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Avery Bencal is a fourth grader at Winthrop Elementary School in Melrose, Massachusetts. Her teacher has embraced competency-based learning, which asks students to take more control in the classroom. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

MELROSE, Mass. — This cozy suburb just outside of Boston is home to an idyllic New England downtown and schools that are good enough to draw young families in droves. Students perform well above the U.S. average and they do even better than their peers in similarly wealthy school districts, according to the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University.

At no point in recent memory has Melrose Public Schools been failing. But the outgoing superintendent, Cyndy Taymore, is four years into an effort to fundamentally rethink traditional schooling here.

The reform model is known by several different names, including proficiency-based education. That’s what they called it in Maine, where, in 2012, state officials mandated that every district adopt it, and then, in 2018, abandoned the requirement. The state’s boomerang confirmed for many critics that proficiency-based education was a failure. But for Taymore, it proved only that Maine went about it all wrong.

In Melrose, they’re calling it competency-based education, and it’s moving full steam ahead.

Related: Inside Maine’s disastrous rollout of proficiency-based learning

Competency-based education demands a shift away from traditional teaching, testing and grading. Students get more control over what and how they learn and take more responsibility for their progress. Teachers define specific competencies students should master and support them toward proficiency, even if it takes a while. Teachers also change their grading policies. Students don’t get extra points for doing homework or participating in class. Competency-based education demands that teachers separate “habits of learning” from academic achievement.

“I can no longer say to a kid, ‘If you follow this path, four years after you graduate, you will be in this field.’ Because I can’t tell if that field will exist, or if it does, what it will look like.”

Last year, Melrose served about 3,900 students. Among them, just under 12 percent were considered economically disadvantaged, slightly more had some type of learning disability and 4 percent were English learners. These groups historically lag behind their peers in test performance— in Melrose, the gap between students with and without disabilities can top 40 percentage points on state tests. Taymore believes competency-based education can better support struggling students, but her commitment to the model is also about getting all kids ready for the modern workplace and an unknown future.

“I can no longer say to a kid, ‘If you follow this path, four years after you graduate, you will be in this field,’” Taymore said. “Because I can’t tell if that field will exist, or if it does, what it will look like.”

Competency-based education is Taymore’s way of injecting more self-directed learning, communication and problem-solving into Melrose classrooms. And it also forces teachers to respond to individual kids’ needs.

As superintendent of Melrose Public Schools, Cyndy Taymore is leading a districtwide transition to competency-based education. She hopes the shift will better prepare students for the future of work. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

T

aymore grew up in the tony coastal town of Marblehead, but spent most of her career in urban districts serving students who entered school behind and had to fight to catch up. Those contrasting experiences made her believe that one-size-fits-all educational systems don’t work.

When she arrived in Melrose in 2012, she started granting flexibility: If a student wanted to take a third language but didn’t have time because of other required classes, she let him take it online. If a student was particularly interested in a topic not offered in an existing course, she suggested an independent study.

By 2015, Taymore decided she needed a system with an organizing principle. She did some research and discovered that competency-based education was becoming popular among innovative educators. She saw its promise and started to convince people in Melrose that transforming their already high-performing schools was worth the effort. She plans to retire in June, but four years into her signature initiative as superintendent, Taymore sees a district on its way to a new normal.

Margaret Adams, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, is leading much of the district’s professional development relating to this shift. So far, she said, some teachers have completely bought into competency-based education and many more are experimenting with elements of it. A few, though, are waiting to see if it’s a passing fad. “That group is smaller than it was last year,” Adams said, optimistically.

Related: District says 24 credits and a D-minus average aren’t good enough

Adams is one of the people making sure Taymore doesn’t push too hard. When Taymore wants to charge ahead, Adams tells her to remember Maine. There, teachers and entire schools resisted top-down mandates.

“It’s really getting back to why we became teachers: the students.”

“In order for this to succeed, I’ve had to be patient,” Taymore admitted. That’s not exactly her style. Taymore is brusque, and obviously irritated by the fact that children’s potential can be stifled by adult resistance. While petite, she lends credence to the maxim that dynamite comes in small packages. But she acknowledges — drily, and with the accent native Bostonians are known for — that she is fortunate to have two assistant superintendents who temper her.

Adams is focusing on slow, systemic changes. Coaches for all grade levels help teachers try various elements of competency-based education as they’re ready. Voluntary book groups expose the district’s educators to new ideas. Teachers get time to observe their Melrose peers; some travel to classrooms in other states.

Teacher Meghan Lewis works on math problems with a small group of fourth graders at Winthrop Elementary School in Melrose, Massachusetts. Lewis has been one of the district’s most enthusiastic adopters of competency-based education. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

In a profession plagued by a revolving door of ideas to improve schools, competency-based education seems to be striking a chord in Melrose. “I think teachers are very receptive to the student-centered piece,” said Meghan Lewis, a fourth-grade teacher. “It’s really getting back to why we became teachers: the students.”

For their part, students broadly appreciate the changes. Some like getting to talk more in class as teachers prioritize collaboration; others like getting to choose which elements of an assignment to tackle first.

Olivia Mone, a senior, likes that teachers offer support while giving students greater responsibility. Olivia transferred to Melrose High School after spending her freshman and sophomore years at a private school.

