This article was originally published on CompetencyWorks in 2014.
It was a delight to visit Pittsfield School District (PSD) to learn about the redesign of the district starting with the Pittsfield Middle High School. It’s a comprehensive design: Keep “students at the center” using personalized learning strategies that build upon a competency-based infrastructure to ensure students master twenty-first century skills and demonstrate academic content and skills. It’s a mouthful for sure – and this district is doing it.
Tobi Chassie and Susan Bradley, Co-Project Managers of the Systems Change Initiative shared their impressive results. The percent of students being accepted to college has jumped from 20% to 80%. Chassie explained, “There is a palpable difference among faculty and the community in enthusiasm and hope. And their expectations for the kids have increased.” Bradley emphasized, “A lot of the difference is in student voice – they just had to let it out. They just needed a system and process that allowed them to express their voice. Their voice has motivated the teachers.”
How It Started: The redesign started after faculty and staff agreed that the status quo wasn’t acceptable and committed to do better for their kids. The district had been forced to reduce staff due to the economic downturn and dropping enrollment due to redistricting. Pittsfield Middle High School (PMHS)was a SIG school and the community saw it as a problem. They also agreed that incremental cuts or reducing programs wasn’t an option. The school board wanted a coherent system of education.
Starting in 2008 with a community-wide dialogue, a shared vision was created for a student-centered redesign based on five principles:
- Learning is personalized
- Teaching is focused on coaching and facilitating
- Learning reaches beyond the school walls
- Progress is measured by mastery, not by age or the number of classroom hours, and
- Time is a flexible resource
Note that the competency-based elements are captured in “measured by mastery” and “time is a flexible resource.” The others focus on personalization, valuing learning wherever it takes place, and the changing roles of educators.
Their Community Engagement Strategy: PSD doesn’t do “buy in” or input when they discuss community engagement. PSD’s active community demanded that it be an authentic partner, not passive observers satisfied with updates. In order to ensure the community is a partner in considering and shaping new ideas all along the way, PSD has created formal structures.
With the help of Bill Bryan from CCSR, PSD established a Community Advisory Council (renamed recently as the Good to Great Team). The 35 people on the council meet once a month as a full group and once a month in sub-teams such talent management, community engagement, parent engagement and student engagement. Chassie explained, “Community engagement is the key to sustainability. If the district and school leaders fell off the face of the earth, the community would keep it going. They are creating the public demand.”
Students are essential partners as well. For example, students hold the majority of the seats on the Pittsfield Middle High School Council. Chassie explained that with the help of Bryan, the council mapped out the council’s responsibilities to support students in learning how to work together effectively on the council. The council reviews and approves proposals such as open campus guidelines, rules, handbook revisions, and class meetings. Before anything goes to the school board, it goes to the site council.
Chassie pointed out that the participation in the school council gave voice to students and built confidence. That confidence quickly spread from the students on the site council to other students. Students are now considered invaluable partners in addressing issues.
An example of student participation in the development of the school is the current revision of its disciplinary policy. During the process mapping of the discipline policies, students pointed out that neither in-school nor out-of-school suspensions were meaningful for improving behavior or learning. As a team, a group of students and educators researched alternatives with the support of Brian Partridge of New England College and are now in the process of rolling our restorative justice practices. The implementation plan includes training for students, training teachers, and revising the handbook that had become a “hodgepodge of rules that had been added over time.”
Freeman points out that participation of students and community members needs to be nurtured. School leaders are continuing to look for other options to engage students and listen to them carefully to make adjustments as needed in current operations.
Finally, PSD pays a great deal of attention to ongoing communication. Superintendent John Freeman invests in building strategic relationships and taking their progress to the community. He is constantly presenting to city council, Rotary Clubs, churches and other leaders of the community. The ideas of student-centered learning are a focus of the strategic communication, with meetings and other forms of engagement set up with the community before reports are released and new ideas are being developed. PSD also worked with Jane Feinberg Full Frame Communications, to help them with their message.
Finally, students themselves are a part of the communication strategy, participating in presentations and explaining student-centered learning to adults they meet during their expanded learning opportunities.
Developing the Vision for Personalized Learning: Soon after becoming superintendent (interestingly, he had been the elementary school principal) Freeman attended a conference where he met Joe DiMartino of the Center for Secondary School Redesign and the ideas of student-centered learning resonated.
The next step was investigating what student-centered schools look like, so school visits were organized at Urban Academy, Francis W. Parker, and High Tech High. When they returned, the community advisory council was created with six sub-teams that developed a logic model. It started with an understanding of the learning process as a combination of habits of mind that supported inquiry-based learning, the goal of building the twenty-first century skills that would prepare students for college and career readiness, an expectation that students would demonstrate their learning through authentic assessment and personalization that emphasized student-centered learning.
The logic model has five areas of focus:
- Ensuring Student Ownership for Learning,
- Raising Student Achievement,
- Developing 21st Century Civic and Socio-emotional Skills,
- Redefining Adult Role and Expectations, and
- Engaging with the Community.
The logic model was then turned into a roadmap for implementation that is undergoing a revision.
Chassie emphasized that it was invaluable to have community members participate in the process. “For example, we had not included anything to address unmotivated learners. It was a community member who pointed that out, raising the question about what was in place to support that set of students.”
Managing the Conversion to Competency Education: Pittsfield doesn’t think about their redesign as competency-based. They were redesigning around personalized learning at the same time the state set the policy for competency-based credits at the high school level. So they’ve integrated the essentials of competency education into their operations in a way that provides structure for teachers and students. Below are three major steps in converting to competency education.
