In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by Brian Stack, Ashley Harbel, and Kerrie Alley from Sanborn Regional High School to discuss competency-based education.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:53 Discussing competency-based education at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire. Sometime back, I came across an article about competency-based education, and featured in the article was Sanborn regional High School with several quotes from the principal, Brian stack. And I contacted Brian and asked him if he’d be willing to join us on a podcast and happy to say he is here today and he has some of his staff members joining us too. So Brian, would you take just a little bit of time to introduce yourself as to the time that you’ve been at Sanborn and previously and then introduce the two staff who are joining us?
Brian: 01:41 Absolutely. And thank you for having me. This is – we’re excited to be a part of this podcast today. So my name is Brian stack. I am the principal at Sanborn Regional High School. We are a medium-size regional public high school down in the Southern part of the state on the sea coast. This is my 10th year as the principal. I spent four years prior to that as an assistant principal, curriculum coordinator. And in a previous life, I was a math teacher, high school math teacher down in Massachusetts. Love working here. We’ve been doing a lot with this idea of competency-based learning in New Hampshire and we’re really proud to be a leader in that work here in our state and in the country as well. So we’ve been an inspiration for others and it helps us because we learn from others when they learn from us. I have two teachers joining me today. I have Ashley Harbel, she’s one of our English teachers, she’s a PLC team leader. She does a lot of work with our freshman learning community. I also have Kerrie Alley. Kerrie Alley is our career pathways coordinator. She is also a PLC team leader. Both of these joined our journey midstream. They weren’t here when we started the work, but they’ve been very instrumental in helping us advance the work.
Steve: 03:07 Well, thank you to all of you for joining us. Brian, I’m wondering if you could talk just a little bit, I know New Hampshire’s kind of been a leader this in this movement. How far back does that go in in New Hampshire and where was it at when you came to the school and kind of the things that have happened since you’ve been there that way?
Brian: 03:30 Yeah, so in New Hampshire, it actually goes back almost 20 years at this point. So we had state legislation passed back in 2004, 2005, which actually said that high schools in the state had to be competency-based or I should say, have competencies developed for all of their high school courses by 2008. So from that, to what degree a school wanted to become competency-based was going to be up to them with local control. So you know, for me, that was my cue to start doing some work early. I’d been at Sanborn since 2006. So we started talking about becoming competency-based right around the same time the state passed that law. Took us a few years to kind of get our act together and develop a plan of what it was going to look like. And you know, we’ve been very actively involved in moving on that journey ever since and it’s been an evolving journey for us.
Steve: 04:31 Thanks. Brian, many of the folks that I work with use the term standards-based and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the term competency-based as it’s being used in New Hampshire and the term standard space that’s perhaps being used other places.
Brian: 04:49 Yeah, so I mean, I think of standards as very granular. You know, the standards are – a lot of them are content. They’re the actual things that you’re going to learn. And I see competencies as the bigger picture. These are the transferable learning skills, the way you learn, and the how you learn kind of things. So I think that standards-based came out very early on in our profession it was very easy to latch onto because every content area, every grade level was able to identify standards. But there are so many different standards for every grade level and content area, it’s a little too much to try to think about how you’re going to have kids master each and every one of those. So what started to happen in that movement is you had people thinking about creating power standards, essentially that was an early term. And then ultimately competencies. So we call competency, the transfer of skill in and across content areas. So in our school, if you pick any one of our courses, you may find that there are four to six competencies for that course, which are the big ideas for that course. Underneath the competencies are going to be different standards. So our teachers can assess at the standard level and collect information that tells them how students are doing towards mastery on each of the competencies.
Steve: 06:17 Thank you. That was very helpful. That is absolutely the most crystallized I’ve ever had it get for me. So I appreciate you walking through that. In the article that I read, they quoted you making a statement that you’re always telling parents what we’re doing is more deliberate in how we measure learning. And I’m wondering if you’d just talk to that for a moment.
