From policy to practice:
How competency-based education is evolving in New Hampshire


May 6, 2014

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By Julia Freeland

May 2014


In 2005, New Hampshire abolished the Carnegie unit—the core unit around which schools typically measure credit hours. In its place, the state mandated that all high schools measure credit according to students’ mastery of material, rather than time spent in class. This policy shift created the first-ever statewide effort to create a competency-based education system.

Competency-based education: An overview
Competency-based approaches stand to support more personalized instruction by ensuring that students can move through material at a flexible pace with the supports they need and without accumulating the gaps endemic to time-, age-, and grade-based promotion policies that govern most school systems today.

According to CompetencyWorks, a high-quality competency-based model is one in which:

  1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Each of the five tenets of a competency-based system requires dramatic changes to traditional teaching and learning.

Implementing competency-based education in New Hampshire: Strategies and challenges
Under the new 2005 regulations, New Hampshire districts were required to create competencies and begin measuring credit in these terms by the start of the 2008–09 school year. Because local control rules the day in the “live free or die” state, New Hampshire’s districts and charter schools were free to interpret and implement this mandate as they saw fit. The 13 schools profiled in this paper each demonstrate a distinct approach to competency-based education in their local context.

When the state took schools “off the clock,” something interesting happened. Some schools 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 had fallen behind or wanted 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. Students still move through material as a class and therefore still stand to accumulate the gaps in their learning that competency-based models are designed to prevent.

New Hampshire’s example demonstrates both the power and limitations of state-wide competency-based education policy, particularly in a setting with a strong tradition of local control. 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.

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Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.

  • Regular Parent Ed Holdgate, New Hampshire

    Hmmm, interesting but I approach Julia Freeland’s insight very cautiously, as all parents should. First, I note the staff of the Clayton Christensen Institute is composed of virtually all Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale graduates. As a regular working parent, that immediately concerns me. Are these just rich ivory tower young inexperienced quacks without children, let alone teenagers, of their own? I soon see they mostly come from the business and/or law arms of those schools, not the quack educrats from the education arms who crank out yearly experimental gimmicks to try on America’s kids, so that’s good. Next, I note the CCI is based in San Francisco, so I revert to being completely skeptical. However, I do like and embrace Julia’s / CCIs promotion of charter schools, I do like that CBE could integrate well for some home schoolers, and I do like the general root principle behind competency-based education (CBE). By browsing the Clayton Christensen Institute website, a light goes on. CBE seems to me to be not too much unlike the way American education used to be in the too-often-ridiculed “one room school house” (ORSH) of old. In that old ORSH, or just super-small-town tiny schools of a dozen rooms, America’s greatest generation was educated by America’s greatest teachers. Those ORSH teachers, who always knew well and most often cooperated synergistically with hometown parents effectively used CBE on a student-by-student basis … if I understand CBE correctly. Those great teachers just didn’t call it CBE; it was normal teachin’ to them. Therefore, while it might be the kiss-of-death for the Clayton Christensen Institute, I sincerely think their work could – emphasize could – be a desperately needed re-invention of old time education. What Julia Freeland and CCI needs to do is wrestle through some statistically significant quantity of schooling (no fluffy anecdotes allowed!) Right now, this long form PDF report is long on anecdotes and short on statistical testing results, but I do appreciate the many mentioned ‘challenges’ to a sea change in the education paradigm. Prove to us taxpaying parents that raw, objective academic content and process tests show excellence, not mere competency, is achieved by more students with CBE. Considering the pathetic results of New Hampshire’s now discontinued but useful (fairly objective IMHO) NECAP results, that could be easier than it sounds. If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you always got. Let’s all give CBE a closer look whilst trying to document objective results. America’s future could depend on it.