Committed to Competency

As previously discussed in this blog, I have a bit of a crush on New Hampshire.  I admire the committed stances they’ve made to competency-based education (CBE) and to rethinking learning time.  Of course change doesn’t come easy in school reform, even with commitment from the top, and an article in a recent Education Week called “Competency Based Education is Working” by Ron Wolk (founder of Ed Week, whose perspectives and stances have long resonated with me) did a terrific job detailing the perils and possibilities.

Wolk positions CBE as the best way to make sure that the common core achieves its main goal of improving student learning, by translating the new standards into actual skills. He perceives of New Hampshire as the state that has the best chance of doing that.

While many NH schools are still struggling with CBE implementation, there's good evidence that CBE is having a positive effect on a growing number of New Hampshire schools, with more and more students earning credit for supervised internships and community projects. A 2013 study by the Alliance for Excellent Education of two New Hampshire high schools found significant declines in the dropout rate, school failures, and disciplinary problems, and increases in student engagement and learning. Students said their work was more challenging and their interactions with teachers more rewarding.  Excitingly, NH now ranks third in the nation on the 13 indicators that make up Education Week's Chance-for-Success Index, which captures lifelong learning opportunities from early childhood through K-12 to higher education and work.

I was fascinated by the description of how New Hampshire came up with a new approach to learning time.  In brief, in 2005, the board decided to define a school year by simply multiplying 5.5 by 180. This translated into 990 hours of instruction, which the board members decided could "be defined any way a school determined it be structured."

Board chair Fred Bramante’s big coup was getting the school board to see how limited it is to give credit to students for the successful completion of gym class, but not for, say, their participation on the gymnastics team, or for playing in the school band but not for playing in a local symphony.  Board members ultimately agreed to accord credit if students go to teachers requesting credit for out of school involvement and they create a plan together to ensure that the student grasps, say, the connection between the local symphony experience and the state's music standards. The board agreed that with the teacher's support, the student would understand the seriousness of the undertaking, the required teacher oversight, the expected results, and the process of assessment.  Talk about a good way to foster the skill of self-direction—essential for success in college and life.

Ultimately, this conversation led to the elimination of the century-old credit-hour measurement—the Carnegie unit—and the move away from seat time to competency mastery.  New Hampshire's revised standards exchanged the Carnegie unit for the demonstrated mastery of course-level competencies. The state also specified that students should receive a rigorous, personalized education, thereby paving the way for educators and community leaders to develop new high school delivery models.  

In ensuing years, Iowa and Ohio have established competency-based education systems (with Mr. Bramante's help), and the movement is gaining momentum nationally. The Council of Chief State School Officers has recently developed a road map to encourage and guide states, ostensibly recognizing that CBE offers the best chance for the success of the common core.

I love that this article is pragmatic about the complexity and challenge.  States will have to address tough issues, like the inherent contradictions in aligning mastery of competencies to the common standards for a diverse group of student learners and using high-risk standardized tests to assess learning. To succeed at the grassroots level, states will have to make a concerted effort to help and support schools as they move from a system of seat time to mastery. School districts will have to ramp up professional development for principals and teachers.  Bring it on!