Lessons Learned From a Decade of Competency-Based Learning Implementation

Any principal who has engaged in the process of change will tell you that the ultimate goal is when the change becomes ingrained in school culture, and is no longer considered “new” but rather just thought of as “what we do.”

Over the last couple of years, I have started to notice that our work to implement a competency-based learning (CBL) system in our New Hampshire school district has started to reach that point in the change process. The last decade has been quite the journey, filled with many ups and downs. The transition to CBL has questioned my thinking about instructional practices and overall philosophy about education. It has tested my resolve as a school leader as I have been questioned about—and in some cases asked to defend—parts of the model to various stakeholders. Most importantly, the work has given me a great sense of satisfaction as a principal that I am positively impacting my students, my school, and the profession through work that is making a difference.

As an early adopter of this model and this work in the nation, not a week goes by that I don’t get asked by a school leader somewhere in the country if I could offer advice from my own experience making the transition as they engage in similar work in their schools. In my book Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency Based Learning in PLCs at Work, my co-author Jonathan Vander Els and I take on this topic by developing a “top five” list of advice for school leaders:

  1. Include all stakeholders in the work.For any change, buy-in is an incredibly powerful prerequisite to have in order to sustain the work. As a school leader, you will need the buy-in and commitment from all of your school’s stakeholders, including teachers, students, parents, and community members, in order to make CBL become the culture in your school. When done correctly, it will be these stakeholders who will “teach” others how to adopt the school’s CBL culture across all aspects of the school community.
  1. Be a prophet of research.To engage in this work in 2018, know that you can stand on the shoulders of giants such as Thomas R. GuskeyKen O’ConnorDouglas Reeves, and Rick Wormeli, among others. They have paved the way for you by providing decades of research to show that these systems work. There will be many in your school community who will struggle with this transition, as it breaks from the traditional school model of which they have grown accustomed. Don’t let them challenge the work with their traditional views. Be a prophet of research, and bring research into the discussion whenever possible.
  1. Don’t compromise the model.Too often, schools make concessions and compromises with stakeholders in the community who are not ready to accept the competency education philosophy. This can be a difficult trap for a school principal to get caught up in, particularly if a compromise seems like a way to get non-believers to support the work. Be true to the model and stay with the course; don’t let the model get watered down or misdirected by a compromise that doesn’t fit the school’s beliefs.
  1. Keep student learning at the center.Aren’t we all here for the kids? When doing this work, people will sometimes forget that. The hallmark of the CBL philosophy is to provide a laser-focus on student learning in ways that we have never had before. As the principal and leader of the change, you will have to constantly remind your school community of this. When teams get derailed from their work, remind them to focus on student, not adult issues. Above all, keep students at the center of all that your school does.
  1. Start today.There is an ancient Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is now.” No amount of planning will ever completely prepare your school to be successful in this journey, but you don’t have to have all of the answers before your school begins. Start your school’s journey today, even if you start slow. Doing something will be better than doing nothing. Your students deserve it. Your teachers deserve it. You deserve it.

In Dr. Richard DuFour’s book In Praise of American Educators, he writes, “Changing the traditional culture of public schools that has endured for more than a century is no easy task, but at no point in American history have the stakes for our students been greater.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Do you have a clear picture of what you can do as a leader to support a change like competency-based learning in your school?

Brian M. Stack is the NASSP 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, the author of Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency Based Learning in PLCs at Work, 2018 by Solution Tree, and an expert for Understood.org. He consults with schools around the country engaged in school redesign. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bstackbu or learn more about him by visiting his blog.

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