Competency-based learning standard for NH schools takes center stage in rules debate

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 06-28-2023 11:41 AM

At the Parker-Varney school in Manchester, grades are not part of the curriculum. “Mastery” is.

Students work their way through individual concepts, like long division or the mathematical order of operations. There are no letter grades and no distinct grade levels by age. But when a student fully masters a “level,” they may advance to the next one.

The approach requires a focused, personalized form of teaching that caters to each child’s educational path. But school officials say it has delivered clear results for students. Once labeled a “Comprehensive Support and Improvement School” – a designation given by the state to schools that fall in the bottom 5 percent of testing – the Department of Education removed Parker-Varney from that designation in 2022.

Now, New Hampshire state officials and conservative education advocates are hoping to make the approach more standard in New Hampshire public schools. And they’re focusing on a once-a-decade update to administrative rules to do it.

The Department of Education released a blueprint this year for a sweeping set of updates to the state’s “minimum standards for public schools” – the benchmarks that existing public schools must adhere to and that new public schools must meet. 

The proposed rules come out of a two-year consultation with the National Center for Competency-Based Learning (NCCBL), a nonprofit advocacy group the state has contracted with to help develop the new rules. The State Board of Education must approve new rules in 2024, when the last decade’s rules expire. 

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In recent weeks, the architect of that plan, Fred Bramante, has traveled the state and conducted listening sessions to hear from parents and educators. To Bramante, the state has an opportunity to move forward on an effort that began 20 years ago to pivot public schools to a competency-based student assessment approach that can better prepare students. 

“That’s really what we’re hoping for: That we will unleash creativity,” said Bramante, a former chairman of the State Board of Education and the president of the NCCBL. 

But not all public school educators are on board. Some worry that the proposed new standards will water down the requirements for newly created public schools. Others say the expectation that traditional public schools can easily leap into the Parker-Varney learning model is overly ambitious. 

“It’s like trying to make a Royal Caribbean cruise ship turn right immediately,” said Sue Hannan, president of the Manchester Education Association.  

And some, like the National Education Association of New Hampshire, a teachers union, have voiced concerns that the new rules will be costly for schools. The proposed rules include a requirement for school boards to create a mechanism for “personalized learning plans” for public school students, which some educators say could be unworkable without more staff and resources. 

The debate highlights a growing ideological divide between conservatives who have advocated for expanding nontraditional educational approaches demonstrated by charter and private schools, and progressives who have argued the state should devote more resources to supporting existing learning in public schools. 

The proposed new rule changes span 87 pages and touch on a number of areas of the state standards, from assessment practices to graduation requirements. 

Some changes are small tweaks. Others have sparked major debates.

A suggestion to stop requiring that schools “review ways in which equity gaps in achievement can be reduced and barriers to learning can be eliminated” has prompted backlash from educators; Bramante and other advocates argue equity is preserved in other parts of the rules. Another proposed deletion – of the requirement that schools have a “fair and equitable code of discipline” – brought criticism from the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.

But as Bramante tours the state to discuss the rules, he has pushed the competency-based education components to center stage. The proposed rules state that “competency-based assessment shall be used as a component” of the state’s review of schools, and it requires schools to develop curricula in which “competencies are clearly stated and measurable” and “students advance upon mastery.”

To Bramante, competency-based learning changes the relationship between teaching and learning. While traditional approaches focus heavily on a student’s participation in class at a given time and place, competency-based learning focuses on how much that student has learned, he said.

A student in a traditional classroom might excel in some classes and fall short in others, but “as long as they pass the course they get their credit,” Bramante told an audience of teachers and community members at Manchester Memorial High School recently. 

“In a competency-based world, we switch it,” he said. “Time and place become the variables, and learning becomes the constant.”

Bramante says the competency model is much more centered on making sure students have an adequate understanding of concepts before they move forward. That, in turn, makes them better prepared for the workplace, he said. 

“If you’re going to learn to fly a plane and you get an ‘A’ in taking off, you get an ‘A’ in keeping the plane in the air, but you get a ‘D’ or an ‘F’ in landing, they don’t let you pass the course,” he said. The current grade-based public school instruction model does not reflect true competency, he said.

Ryan Terrell, a board member and the vice chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, agreed, calling competency-based education a necessary step in addition to encouraging more public-private education partnerships. 

“As we’re having this discussion, one of the biggest pieces of pushback, or questions that I’ve heard, is about how do we preserve an existing system?” he said during the Manchester presentation. “The reality is that those communities that we’re always talking about – low-income communities, communities of color – these are communities that in today’s current traditional school system, regardless of funding, are currently already being underserved.”

Introducing a new learning model into public schools is a more effective way to transform conditions for struggling schools, Terrell argued. 

For their part, many public school educators say they broadly support competency-based instruction. But without additional funding to implement the proposed rules, some have compared them to an “unfunded mandate.”

“Working here in Manchester, I think we have worked long and hard in moving toward CBE,” said Hannan, using an acronym for competency-based education. “But throwing out a document and thinking we’re going to change all at once? This is Manchester; we have 30,000-plus students, (and) 2,000 educators and staff.” 

Rep. Damond T. Ford, a Manchester Democrat who attended the Memorial High School meeting, said he respects the competency-based model. It’s an effective way to allow teachers to reach students at different learning levels, he said. 

“My children go to Parker-Varney,” he said. “So I’m like: It actually works.”

But he said he didn’t think it would be so simple to implement in every public school classroom. The approach is so resource-intensive that not every school in the Manchester School District has implemented it, let alone across the state, Ford noted.

“There’s a lot more to it than just learning a new way to teach and to grade,” he said. “The personalized learning plans are really hard to implement unless you have the staff.” 

For interim Manchester Superintendent Jennifer Gillis, the results of Parker-Varney’s approach are laudable. Expanding that to the other 21 schools in Manchester would require careful planning. 

“I think it’s the same of anything you try to push into a district: You have to have it at that ground level,” she said in an interview. “You’ve got to be able to work it from the classroom all the way on up. We can’t do it without each other.” 

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