rose colbyName: Rose Colby

Role: Author, Adjunct Professor and National Expert in Competency Education and Consultant for the NH Dept. of Education

What makes her awesome: Rose is an author and highly regarded expert in competency-based education and assessment. She co-wrote Off the Clock: Moving Education from Time to Competency. She serves as: National Advisor for CompetencyWorks.org; 2 Revolutions Competency Fellow; Consultant to schools, districts, and state policy makers in transformative practices in competency education; Adjunct in Educational Administration at Plymouth State University; national presenter on Differentiated Instruction, Leadership, Competency Based School Transformation and Millennials/Digital Learner Generation.

How are schools successfully implementing CBE?

I’ve worked in quite a few states and CBE looks different in all different places. Schools that are firmly grounded in a vision of supporting and preparing graduates who is both college and workforce ready really have the right orientation for this work. Because, to be truly college and career ready, the skill set and competencies required can’t be met by the old models of teaching and learning.

It’s hard to push in with highly personalized, student-centered learning when you’re hampered by a system cultured to teach all of the students in the class on the same day with the same material. The two are diametrically opposite in their nature and purpose of learning. One approach that can be helpful is to work with school leaders to develop a community approach to school transformation. This can’t be the top down approach we have used for educational initiatives in the past. You really need to get involved in vision setting in the future of education and involve parents in that conversation. What they want for their kids and how they want their kids to learn and use that [learning] is the jumping off point for significant school district transformation. It’s beyond reform, it’s transformation. Grounding the work in the vision and sustaining it over time through high quality, job-embedded professional development is key in implementing this work.

CBE is beyond reform: It’s transformation.

What is key to advancing K-12 CBE, and how does it address the needs of all learners?

I think just getting the competencies written is a starting point, and we’re doing that at the state level in New Hampshire so that teachers don’t have to do that work. We have teams of teachers writing the graduation and K-8 competencies. Based on the NH Minimum Standards for School Approval, all districts have to have their graduation competencies written by July of 2017. That means that they need to know what the K-8 competencies look like, [which] is new to the K-8 world. That is the work being done now. Districts, when they’re ready, will be at the adopt and adapt stage where you can take them and use them as your competencies.

Or, schools/districts can say, “We really want to add a competency here.” Or, “Change the language there to say this.” In NH, the state doesn’t have that kind of overreach into the districts to say they have to use these competencies. That’s kind of where we’re at right now in terms of competency development. Then supporting districts who say, “Maybe the best way to approach this is grade spans, so we’ll assess students where they are at in their learning in a span of competencies and use that as the starting point to ensure students’ learning is personalized.” Versus, “Moving competencies into these cohorts that are all kind of homogenous.”

One of the most important reasons for “Graduation Competencies” is recognizing that it is a K-12 journey to graduation, and academic competencies alone do not prepare students beyond high school. So, graduation competencies should also address personal skills or dispositions that are needed to support successful learning in academics and in life.

This is really at the heart of personalization. Everyone comes to the table of learning with different backgrounds, prior knowledge, assets and liabilities as learners. So, in order to be ready for the next phase of life’s journey, it is important that each child has a customized learning pathway. In CBE, we hold students to mastery before moving them forward.

How is New Hampshire leading the way?

In New Hampshire, competencies in the K-12 space are based on national frameworks. It is political in nature, and tied into a much bigger project happening at the state-level called NH PACE accountability system, where New Hampshire received a waiver from the federal government.

What we’re doing is the work of competency development, so that all PACE districts will have the same competencies. [PACE districts] are committed to the new accountability plan and will be using those competencies as part of the unit plan design. Anyone can take them and use them how they want, so school districts don’t have to spend their limited resources doing that work. We can guarantee high quality work, because the competencies are already tested.

Karen Hess is the one leading the work, aligning it to learning progressions and standards. They will be well vetted by a number of people, [including] the teachers on the committee.

People are hungry for this work, and it will take a lot of professional development time and dollars to make the first draft. Then [we can] go from there, instead of trying to get the product done locally. K-8 competencies will be ready to send as draft for wider review—approval by state BOE this summer.