Brian: 06:43 Well, absolutely. I mean, everything that our teachers do is tied to competencies and standards. So it’s very deliberate. You know you can walk into any class, you should be able to ask any student in any class in this school, “what are learning?” And they’re going to talk to some of these different standards and competencies. And when you ask them, well, “how are you going to be assessed on your learning? How do you know what it’s going to look like for you to have learned this at a proficient level or an advanced level?” And they’ll probably show you a rubric that they use to measure that learning. So we’re very deliberate and all of our staff operate this way. Being very deliberate about learning. It’s not a game. It’s not kids trying to earn points in different ways and if they can’t earn points over here, they find ways to earn points over here. We try to be very specific so that we have – we can be calibrated and our teachers can be calibrated with our reporting so that if at the end of a course it’s deemed that a student is at a proficient level. That means the same thing regardless of the course or the teacher.
Steve: 07:58 Ashley, I’m wondering if you could step in here and talk to us a little bit about how the competency-based setting impacts your teaching.
Ashley: 08:09 So it impacts it in quite a few different ways. So first of all, my classroom looks a lot different. In a traditional setting where I taught previously it was very much like teacher lecture. But here at Sanborn, it’s very much personalized learning to the students. You’re meeting students at the place where they are and then you’re trying to move their competency, their skill forward, no matter which level they’re on. So in my English classroom, for example, we’re doing kind of a writing workshop model. In high school we’ve modified kind of the middle school, elementary school model to fit our classroom. And so we’re giving feedback to students on all different types of writing strategies and writing techniques, meeting them where they are in that moment. And then the other thing that really looks different I think is our assessment practices. So we, everything that our students get is performance assessment-based.
Ashley: 09:07 So we don’t give tests, I don’t give quizzes like those don’t exist in my classroom. And when we create these performance assessments, we start off with our competencies that we want to assess and our essential question and even down to like creating the rubric. We’re very, like Brian said, we’re very deliberate in our wording, we’re deliberate in what skills we’re trying to pull out from our students. And we’re very clear with our students about what it is that they are being assessed on and what skills we are looking for them to be able to achieve.
Steve: 09:39 Thank you. I was getting an assessment question ready as you said. It sounds to me like assessment needs to be a very critical part of your instructional model. Ongoing assessment.
Ashley: 09:56 Yes. So we’re constantly throughout a unit, we’re constantly assessing our students formatively through discussions, through classwork that they’re doing. And then the end of the unit, summative assessment is very deliberate, and all throughout the entire unit, the students are working on building those skills that they’ll need to show us at the end.
Brian: 10:18 Yeah. And if I can add to that, one of the ways that we always try to sell that with students or parents who are maybe unfamiliar with the model, although that’s rare now because we’ve been doing it for so long here, is we think of like the American driver education model, right? The ultimate performance task, regardless of what state you live in, it’s a performance task. You have to drive the car with somebody to prove to them that you understand how to navigate the roads and operate the vehicle in a safe manner before you’re going to get a license. And all of the time that you spend in driver education programs and practicing beforehand ultimately leads to that performance task at the end. So that same logic applies to our assessment model here in our district. And it’s not just a high school thing either. We do this K-12 in our district.
Steve: 11:12 I was just gonna ask that being a regional high school, most of the schools that are part of your sending system are using a similar model.
Brian: 11:25 Yep. We’re actually – small districts in New Hampshire. There are a lot of – there aren’t very many big districts in our state, but yeah, very much so. It’s K-12 and it’s been that way since we started.
Steve: 11:38 Kerrie, I was wondering the impact that the competency-based approach has to your work as a career pathway coordinator.
Kerrie: 11:48 So as a career pathway coordinator, I mentor kids as they look to see the path that they want to go in. And it could be through internships, it can be through extended learning opportunities, competencies. We have four basic competencies that we use, but then the kids make their own competencies. So their own learning goals of what they want to achieve through let’s say an internship. And then they have the opportunity to show us and demonstrate how they have achieved those competencies through an exhibition, a presentation to our staff. They do that twice a year. They create projects throughout for the community and they do a reflection piece for us too.
