Student Well-Being

Taking Competency-Based Learning From Policy to Reality

By Samantha Stainburn — June 03, 2014 10 min read
Fred Bramante, a former chairman of the New Hampshire board of education, is trying to help institutionalize real-world learning at schools across the state.
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Nearly a decade ago, New Hampshire became the first state to mandate that high schools award credit for mastery of material, rather than having students complete a certain number of hours of classes. Now, one of the architects of the policy shift is back on the case, this time to help turn that idea for upending the Carnegie unit—and rethinking education—into a reality statewide.

Entrepreneur Fred Bramante, a former chairman of the New Hampshire board of education and long an ambassador for competency-based learning, has a new initiative he hopes will help schools institutionalize real-world learning opportunities for students.

Through the program, called 10,000 Mentors, Mr. Bramante and the organization he launched in 2013, the National Center for Competency-Based Learning, are offering to identify, recruit, and train local mentors for free for any New Hampshire school district that asks for its assistance.

The program name signifies the number of connections Mr. Bramante hopes to make for schools across the state in five years.

The doctors, lawyers, software developers, piano instructors, and others who sign up to be mentors will agree to work with schools to develop what the state calls “extended learning opportunities,” or ELOs, at their organizations where students can earn academic credit. They also will promise to serve as one more adult checking in on those students’ academic choices, listening to their problems, and championing their progress.

The state’s largest district, here in Manchester, signed on earlier this year. And Mr. Bramante is hoping more will follow suit.

Abolishing the Carnegie unit—a standard measure of time a student must spend in class to earn credit toward a diploma—in 2005 made it possible for New Hampshire schools to allow students to move through school at their own pace and receive academic credit for skills learned through internships, community service, independent study, performing arts groups, and online courses.

But Mr. Bramante and other observers say many New Hampshire schools still have not embraced this freedom to redesign learning.

“I’ve worked on enough education redesign projects to know that just because you change the regulations doesn’t mean that the thing becomes a reality,” he said.

Debra Livingston, the superintendent of the 17,000-student Manchester district, welcomes the help from Mr. Bramante.

“We’re really in the infant stage of our extended learning opportunities, and if we’re going to grow this idea and grow this opportunity for students, we can’t do it alone,” she said. “We have to have people from our community be directly involved with our schools and our students.”

Districts will not have to pay for the services provided through 10,000 Mentors, but they must agree to support the initiative by obtaining a letter from the local school board saying it endorses the effort; letting teachers know about the mentors; and listing outside learning opportunities offered by mentors in its schools’ course catalogs.

Measuring Competencies

Replacing so-called seat time with mastery requirements for credit in New Hampshire was a big win for advocates of competency-based education. To date, no other state has replaced seat time altogether, although many states are enabling competency-based learning in other ways. In all, 42 states have policies that give schools flexibility in awarding credit to students, according to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, based in Stanford, Calif.

Some states simply allow districts or students to request waivers from time-based requirements and demonstrate skills through a portfolio or test. Thirty states, the Carnegie Foundation says, including Iowa, Kentucky, and Oregon, allow districts to award credit for either seat time or proficiency.

New Hampshire’s school districts and charter schools, however, were free to interpret and implement the 2005 rule change as they saw fit, with every district instructed to develop its own descriptions of the skills and knowledge, called “competencies,” needed to earn a high school diploma. Schools were required to begin measuring students’ progress using those competencies in the 2008-09 academic year.

Entrepreneur Fred Bramante, left, meets in Concord, N.H., with Tom Raffio, the current chairman of the state board of education. Mr. Bramante recently launched the 10,000 Mentors initiative to help bring real-world learning opportunities to students statewide that would translate into high school credit.

New Role for Teachers

Some districts defined competencies in a way that allowed schools to continue teaching as they always have, moving through material at the same pace and measuring competencies by performance on end-of-term exams.

According to a 2012 survey from the New Hampshire Department of Education, at least 15 percent of public high schools statewide had not allowed students to earn credit through extended learning opportunities outside of school. At the 55 public high schools that said they did, it’s unclear how much the option was encouraged.

A 2011 study of the implementation of ELOs at four schools in New Hampshire, conducted by the University of Massachusetts Donohue Institute, found that factors slowing the proliferation of personalized learning projects included course competencies that weren’t easily fulfilled by ELOs and some teachers’ reluctance to participate.

Teachers weren’t always comfortable assuming the new role of facilitating learning happening outside the classroom versus providing content themselves, or were unsure of how to assess ELOs, the study found.

One school that Mr. Bramante and others say has done an exemplary job of embracing competency-based learning, including ELOs, is Pittsfield Middle High School in New Hampshire.

Almost a quarter of students at the 255-student school spend part of the school day, after-school hours, or summertime earning credits through activities outside regular classes, such as assisting dentists, accompanying midwives, designing websites, volunteering in kindergarten classrooms, or working at local newspapers. They earn both core and elective credits for such activities once they produce a portfolio of work and make a presentation that demonstrates they’ve learned certain skills and concepts.

Pittsfield, which in 2008 was one of New Hampshire’s lowest-performing schools on state tests, used grants from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the federal School Improvement Grant program to redesign itself, with input from its community, as a school that offers personalized education. It built additional professional-development time into its schedule, which it used to train teachers in how to run a competency-based classroom and facilitate outside learning. It also hired a full-time ELO coordinator.

