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Aurora Institute

How One New Hampshire District is Leveraging Success Skills in a Competency-Based System

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jonathan Vander Els and Sarah Kiley

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

Sarah Kiley

By Jonathan G. Vander Els, Director of Innovative Projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative and Sarah Kiley, Epping School District Teacher and Work Study Practices Coordinator.

New Hampshire Overview:

Over the past three years, a number of New Hampshire schools have been focusing on how the integration of success skills (or Work Study Practices, as they’re called in New Hampshire) can be levers for students’ success. The intent was to intentionally integrate these deeper learning competencies into instruction, assessment, and curriculum to increase student agency as a lever for equity.

The impetus for this deeper dive into these competencies came about from the first year of New Hampshire’s PACE (Performance Assessment of Competency Education) effort. Recognizing that these non-academic competencies were critical to success in a competency-based system, it was included as part of the PACE process, yet we recognized that the four original PACE districts (Epping School District, Rochester School District, Sanborn School District and Souhegan High School) schools were in very different places related to this critical tenet of competency education.

Year 1 involved participating educators going through a facilitated 2Revolutions course module based upon the Essential Skills and Dispositions (Lench, Fukada, and Anderson, 2015). This course provided teachers with guided opportunities to explore and develop, based upon this resource, their own skill level related to Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Self-Direction, and better understand the progression of learning involved to go from Beginner to Emerging Expert within a given skill. Our belief is that teacher understanding and application through facilitated opportunities will lead to increased opportunities for students within classrooms.

Teachers were then asked to “test” a hypothesis related to something they thought might make a difference for their learners within these essential skills. The resulting efforts produced rubrics, goal-setting exercises, explicit instruction of one or more of the WSP, as well as explicit inclusion of one or more of the WSP throughout a unit. All participating teachers (about 75) came together at the end of the year to “share their learning”. This became one of the strongest aspects of our approach, as participants “borrowed” ideas and artifacts from one another to assist in deepening their own work with their own students in the coming year.

Epping School District, one of the original four PACE districts, has been involved in this effort for all three years, and now has 28 teachers and administrators involved in one of three cohorts deepening their understanding and integration within their own classrooms, teams, and schools. Notably, this group of educators, specifically the first cohort involved (led by Sarah Kiley), planned, trained their colleagues, and implemented, a community-wide rollout of a full transformation of the Work-Study Practices for their district, outlined below. Sarah shares some of her experiences below:

On the Ground in Epping:

The Epping School District’s initial exploration into the Work Study Practices came in the spring of 2016 when a group of five educators from the elementary, middle and high schools were invited to enroll in the Essential Skills & Dispositions course being offered to the PACE districts across the state. Our superintendent, Valerie McKenney, provided us with the support we would need to take the course and implement the testable hypothesis within our classrooms. Our team met several times in the following weeks to complete the course materials and plan our pilot projects. Each time we met, we enjoyed the collaborative aspect of the course activities and how they really encouraged deep thinking about how we teach and assess our students’ acquisition of these skills and behaviors. We would find ourselves engaging in discussions about how focusing on direct instruction and evaluation of these skills could benefit our students. The team was certainly intrigued, but at that point did not have a clear vision on how to integrate these ideas across our district.

Later that spring, when our group was only mid-way through the course, we had the opportunity to attend the regional event where teams from across the state were sharing the findings of their own testable hypothesis projects. Our team was immediately inspired by both the diversity of the ideas for activating these skills and the depth to which students were able to engage with this work. It was instantly clear that these students were able to utilize these dispositional behaviors in order to find success in their classrooms. We left the event that day energized and committed to bringing the Work Study Practices to the students and staff of the Epping School District.

Until this point in time, each school within our district had a different model and practice around instructing and assessing these ‘soft skills.’ There was little continuity between the language used to describe these skills at the elementary, middle and high schools and there certainly was no common structure or strategy for how these skills would be taught, evaluated, and progress reported to parents. As part of our district’s move to adopting a purer model of competency-based assessment and reporting, our superintendent was working hard to establish clear and consistent grading scales, competencies, and a common report card format across the three schools in our district. Our desire to replace the current methods of evaluating students’ dispositional skills and behaviors with the Work Study Practices for all students in grades K-12 was in line with this vision and had the superintendent’s full support.

At the start of the 2016-2017 school year, Superintendent McKenney formed the Competency Implementation Team (CIT), which was made up of roughly 20 administrators and teachers representing all three schools and a range of grade levels and disciplines. This diverse group of teacher-leaders was divided into sub-groups that were tasked with studying various issues and proposing solutions to achieve the goals set forth by the district related to competency-based grading. The Work Study Practices Competency Implementation Team was formed and work truly began in earnest.

As part of the work of the CIT, we conducted visitations to other districts in the region, including Sanborn, Pittsfield, Rochester and Concord, who were further along in adopting competency-based grading practices. We met with teachers, administrators, and district-leaders from these schools to learn how their grading, assessment and reporting structures worked and how we could modify these ideas to suit our needs in Epping. Our team was inspired by the culture of self-assessment and student-led conferencing that we saw used in some of these other districts. We decided this would be a good long-term goal to have for our students and something we could center our own assessment and reporting strategy for Work Study Practices around.

