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Another View -- Julia Freeland: NH leads the nation in competency-based education

May 08. 2014 11:45PM

For most of us who stared at the clock at the front of the classroom counting down the minutes until recess, or the months until summer break, we subscribed to one key metric to measure our progress toward earning a diploma: time. But competency-based education — an approach the New Hampshire Department of Education embraces — flips that paradigm on its head.

In competency-based systems, time is the variable and learning is fixed. Students only advance to new material once they’ve demonstrated mastery of the skills and knowledge at hand. As a recent study of 13 schools across the state reveals, New Hampshire provides a model for the rest of the country on the importance of creating space for such approaches to take hold, and the gradual steps it can take for schools to get there.

Although competency education originated back in the 1960s in teacher preparation and corporate training programs, only recently have these approaches gained traction in K-12 schools. Amidst this growing popularity, New Hampshire stands out as a trailblazer. Back in 2005, before the K-12 education field at large had so much as defined competency-based education, visionaries across the state led the charge to create a more student-centered system. Among other reforms, the Department of Education mandated that schools measure credit in terms of mastery rather than time. This bold policy change set the stage for the first-ever statewide experiment in competency-based education.

Over the next several years, competency-based education began to emerge as a vital component of the larger shift toward more personalized, student-centered education. This approach has huge implications for avoiding what innovator Sal Khan (founder of Khan Academy) has called the “swiss-cheese” effect — the fact that too many of our students get to the end of high school having accumulated major gaps in their learning that were never addressed early on, as students forged ahead in the academic calendar without truly mastering more foundational content and skills. Competency-based approaches also open up space toward personalizing education to all students’ individual needs by providing them with a flexible pace and pathway for learning.

As districts and states across the country are trying to create these more flexible learning environments, we looked at what this has meant in the eight years since New Hampshire launched its call for competency-based learning. It will come as no surprise to residents that competency-based education varies greatly among localities.

Some districts have remained tethered to time-based practices, and although they now measure student progress against competencies, students still move at the same pace as their peers, and take course exams at fixed times.

Others, such as Sanborn Regional High School, have taken strides in creating flexible pathways to mastery. The school sets aside time each day to ensure students are filling in gaps in their understanding as soon as they arrive, and allows students to retake tests without penalty to ensure mastery.

Still others, such as Next Charter School and Making Community Connections Charter School, are pushing the boundaries of traditional courses, and allow students to demonstrate mastery through original projects that they create in consultation with teachers.

And the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) — New Hampshire’s largest provider of online courses — allows students to take fully competency-based courses online, on their own schedule. VLACS’ impressive growth over the past seven years provides a compelling case for how technology might help systems to take competency-based education to scale.

As education leaders nationwide look to New Hampshire as a model, they’ll take note of how its policies have removed major barriers to innovation. In this sense, the state is at the frontier of competency-based policy and practice. By adopting a broad policy, it has enabled all school systems to progress toward truly personalized learning environments. Even while a number of schools have room to grow, the evolution of the state’s regulatory framework over the last decade lends key insights on how school systems across the country can move away from time-based credit systems. Competency-based education is a radical and rational approach to providing each student with the chance to graduate truly competent, rather than simply having served their time at a desk.

Julia Freeland is a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and author of the study “From policy to practice: How competency-based education is evolving in New Hampshire.”

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