Quite a few teachers left after the redesign and were replaced by teachers willing to work in this new way. State data show that dropouts have declined and the district reports that college acceptances have increased since Pittsfield embraced competency-based learning.

A Personal Mission

To sell 10,000 Mentors, Mr. Bramante has put many miles on his green Fiat over the past year, driving all over the state to talk to educators, school board members, and business leaders. As he explained to a group of executives and entrepreneurs attending a panel discussion on prosperity in Bedford, N.H., on a recent May morning, his interest in reinventing education is personal.

Growing up in New Hampshire in the 1960s, he was not a good student, Mr. Bramante, 67, told them. “School taught me that I wasn’t very bright,” he said. “Life taught me that they were wrong.”

Mr. Bramante, a former middle school science teacher, left education to run a store, Daddy’s Junky Music, which he grew into a chain of 20 stores in seven states. His business success landed him on the cover of Inc. magazine and generated numerous invitations to sit on public policy committees.

Then-Gov. Craig Benson, a Republican, appointed Mr. Bramante in 2003 to head the state board of education, a post he held for two years. (In the 1990s, he also was a member of the state board.)

In spite of his success in business and other aspects of life, Mr. Bramante said, his negative experiences at school have lingered.

“I know what it feels like to feel stupid,” he said. “I know what it feels like to be afraid of my future.” That’s why increasing student-driven learning projects outside the classroom is so important, he told his Bedford audience. In such a system, he said, every child can be a star.

Mr. Bramante’s pitch won over the school board in Manchester, a former textile-mill town whose major employers now include hospitals, banks, regional corporate offices, and Southern New Hampshire University. Earlier this year, the city invited Mr. Bramante to help its schools connect with 1,000 mentors in the local community.

While each of the district’s four high schools has one part-time ELO coordinator to help students find, design, and assess credit-earning projects with businesses and organizations, most students do not earn any credits outside school.

Ms. Livingston, the superintendent, said she would like to see every student take part in an extended learning opportunity at least once in high school. “Having a student come into a business and see firsthand what they’re doing—they’re going to be learning from the minute they step in,” she said.

This summer, Ms. Livingston and Mr. Bramante will hold meetings with the high schools’ principals and ELO coordinators to discuss how mentors can be recruited, trained, and matched with Manchester students. A critical task ahead for the district, she said, is developing materials that explain what a mentor is expected to do and what achievement looks like for a student so that mentors and parents understand that outside learning projects are more than just fun field trips.

“Just as we have our learning expectations in the classroom, the ELO expectations need to be very explicit, they need to be on paper, there needs to be an understanding about what they look like and what they accomplish,” Ms. Livingston said.

Business Backing

The state school board and the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education, a group that advocates making education more rigorous and relevant to business needs in the state, have both endorsed the 10,000 Mentors initiative.

But Mr. Bramante’s idea does not resonate with everyone.

At a recent presentation to department heads at a large southern New Hampshire high school, Mr. Bramante recalled, some teachers wondered what would happen to teaching if students chose to earn most of their credits outside of school.

“This is the disruptive model,” Mr. Bramante acknowledged. In a proficiency-based system where student interest drives learning, teachers will likely not only spend time lecturing but also organizing or assessing their students’ learning outside the classroom, he said.

“Finding good partners for students carrying out these ELOs is a big hurdle, particularly in New Hampshire, where a lot of schools are in isolated, rural areas where there may not be a lot of businesses,” said Daniel R. Barrick, the deputy director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, who has studied competency-based learning. “If Fred or others can help identify and raise passion among folks who want to act as mentors, I think that is definitely addressing a challenge that is confronting districts.”

Finance Policy

But recruiting enough mentors might not be the biggest barrier to statewide adoption of competency-based education, Mr. Barrick added.

State aid to districts is still allocated on a per-pupil basis according to a formula that assumes you need one teacher for 30 students in grades 3-12, among other things. That doesn’t naturally support a system in which a large number of students may be learning elsewhere and you need fewer teachers but more staff to guide them, he said.

The new model “may cost more upfront, and less down the road, or vice versa,” Mr. Barrick said. “What’s the finance policy that most effectively uses public resources to fund this model? It’s unresolved.”

Also, he noted, “we’re moving very aggressively into this realm, but we don’t have the data yet that tells us we get a better outcome from this system.”

Mobilizing 10,000 mentors for New Hampshire schools “is going to be very hard to do,” said Nicholas C. Donohue, the president of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, a Quincy, Mass.-based philanthropy that promotes student-centered approaches to learning, and gave Mr. Bramante an $18,000 research grant to help him develop his mentoring concept.

“It pushes against some cultural norms, that you have to be careful how you connect children with adults,” Mr. Donohue said. “Some will say, ‘Are these people doing the job of teachers; are they becoming counselors?’

“But the idea you’d try to organize additional assets around young people to support their development,” he said, “is completely consistent with all the research on development and learning” that has shown mentoring has positive effects.

It’s also a timely idea, Mr. Donohue argues.

“The world is becoming more connected and distributed,” he said. “Learning is going to move to a place where people get to learn in lots of different places.”

Coverage of more and better learning time is supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2014 edition of Education Week as Bringing Competency-Based Learning to Life


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