Neighboring towns Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond were just that: neighbors. Each had an independent school system with local students, history and traditions. Each had its own mascot and school rivalries.
When the Maine legislature passed a school consolidation law in 2007, it required 200 local school districts throughout the state to merge into 75 larger districts. With only 175,000 students throughout the state, the legislature agreed that a merger would be more efficient and would benefit students, parents, schools and tax payers.
Under the new legislation, Dresden, Farmington, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond merged to form one school district: Regional School Unit 2 (RSU 2).
When I started my new position, the former superintendent had also started merging and unifying policy, fiscal and administration structures within the new district. Thanks to his work, the door to personalized learning was wide open.
Over the next few years, we worked with the community, teachers and parents to develop and implement competency-based education (CBE), a form of personalized learning that allows students to study and learn at their own pace, working through competencies that build on each other to maximize learning. Individual schools kept their mascots and rivalries, but joined hands in a wider effort to build CBE across RSU 2.
Now as I work around the country with school and district leaders, the move to CBE can often be a challenge. But by focusing on the local context, we can make it a reality for students throughout the country. Here are five steps to reimagine your learning system.
Establish a Vision with the Community
The merger was the perfect opportunity to start fresh. Each community learned more about the neighboring towns and had honest conversations about their new identity as a whole. Through the conversations, parents, teachers, business leaders, government officials and neighbors were certain about one thing: the new district needed to provide a world-class learning environment to prepare students not only to be successful in college and career, but also to be future local leaders. The community realized this could only occur by redesigning the system to be entirely student-centered.
To this day, RSU 2’s vision is the same: “to be a system of student-centered learning.”
Secure Commitment – Not ‘Buy-In’ – From the Larger Community
As the new superintendent, I brought experience building and implementing a competency-based system as principal at Lindsay Unified School District in California. Based on the community conversations in Maine, it seemed that CBE could also be a good fit for RSU 2. But in the end, the community needed to make that decision; in order for CBE to be successful at RSU 2, it couldn’t rest only on the shoulders of our teachers and schools. Instead, the entire community needed to lift up learning, support teachers, and encourage students to learn both in and out of school.
Admittedly, it wasn’t an easy process. Many parents and community members graduated from the very schools RSU 2 was working to redesign, so they questioned the changes. Why remove the traditional structures when they worked for so long? Could competency-based, personalized learning opportunities really make a difference for students?
We attended our fair share of meetings in schools, homes, churches, town halls, farms, theaters, and any other location where people congregated within each community. We even attended a pumpkin cannon competition to better explain what CBE could be. Through this new way of learning, I explained at the event, students would not only be able to fire pumpkins in homemade cannons, but they would also be able to predict the distance, speed and velocity during flight.
We invited local higher education institutions, local businesses and government entities to the table. We invited teachers, students, parents and neighbors. Once everyone had a better understanding, we talked about our community-wide commitment to each child’s success. It was this perfect blend of community commitment, teacher and parent support, and student engagement that ultimately helped CBE succeed inside and outside the school walls.
Determine Expectations and Outcomes
With community buy-in and commitment, we discussed how to hold students to high standards and what competencies would be important to succeed in the local context. Parents, educators, civic leaders, community partners, neighbors and kids developed our vision of an ideal graduate and worked backwards to map the necessary skills and knowledge students needed to reach that end goal. This map gave us a foundation of competencies for every learner from kindergarten through high school graduation and beyond.
Clearly defined competencies gave students, parents and teachers a road map, allowing learning to be based on mastery rather than seat time. Now, students progress only after mastering the competencies, rather than by grade level. Students can prove mastery in opportunities provided by teachers and/or students can pursue learning opportunities that align to their interests while also proving mastery of the standards.
Reimagine Classroom Practices
Because our current system is designed around seat time, helping students learn and master competencies wasn’t a natural behavior. After establishing expectations, we needed to reimagine the classroom and empower teachers to personalize learning for each student.
Our educators started by getting to know what makes their students tick. CBE allowed them to spend more time building trust and learning about individual students’ interests. It also gave our teachers the leadership they deserve: no longer did we depend on off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all curriculum. Instead, educators shifted and adapted their curriculum based on each student and what they needed to succeed. Equally important, these instructional practices empowered students to guide their proof of mastery to the interests that motivate and drive their daily actions.
With personalized learning, educators and students had room to innovate, collaborate and lead, which is something many of them wanted before we switched to a student-centered environment.
Empower Students to Own Their Learning
For over a century, the education system has trained kids to be passengers in the learning process rather than drivers. After teachers started facilitating learning in a new way, we also needed to empower students to take ownership. Through CBE, learners became advocates for their work. Now, students make each competency relevant to their own interests, talk about taxonomy levels and prove their mastery. It’s amazing to see how far students can go with their learning after teachers, parents and community members empower them to drive learning.
With my daughter, Maya, I’ve seen this in action. As a six-year-old, she already understands how to prove mastery for her learning outcomes. For example, to prove mastery of her language outcomes, she can demonstrate knowledge of a basic set of skills and words. One morning while we were waiting for her bus, she practiced new sight words, scratching her head in frustration. While she huffed in frustration, I made a sarcastic comment — as any dad should — which Maya didn’t find amusing.
“Daddy, this is so level two,” she told me. “I need to practice to get to level three. You just don’t get it.”
Competency-based education can be difficult for education advocates to “get.” But it’s a game-changer. It allows students, teachers, parents and the entire community to be invested throughout the learning process. RSU 2 and so have many other districts throughout the country have seen its impact. By establishing a vision, securing community commitment, determining expectations, re-imagining the classroom and empowering students, your school could be next.