MELROSE, Mass. — This cozy suburb just outside of Boston is home to an idyllic New England downtown and schools good enough to draw young families in droves. Students perform well above the U.S. average and do better even than their peers in similarly wealthy school districts, a study found.

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 model is known by several 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.

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 what 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.

Last year, Melrose served about 3,900 students. Among them, just under 12 percent came from economically disadvantaged families, slightly more had some type of learning disability, and 4 percent were English-language learners. These groups historically lag behind their peers in test performance. Taymore believes competency-based education can better support struggling students, but her commitment to the model is also about getting all children 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.

Taymore grew up in the Massachusetts 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 at Melrose in 2012, she started granting flexibility: If students wanted to take a third language but didn’t have time because of other required classes, she let them 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 are waiting to see if it’s a passing fad. “That group is smaller than it was last year,” Adams said.

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.

“In order for this to succeed, I’ve had to be patient,” Taymore said. That’s not exactly her style. Taymore is brusque and obviously irritated that children’s potential can be stifled by adult resistance. But she acknowledges — dryly — 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 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.

In a profession plagued by a revolving door of ideas to improve schools, competency-based education seems to be striking a chord in Melrose. “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 high school senior, likes that teachers offer support while giving students greater responsibility. Mone transferred to Melrose High after spending her freshman and sophomore years at a private school.

“A lot of the classes here are more self-led,” Mone said. “With your teachers, they’re not talking at you. It’s more of an open conversation.”

There are many educators, though, who started out skeptical. Melanie Acevedo was a teacher during the 2014-2015 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 strike her as especially 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.

Acevedo read more about competency-based education and saw it in action in 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. 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.

“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. Before beginning its transition to competency-based learning, Melrose was outperforming the state on every 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 in 2019. Adams ties these gains to competency-based education.

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 has evidence of its positive impact on students. Adams has made sure all teachers can get the professional support 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.”

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This story about competency-based education was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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