential and certification area.  Ward states, “My experience and teaching credentials allow me to do a great deal of the background and ground-laying work necessary for each ELO saving teachers valuable time. It also allows me to take on career exploration ELOs where English is the core content area.”

Access is a problem for some students who have to work to help support their families. Due to this reason, PMHS encourages students to use school vacations to take advantage of these learning experiences. Transportation is also a challenge, with PMHS relying on parents to transport unlicensed students to ELOs. They are currently involved in revising the ELO policy and locating additional finds to find alternative transportation options for these students.

Ward is beginning to work more with Pittsfield students and teachers in special education to have them use ELOs as part of required transition planning process. ELOs are being used as career exploration experiences as well as a way to develop personal, career, and professional skills.

(If you are interested in expanded learning opportunities see the evaluation of New Hampshire ELO on the wiki)

Blended Learning: PMHS decided to become a 1:1 school so it could further personalize learning.  Staff had to work through all the issues with stakeholders to decide on the device and manage safety issues. They now have iPads for every student and wifi access to the Web. They also built their capacity by establishing a new position of technology integrator, who coaches teachers on how to integrate technology into their curriculum.

There isn’t any one way at PMHS that teachers are integrating technology. Some teachers are using Google docs and having students submit work to folders. ALEKS is now available as an alternative or supplement for students taking algebra. PMHS considers themselves at the early stages of seeing how they can best take advantage of education technology.

PMHS offers an online lab where they can go to take or receive help with online classes. Due to the size of the school, students are encouraged to take classes that are not offered at PMHS. These include honors and AP classes as well as electives. Students are also provided an opportunity to take classes online when they do not fit in their schedule.

#4 Structuring Systemic Interventions for Struggling Students

PMHS has been testing different ways to respond to the need of students who are struggling or enter school more than one year behind in grade level.  They’ve developed a strong intervention system, with the emphasis on reaching students in middle school (PMHS is 6-12). They have reading and math specialists and are providing double doses of reading and math. They also are reaching into elementary school with a special education teacher at every grade level, working to help students learn foundational skills.

High school is harder as many of the students who are struggling have given up and don’t want to be in school at all. PMHS worked with the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School to provide competency recovery for students. They then began to build the capacity for competency recovery into PMHS, with resources set aside to support students during the summer.  They also are exploring ways to use personalized learning to respond to the need of struggling students, creating opportunities to build their skills through areas of interest instead of just repeating courses.

 Stay tuned for Parts 3 and 4 on Pittsfield School District