Jonathan G. Vander Els

Jonathan G. Vander Els specializes in supporting teachers and administrators in schools and districts across the country in developing, sustaining, and enhancing structures to support all learners.

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.


Katie Kuipers

I am impressed by the system your school district has to ensure that all students learn. The four questions you put forth really do cover all aspects of what teachers and schools are to be invested in continually. You even address the critical question that came to my mind when reading your post: Where do I find the time? It seems that your district addressed this by purposefully scheduling the time into the school day. In my situation, I feel the pressure to keep up with the curriculum and do not always know what to do when I know some students need additional instruction to understand a concept. I find that, in order to address these needs, I end up rushed towards the end of the marking period because I am behind the curriculum time-line. You were right in calling this a commitment by your school district. It certainly seems that a lot of time and consideration went into these positive changes.

Posted on

Jon Vander Els

Thank you for your feedback, Gary and Brittany. Comptency-based education is definitely allowing students to engage in learning appropriate to their individual needs.

Brittany, team designed rubrics, when designed correctly, are an incredibly powerful tool to extend those students who have already demonstrated mastery. Level 4 (on a four-point scale) can be developed to truly require students to have to demonstrate higher cognitive rigor (DOK 4) to attain a "4". It takes a lot of collaboration and refinement to build these rubrics effectively, but students and teachers will be very clear of the higher level of thinking it will take to demonstrate this higher level of application.

Posted on

Gary mayo

The district in which I work is one of the only ones in Georgia that is implementing competency based learning. We are currently using a personalized learning environment in order to give students the flexibility to move forward when they have demonstrated proficiency in the competencies. Teachers collaborate in order to create quality assessments and CBL unit plans in order to measure student achievement. They are also able to closely analyze student data together in order to offer support to struggling students or challenge high achieving students. I have found that students, who are typically not motivated, are very engaged in their learning because they are able to have voice and choice in how they master the content as well as having the ability to move forward when ready. CBL is definitely promoting student growth and achievement.

Posted on

Brittany Gordon

Thank you for sharing this. I like how you have applied four critical questions of PLC to guide your work for your teachers and assuring that you are providing meaningful opportunities for your students. By having these questions as your centerfold your teachers know what to expect, what is needed in terms of how to assess students, what is the back up plan if a student does not learn, and how you reach students who have already mastered the area of concentration. A big challenge that I have faced and at times still face in my career as a teacher, is finding ways to reach my students who have already demonstrated proficiency. I believe the team designed rubrics would be essential because I would have knowledge of what a student learned vs what they already know. This requires more collaboration from my peers not just my grade level team. Great idea!

Posted on