Professional Learning Communities as the Foundation of a Competency-Based Educational System
The commitment of our district (Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire) to build highly functioning professional learning communities in each school has been the driving force behind the significant changes that have taken place over the past five-plus years. PLCs are the foundation for any of the work we have been engaged in during this time. Our success in implementing a competency-based educational system in our district is evidence of this PLC work and would not be as successful without our interdependent teams.
At Sanborn, we have applied the four critical questions of a PLC to guide our work. Throughout our journey, these four questions have assisted us in ensuring we are providing appropriate and meaningful opportunities for all of our students to demonstrate competency.
1.) What is it we expect our students to learn?
- Our teachers are now crystal clear about what students are expected to know and demonstrate. This should never be a mystery and through backwards design planning, the outcomes for any unit are established and made clear to learners.
- Our teachers increased understanding of competencies ensures a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Our district has high-leverage competencies that guide the learning for our students. Underneath the umbrella of the competencies and within the assessment itself, teachers identify the leverage standards that will be assessed within each assessment.
2.) How will we know when students have learned it?
- Team-designed rubrics outline precisely what students are expected to know. Competency is the ability for students to transfer their learning in and across content areas. Therefore, our teachers provide real-world problems and cross-curricular assessment opportunities for students to demonstrate this transfer of knowledge to other applicable situations.
- Team-created common assessments are the driving force behind gathering data specific to each student’s progression of learning. This information is then collaboratively analyzed to inform the next instructional steps and learning pathways for each student.
3.) How will we respond when some students do not learn?
- This component is imperative within any educational system committed to learning for all. Our district has integrated multiple tiers of support for all learners. Not learning foundational knowledge is not an option in our system. We have committed to providing the time and resources within our daily schedule to ensure all students learn at the highest levels possible.
- Our schedules in each school allow students to receive additional instruction or support, depending upon their particular needs. This occurs each school day during Tier 2 time. We developed these schedules collaboratively with teacher leaders at each school to maximize the resources available within each grade level. This allows smaller group instruction.
- This is above and beyond what all students are exposed to during Tier 1, and students who may require additional support (a much smaller percentage) receive Tier 3 instruction as well.
4.) How will we extend and enrich the learning for students who have demonstrated proficiency?
- A competency-based educational system lends itself very well to those students needing challenge. The same tiers that provide support provide various opportunities for extension. Students are provided opportunities to demonstrate a deeper depth of knowledge (Level 4 DOK) and are provided with opportunities to extend through personalized experiences.
- It is important to note that competency education, by design, allows for a more personalized approach to learning because students have an increased understanding of their own learning needs throughout the entire day.
A majority of the behind-the-scenes work in a competency-based system is accomplished during collaborative team meetings. Teams must identify the competencies and anchor standards that are going to be assessed in their units of study, build performance assessments that truly assess these competencies, run these performance assessments through a vetting process for quality assurance, review and assess student work together, then revise and refine the assessment accordingly. In addition, teams of teachers must provide reteaching and opportunities for extension based on the assessment results. This must be coordinated within the teams to ensure that students are receiving what they need. Highly functioning PLCs are imperative for this work to occur at high levels. The result? High levels of student growth and learning.