The NCSL Blog


By Sunny Deye

“I don’t get bored anymore. Instead of sitting in full group, I work in small groups on what I need.”

Amy Allen, longtime Parker-Varney principal and now Assistant Superintendent of Manchester School District, facilitating a student and teacher panel about how the school experience is different in a competency-based classroom.That’s how a fourth grader at Parker-Varney Elementary School in Manchester, N.H., described the experience of working with small groups of peers at the same level during a visit by NCSL’s Student-Centered Learning Commission earlier this month.

At Parker-Varney Elementary School, students are assigned to grade bands – teachers share groups of students in grade 1/2 and grade 3/4 bands. Commission members saw classes that were buzzing with a quiet energy with each child engaged in their learning and, occasionally, acting as mentors to peers in their groups.

Parker-Varney is a Title I Priority School, enrolling approximately 570 students in preschool through Grade 5, with significantly higher minority population than average for schools in New Hampshire. Every student has his or her own program, with multiple strategies, to meet their different learning styles.

Students are co-designers of projects with their teachers. Students produce videos, design projects, and direct much of their own learning. They understand standards and how to reflect on where they are on their own learning path.

Parker-Varney is an example of a school embracing and thriving using competency-based learning, in which students advance and move ahead on their lessons based on demonstration of mastery. In order for students to progress at a meaningful pace, schools and teachers provide differentiated instruction and support.

As competency education expands across the country, state legislators are seeking to understand what it is, how to implement it and how to revise policies to better support learning and student achievement.

NCSL’s Student-Centered Learning Commission is in its second year of work, studying how the K-12, postsecondary education, and workforce development systems of today can be adapted to meet the needs of the future, including development of systems that are personalized, flexible and student-centered and that prepare students to embrace lifelong learning.

Commission members touring the Manchester School of Technology’s Advanced Manufacturing Program, where students are building a hovercraft made by hand under the direction of teacher Dan Cassidy.The commission next visited the Manchester School of Technology, a Career and Technical Education Center and a four-year competency-based high school offering students competency-based learning, opportunities for internships and real-world learning, preparation for post-secondary learning and employment.

At MST, students study advanced manufacturing, learn horticulture in a greenhouse, and build a house from start to finish each year. Students told the commission, “I’m not the kind of kid who can sit at a computer and type. I need to be hands-on,” and “It’s just so much better than sitting in a classroom.”

MST’s academically and professionally rigorous classes send graduates off to postsecondary programs at high rates—often in three years instead of the typical four—and uniquely prepare young adults for the future of work.

Commissioners met with students engaged in studying a wide range of sought-after careers, from game design and aeronautical engineering to HVAC and nursing. MST’s Culinary Arts program provided commission members a variety of choices for a gourmet lunch including asparagus soup, a tender beef terrine, a power bowl with quinoa, spinach, and noodles, and fresh-baked homemade rolls. The head chef is headed off to Johnson and Wales cooking school next year, having completed the culinary program at MST in addition to the academic requirements for high school.

Connecticut legislative staffer Steven Hernandez, NCSL staff Marilyn Villalobos and Chloe Gunder, Principal Richard Dichard, and commission member Alice Peisch of Massachusetts, at West High School.Finally, the commission met with teachers and students at Manchester West High School, which recently began the planning process to transform into a student-centered, competency-based high school in which students will experience diverse, authentic learning opportunities in partnership with the community’s educational, business, and nonprofit organizations.

Students will design personalized learning plans with multiple pathways by which to explore their individual interests while meeting academic competencies. Student success will be redefined to focus on demonstration of mastery of the knowledge and skills and culminate in a graduation capstone performance assessment and portfolio demonstration.Members of the NCSL Student-Centered Learning Commission, Utah Senator Ann Millner of Utah, New Hampshire Senator Jay Kahn, Maine Representative Richard Farnsworth, and Washington Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos, talking with teachers at Parker-Varney Elementary School.

These schools are supported by New Hampshire’s policy environment in which consistent, supportive state leadership has resulted in a system-wide transformation from traditional, one-size-fits-all education to more personalized, competency-based learning.

Schools throughout the state have moved to student-centered learning environments, and every high school must award credits based on demonstrations of mastery. New Hampshire is pioneering the Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) pilot program, a first-in-the-nation accountability strategy offering reduced levels of standardized testing together with locally-developed common performance assessments. The New Hampshire Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) assists with this work statewide, providing middle and high school students with online virtual learning opportunities with approval directly from the New Hampshire State Board of Education to award high school diplomas and academic credits.

NCSL’s Student-Centered Learning Commission will continue to study personalized, competency-based, and student-owned learning environments throughout 2018 and plans to release its findings in 2019. Follow along with the commission's work.

Sunny Deye is a program director in NCSL's Education Program.

Email Sunny.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.