“A lot of the classes here are more self-led,” Olivia said. “With your teachers, they’re not talking at you. It’s more of an open conversation. You can get a better sense of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

There are many educators, though, who started out skeptical. Melanie Acevedo was a teacher during the 2014-15 school year when Taymore tapped her for an exploratory committee to research the model and its results. Acevedo wasn’t sure it would work with her fourth graders, who didn’t seem very independent. “How was I going to give up so much control and ownership of education to them when I couldn’t get them to follow the directions that I was trying to get them to do?” she wondered.

Related: How to unlock students’ internal drive for learning

Part of competency-based education in Melrose Public Schools is getting students to acknowledge what they can’t do, but set goals to change that. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

Acevedo read more about competency-based education and saw it in action in other schools in New Hampshire and Maine. Eventually she became one of the first Melrose teachers to experiment with it. She created menus so kids could choose their own learning activities and ceded control to students. But her first attempts fell flat. Students didn’t know how to make good choices, and the choices Acevedo gave them weren’t based on specific goals or learning targets. They were more about giving kids fun options.

“With your teachers, they’re not talking at you. It’s more of an open conversation. You can get a better sense of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

“It helped reinforce some of the naysayers because they said, ‘No, see? They can’t do it,’ ” Acevedo said.

She learned from her early mistakes and now works as an instructional specialist to help other elementary school teachers clear those hurdles. Acevedo sees teacher buy-in as evidence that competency-based learning is working in Melrose. “I don’t think anyone would continue if they weren’t seeing as good or better results,” she said.

Adams is keeping an eye on standardized test scores. Prior to beginning its transition to competency-based learning, Melrose was outperforming the state on every single standardized test, in some cases by double digits, and, in most subjects, scores were going up. But eighth-grade science scores were frustratingly stagnant — until the reforms gained steam. After years with only a stubborn half of students meeting or exceeding expectations, 54 percent met that benchmark in 2018, and 60 percent did so in 2019. Adams ties these gains to competency-based education.

As markers of the shift, Taymore is also monitoring how many more students take upper level courses, how many pursue independent studies and how many take advantage of nontraditional learning opportunities.

After four years, she has made a solid case for why Melrose should adopt competency-based learning, and she has a burgeoning evidence base for its positive impact on students. Adams has made sure all teachers can get the professional supports they need to implement it. And even with Taymore on her way out, Ed O’Connell, chair of the district’s school board, believes Melrose’s course-correction will last.

“We are far enough down the road on this now and there are enough people putting their shoulder to the wheel in support of this, it seems to me that this is going to carry on,” he said, “regardless of who is in charge.”

C

ompetency-based education is on full display in Meghan Lewis’s fourth-grade classroom at Winthrop Elementary School. She started a recent English class with goal-setting. She wanted students to approach narrative writing strategically, focused on specific skills they needed to sharpen. They already had goals for the year and for that week, but she wanted them to add one for this new unit in particular.

Students brainstormed about how to decide on a goal — they could look for ideas in feedback from other assignments, in learning targets Lewis had identified for the class and in their bigger-picture learning goals.

One way students take responsibility for their own learning in Meghan Lewis’ fourth-grade classroom in Melrose, Massachusetts, is by assessing their own understanding following a lesson. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

“I’m going to improve my writing,” Lewis offered. “Is that a good or a bad goal?”

Hands flew up. It was a bad goal, the students agreed. “It needs to be more specific,” said Lillian Keegan.

Lewis asked her students to draft a goal and then workshop it with a peer before revising. The students got to work, many leaving their desks for more comfortable seating sprinkled around the room. There were exercise balls, egg chairs, rugs, cushioned benches and a desk chair on wheels.

Lillian wrote that she wanted to use more detail, add more characteristics and use correct capitalization. Gemma Morse aimed to use dialogue and more transition words, and also to improve her spelling.

“For families, these are some of the most substantive conversations they’ve ever had about their kids’ learning.”

Lewis’ classroom is a model for student empowerment. Kids keep close tabs on their performance, constantly self-assessing their progress. When Lewis splits them up into groups to rotate through stations, she sets broad guidelines for what they need to accomplish but offers them freedom to tackle assignments, sprinkling choices throughout those assignments when it comes to the way they practice new skills or how they prove they’ve learned them. Students choose where to work and with whom.

Related: Giving students a say

After the goal-setting exercise, one student asked Lewis whether he should put his goal in his writing folder. “Whatever you decide is a safe place to keep it,” Lewis responded, offering him yet another opportunity to make his own choices.

Lewis has pioneered student-led conferences, scrapping traditional parent-teacher conferences for an alternative that puts kids in charge. Michael Tracy, the principal at her school, said parents have been shocked by their children’s ability to discuss their progress and their challenges. “For families, these are some of the most substantive conversations they’ve ever had about their kids’ learning,” he said.

So far, competency-based education has taken root most broadly in the district’s elementary schools, where teachers have more control over the day’s schedule and more time with a single group of students. The practices on display in these classrooms are what Taymore finds most exciting about the district’s shift — kids taking ownership over their own learning, identifying where they need to focus and setting their own goals.

“When you think of the long-term implications of that,” Taymore said, “that’s what we want eventually for future workers.”

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, WA. After graduating with...

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