Day 2: Unevenly applied, competency-based learning has achieved mixed results in NH


Granite State News Collaborative

Published: 10-04-2023 5:53 PM

In the Epping school district, students learn with other children who are at the same learning level as them, even if those students are in another grade. A kindergartner who is an avid reader might go to a second-grade classroom for reading instruction for example. 

“Our vision is to give each child what they need when they need it,” said Superintendent William Furbush. "If we insist on giving every child the same thing at the same place, we’re missing the boat, and putting a lot of energy into a broken system.”

Epping has been a leader in competency-based education (CBE), an educational philosophy that emphasizes real-world application of skills and students learning at their own pace. The district has even garnered national press attention for the changes it has implemented, and yet Furbush says there’s still miles to go before the district has a truly competency-based approach. 

“I don’t know if anyone is really doing it,” Furbush said. “We made strides and continue to make strides, but we’re still a long way from what the vision of CBE would look like if CBE were really in place.”

The situation in Epping underscores the state of competency-based education in New Hampshire. The Department of Education (DOE) has embraced the approach since 2004 and over the past two decades has implemented multiple changes to the minimum standards for public school approval, also known as ED306 or the 306s, in order to require a more competency-based approach from districts. 

Yet educators say those changes haven’t been backed with funding, widespread policy adaptations needed to support the shift or consistent resources to support CBE. That has led to the approach being unevenly applied throughout the state, educators say, creating misunderstandings and misconceptions about what CBE even is. Now, with an even more significant shift toward CBE proposed in the most recent revision of the 306s, educators are concerned that the existing inequities and misunderstandings could be exacerbated. 

“What we’ve heard is pretty strong support for competency-based learning… folks believe in the concept,” said Fred Bramante, president of the National Center for Competency-Based Learning, which received a $50,000 contract with the DOE in 2020 to facilitate the current revision of the 306s, a process that could wrap up by the end of October. “What we’ve also gotten is the sense that the DOE has not done a good job in the past 20 years of getting us to where we need to be.”

CBE varies between districts, and has since it was first implemented

Carla Evans has three children in the Oyster River Cooperative School District. As her sons have moved through school she’s noticed inconsistencies in how their work is graded and reported to parents. At the middle school, her son was graded based on competencies. Now that he’s in high school, he’s receiving traditional letter grades. 

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Evans, who is a senior associate at the Center for Assessment, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit that contracted with the DOE to create assessments that are compatible with CBE, said the variations even within her district are emblematic of what’s happened in the state since the DOE started pushing CBE in 2004. 

From the start, CBE has been deployed differently in school districts around the state. The department “left it flexible how districts and schools implemented and interpreted the law,” Evans said. “How [districts and schools] changed teaching and learning varies considerably.” 

Paul K. Leather, who was deputy commissioner at the DOE from 2009-2017, helped bring the concept to New Hampshire originally, beginning in the late 1990s through a U.S. Department of Education grant meant to help advance student learning outside the classroom. 

At the time, “we had a fairly good set of resources to support districts,” Leather said. Those grant-funded resources were distributed to about 20 SAUs, a small portion of the districts in the state (today, NH has roughly 140 SAUs, including charter schools).

Leather said the work he was doing caught the attention of Bramante, who was then the chairman of the New Hampshire State Board of Education, a position he held from 2003-2005. 

Bramante “thought [CBE] was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Leather said. “He wanted to see this put into place for all students and all schools doing it.” 

Leather said he was “a little leery of that, because it’s a bit of a shift from traditional education. To require people to do it might not be the best way to start it.” Yet, “Fred [Bramante] was pretty adamant. He felt it was time for a big change in education.”

Discussion of competencies was first integrated into the 306 rules in 2004, mostly for high school students. In 2014, the rules expanded the focus on CBE, bringing the approach to elementary and middle schools. At that point, there were clear differences in how districts were approaching the change, Leather said. 

“It was all well and good when a district dived into it quickly and understood how important it was. They started changing from kindergarten up,” he said. “But when a high school came to it late—when they weren’t excited about it, but were doing it because of the rules change [to the 306s]—they would…have trouble.” For example, students who hadn’t been evaluated based on competencies before might have difficulties adjusting to the new assessment systems, he said. 