Steve: 12:35 You used a ton of words there that I love to hear. I’m a – I do a lot of work using the term student production behaviors. My statement is teachers don’t cause student learning, students cause student learning. And the task of the teacher is to create those opportunities that get kids engaged so they can do the learning and then the performance is almost a celebration for the kids.
Brian: 13:09 Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. And what’s really, what’s really unique about Kerrie’s work is these are all experiences where kids can learn outside of the classroom. You know, I think in a traditional model, we think of education as an event that has to happen within four walls with a teacher at the front of the room and the students either waiting to be taught or are somehow, you know, being inspired by the teacher. And really this is, this is very much a flipped model. This is Kerrie pounding the pavement every day, looking at our community for different learning opportunities for students. And then finding ways to bridge the gaps. Because really, what we’re about here is trying to help students figure out what they’re really passionate about. We know that when a student’s really passionate about something, they’ll want to learn everything that they can about that.
Brian: 14:01 Right? I mean, my 10-year-old is passionate about Minecraft and you know, games like that. He will spend any amount of free time he has learning as much as he can about Minecraft. Right? So, you know, and that’s a 10-year-old. I mean, 17-year-olds are really no different. You’ve just – some are a little bit harder to help figure out what they’re passionate about but once they know that that’s a really important part of learning and that there’s an opportunity to do that, you suddenly see a change in their demeanor and their just their overall engagement for school. And it’s huge. The program’s grown for us by leaps and bounds. And Kerrie, I would say we get about what, half of our graduating seniors, easily half of our graduating seniors participate in some way, shape, or form in this program, if not more than half.
Steve: 14:53 Neat. Neat. Ashley and Kerrie, I heard as part of Brian introducing you that you are both leaders within PLCs. And I’m wondering if you’d talk a little bit about the role of PLCs in instruction and learning being driven by competencies.
Ashley: 15:18 So for me, PLCs are probably one of the most important aspects. Anytime anyone asks me about competencies and where to start, I always point them to the PLCs first because I don’t think that without my team we would be successful in the work that we do. And that’s for many reasons. First, just the natural support. But also we spend a lot of our time looking at how our students learn how we can better our instruction. It’s a very student-centered team model. So when we’re in a PLC meeting, we’re always talking about our students or we’re talking about like, our quality performance assessments or we’re validating student work and we’re looking at student work to see what holes we’re missing. So it really is a key part of making sure that our instructional practices across the board are kind of calibrated and that we’re all doing what we need to in order to meet the students where they are.
Ashley: 16:15 I am in the freshmen learning community, so we’re a little bit different in that it’s a team of freshmen teachers. So we have two English teachers, two science teachers, two social studies teachers, and two math teachers as well as a special ed coordinator, a reading specialist, we have an admin who’s dedicated to the freshman learning community. And so the group of us, which sometimes it’s 14 people, we get together twice a week during our PLC time, which is our duty because our amazing administrators have taken all of our other duties. So they do the lunch duties, they do the bus duties, we have a duty to our PLC, and we spend time looking at how can we best meet our freshman as a grade, as a whole, and then we’re able to look at the different content areas and make sure that we have no holes in how we’re meeting them in their learning needs.
Steve: 17:08 So you’d reinforce my statements that teaching is a team sport?
Ashley: 17:14 Hundred percent.
Brian: 17:15 It’s 100% a team sport. Think of it this way. If you have to travel – you’ve got 50 people you need to travel down a river and you have your choice between taking 50 rowboats or 10 five-person canoes, I can tell you, either way, you’ll get down the river, but it’ll be a heck of a lot easier in those canoes where you can work together and you’ll probably all make it at about the same time. Right? It’s just, we’ve over the years I think really worked hard at that collaborative teaming model and getting teachers to understand that most of what they do can be accomplished more efficiently with a team and should be accomplished with a team. And to that end, we’ve really worked hard to provide, as they said, the resources and the time so that that collaboration can happen. And once you do that, from an administrator standpoint, I mean it’s – you just see collaboration starting and then more collaboration happening and it just ups everybody’s game a little bit. We’re all holding each other accountable and we rarely miss a beat, which is really the best part.
