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Middle School’s Expansion of Competency-Based Learning Will Strengthen Commitment to Rigorous Academics
Video by Jesse Paddock

An educational approach that promotes real-world feedback, supports learners of all varieties and instills in middle schoolers the value of intrinsic motivation? It’s not Pollyanna. At Durham Academy’s Middle School, it will soon be a fully realized reality.

“One of the ways that we are shifting our educational programming is to really help students understand who they are as learners and how they can level up their skills and their experiences. Competency-based learning helps students learn how to learn.” Kristen Klein associate head of school

At the start of the 2024–2025 school year, the Middle School will both sustain — and raise — its standards for academic excellence by expanding competency-based learning (CBL) across all four of its grade levels. CBL emphasizes the deepening of skills within the Middle School’s challenging, rigorous curricula. It will require students to demonstrate proficiency in enduring habits and concepts, and it will demand they assess their own performance to find targeted areas for growth. A premium on real-world tasks with real-world feedback — rather than adhering to a prescribed, age-restricted curriculum — represents the most developmentally appropriate way to support DA’s Strategic Vision for satisfying the needs of all Middle School learners and preparing students for life.

“Students are at the center of every decision we make and every academic program we build,” said Middle School Director Jon Meredith. “A competency-based curriculum empowers students to actively participate in improving their skills. A competency-based model of teaching, learning and assessment sets students up for success next week, next year and for their future.”

Watch below — and read on — to learn more about the Middle School’s research-based, deliberate and thoughtful transition to CBL.

 

Expanding Capacity within a Strong Academic Structure

“This school is just really helping  kids discover who they are and  really helping them learn without  making them feel pressured.” Belden Butler sixth-grader

In the Middle School years, the limitations of traditional letter grades can flatten the trajectory of moral, happy and productive lives. An A-minus, for instance, reflects isolated assessments that fail to reliably capture transferable skills or a mastery of deeper concepts. Added points for class participation or extra-credit assignments do little to inspire meaningful, lasting growth. And a singular focus on maintaining a specific grade — rather than internalizing skills or probing for improvement — can constrict a student’s capacity for true mastery and curiosity.

Those lessons, and the confidence with which Durham Academy will expand CBL across the Middle School, serve as the culmination of strategic work and curricular alignment that started more than five years ago. In 2019, a CBL task force — led by Middle School science teacher Cliff Robbins; Middle School language arts teacher and Academic Dean Ginny Robinson; and Middle School STEAM teacher Melissa Mack — started researching CBL principles that could bolster the pursuit of DA’s “transfer goals,” or the replicable skills that students should carry with them from grade level to grade level and far beyond their time at DA. That initial foray expanded into a pilot CBL program in 2021–2022 that included eight teachers across five courses and three grade levels. By 2023–2024, the program had expanded to 13 teachers across seven courses.

“I think the thing about competency-based learning is you can’t compare yourself to others. It moves the point of learning from being about something outside yourself, the grade, to something inside yourself — the skills I need to be a good student.” Karen Malhiot Middle School science teacher

Three years of data and observations empowered the task force to align CBL tenets with DA’s high standards for instruction — and they ensured teachers, DA’s resident experts in learning, were involved in every phase, iteration and decision along the way.

“Competency-based learning is considerably more rigorous than a traditional model because a traditional model has a ceiling,” Robbins said. “‘I can get 100%. I can get an A. What more do you want from me? I have an A already.’ A competency-based model is not satisfied with that. My students know that every single student in the room has an area of greatest strength and every single student in the room has an area of greatest weakness. And my expectation as a teacher is that every student be working on that area knowing that their next step is leveling up and starting to do things at a seventh- or eighth- or ninth-grade level.

“That’s rigor — showing that the path never ends. This learning journey will continue throughout your life. So let’s get to work.”

Robust Infrastructure for Lasting Impact

The arrival of CBL upholds the continuing mission of the DA Middle School: to prepare students for success in the Upper School and beyond. The mission, as always, begins with students. Under CBL, eighth-graders will receive intentional guidance to support their transition to Upper School, where they will receive traditional grades and, by necessity, lean on the individualized learning approach they will have refined within CBL.

“We have an environment here where even if you get the wrong answer, it’s OK. The kids are supporting each other, and they take risks readily. That’s also an important piece of all this: the risk-taking. And even if it doesn’t work out the first time, they try again. They see that it’s safe to make mistakes. And that’s the whole point of learning — making mistakes.” F.J. Fortin Middle School Math teacher

Regular, personalized feedback also requires a system that can communicate with students and families to celebrate successes and drive growth. After extensive testing, the CBL task force unanimously approved the adoption of Toddle, a CBL-based learning management system that will facilitate student-teacher and teacher-family communication. Faculty members will receive dedicated assistance from 16 mentor teachers who will support their colleagues in Toddle during training and implementation. That serves as a supplement to the ongoing, CBL-focused professional development Middle School faculty have received during each of the last two school years; in 2023–2024, faculty have participated in training as part of weekly departmental work, bimonthly workshops and dedicated professional development days.

“We know this is better for our students,” Robbins said. “It was not a question of ‘if’: It was a question of ‘how?’ We’ve done the hard work to identify, ‘What do we need to do in order to improve? What are our key performance indicators?’ And we’ve met them all. We have a faculty that understands this system. We have the administrative structure and space to be able to support our teachers. And we have the technology systems in order to clearly and transparently communicate the learning to students and families.”

Serving the Best Interests of Students, Teachers and Families

“It helps you get to know  yourself more, which can also  really enhance your learning.” Jules Penabad sixth-grader

Those who have experienced CBL at the Middle School — task force members, classroom teachers and eager students — have discovered the abundant benefits of moving beyond a traditional grading system. Joy in learning. Differentiated support for all kinds of learners. And greater preparedness for real-world tasks and challenges.

“It really helps me improve. Instead of just having an A-plus, I’m able to get a lot of feedback, which helps me improve my writing or my history work or whatever I’m learning about.” - Sybil Ludington, sixth-grader

“When we can do competency-based learning, we can say, ‘In this moment, you are proficient with this. And this is where you need to go next.’” - Patti Donnelly, Middle School language arts teacher

“Why now? Because another year would be too late. And I want to get to work now.” - Cliff Robbins, Middle School science teacher