It Takes A Community To Raise Competencies...

Competencies are the currency of the 21st century.  In prior centuries, class trumped competency, as it often still does, but I believe that can and must change.  Competencies are a cornerstone of CityPathways and a building block of better learning.  I’m currently quite obsessed by competencies, and only in the earliest arc of my obsession so be forewarned. 

There is a ton of exciting competency-based work underway across the country.around the world, and New Hampshire is at the forefront, having made a statewide commitment nearly a decade ago to award credit for mastery of material rather than seat time.

Of course mandates only get us part of the way to mastery, and many NH schools haven’t embraced the freedom to redesign learning.  It was inspiring to read the June 4 Education Week article “Bringing Competency Based Learning to Life" (which reminded me of the old GE tagline, “we bring good things to life”—that would sure be true for competencies) profiling the efforts of entrepreneur Fred Bramante, a former chair of the NH Board of Education and one of the competency-based architects of the statewide work.  Bramante has launched  an initiative to help schools authentically expand and institutionalize real-world learning opportunities for students through a new program called 10,000 Mentors (I wonder if they considered calling it the Million Mentor March…)  His background in business and sales is paying off, as Bramante has needed to sell this initiative all across the state, which he seems to be doing effectively.

The name signifies the number of connections Bramante hopes to make for kids over the next five years through people across many industries who will create Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELOs) through which students can earn academic credit—the holy grail towards REALLY being able to rethink when learning happens, where it happens, how it happens, and with whom it happens.  (Unfortunately, this is still VERY hard to do in New York.)  Beyond providing stimulating supplementary activities, these mentors will check in on their students’ academic choices, listen to their problems, and champion their progress.  Having a supportive adult figure in students’ lives is consistently demonstrated by research to have huge impact on opportunities and outcomes. 

Bramante is explicit about the degree to which this initiative is personal, since he himself struggled in school as a student, and frequently felt stupid and afraid of the future. He understands intimately that increasing student-driven learning projects outside the classroom is vital.

Folks interviewed for the article are honest in acknowledging that they’re in the infancy of ELO work, but it’s exciting to learn of such a broad-based effort to promote competencies through engaging community stakeholders since a paradigm shift such as this truly can’t be done just at a school level (despite the degree to which we DO expect schools to make magic in isolation.)

The article provides some useful larger landscaping about competency-based learning.  Though NH is the only state to replace seat-time altogether, 42 states have policies that give states flexibility in awarding credit to students.  In NH, each school district was free to interpret the 2005 rule change, and as of a 2012 Dept of Ed survey, 85% allow students to earn credit through extended learning outside of school.  When the surface is scratched though, it’s unclear how much the option is encouraged within the 55 high schools at which this is an affordance, in large part due to course competencies that aren’t easily fulfilled by ELOs and to some teachers’ discomfort facilitating learning happening outside the classroom or knowing how to assess ELOs.

The article profiles one exemplary school—Pittsfield Middle School—which in 2008 was one of NH’s lowest performing schools until it used grant funding to redesign itself around more personalized education, inclusive of robust competency-based PD for teachers and a full-time ELO coordinator.  Almost 25% of kids earn credit for things outside of regular classes, and earn both core and elective credits upon producing and presenting a portfolio of work demonstrating what they’ve learned.  The article isn’t very clear about what the improved outcomes are beyond reduction in dropouts and increase in college acceptances, but it seems like there’s certainly movement in the right direction (though of course the increased funding through grants for the failing school undoubtedly contributed to such improvements as well.)  

A district-wide commitment in Manchester (not surprisingly where Southern New Hampshire University is based, which has been a leader in higher ed competency based learning through its College for All initiative) is profiled as well, through which each of the district’s (four) high schools have a part-time ELO coordinator to help students find, design, and assess credit-earning projects with external organizations and businesses, most of which do not offer credits.  Having dedicated resources for this is essential, yet insufficient.  The district superintendent hopes that signing onto the 10,000 Mentor expansion will help significantly bolster such efforts and is working to develop clarity about what a mentor is expected to do and what achievement looks like for students so that mentors and parents understand that outside learning projects are more than just fun field trips.  This is so vital to underscore as there are myriad examples of community volunteers not moving the needle around learning in any meaningful way.  

The article doesn’t mention badges but i think badges could play a significant role in setting standards and creating clarity about criteria, which is why CityPathways aspires to draw upon them to “certify” out of school learning work.  Equipping students with competency-based personal learning plans, so that STUDENTS have clarity about what they’re learning, how they can demonstrate it, and how they can level up in it--and so that adults who work with them, in and out of school, can provide feedback and support around their core competencies also seems critical, which is why competency-based Personal Learning Plans are at the crux of CPath.

The article DOES get at the potential “disruption” that an ELO-emphasizing competency-based learning movement could cause, if students chose to earn most of their credits outside of school, a notion that threatens some teachers.  Yet I suspect MANY teachers would embrace a proficiency-based system in which student interest drives learning and in which they would spend more of their time organizing or assessing students’ learning outside of the classroom if the ecosystem for this was robust enough.  

Another threat/challenge is funding.  State aid to districts is still allocated on a per pupil basis predicated upon one teacher for 30 students in grades 3-12 which makes it harder to reallocate resources from teachers to other staff in a model in which a large number of students are learning offsite.  To me, this doesn’t seem like an insuperable obstacle as I don’t see this kind of shift as reducing the number of teachers needed, but rather in reconceptualizing their role (which will be refreshing for many) and reallocating how their time is used.

The article doesn’t downplay the challenges of mobilizing 10,000 quality mentors, nor the complexity of making good matches between youth and adults, nor of making every ELO nutritive (in CityPathways parlance, we aspire to “make every space a learning space”), but it does highlight the research-based value of organizing additional assets around young people to support their development and the need to evolve education as the world becomes more connected and distributed.

Hear hear!  And here here!  NYC is still far from realizing such a vision, but initiatives like the NYCDOE’s Digital Ready and HiveNYC help pave the path for it, and CityPathways aims to help extend and amplify that path in dramatic ways.