Ask the Experts in Competency-Based Education: Teachers and Principals

This blog series shares lessons from leaders in competency-based education at different levels of leadership: state, district, and school. Each post will highlight the work of several leaders at a given level and will share lessons learned for other educators to consider in their own development of competency-based education. 

Competency-based education (CBE) is an approach to schooling in which students progress at their own pace to the next level or grade level once they have demonstrated mastery of specified content knowledge and/or skills. CBE offers a more personalized form of learning for students—they advance at their own pace based on whether they master specific content knowledge and/or skills. 

There is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to creating and sustaining high-quality CBE curricula, but there are some lessons to share. In this blog post, teachers and principals from schools who are viewed as the early adopters of CBE share key school-level policies and strategies to consider when pursuing CBE. 

1. Set A Vision

“The most important thing is to have a vision. There’s no one way to do things, so you need to have a set of principles to be working by so that they become the guide, the filter for any decision making you do.”
—Courtney Belolan, Teacher and Teaching Coach, RSU 2 (Maine)

Given that the transition to CBE can be overwhelming and unknown to school leaders, teachers, students, and families, vision setting helps anchor the transition process to desired outcomes. Initially, it is important to decide on a common set of targets and then to spend time building common language for the metrics and goals. The teachers and principals interviewed noted their schools’ transitions to CBE were guided by transparency of goals, expectations, and processes developed through a vision-setting process.

For Kevin Erickson, principal at KM Perform (Wisconsin), his school’s vision-setting process began with developing a common understanding of student competencies among the entire school community. Teachers were involved in developing the student competencies, and, once they were developed, Erickson shared these competencies with the broader school community (students, parents, and other interested community members). Having concrete student competencies as student-level targets for mastery provided the concrete foundation to ensure transparency, understanding, and broader community buy-in for the school’s transition to CBE.

2.  Support a Collaborative Teacher Structure

“Teachers have to be doing the work collaboratively, those teachers are going to hold each other accountable, and it’s only going to make it better.”
—Brian Stack, Principal, Sanborn Regional High School (New Hampshire)

To transition to CBE, Sanborn Regional High School committed to a professional learning community (PLC) model, which emphasizes intense teacher collaboration to improve student learning. The PLC offered a structured approach for exploring and implementing a competency-based course and peer feedback model. This model provided concrete opportunities for teachers to support and guide each other as they transitioned their classrooms and teaching styles to support CBE. “[The PLC] been a driving force for us. It’s really served as the backbone for a lot of what we’ve done and continue to do, because none of our teachers have to do it alone,” said Stack. “All of our teachers are part of collaborative teams; all of them follow the PLC model, which is hyper-focused on student learning.” Stack shared that, through the PLC, teachers were able to learn about best practices in developing formative performance assessments and provide constructive feedback as they compared results across their classrooms.

Courtney Belolan, teacher and coach, RSU 2 (Maine) sees a value in communicating with like-minded educators and would have found it helpful to have had a more readily available network of colleagues, either in the building or in the district: “It seems that there were people in different pockets, so if there had been a better way to connect around all of this eight years ago, I probably would’ve done a lot more and faster.” Belolan’s experience of going alone in transitioning to CBE underscores the value for creating a supportive teacher network as a necessary step for teachers to feel supported as well as accountable to each other. 

3. Develop Students as Competency-Based Learners

 “It needs to be student centered, learner driven, and you can’t compromise on all of that.”
—Brian Stack, Principal, Sanborn Regional High School (New Hampshire)

Students becoming comfortable with CBE comes down to student confidence. “Students who have maintained confidence in their sense of wonder do better,” said Belolan. “The students who are not afraid, who understand that learning means making mistakes, and don’t worry about perfection do better.” Belolan believes competency-based classroom learning often involves multiple “correct” answers and that creative problem solving and persistence are important student characteristics for being successful in CBE. Belolan observed that the students who adapt most quickly to CBE have a willingness to be curious and try new things. Yet, she believes that you can develop this confidence in all students through engaging them in the vision-setting process as well as by providing clarity regarding student-level expectations in a competency-based classroom.

The transition to a competency-based system is not always easy. For students at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire, some students had trouble making the transition to a competency-based model. “That was a little tricky when we first started; they had been educated in one model, and suddenly we’re changing the rules of the game on them,” said Brian Stack, principal of Sanborn. However, the groundwork laid through vision setting and the supportive professional community of teachers helped Stack and his teachers overcome pitfalls in implementing new systems and reassuring students. “We did a good job in planning out how this is going to work,” said Stack.

Jennifer Lerner is the Deputy Director of the American Youth Policy Forum.

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