Today we released the first in a series of papers looking at important progress afoot in the state of New Hampshire: “From policy to practice: How competency-based education is evolving in New Hampshire.”

New Hampshire was the first state to abolish the Carnegie Unit, which made way for the first statewide experiment in competency-based education at the high school level. Under a set of 2005 regulatory changes, New Hampshire districts were required to create competencies and begin measuring high school credit in these terms by the start of the 2008–09 school year.

With a number of years of this bold policy now under its belt, we wanted to understand what this means in practice across the state.

This paper profiles 13 public schools in New Hampshire, each of which demonstrates a distinct approach to competency-based education. We found that since the mandate was handed down, some schools have invested deeply in building competency-based models by creating opportunities for students to move at a flexible, personalized pace; providing supplemental content for students who have fallen behind or want to move ahead; and making assessment more frequent and formative, with a focus on demonstrating mastery in real-world examples and settings. Other schools, however, have remained tethered to time-based practices, such as bell-schedules, end-of-unit assessments, and fixed whole-class pacing. Although teachers and administrators at these schools have articulated school-wide competencies, these competencies may not guide curriculum and instruction across all subjects.

The variation across this small sample sheds light on what New Hampshire’s competency policy actually means in practice. A few particular themes emerged in our interviews across these school systems:

Local control rules the day. New Hampshire’s famous moniker as the “live free or die” state resonated with administrators’ and teachers’ varying impressions of competency-based education throughout the state. In fact, because of the strong tradition of local control, New Hampshire’s districts and charter schools were free to interpret and implement the state’s competency mandate as they saw fit. Therefore, although the state put forth a new vision in its regulations, the 2005 policy and its subsequent revisions leave significant space for district and charter schools to define what competency-based education means for their students. This in turn means that no two systems are implementing competency-based education alike.

Common definitions are hard to come by. In the paper, we compare these 13 schools against CompetencyWorks’ five-part definition of competency-based education. CompetencyWorks has done important work level-setting the field on a common definition, and we wanted to reinforce that by framing where schools appear in their evolution toward fully competency-based models. It is worth noting, however, that New Hampshire’s trailblazing reforms of 2005 pre-dated the CompetencyWorks 2011 definition—in other words, before the national education community even grasped the terms of competency-based education. Therefore, combined with an emphasis on local control, it’s unsurprising that few teachers and leaders agree on a singular definition of competency-based education in New Hampshire. Still, it’s helpful to measure schools’ progress against a common metric and terms to allow people to understand the similarities and differences between what different schools are doing.

Creating new resources, processes, and values is hard and gradual workThe temptation of any reform agenda—especially one as rational and intuitive as competency-based education—is to imagine that vis-a-vis policy change or of their own will, schools can simply flip a switch and suddenly exist in this new, mastery-based paradigm. Many systems, however, still appear to be grappling with the deep cultural shifts—both in their schools and communities—required to let go of time-based practices that have dominated education for over a century. On the other hand, those systems that have successfully moved toward more competency-based approaches are putting in a concerted effort to manage cultural change, or were already grounded in a competency-based, personalized culture even before the mandate was handed down.

For schools, districts, and states nationwide, New Hampshire provides a case study on the variety of new solutions that emerge when regulatory barriers disappear and schools are free to embrace competency-based approaches. The lessons from 13 schools across the state suggest that adopting competency-based approaches is not a quick or easy process, and that it requires new infrastructure, new approaches to teaching and learning, and new tools to deliver content and assess work to allow each student to progress upon mastery.

This paper is the first in a series of papers investigating the evolution of competency-based systems across New Hampshire. The next paper will analyze the role of blended learning in a subset of these schools to better understand which blended learning models appear best suited to supporting competency-based education. Stay tuned.