Our superintendent was supportive of the idea of transitioning slowly to this new model in order to gain support and deepen the knowledge base of our teachers, students, and parents. We decided to introduce one new Work Study Practice each semester, so that by the end of a two-year cycle, we would be instructing, evaluating, and reporting on all four of the WSPs. Our team thought that Self Direction would be a good foundation for our district to start with. Over the remainder of the 2016-2017 school year, our team finished our testable hypothesis projects that were specifically designed to leverage students’ ability to be more self-directed learners. In the spring of last year, we were able to present our findings to the district staff and lay the groundwork for the new changes to come. We received enthusiastic support for this work and teachers were largely on board with our rationale for bringing the WSPs to the students of Epping.

Over the summer of 2017, the team continued to meet to draft a reporting and assessment strategy that would work for all students, kindergarten through grade 12. We decided to create Learner Practices that specifically outlined our expectations for what students along four grade-spans should be able to do. These were written in student-friendly, ‘I can’ statements that included 8 – 12 indicators of student performance. We wanted these documents to look and feel different from an academic rubric, so we only articulated what “demonstrating grade-span expectations” looked like and left blank columns to the left and right for specific notes on student performance when they were “exceeding” or “not yet demonstrating” these expectations.

Once we had the four grade-span Learner Practices written for Self Direction, we shifted our attention to how these would be used in the classroom and eventually reported out to parents. One of our main goals with the WSP roll out was to give students increased responsibility and autonomy in their learning, so we wanted the assessment model to be not only student-centered, but student-driven. At this time, our school was also transitioning to a 1:1 Chromebook initiative for students in grades 6-12. Because this new technology was making its way into our classrooms, we decided to implement a digital portfolio system for students to compile and track their own evidence of WSP progress. These digital portfolios would become the foundation on which students reflect and discuss their demonstration of these skills at student-teacher conferences twice per year. Their self-evaluation and subsequent conversations would determine student progress that would be reported on the new Student Achievement Report (report card) for all students within the district.

At the start of the 2017-2018 school year, the CIT WSP Team organized numerous professional development presentations and activities to launch Self Direction and explain our overall plan for instruction, assessment, and reporting. We decided to couple the launch of Self Direction with an overview of Growth Mindset theory and techniques. We acknowledged that this work would be hard and require dedicated time and effort, but by focusing on the benefits it would yield for our students we were delighted to find most of the staff embraced these new initiatives with an open mind and positive attitude.

With the teachers on board, the next step was to introduce this initiative to our students. As might be expected, the younger students were easily convinced of how the Work Study Practices would help them be more prepared for college, career, and life. Some of our older students were displeased with the new task of evidence collection, assessment, and conferencing, but we were able to get most of these seniors and juniors to participate in the process nonetheless.

Leading into our first round of conferencing this past January, we had to consider how to manage the task of providing time within the already limited school schedule to allow for 5-7 minute conferences between students and teachers. While this was a challenge, each school found solutions to accommodate the conferencing schedule. Although we did have to sacrifice some instructional time, post-conference surveys of teachers yielded positive feedback about how meaningful it was to have these individual conversations with students about their progress and growth over the semester.

Student Hannah Jacoby shares evidence of self-direction with teacher Katie Closs during a student-led conference. (Photo by Rachel Martin.)

Our first semester of implementation was a success, although some modifications had to be made to our original plans. Despite these slight adjustments, we were well on our way to continue our roll out of the next Work Study Practice (Communication) to staff and students during this past semester. The more these skills are being taught, discussed, reflected upon, and assessed, the deeper they are being entrenched into the culture of our district. Students are becoming well versed in the terminology of these skills and have found confidence in their newly acquired abilities.

Looking ahead, our team is committed to continuing the introduction of the remaining two WSPs, Collaboration and Creativity, to our staff and students over the upcoming school year. Our district has been supportive of this initiative and will continue to allocate time during our professional development days in order to present information to teachers. We are also utilizing a Google Team Drive as a ‘digital tool box’ of resources and instructional tools available for teachers within the district to access and implement within their classrooms. One of our future goals is to do more outreach to parents and community members to educate them on the value of teaching the Work Study Practices for the ultimate objective of having this work reinforced beyond the classroom.

Students who are self-directed learners, effective communicators, confident collaborators, and creative thinkers will be more prepared for life beyond the classroom. Competency-based education holds our learners accountable for their academic performance, which is only half of the equation. The students of the 21st century must be ready to apply their knowledge in rapidly evolving workplaces and college classrooms. In order to be fully prepared for life, college and careers, students must also have the skills necessary to be effective in these arenas. Work Study Practices are the essential support to a competency-based system that will equip our students for future success.

See also:

Jonathan G. Vander Els, M.Ed., Ed.S. (Ph.D Student in Leadership and Policy Studies) is the Director of Innovative Projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, overseeing the personalized and competency-based work related to the Assessment for Learning Project’s Phase II 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.

Sarah Kiley, M.Ed. is an art educator at Epping High School (@EppingHighNH) and serves as the district’s Work Study Practices Coordinator. Sarah is also a member of the district’s Competency Implementation Team. Through this work, Sarah has been able to develop her leadership skills while working to refine the competency-based model within the Epping School District. Sarah has also been involved with the Performance Assessment of Competency Education state-wide Art & Music team and is a member of the New Hampshire Art Educators’ Association.