3 Ways New England States Have Advanced Competency-Based Education

An in-depth report dives into how New England states are trying to help students graduate high school with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

by / October 6, 2016 0
New Hampshire made sure its policies would support competency-based education before moving that direction. Alexius Horatius CC BY-SA 3.0

Competency-based education has a strong hold in New England.

Five of the six northeastern states have spent a number of years working to ensure that all students advance and graduate high school with the knowledge and skills they need — not just a few. Also called performance-based or proficiency-based education, competency-based education has five main elements in a working definition that 100 people agreed on at a 2011 Competency-Based Learning Summit:

  • Students advance after demonstrating mastery
  • Explicit and transparent learning objectives empower students and improve instruction
  • Students receive timely and differentiated support
  • Aligned assessments are rooted in the cycle of learning
  • Students develop and apply a broad set of skills and dispositions

A recent report from CompetencyWorks — an online resource that shares information about competency-based education — chronicled some of the steps that have paid off in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island. And it noted that while competency-based learning started in Alaska and Boston around 1995, Massachusetts hasn't embraced it statewide, though some individual school districts are moving forward.

1. Supportive policy environment oriented towards goals

In New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, legislators have set goals with input from educators, such as Maine's requirement that all graduating seniors demonstrate proficiency in eight domains by 2025. But they didn't stop there. They addressed policy roadblocks to making this transition in New Hampshire, provided training and support for educators in Maine and Vermont, and asked them to help figure out criteria and strategies in different states.

"There is something very powerful about a goal-oriented strategy that declares, 'We want all of our children to graduate with proficiency so that they're college and career ready,'" said Chris Sturgis, co-founder of CompetencyWorks and author of the report. "'We want to make sure they learn.' And this is embedding accountability into the system itself."  

2. On-the-ground change led by educators

In these New England states, local control at the school district level reigns. That's why some of the best competency-based learning efforts have included both a supportive policy environment and active work on the ground to provide a better education for students, according to the report. 

All three of these states created examples of high school graduation standards, but expect school districts to develop and adopt their own standards. In Connecticut, its strongest advocates are superintendents, who work under Connecticut's Act for Unleashing Innovation that allows credits to be mastery-based if that's what school districts want.

"This is an educator-led effort, Sturgis said, "and they're moving forward because the traditional system is holding them back and holding children back."

3. Collaborative work between schools, districts and states

Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont share the same standards and state assessment system called the New England Common Assessment Program. And the five states formed the New England Secondary Schools Consortium and its professional learning community the League of Innovative Schools.

These collaborations allow states to share what's working, collaborate to help students learn and advance competency-based learning.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.