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Aurora Institute

When Teachers are Experts

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jonathan Vander Els

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

QPA Presentation-TeachersThis past August I had the opportunity to participate in an incredibly effective model of professional development hosted by our school district.  It consisted of workshops and presentations from national, state, and local experts focused on various topics related to assessment, including competency education, building Quality Performance Assessments, and the development of high-quality rubrics.

The varied roles, responsibilities, and experiences of the many presenters added to the uniqueness of our “Assessment Summit.”  Participants and presenters included Rose Colby, Competency Education Specialist, Rob Lukasiak, mathematics and assessment specialist, district and building-level administrators, and teachers from grades K-12.  This allowed for differentiated PD for the 100-plus participants, while supporting the professional development needs identified in our district related to competencies and Quality Performance Assessments.

Our district, the Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire, has continued to push forward in the world of competency education.  Despite the bumps we have experienced, we fully realize that this is an educational practice that truly captures each student’s ongoing growth and progression within their learning.  Teamed with instruction that is differentiated, personalized and based upon a solid understanding of the Core standards, students are engaged in learning that is focused, are provided with opportunities for support or extension as needed, and understand their role and responsibility in their learning.

In the spring of 2014, our curriculum director, Ellen Hume-Howard, posed an opportunity for a summit in which some of the “expert” speakers would consist of the teachers in our classrooms who are engaged in this work on a day-to-day basis.  This was the next logical step of the “training team” model that was created four years ago which provided the teachers within our schools the opportunity to participate in training and workshops from various professionals within our own buildings who had familiarity/expertise in curriculum, differentiated instruction, technology, and various assessment practices.  This model of PD was incredibly valuable and effective, and Ms. Hume-Howard felt that it could now be extended to the district level.

Focus areas for the summit were:  Building Quality Performance Assessments, Developing rubrics (basic, interdisciplinary and student exhibition), Identifying Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) through a data cycle process, Utilizing Tech Tools for Assessments, Assessing Reading Comprehension, Online Resources for Assessment, and Assessing Work Study Practices.  Didn’t it make sense to have our teachers be involved in sharing their knowledge with their colleagues in a larger forum?  Given the varying needs of each staff member in every building,  this type of workshop would allow teachers to step into training based upon where they were and what they needed, and receive practical feedback and guidance from someone who was deeply involved in this work in their daily practice.

One of the keynotes during the summit involved walking through a Performance Assessment Review Protocol.  Four teachers within our district, Gail Gwynne, Jennifer Manning, Lisa Collibee, and Amanda Welvers, planned and led over 100 teachers through a protocol to validate teacher-created performance assessments.  Their work was indicative of the summit as a whole; teachers sharing an area of expertise to help others continue to develop their understanding, all in our combined effort to improve student learning.  One of our staff members remarked to me that she brought a performance assessment to validate that had already been through the process once, but that this time she received “different feedback that definitely made it even better” because this new group of colleagues looked at it through a different lens and provided feedback from their unique perspective.

Another teacher within our school shared her ongoing work with assessing work study practices.  In a previous article (, I shared how fifth grade teacher Terry Bolduc continuously assessed students based upon their work study practices.  This provided an accurate and timely assessment of these practices or “behaviors” on an ongoing basis rather than one assessment at the end of a trimester.  And they are separate from academic grades, resulting in a “pure” grade in both the core academic areas and the student’s work study habits.  Terry and her colleague, Donna Moseley, shared their work related to assessing work study practices during their sessions.  This allowed teachers at various levels of understanding to see how the assessment of work study habits literally looked like (Terry provided screen shots of her gradebook to demonstrate) within a colleague’s classroom, and consider how it could work in their own classroom.  They left with a point at which they could start incorporating this practice within their own classrooms.

Another unique aspect of our summit was the opportunity for teams to access the available staff members for coaching during their Team Design Time.  The team time was a part of every day of the summit, and allowed teams to either work together to build performance assessments, for example, or to work with one of the presenters/trainers in an area of their choosing.  Many of the teams accessed various resources and came away from the team time with a completed Quality Performance Assessment that they could utilize.  In many cases, this was the culminating work indicative of the week’s summit offerings.

In our district, we’ve always believed that teachers are the driving force behind improvement.  We have strategically selected three important ideas (Collaboration, Competency, and Culture and Climate) to focus on as a district and we believe these ideas guide and anchor our work. The topics and learning opportunities during our summit were framed with these ideas in mind.  We’ve encouraged teachers to try new ways of doing things knowing that what they glean from their experiences will be applied and adapted to better their instructional and assessment practices.  When given the opportunity, they will share this learning and help others improve their practice.  This model of learning and growth has impacted our staff and will have an even greater impact on the learning of our students, any educator’s ultimate goal.


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