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Aurora Institute

Tackling Work Study Practices in a Competency-Based Educational System

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jonathan Vander Els

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

Responsive Classroom

Last year, teams of teachers within our district, the Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire, became deeply involved in building Quality Performance Assessments. These assessments are designed to truly assess a student’s competency, or transfer of learning. Our teachers have worked incredibly hard at building high-quality, engaging assessments. Their overall assessment literacy, and the learning that has occurred throughout these processes, has been significant. However, it has also raised additional questions.

The most recent questions have had to do with Work Study Practices (also referred to as work study habits or dispositions/behaviors). The State of New Hampshire defines the four work study practices in New Hampshire as Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, and Self-Direction. For the past six years, our district elementary schools have identified the Responsive Classroom CARES (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-Regulation) as the behaviors we will assess in each student. These fit in well with the work study practices the State has identified. Within each performance assessment, teachers have been identifying a specific behavior as the one that will be assessed within the performance assessment itself. For example, a performance assessment may lend itself to having cooperation/collaboration of students assessed, so teachers are including this to be assessed, complete with its own indicators within a rubric as part of the scoring within the assessment (separate from the assessment of academic competencies).

Questions have arisen because teachers have recognized that it does not make sense to always assess students on the same work study practice all the time. Students, as we know, have different needs in different areas. We may have a student who we know is going to be able to demonstrate high degrees of cooperation within her/his group, but this same student may have difficulty asserting her/himself (while giving a presentation, for example).

As we discussed how to include this differentiated rubric within the performance assessment, a teacher commented that it would be great if we had a common rubric, K-5, that we could access at any time for any student. That way, we would not have to continue to build these rubrics each time we were going to assess. And when we thought about it further, we realized that this was very similar to the change-process we experienced five years ago with our academic assessments. Sometimes there was not horizontal continuity with teams, and many times there was not vertical continuity. We had to honestly ask ourselves: “Is what we expect from students aligned K-5?”

My colleague, Ellen Hume-Howard (Director of Curriculum), and I attempted to determine how to go about this work related to work study practices. We thought that it would make the most sense to take each area one at a time and build a continuum for this particular behavior that could be translated to a rubric. But then the questions started coming: How many levels should it have, six (for each grade level)? Is what we expect at the beginning of the year different than at the end? Can we pull the grade levels out of the picture once it is complete so that it stands as more of a developmental continuum? How do we build this so that it is truly K-12? And, finally, is there a developmental continuum we could reference so that we know that what we are expecting is appropriate?

I decided to just put it out to our teachers. I have an incredibly high degree of respect and trust for our staff, and I knew that although it may be difficult, they would persevere and their feedback would help point us in the right direction. We ended up breaking up into our vertical PLCs so that each grade level was represented at each team, and we developed a chart that could be completed for one of the behaviors (self-regulation). The guiding question was, “What are your expectations related to a typical student’s self-regulation at your grade level?

Our teachers all reported that the process was difficult, and that they struggled to put into words what they knew intrinsically. I likened it to the time five years ago when we asked them to identify why the academic grades they were recording were given, indicating that everything needed to be backed up by evidence, and that what we were attempting to do was provide students with the clear pathway to their success (If I’m here, and I need to get to here—what do I need to do?). The following Friday, I asked our team leaders for specific feedback. The feedback they provided was spot-on, and has given us direction as we move forward.

We will attack each of these areas throughout this coming year (and beyond), and we will start at team leaders so they have the background information to assist their groups as they move forward. Will it be perfect? I would expect that whatever we develop will continue to morph based upon our experience using it in the years to come. But this is part of the learning process for all of us. Regardless of how many times it does change, I know that it will be more descriptive than what we currently have, that it has made us think and communicate with each other about something we had not been previously, and that it will provide students with a more objective measure of where they are and what they need to do to continue to improve within their habits of mind.

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