Competency-Based Learning | Feature

Technologies that Unlock Competency-Based Learning

In New Hampshire, the shift away from an educational system based on "seat time" is well underway. Here's what educators there have learned.

The education community felt a jolt in August 2013, when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a report calling for the dismantling of the "Carnegie Unit." Beyond the obvious irony of the announcement, readers maybe have been surprised to learn that one state — New Hampshire — was way ahead of the game. Since the 2008-2009 academic year, the schools there have been shifting from the traditional time-based model of crediting students for sitting in a seat and paying attention for about 180 days to a model that requires them to prove mastery of competencies. What New Hampshire schools and districts have learned in subsequent years is invaluable, because it points out the challenges that districts in every other state will face as they move toward what could become the next great transformation of education. And as with all education transformations in the 21st century, technology is playing a key role.

From Carnegie to Competency
At the core of competency-based learning are two elements: a competency itself, and an assessment by which that competency is measured. According to Steve Kossakoski, CEO of New Hampshire-based Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS), a competency "is the big idea in the course."

Rose Colby, a competency-based learning and assessment specialist and education administration faculty member at New Hampshire's Plymouth State University, added that competency includes a "student's ability to transfer concepts and skills across content areas." A sample competency might be the following: "Students will demonstrate the ability to comprehend, analyze, and critique informational text in print and non-print media." As Colby declared, "It's big, it's demanding, it fits all the criteria for a strong statement, and my kids in my course are probably going to interact with that competency multiple times across the year in multiple units of instruction."

Plenty of states have seen the virtue of the competency approach, so they're offering it as an option to districts. To succeed, though, it's got to be all or nothing, said Joe DiMartino, president and co-founder of The Center for Secondary School Redesign. "The mandate for earning a high school graduation diploma in Vermont for probably the last 20 years has been either demonstrating mastery of the state's standards or earning 20 Carnegie Units. The 'or' is what everybody has done," he said. "If the traditional way of doing it is an option, the traditional way of doing it is going to remain."

In New Hampshire, a local control state, every district made its own decisions about the format of its competencies. Nick Donohue, New Hampshire's former deputy commissioner of education and current president and CEO for education reform organization the Nellie Mae Foundation, recalled, "When we passed a regulation saying you need to eliminate seat time and move to competencies, we also allowed different districts to simply tell us how they were going to do that. Some people said, 'We're using the exact same assessments we used last year. We're not really changing anything. We are now calling this our competency based system.' " He conceded that, "It's very hard to make creative broad-scale change in a big system all at once."

From 2008 to 2011, Colby and others in New Hampshire raced from district to district, helping teachers sort out the "competency design" work. She said, "You'd go into a school and the English competencies might be great, but 85 percent of the math competencies might be at a low level." So the Department of Ed pulled together some of the best and brightest districts to develop a "competency validation rubric." As Colby explained, this was a filtering system through which districts could run their competency statements to determine whether they were strong or weak.

Incorporating Assessments
As districts were writing competencies, they also had to figure out how to assess them. In retrospect, said DiMartino, the assessments and the competencies should have been created at the same time. In a competency-based model, assessments need to demonstrate that a student has mastered a competency at some level. They can take the form of teacher-designed quizzes and tests (those didn't disappear), teacher observations of projects, or some other form of measurement agreed on by the district. Colby explained that the assessment element "becomes a series of snapshots that determine where a student is along that road."

Importantly, students can prove their competency outside the traditional classroom through community service, internships, apprenticeships, online courses, private instruction and other endeavors, all captured under the umbrella term "extended learning opportunities" or ELOs. The idea of the ELO grew out of work done by Kim Carter, currently the executive director of nonprofit QED Foundation and chief education officer for Making Community Connections (MC2), a charter school in Manchester, NH, that uses the competency-based model. She said her inspiration came out of "Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills," a 1992 report from the United States Department of Labor that examined the skills young people would need to succeed in work. "It made a very cogent argument for a competency-based high school model," she explained.

ELOs were a basic way for students to demonstrate learning through means that were outside of the classroom. For example, Carter recalled a student who earned some of his biology credits by working with infection-control officers on a hand-washing experiment at a local hospital. "Ultimately, he took hand soap pumps and put lines on them to see how much soap was used. He gathered data. Then he analyzed the data and presented it to the hospital and infection control board," recalled Carter. "That's pretty meaningful learning."

How Do You Track Competencies?
Because competencies are not course-based, they can be disaggregated. A student may tackle an ELO, such as turbocharging a car, that enables him or her to prove mastery in a traditional discipline like science or math.

Noted Donohue, "We very artificially break down standards as though they live in complete isolation. They don't. Scientific method, critical thinking and collaboration are what scientists do. They do them together in complex ways."

