This is the second in our From the Field interview series with expert practitioners of competency-based education.

Name: Maureen O’DeaMaureen O'Dea Move to Competency-Based Education

School: Londonderry High School; Londonderry School District, Londonderry NH

Title(s): Director of School Counseling, Assembly Delegate to The New England Association for College Admission Counseling (NEACAC), Board Member of the NH Directors of School Counseling

What Makes Her Awesome: Advocates for the unyielding success of every student; champion of independent pathways for learning.


Maureen has worked for the past 20 years in K-12 guiding students through their high school careers ensuring their successful transition beyond high school. Additionally Maureen lends her perspective of 8 years of experience in higher education. Her ability to straddle both levels of education gives her a more complete understanding of what students need to be successful in their high school education and beyond.

Transitioning Londonderry High School to CBE is not Maureen’s first competency rodeo. Prior to leading LHS as the Director of School Counseling, she held the same post in Nashua where she worked along with school administrators and staff on the Change Leadership Team to move to competency-based education. She is eager to help her new colleagues in Londonderry go big or go home.

In this interview, Maureen shares some of the lessons she has learned in her experience implementing CBE and how she is helping Londonderry begin its transition to CBE.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced in your move to competency-based education?

I see two major challenges during the move to competency-based education: stakeholder acceptance and higher ed readiness.

Stakeholder Acceptance

Regarding stakeholders, the first major audience is the educators. As a school leader, you see a similar response any time you spearhead a major new initiative. There are early adopters. There are open-minded and willing folks. And inevitably, there is a contingency opposed to change. I typically see the groups splitting approximately into thirds. It’s important to have a plan to use your early adopters as your evangelists to energize the other stakeholders.

Convincing stakeholders like parents, students, and members of the community to understand and adopt CBE is a different challenge and one that schools need to be prepared to address. One of the primary concerns we hear, especially among high school juniors and seniors actively enrolling in colleges and universities, is that they are worried about their transcript translating from competencies back to a more traditional grading scale that the institutions are used to seeing. Our students want to be accepted into their dream schools, and their parents don’t want a grading system getting in the way of their kids achieving their dreams.

This leads to higher ed readiness.

Higher Ed Readiness

Part of the shift has to be with colleges. It is fair to say that many students aren’t adequately prepared for higher education. In addition, success in college cannot be solely indicated by high school grades. There are so many more characteristics beyond course and test scores that demonstrate a student’s readiness for the next step of their postsecondary career.

It would be helpful for everyone if colleges understand that for their institutions to be successful, they need to be accepting the right students. Competency-based education helps ensure students are prepared for postsecondary work through required demonstration of mastery, and institutions of higher education should be prepared to evaluate and accept students based on competency transcripts.

Until then, I still think we can make changes that will improve the status quo. For example, I would like to see the school do away with class rank. We can translate a 4-point grading scale to measure student learning in CBE, while still calculating a GPA that colleges can use until they can find a better way to understand their future learner.

But grades and competency-based education are two different things; does this mean you will be re-evaluating the grading scale at your school?

Grades and CBE are in fact two distinct entities, but you cannot fully embrace CBE without realizing that a traditional 100-point scale is such a disservice to our students. The grading system we use does little to authentically assess students.

The grading system we are using now is clearly broken. I’m sure many educators who resist change will disagree—but they really can’t. Right now, many colleges and universities are looking at a 6-year completion rate. Students are getting into college and they’re not yet competent, but they’re getting in based on grade inflation and because a grade just does not do enough to accurately describe the extent of learning taking place.

College admissions needs to adjust in order to help American high schools more appropriately prepare for college and career.

I recently read a great NPR article that clearly articulates the cost of graduating underprepared students and how huge the impact is on students and their families. We need to find a better way. K-12 needs higher education to work collaboratively with us to address learning gaps and how we measure student progress in a way that connects to their expectation of transcripts.

It makes sense that through the use of competency-based education where students are required to demonstrate mastery, that we would be able to all but eliminate any learning gaps and provide a more cohesive and appropriate approach to preparing our learners for life beyond high school.  