Steve: 18:24 Well Brian, my hat off to you. One of my favorite stories is being in a room full of principals. And I’m talking about teachers teaming and several of them complain out loud to me that there is no time in the schedule for the teachers to meet. And I say back to them, man, I wish we could talk to the people who are making the schedule. They were all sitting there in the room.
Brian: 18:52 I get it. A high school schedule can be complex and our schedule is no different. Even though we’re a smaller school, we have all sorts of roadblocks and hurdles, but at some point, it’s a big math problem, right? I was a high school math teacher. At some point, you have to decide what your priorities are going to be and you have to make those priorities work. And for us, one of the most important priorities is that we’re going to have team time and common planning time for everybody on a team. So if that’s the driver, the rest of the schedule gets built around that, right? I mean, everybody’s going to have a driver, so…
Steve: 19:30 My wife’s an elementary administrator and when she does her scheduling, that’s the first thing she schedules because she says if you wait till the end, you can’t come back and squeeze it in. So if you build the rest of it around that.
Brian: 19:44 That’s what it is for us, it’s PLC teams in the band. Those are the [inaudible].
Steve: 19:51 Kerrie, you want to talk a little bit about PLC, how it impacts your group?
Kerrie: 19:55 Absolutely. My group is a little bit different because they’re unified arts, so I have a wellness team with me as well as our career and technical education people. So not a whole lot of commonalities as far as instruction or as far as content, but the support for our instruction and to be able to validate what we do in our classrooms with our assignments, with our rubrics, and just to have that support and that consistency piece. It’s just been huge.
Steve: 20:29 Great. Great. I’m wondering if any of you or all of you would chime in a little bit about grading and I did go on and took my personal look at your reporting process that you have online. But how do you tackle the whole grading question?
Brian: 20:48 Well, grading is about what students learn, what they earn. So I’ll say that upfront. It’s not a point to the accrual system. It’s not a system where kids can just look for opportunities to play the game of school and decide which points are going to be easiest to earn. It’s not a game where we average lots of things together and have averages upon averages to get more averages to somehow end up with some kind of a composite score that’s supposed to tell us to what degree a student has learned something. So this goes all the way back to being deliberate about learning and reporting on learning. So we try to be as deliberate as we can. Our grades are focused on what it is students know and are able to do and to what degree they are – what depth they’ve learned something.
Brian: 21:46 So our teachers have assessments, those are tied to competencies. They’re always tied to rubrics. We grade on a rubric scale. It’s a four-point scale. There is no such way that a student can earn a 3.2 on an assignment because we don’t have a distinction for what evidence we would be looking for to award a grade of 3.2. So students get fours, threes, twos, ones because that’s how our rubrics are developed. They get grades for every course by competencies, so we can see which competencies they’re proficient in and which ones they’re not. We do an overall course grade reluctantly at the end of a course, simply so that we can do a very traditional class rank GPA calculation that some colleges and universities and scholarship committees are still looking for. But I can tell you that that’s less and less every year. You know, we take advantage of progressive grading, reformed strategies that make sense for kids like reassessment for example. Grading is not about behavior. So if it takes students longer or shorter to learn something, they shouldn’t be penalized in any way for that. It’s about the process. It’s about refinement. What am I missing? I’m giving you the general things. Of course, it gets specific with the different content areas.
Ashley: 23:25 I would say that the most important part of our grading for students is our rubrics and good rubric creation because those rubrics really do spell out for students exactly what we are looking for them to do and at what depth we are looking for them to do it at. So those rubrics are a really important piece and I think that’s part of where those PLCs come in because we look at each other’s rubrics. It’s always great to have like a science teacher look at my English rubric and tell me that, you know, I didn’t understand what this meant and I’m like, “Oh yeah, cause in my head it made sense.” So those rubrics are going to be really important because that is where we’re telling our students and we’re saying like there’s no guessing game to this assignment. Like, there’s no hidden agenda.
