Dear Future Principal: Here Is How You Can Positively Impact Student Learning



This past school vacation, I introduced my oldest two boys Brady and Cameron to the Back to the Future Trilogy, one of my all-time favorite movie series. Not surprisingly, they have now become obsessed with the fantasy of traveling back in time to connect with their younger counterparts to offer themselves advice on what their future might hold for them. Could they use this knowledge to improve their life? Could it help them avoid some major pitfalls? Like Brady and Cameron, I too dream about how my life might be different if I had knowledge of my future. What would I do differently at my school in my role as a high school principal, for example?

When I speak to school leaders about implementing a competency-based education model, I share a version of this story. In my version, I hypothesize about how the management of Blockbuster, one of America’s largest providers of home movie and video game rental services which reached its peak in 2004, would have played differently their decision to pass on buying Netflix for a bargain $50 million in 2000. “People will never want to order their movies online and wait for them to get mailed,” they might have said. “There will always be a need for a physical store where people can browse the movie and video game titles for themselves,” they might have added. Well, we all know how their story played out. If only they had knowledge about their future and how online subscriptions and streaming services would transform the media and entertainment sector in the first decade of the new millennium.

This year I will celebrate my sixth anniversary as Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire. Early in this role my administrative team and I imagined a new design for our school that would utilize a competency-based, personalized model to engage our students in learning tasks and performance assessments that accurately measure learning and mastery of competency. In the Back to the Future movie series, the main characters often sent themselves letters of advice in the future and in the past. Here is the letter that I would write today to my counterpart who was in his first year as a school leader in 2010 working with his staff on a new competency-education design:

July 1, 2010

Dear Mr. Stack,

Congratulations on your appointment as high school principal. If my memory serves me correctly, today is your first official day on the job in your new role. You have just finished unpacking your office and you have now started looking through all of the files, records, and communications that your predecessor has left you to review. Remember that during the interview process, countless people in the school community asked you what YOU would do as a school leader to positively impact student learning. Your Superintendent Dr. Brian Blake was very direct with you when you were hired. He told you that he had concerns about student academic achievement and student engagement in the school. He told you that you had a very smart, hardworking staff but that they often worked as individuals and not as a team. He told you that the community wanted to see the development of a positive school culture and climate for each of its stakeholders that promoted respect, responsibility, ambition, and pride. He promised to help set the stage and be by your side as you worked collaboratively through solutions to these issues, and he kept his word. You have your work cut out for you. Luckily for you, you have a very smart group of teachers and administrators that are ready to take this journey with you. Together, you will all build a better educational system for the students in your school. 

After you have settled in, start reading everything you can about personalized learning and competency-based education. Unfortunately these concepts are still in their infancy but there is a lot you can learn from other educators. It won’t be easy, but to do this and do it well you will need everyone on board with these ideas. Dr. Blake will work with you and your team through some great resources on change management from Kotter International. As you work with the stakeholders in your school through the change management process, stay true to your design and hold people accountable for doing the same. 

As you begin your work, you will have to take time with your staff to develop assessment literacy. The Center for Collaborative Education will provide you with a roadmap to follow to help build up your teachers’ capacity to implement quality performance assessments and rubrics in their classrooms.  These tasks that measure students' deeper mastery of content and the skills will provide a blueprint for a new way to think about assessment relative to mastery.
Early on you will also have difficult but necessary conversations with your teachers on grading, which right now has no consistency and is more about what students earn, not what they learn. Some of the most influential work you will find on this topic will come from Ken O’Connor and his publication How to Grade for Learning, K-12. In just a few short years, your teachers will move from a system where they each had their own methods and philosophies on grading to a common approach to grading in your competency-based school.
As your instructional model develops, it will become necessary to reimagine your schedule to one that will allow for flexible grouping of students to allow for regular intervention, extension, and enrichment.

Keep in mind that you won’t have everything figured out when you start. Your learning trajectory will be steep. As you implement competency-based education and build assessment in your school, you’ll want to also pay attention to how to create more personalized strategies, increase student agency through self-directed learning practices, voice and choice, develop a move-when-ready approach to learning, and take better advantage of extended learning opportunities. As your teachers get more comfortable with the model, you’ll start to see their capacity increase for providing instruction that leads to these things.

Throughout your redesign, the best support for your teachers will come from within. Your school will establish Professional Learning Communities as a way to organize your staff into teams of professionals who can work interdependently to achieve common goals for which members are mutually accountable.

Along the way, you will start to see many other schools in your state and many schools in states around the country move to this same personalized approach. A decade from now, I predict that this model will become the standard for how schools are structured at all levels K-20. 

Stay focused, stay positive, and stay true to yourself. Together with your team, YOU can positively impact student learning.

Your Future Self,

Brian M. Stack, February 23, 2016.

Of course, the Back to the Future fan in me knows that the main character “Doc” Dr. Emmett Brown cautioned his friend Marty McFly that “no man should ever know too much about their own destiny” for fear that it will disrupt the space-time continuum. Perhaps my letter could have been reduced to just the last sentence. Each day that goes by, my teachers and I are positively impacting student learning with our competency-based model. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter brings us in our school’s journey.

This article was written originally for Competency Works.

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