What specific steps will you take as you move your district to CBE?

Having been through the transition to CBE in a district where I previously worked allows me to look at the bigger picture. I learned a lot of valuable lessons through my work with the change leadership team at that school, and I have had some time to reflect on what worked well and see what didn’t.

Review Curriculum

The first thing that we must do is come to establish the need for curriculum review. We know what courses we are currently offering. Are they what our students need in order to prepare for career? College? Life? We need to have a clear understanding of what outcomes are being measured across disciplines and within each course. What will students need in order to demonstrate mastery? Anything that doesn’t relate to a competency needs to be either thrown out or re-evaluated. We shouldn’t be measuring student progress against anything that does not pertain to the competency statement.

Get Stakeholders on Board—ALL of Them

The next critical piece in the successful transition to competency-based education are the stakeholders. And I mean all of the stakeholders in a community’s school, including the community itself. Implementing CBE in a district is so much bigger than any one principal or superintendent. Try as they might, if they do not utilize the collective leadership of all of their stakeholders, the road to CBE will be a bumpy one if not a complete disaster. Using a “distributed leadership” model, school leaders can successfully lead school reform.

Key educational stakeholders include:

  • School Administration – at the SAU level as well as individual school leaders
  • Educators
  • Students
  • Parents
  • Community Businesses & Organizations
  • School Board
  • Local Legislature

Once stakeholders are empowered through knowledge and understanding, they will effectively be able to support and promote further understanding among others, perpetuating the sphere of CBE. As a school leader, there are aspects to managing this magnitude of transformation that require meticulous communication, and (laughing) a degree in marketing doesn’t hurt either.

Analyze How We Measure Student Progress

Another key step in the move to competency-based education is to analyze how we effectively measure student progress. As I mentioned, the 100-point scale causes more harm than good for our students. We don’t want to assess our students in a way that is a disservice to them.

Part of the pedagogical shift to competency-based education is coming to a deep understanding that each of our students have really unique learning needs. Not every student is going to learn at the same rate and at the same time. Some students may need additional time to process and really learn. In traditional education, we hold initial failures and low scores in the beginning of learning against the student at the end of the course when they are able to more fully demonstrate and apply what they have learned.

Stakeholders understand this shift better after reading or hearing about the work of Rick Wormeli and Thomas Guskey. Both are great resources for educators looking to create better grading and assessment strategies.

How does competency-based education address some of the problems facing education today?

The greatest problem we have created in traditional education is limiting what we are willing to consider learning. We restrict student access to the best learning environment when we put limits on where and when they can get their knowledge. In traditional education, we prevent students from reaching a certain bar because they learn differently.

Even the use of arbitrary start dates, by age, for kindergarten or first grade — why aren’t students starting school when they are ready? Also limiting is geography, believe it or not. I am always amazed at the arbitrary rules that greatly change the scope of learning or the kind of education students have access to. For example, in New Hampshire, you can’t be in a CTE  course (Careers in Technical Education—you know, all of the cool classes like TV Film Production, Culinary Arts, Early Childhood Education, Health Occupations, Machining, Construction, Small Engines) unless you are a junior. But in Massachusetts, you can be a freshman and take them. This is a disservice to students born in NH.

We’re not looking at each individual student and what they need to succeed.

The key is finding a way to meet students where they are. That is the beautiful thing about a more personalized approach to learning, inherent in competency-based education: it allows us to better understand where students are coming from, what their unique learning needs are and how we can help them design a meaningful learning continuum. Essentially, it allows us to create and enable an individualized learning plan (IEP) for every student.

I’m a firm believer in doing what it takes to get a kid to a place where they can be successful. Any school reform effort that effectively can do away with punitive consequences—it’s about raising kids up authentically—that’s where they are learning really great stuff. I always ask: “Why aren’t we willing to give them credit for learning, regardless of what that learning looks like (e.g. outside of classes)?” No one has ever given me a good enough reason.

Where you start out isn’t where you necessarily end up—and that usually means you learned some good stuff along the way.

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