Ashley: 24:09 This isn’t a trick question. Here is what I’m asking you to do, here’s the rubric. You can see exactly what I want from you and exactly what I’m looking for in this assignment and this assessment. And they’re able to produce that because the rubrics are so clear. And they also, our students also know that, well Brian talked about the overall course grade. All of our students in order to get credit, have to be proficient in each of the individual competencies. So in English, we have four competencies. In order to get credit for English for the year, they have to have passed all four individual competencies and not just the overall grade. So they can’t, you know, fail writing but have passed reading and speaking and research. It doesn’t work that way. They need to show us that they are, they have the skill in each of the different competency areas.
Kerrie: 24:55 It’s student ownership. Especially I talked earlier about our students developing their own competencies for their [inaudible]. They also are developing their own assessments. They’re developing their own rubrics. So we just guide that process for them. So once they have that ownership in it, they are just so engaged and so directly in their learning.
Brian: 25:21 When we first started this system, oh gosh, seven or eight years ago, probably, we – I and my admin team got a lot of pushback from parents and students because we changed a lot of the grading practices from traditional ones that they had come to know over a long period of time. And there was this element that we’ve changed the game. You know, we’ve changed the rules of the game and we’ve possibly disrupted how successful they’re going to be or their potential for success as a result of this. And, you know, there was a lot of belief that we were going to harm kids, that suddenly they weren’t going to be prepared for the college level where, you know, the grading doesn’t look like that. And you know, we worked with our parents with that. We tried to help them understand our grading in very simple terms.
Brian: 26:14 I think that you know, there was this perception that a 93% was a very specific grade, a very calculated grade. Whereas a three or a four seems so subjective to parents. Right? Of course, we all know if you take a 93% and you look under the hood, how did you get that 93%, right? Did they understand 93% of the material? You know, so, one of the things I would do with my parents when I’d have them together like at a meeting talking about this is they’d say, look, let’s take any skill that you want and talk about how we could actually articulate that skill and what that skill – like, what we would look for in someone who’s performing that skill at a great, a good affair and a poor level. And I would use those words because they were very easy for people to latch on to, even though those are not the descriptors we use in our rubrics.
Brian: 27:12 So if you take parking a car, for example. Parents in a room can easily sit around and separate what it means to park a car at a great, a good, a fair or poor level. And within about five minutes we can reach a consensus with a group of parents on what those levels look like. And I say to them, I said, folks, this is what our teachers do when they talk about levels of performance, some of for our more academic skills. So I said, you know, we all did this with parking a car because it’s a skill we’re all familiar with. We use it every day and we certainly know the difference between good parkers and fair parkers, especially when you walk out to your car and see that the person next to you was clearly not a good parker and now you have to deal with that.
Brian: 27:56 Right? So I think once we start getting real with parents like that, that helped them understand and that helped create some buy-in. And then, of course, the fact that the system did not end up failing their kids in the end certainly helped. You know what’s interesting is, the kids who struggled the most early on were actually the students who were our compliant kids. So the kids who learned how to play the game of school and you know, be well-behaved, participate every day in class, do all their homework assignments on time or early, you know, they were the kids who perhaps weren’t really learning things at deep levels, but had figured out how to play the game in school. Those are the parents that pushed back on me the most. I can remember those conversations. “My kid used to be a student until you created this new fangled system and now they’re struggling and it’s your fault.”
Brian: 28:54 Well, so it was a process and it was it’s not an easy process. I mean, I tell principals all the time, you’ve got to stay the course. And I think sometimes that’s the problem in our profession is you don’t always have the courage to stay the course or the support from your whomever. Be it your superintendent or your school committee or school board or just your community at large. You’ve got to see it through. It was several years of uncomfortableness before we reached a point where it became part of our culture and there was acceptance. Almost like the five stages of grief, you know, getting to that last stage of acceptance takes time.
Steve: 29:42 I have one last question. The spot that really made the article I read that you were in jump out at me is when you talked about exploring ways for moving when ready philosophy. And I’m wondering if you might talk a little to that and if Kerrie and Ashley might talk about the impact that they see that direction would have on them.