Community Engagement: Lois Stevens, Director of Student Services and the Chair of the Competency Implementation team, explained that they had already seen neighboring districts end up on the local news, so they knew that the conversion was going to raise a lot of questions for students, parents and community members. They created a task force of three students, five parents, three community members and eight faculty to ensure that all perspectives and concerns were addressed.
They didn’t want to re-invent the wheel. So the task force visited Sanborn Regional School District, Rochester School District, and Southegan. They realized that the major problem was the transition from traditional time-based to competency-based. Stevens explained, “ Students carry the burden of what is happening in the school. We wanted to make sure they understood it and could explain it from their firsthand experience.”
PSD used a multi-pronged approach to engage the broader community. First, they worked with NH Listens to organize forums facilitated by community members. Then, partnering with Pittsfield Youth Workshop and other local organizations, they held a pig roast in a downtown park to attract community members unlikely to come to the school. Computers were set up so that teachers could show what competencies and reports cards would look like.
Writing Competencies: Danielle Harvey, instructional coach, explained, “Writing competencies is really about communication.” The goal is to create transparency about what is expected for students to learn and how it will be assessed. PSD has valued competency education because it “opens up the door to personalized learning as it helps teachers and students be very clear about whether students are ‘getting it’ or ‘not getting it’”.
Harvey emphasized that it is important to “keep the learning connected.” Standards, rather than competencies, may be too micro and may produce a reliance on worksheets rather than inquiry-based instruction. Harvey recommended that if you don’t have competencies, anchors or essential standards are a good place to start.
Harvey said schools should have an implementation plan and not try to tackle everything at once. In 2012, Pittsfield Middle High School piloted competencies, began doing summer competency recovery and piloted grade books designed around competencies. In 2013, they began to grade based on competencies. She emphasized setting a process goal that all courses be converted to competencies to a certain level to get all people in the same boat, knowing that as knowledge builds there will be refinements in improving and aligning competencies, rubrics and assessment. She also recommended that for those teachers who want to do the “100 yard dash,” it is important to let them move forward with the understanding that things are likely to change, so whatever they do may have to be changed later on.
PSD uses several strategies to create coherence in their competency framework. First, they have embraced Understand by Design to help them design their competencies and curriculum. PSD expects here to be explicit essential questions and enduring understanding for every course. Using the UBD model, teachers start with the competencies (or anchor standards) and assessments, identify the essential understanding that will be learned in the course, and design how they are going to help students learn them.
PSD used the New Hampshire validation rubrics as well as consultants to help in the development of rubrics and to understand how to grade within a competency-based environment. They found that building common assessments is a good way to engage teachers to build a deeper understanding of what proficiency looks like as well as providing coaching opportunities. For those teachers who are new or slower to adopt competency education, Harvey will ask them to point out where in the curriculum the specific competencies or anchor standards are.
After teachers draft their competencies and rubrics, they are vetted with colleagues in their department and the curriculum coordinator and then submitted to the principal (or actually the Dean of Instruction; more on that later) for approval. The curriculum development director plays a key role in quality control as she works with teachers around their courses rather than through a calibration process to ensure consistency across teachers who are all teaching the same course. PSD is now in the process of strengthening vertical alignment, unpacking the standards from elementary school through high school. The language is different with high schools bundling standards into competencies and elementary focusing on enduring understanding.
Harvey recommended starting with what you have rather than trying to operate on a blank slate. The exceptions were math and ELA because they decided to throw everything out and fully align with the Common Core State Standards.
PSD created a construct of open and closed competencies. Open competencies are for process standards that students are working on all year long, such as writing, whereas closed competencies are more topical, with the expectation that students should be demonstrating proficiency as a complete step of learning.
Supporting Teachers: Harvey strongly recommended making sure that teachers have weekly planning time when schools begin to convert to competency education. The late start they planned on Wednesdays “kept us sane.” She also said that it was invaluable to have received professional coaching courses before they began the process of conversion to competency education
As in all competency-based schools, PLC’s are essential. Building respect among teachers is important if they are to take risks in learning how to operate in a personalized, competency-based environment. Chassie emphasized, “Risk taking and valuing mistakes as learning opportunities are role modeled starting with the superintendent.”
As teachers become more comfortable with competency education, there is more discussion about depth of knowledge. PSD is using Karin Hess’ Cognitive Rigor Matrix as knowledge taxonomy. Teachers are exploring other types of assessments beyond multiple choice, and some staff have been working to incorporate more performance-based assessment through a partnership with Quality Performance Assessment, as they found the approach was strongly aligned with UBD.
PSD did find that many teachers left when they realized what the redesign was going to mean. Hiring gave PSD an opportunity to bring teachers in who share their philosophy. They are careful in their hiring process and are finding that they are attracting teachers who have previously been teaching in charter schools. New teachers learning how to manage competency-based courses are assigned a mentor who can help them align competencies, rubrics and assessments, as well as learn how to manage a personalized classroom. There is a 1.5-day induction for new teachers, as well as monthly seminars
PSD is using Atlas as an online curriculum repository (see template for how they are organizing enduring questions and indicators in Atlas). They had tried curriculum mapping software, but teachers found it too overwhelming. Atlas has been set up based on the UBD framework, with units and benchmarks on a timeline to help with pacing. It includes the essential questions and performance indicator statements (structured as “I can” statements). Although it’s been helpful, they are finding it difficult to personalize curriculum.
PSD still hasn’t found an information system that meets their needs. They are currently looking at other systems while they determine if Power School can be or is willing to modify its system to be modified to fully support a personalized, competency-based school.