Nearly twenty years after competency-based education was first introduced in the state, New Hampshire’s structure of locally funded education makes it difficult to have equitable progress toward the approach, said Karin Hess, an educational consultant and president of Vermont-based Educational Research in Action, LLC. 

“There are schools that really have moved along,” she said. “But it’s live free or die. They don’t have to do it.” 

The effort to adopt CBE is often led by a “strong administrator” who is “willing to stay the course,” she said. Yet now, a “critical mass” of districts within the state are pursuing CBE—a mass that could be accelerated if the proposed changes to the 306s are adopted and implemented as soon as next year. 

A need for more public understanding of the approach

The traditional approach to education–with lectures, letter grades, and a fixed pace of learning that the whole class follows–is familiar to most American adults because they went through it themselves.

“The age-graded model is in our DNA: it’s how we organize students, certifications and parent expectations,” Furbush said. 

CBE takes a novel approach to learning, focusing on competencies, rather than grades. Students advance when they show they can apply their learning in real-world settings, rather than on a test. Students learn at their own pace—which is why in Epping a kindergartener and a second grader might be in the same reading lesson together, an approach known as flexible grouping.

There’s a challenge in helping parents and even teachers understand CBE, a system they did not experience first-hand, said Val Zanchuk, a member of the 13-person task force drafting the current revisions to the 306s. 

“It’s been difficult to get past the public’s perception of public education,” Zanchuk said at a Concord listening session. “[The traditional age-grade model] is what people have gone through, it’s what they’ve experienced.”

With CBE, “there’s a lack of trust in the community members because they don’t understand it,” Furbush said. For example, when Epping changed from the traditional A-F grading system, replacing it with competency-based parameters like “proficient” or “mastered,” the process went poorly, Furbush said, and undermined parents’ willingness to be open-minded to the new approach. In hindsight, he said, the grading system “shouldn’t have been tackled until all the other pieces [like teaching to students of similar abilities, regardless of grade] were in place.”

“Now, the impression of the community is CBE is bad,” Furbush said. “That’s a hole that we have to dig out of."

When parents aren’t entirely sure what to expect with CBE, it can cause two issues, said Stephanie Malia Krauss, an Illinois-based educational consultant who has worked on CBE efforts nationally. First, the approach can become a sort of scapegoat for parental dissatisfaction or frustrations with the educational system. Furbush said this happened in Epping when parents were concerned that nontraditional grades at the high school level were keeping their students from being accepted to selective colleges—a concern that has disappeared after several students were accepted to elite universities, he said. 

CBE can also be used to cover inadequate education practices by teachers or even districts, Krauss said. 

“Someone can say they’re doing CBE, and they would be radically different from someone else who says they’re doing CBE,” she said. "When it’s attempted by someone who doesn’t have the skills and supports to do it well, or the infrastructure to do it well, it could make things worse.” 

For parents to take an active role in their children’s education, they need to understand this new approach to learning—something that schools, districts and even the state could help with, Krauss said. 

“Even after a decade there’s still confusion and lack of clarity on what CBE is and what good CBE looks like at every age and stage of a K-12 experience,” she said. “What should you be able to expect as a parent and how do you know when it’s not going well?”

Growing pains, but a determination to move ahead

Overall, the educators interviewed for this story agree that the transition to CBE is a positive one. 

“I don’t know of an educator who would say [CBE is] a bad idea,” Furbush said. 

While New Hampshire was alone in implementing the approach back in 2014, according to Hess as of 2023 every state has legislation supporting CBE. 

“The worst thing New Hampshire could do would be to walk away from something that every other state and school would like to be walking towards,” said Krauss. 

However, to ultimately succeed in the state-wide transition to CBE, districts and educators say they’ll need resources and funding to implement the changes that will be required if the proposed changes to the 306s are adopted.

“One of the things I think is needed is money, resources and guidance at state level for schools that simply don’t have the capacity to go at this alone,” said Brian Stack, a member of the committee drafting the 306 revision and former principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston.

Rose Colby, a former teacher and principal in Goffstown who was the DOE’s competency-based specialist from 2007-2014, said that establishing a CBE approach in a district can take up to 15 years, even when it’s well supported. 

“It’s like turning around the Titanic in the middle of the night,” she said. 

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