Under the competency model, said Kossakoski, "a student can personalize their education in any way. They can set up their own playlist," so that aspects of each learning endeavor can contribute to the accumulation of competencies. "You may be able to say, 'Boy, this kid did a lot of writing in this internship, so there's a competency in writing they can meet.' Or they had to make presentations. Well, there's a public speaking competency. And they did learn a little bit about chemistry. Maybe there's something about chemistry they can master. But not the whole course." Having the freedom to pick and choose competencies gives educators the flexibility to allow students to get credit for a variety of experiences.

Once those individual competencies are sorted out, however, keeping track of them isn't easy. For instance, in the turbocharging project, who monitors progress: the science teacher, the math teacher, an academic advisor? This is where existing district technologies may need some help. While learning management systems can help teachers stay on top of test scores, grades, and homework assignments for individual courses, they aren't designed to take the "snapshots" of progress (inside and outside of school) that competency-based assessment requires.

VLACS, for example, uses a "highly customized" version of Moodle as its learning management system, which takes the brunt of supporting competency tracking. Another, Pittsfield Middle High School, had to modify its existing student information system, Pearson's PowerSchool, to accept competencies and provide reporting that could be accessed by teachers, students and parents.

According to Stan Freeda, specialist for Educational Technology and Online Learning in New Hampshire's Department of Education, "The lack of a comprehensive competency-based learning management system that will collect student artifacts and set up a grading system which includes a portfolio that can be tied to the state/district data system is holding the field back."

The education technology market is "inching ahead," said Donohue, and when it does catch up to market need, he added, watch out for unintended consequences. If you know, for example, how a student is tracking against goals based on the competencies he or she is achieving, who needs a big standardized test to measure progress? Donohue said he believes that testing as we know it stands a chance of becoming an anachronism. He quoted Harvard University's Chris Dede, who uses the analogy of how department stores used to close for a couple of days to take inventory. "Now of course, inventory is taken every time somebody goes [through] checkout."

Digital Learning and 1-to-1
New Hampshire's competency model takes the Carnegie Unit precept that time is the constant and learning is the variable and reverses it. Learning becomes the constant and time is the variable. Students can take as much or as little time as they need to master a competency — as long as they're making progress. That's the same thinking that has driven online learning for years. So it makes sense that the state is home to VLACS, a competency-based charter school for grades 5 to 12. Tuition-free to in-state students, VLACS caters to learners who want to take courses not offered by their own schools. It also has another distinction: If a student needs help working on a single competency out of eight or 10 for the course, he or she can tackle it at VLACS as well.

Kossakoski said that the entire school is predicated on the competency model, "from our funding structure through our salary structure." There is no school calendar; a student can start on just about any day of the year. The 2007 charter to the state specifies that the school wants to be paid by competencies completed, not by seat time. "If a student comes in and takes two competencies out of 10, we'd get 20 percent of the funding for the full course," Kossakoski explained. Last year, he estimated, the school delivered somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 competencies.

An important part of success in online learning, Kossakoski pointed out, is building relationships between the kids and their instructors. The instructor is always there to provide help, monitor progress, and offer feedback. On the instructional side, teachers stay in touch with students via Adobe Connect chat and videos. But the bulk of instruction is asynchronous, he said, "with a lot of teacher intervention." To catch students when they're available, full-time teachers cover the day instructions, part-time adjunct teachers fill night hours and an academic help desk staffed by VLACS covers another hundred hours through the week.

One of VLAC's customers is Pittsfield School District, which started offering the VLACS option to its students several years ago. Superintendent John Freeman said, "We have less than 600 kids, pre-school through 12. The size of our staff is small. We offer a minimal [number of] electives and we don't offer AP. We have minimal opportunities for dual enrollments here in the district. But VLAC is one of the vehicles that we use to allow students to really expand beyond the borders of Pittsfield."

Last year, Pittsfield Middle High School hired a dual-enrollment and online learning coordinator to help students maneuver through their competency endeavors and to "facilitate the broadening of opportunities," Freeman said. The person holding that role comes in a little bit later in the school day and stays after school hours and is there to support and connect kids with online learning sources." That includes connecting them with the program at VLACS to address whatever competencies they may be lacking.

Pittsfield also implemented a 1-to-1 program in its fifth through 12th grades. Freeman said that students had interest in learning beyond the traditional school year. To help facilitate this, he said, "Many of our students are connected with professionals outside of the school who are operating in the field and then coordinate with certified teachers here to gain credit for learning experiences." For example, he cited one student who got a summer job working in the genetics lab at the University of New Hampshire. Another student was interested in doing a study of the biblical Abraham and his influence on the contemporary world. Freeman said, "We could never offer a course on that. So we questioned what other opportunities are out there for our kids. It naturally led us to a 1-to-1 [program]."

When Pittsfield began its transformation, the district invited the community to work with faculty and staff to figure out what the school should look like and what graduates should be able to do. After consulting not just students' families but also local political and business leaders, the district set out to provide what Freeman calls "authentic experiences, hands-on learning. We wanted kids graduating with a plan, and with the skills, knowledge, and talents to activate that plan. That's been our marching orders since the 2008-2009 school year."