Beyond New Hampshire, who is using CBE and what does it look like?

Right now there is legislation in over 40 states that somehow addresses competency education. There are about 20 states that are a bit ahead of others in implementing personalized learning, and have incorporated next-generation assessment measures to design models of competency-based education. It looks a little different state to state, as I previously mentioned, but the bottom line is CBE is always student-centered and that is the most important aspect.

Is there a magic formula for writing competencies and implementing change successfully?

First of all, we look at the conceptual concept of a competency and keep that in mind when designing learning and assessments for students to demonstrate mastery. Competencies are a bit more abstract than standards. However, standards in one sense define which content and skills are required for a student to know and be able to do in order to then transfer those into tasks.

We do have guidelines for teachers to write competency statements and a validation rubric to determine if the competency statement is strong or weak. There is no formula for the work as each school enters the work based on where they are in their current models of teaching and learning.

It is important for teachers to have dedicated work time together, ideally every day, in order to collaborate and share their thinking and their work products.

The biggest shift in teaching and learning in competency education is really the instructional shifts. We can’t do what we have always done in teaching and learning, as it is teacher centered, when we want our students to have voice, choice, and agency in their learning. It requires different instructional design.

In public education, the barriers to the work may be formidable. Political factors, financial aspects, professional culture, learning culture—each of these need to be addressed to be ready to bring on change to systems that haven’t changed much over the past 150 years.

What are the biggest lessons learned from working with so many different schools?

I’ve found that the weakest link in the whole chain can be leadership development. There is incredible capacity among teachers who are eager to learn and who are doing good things already. I find that leaders have difficulty in engaging with the community, [and] they may make some really judgmental mistakes. I am working with one district now that is approaching the whole thing as a grade system change, which should be at the end of the process, not the beginning.

You’ve got to start with changing the culture of learning, the design for learning, and the resources for learning. Then, when you’ve got that figured out, talk about changing your resources for grading, but you don’t begin with a grading change. This is where schools get stuck. The stakeholders associated with the school (students, parents, teachers, administration, community members) will equate competency-based education with grading if it is handled in this way. CBE and grades are two distinct entities.

By giving stakeholders, especially parents, all the information surrounding student progress—more information than they have ever had before—including traditional grading measures and feedback on competency proficiency, they are much less likely to resist the change to CBE.

I do a lot of principal and superintendent coaching, showing them that this has to be bigger and better than them at any given time. One person can’t own all of this in a district because when that one person goes away, you’ve lost it. I try to approach this as “think this through” [when coaching], which encourages leaders to ask, “What is the overall vision?” Followed by how to engage parents in it, because this is bigger than any one person in the district. You have to provide support for the leaders who do the work, and I include teacher leaders in this as well.

How did your role as principal for 15 years help shape your approach to CBE?

Being a principal can be a pretty lonely job, but you can’t send your teachers out for work on this unless you have a real fire in your belly for the feeling that this is right and what is best for your students. You’ve got to support and get through a lot of difficult conversations through this change process—from parents to boards to principals and teachers and everything on down. The heart of the transformation of schools in becoming competency based is the really good work of principals and teachers. When you do this right and the grading comes last, CBE just phases itself in. You give parents more information than they’ve ever had and it’s evident that their kid is doing really well.

The power of CBE, when done well, is incredible—it changes the outlook on work and makes it easier to connect what students are learning with the most important skills they will need to become career and college ready. High school folks tend to think what they’re teaching is the same in every school and tend to have a very local orientation to the work and see how what they are doing goes across other concepts. As for pedagogy, elementary is far more varied than high school folks. They are now using tasks—learning while they are being assessed and then having a summative piece at the end.

Focusing on assessment literacy is a great place to start. You have to have the important (and sometimes difficult) conversations that stop teachers from continuing in the stand-and-deliver-mode—it is ineffective and can’t continue.

As long as you stay on top of this very fast-paced, changing innovation, competency-based education is more than school reform, it is transformation of learning and lives.

This is the sixth installment in our From the Field series, featuring interviews with expert practitioners of competency-based education.