Brian: 30:09 Yeah. And it’s – I’m glad you brought that up because it’s a fundamental component of a competency-based system to be able to think about moving away from the Carnegie units where we measure learning based on seat time and instead measure learning based on proof that you – or demonstration of your learning. So once you can identify – once you can build a system where learning is competency-based, now you have a new currency that you can use as an exchange rate to determine you know, how much a student has learned and how you transfer that between different courses and in schools. So that one, it’s a hard nut to crack for a lot of schools because there’s the big structural piece sometimes that you have to overcome with your schedule and your calendar and the way you award credits and report things with state reporting.
Brian: 31:03 And there are lots of different hurdles. So New Hampshire and Sanborn in particular, we’ve entered the arena of move when ready, probably over the last few years. And we’ve done it in a few different ways. I’ll let – I mean Kerrie is probably the most obvious examples. So I’ll probably let her talk about that specifically. Ashley can tell you a little bit about what it looks like in her classroom because her classroom is still very much traditional in the sense that kids are assigned to ninth grade English and they’re going to be there for the entire school year. So it’s not like they’re going to move into the 10th grade English at some point in the middle of the year. But having said that, we’ve actually started doing some of that in math. We’ve actually rebuilt our math program now so that ninth, 10th and 11th, 11th graders can start to move a little bit more fluidly through that.
Kerrie: 31:56 So yeah, in my area we lead exactly to that move when ready. So if we have a student doing a technology class here in the regular classrooms, they’re ready to move on to the next – they have mastered that basic technology piece, but they’re ready for the next step. Then we put them in an extended learning opportunity where we give them the option to now let’s learn more. Let’s dig deeper. Especially coding and programming seem to be the hot topics right now for us in the tech world. Once they achieve those goals and they’re ready, then they move again. So they – they’re really in charge of their own learning. It’s more elective based here that we’re seeing that move when ready, but we are starting it within our math areas, so.
Ashley: 32:56 So in the English classroom, because they are with us for an entire year, what we try to do is to incorporate some of those elements of move when ready. So I actually co-teach all of my ninth grade English classes with another English teacher. We team teach everything together. So she has her course load, I have mine, but we have a wall that opens in between us and we keep it open at all times. And that has really helped us with the kind of incorporating a little bit of movement ready. Because what we’ll do, is we will kind of put the students into different groupings based on the skill that we’re working at. So if we have students who need a little bit extra help or students that are ready to move ahead, we’re able to split them and work with them in different groupings. And we’re constantly moving those around our – like we’re starting now into the workshop model as well, which really plays well with the movement ready model because with the workshop model, all of the feedback is based on the individual student. So it’s a little bit more the personalized learning in the regular classes. And then we’ll do like a unit that’s move when ready and they can move through it at their own pace.
Brian: 33:53 Yeah. A lot of our teachers are moving more into the project based learning environment that lends itself very easily to move when ready. Because obviously, you know, depending on the project, students, everybody has their own pacing, but there’ll be check-ins along the way. So that workshop instruction model is definitely huge for all of our staff. So it’s been a nice evolution because for us, we’ve not moved any quicker into this arena than we were ready to with our staff and ready to support it. So it’s been a very natural progression for us. And you know, as advanced as the state of New Hampshire is with competency-based learning, we still do have to report to the state on an annual basis. And that state reporting is very much traditional. They want to know how many kids are in which courses and it’s still, it’s, you know, we’re not there yet, but I think it’s a good blended environment that we’re living in right now.
Steve: 34:56 Terrific. Well thank you. Thank you to the three of you, you’ve you’ve had a smile on on my face the whole time you’ve been on. I’ve just loved it. I I hope my schedule has me somewhere close to New Hampshire. I would love to stop by and visit and see the school in action.
Brian: 35:17 Well here’s the good news is there’s never a bad time to visit New Hampshire. Come here spring, fall, we have all the seasons.
Steve: 35:26 Well, thank you. So we’ll wrap there, okay? Have a great day guys.
Brian: 35:32 Take care.
Steve: 35:33 Bye.
Brian: 35:33 Bye now.
Steve [Outro]: 35:38 Thanks again for listening. You can to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean, and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.