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Aurora Institute

How My Understanding of Competency-Based Education Has Changed Over the Years

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

StairsNext week, I am excited to be sharing the work that my team and I have done in New Hampshire on competency-based education with a group of South Carolina educators as part of the Transform SC institute on Meeting the Needs of Every Student With Competency Based Progression. My preparation for this institute has been an opportunity for me to reflect on what has now been a six-year journey with competency education with Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH. This past week, our school district was recognized for the second year in a row as a “leader in competency education” by Tom Vander Ark’s organization Getting Smart, noting that Sanborn was one of 30 School Districts Worth Visiting in 2015.

Throughout my journey as a building principal navigating the uncharted waters of a new competency education model, I have shared my thoughts, my reflections, and my research through articles on Competency Works. It has been three years since I wrote one of my first articles entitled Five Things That Changed At My School When We Adopted Competencies. I am often asked how my views of competency education have evolved during my tenure at Sanborn. In that 2012 article, I talked about how our school community decided to “jump into the deep end of the pool” of high school redesign in an effort to provide a better learning experience for our students with a new competency-based education model. I noted some big changes for our school community that, at the time, was in its second year of implementation of a competency education model that was adopted by our entire K-12 district. We were a school who was still very much in transition from an old way of thinking to a new one. We were leveraging our grading and reporting structures to ultimately help us transform instruction at the classroom model. Over the years, our understanding of competency education has deepened. We continue to learn more about ourselves each day through our work with our students and each other as professionals. When visitors come to our school and talk with our teachers and our students, here is what they often tell me they take away from their visit.

At Sanborn Regional High School:

  1. We believe that all students can and must learn. In each of our courses, our competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower our students. They address both the application and creation of knowledge and the development of work study practices.
  2. We believe that all teachers must approach grading in the same manner. Grades represent what students learn, not what they earn. We use a four-point letter rubric scale to report both assignment and competency levels of achievement. Numerical “grades” are used only to report final overall course grades so we can compute class rank and GPA for college application purposes. We do not mix academic grades with behavior grades.
  3. We believe that the most significant learning takes place for our students through reflection and reassessment. Our students use the feedback they receive from rubrics to help them understand how to improve their learning.
  4. We believe that our teachers are most effective when they work in teams. We use the Professional Learning Community (PLC) structure to focus our teams on student learning. Over the years, we have found ways to maximize the time allotted for our teachers to collaborate with their PLCs and this time is available to our teachers every day.
  5. We believe that assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students. Our teachers focus on providing quality aligned instruction and performance assessment practices that are tuned to standards, providing students with multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery.
  6. We believe that all students must receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs. We recognize that this support cannot always be embedded within the instructional time, and therefore our school has developed a structure to provide this support school-wide at a dedicated time each school day.
  7. We believe that there are many ways for our students to demonstrate mastery of competencies and thus earn credit for their graduation requirements. At our school, we have expanded credit-bearing opportunities far beyond simple traditional classroom courses. Through these alternative pathways, we have started to create a system whereby our students can advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  8. We believe that competency education is rigorous. Rigor is not defined by how much work we assign our students. It is defined by how deeply we engage them in their thinking, understanding, application, and extension of the skills and concepts presented to them through their coursework. We tune our instruction and assessment to the work of Hess’s Rigor Matrix.
  9. We believe that our school’s competency education philosophy aligns perfectly with the system that our K-8 schools have put in place and the competency based systems that colleges and universities are moving to. To that end, we believe that a competency education model is the best way to prepare our students for college and career.
  10. We believe that competency education is ultimately transformed not by the way we report grades or how we build assessments but rather by how we approach instruction in the classroom. Our classroom teachers recognize that quality instruction engages all learners each and every day.

Each day as I interact with our teachers and our students, I am reminded to what extent our decision to move to a competency based model has positively influenced our school’s culture and climate, and our philosophy about learning. Today we are graduating students who have never known any other educational system than the one I described above. We spend a great deal of time with our new staff each fall indoctrinating them with our beliefs about teaching and learning. Each day I see small victories from our work that range from students who are being held to higher standards to teacher teams who continue to advance their own understanding and application of the competency education philosophy. I challenge you to ask any of my teachers if they could ever go back to a traditional mindset and I can assure you that you won’t find one who would. We have truly transformed our professional culture into one focused on student learning.

You can follow Brian Stack’s entire journey through his series of blogs, which begin here:

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.