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Top Five Competency Takeaways from RSU 2 Superintendent Virgel Hammonds

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Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

Guest post by Mary Tighe

Throughout the past two months, competency education has been gaining a lot of attention.

With shout-outs in an ESEA discussion draft by Sen. Lamar Alexander, potential pilots proposed in Ohio, a new study released by KnowledgeWorks and Nellie Mae Education Foundation and a KnowledgeWorks webinar on K-12 Competency Education and Policy (shameless plug), competency education is a growing movement throughout the country, intriguing leaders and educators on local, state and federal levels.

Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down with Virgel Hammonds, a superintendent who implemented a competency-learning model in RSU 2 school district in Maine. Throughout the hour, he shared his insights into building, modifying and sustaining a competency-learning model within his district.

We chatted about how RSU 2 developed support among parents and community members, and a pumpkin cannon competition Virgel attended to talk with parents to help build public will. Parents were apprehensive about competency education, especially since the district was already seeing steady academic success from students. During the local pumpkin cannon competition, he explained to parents that with higher expectations of a competency system, students would not only be able to fire pumpkins in homemade cannons, but also be able to predict the distance and velocity during flight.

We also discussed the equitable side of competency education, and he explained how students are placed in learning cohorts for the best academic progress. We talked about local difficulties and challenges of scaling, but also about the incredible potential to helping all students succeed.

Here are my Top Five Competency Education Takeaways from our conversation:

  1. Students in competency-based settings are learning more quickly and retaining more from summer to fall. RSU 2 assesses all students in the spring and early fall to ensure retention to prior learning. In the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, primary students showed a 30 percent gain in growth scores from the previous fall. According to Virgel, this shows that, by holding students to higher expectations at cognitively appropriate levels, learning is accelerated and allows teachers to spend more time teaching new material, rather than reviewing previous content.
  2. No matter what you think about NCLB, it inspired us to think about personalized education and outcomes differently.
  3. Building competency-based systems isn’t necessarily about fixing outcomes, but about doing what is right and what the data shows is best for students.
  4. Competency education is in its infancy phase, but it’s where the country is heading because of the growing success of this personalized learning model.
  5. For policymakers to help districts and states build competency systems, we need to create policy that takes away timecard and grade level. Learning communities will, in turn, take advantage of flexibility and run with it to create systems that benefit local students.

Measuring student success by seat time and grade level is outdated. We need to move to a new system, one that recognizes each student as an individual with interests, learning styles and needs.

Competency education seems like a good option. And one that schools and districts throughout the country, like RSU 2, are already seeing success in helping each student succeed.

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Today, the KnowledgeWorks policy team will host a webinar to explore how to support K-12 competency education through current federal policy. The webinar is free and will feature panelists from iNACOL and CCSSO. There’s still time to register! Join us by registering here.

And, don’t forget to check out our new report, “Building Consensus and Momentum: A Policy and Political Landscape for K-12 Competency Education.”