Three Ways to Scale Student-Centered Reforms in Your System

By Felicia M. Sullivan
June 12, 2020

Since 2014, New Hampshire educators can meet academic accountability requirements through a statewide Performance Assessment for Competency-based Education (PACE) system. Aimed at capturing a more authentic assessment of content knowledge, educators have developed and scored performance tasks with levels of reliability and validity comparable to state level standardized tests. As part of a William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funded research-practice partnership (RPP), Jobs for the Future (JFF) has been collecting data and insights on the scaling of state-mandated Work-Study Practices (WSPs) in New Hampshire. The extent of the diffusion of these approaches across the state has been striking. Some examples:

  • From fall 2017 to spring 2019, New Hampshire’s PACE system grew the number of performance tasks in mathematics, English Language Arts (ELA) and science from 14 to 112 — an 800% growth.
  • In that same time period, PACE went from no performance tasks scoring on WSPs — self-direction, collaboration, communication, and creativity — to 51 tasks that included at least one WSP proficiency score.
  • And in the 2018-2019 school year, the system developed six performance tasks that not only scored the WSP of self-direction but embedded self-direction instruction within content instruction.

From the start, the state’s PACE system was a key driver, providing a critical backbone for assessing competency-based efforts that sought to change how teachers taught and assessed content mastery. Throughout these scaling efforts the New Hampshire Learning Initiative (NHLI), a nonprofit intermediary whose mission is to catalyze education innovation in the state, has been instrumental in developing the relationships and building the infrastructure necessary to achieve this level of uptake. As the research partner in this endeavor, JFF has documented and observed several key mechanisms employed by NHLI that have amplified their ability to affect statewide, student-centered practice change.

Creating Multiple Onramps to a Common Destination

NHLI articulates a clear vision for where students and teachers in the state need to go to advance student-centered and personalized competency-based education. This vision is built from decades of experience in classrooms and schools, deep understanding of practice, and constant conversation with education leaders in the state and across the nation. In particular, NHLI:

  • Personalizes professional learning at the individual teacher and district level. For example, a team of teachers in one school may be exploring deeply a WSP such as self-direction, while content leads from across the state may be creating content specific performance tasks bringing WSPs in as one element.
  • Presents professional learning as an interconnected ecosystem. Professional learning may start with an interest in assessment generally, but then deepens to include additional learning and exploration of WSPs, extended learning opportunities (ELOs), or other instructional change innovations. This means learning is not bounded, but rather expansive.

These two approaches work in tandem to create a system that leverages both individual motivation and interest while creating an interconnected system that helps scale those interests broadly.

Being a Readiness Whisperer

As Dees and Anderson noted in Scaling Social Impact, an important pre-scaling element is readiness. If individuals in systems are not ready to take up practice innovation, it will stall. In working to bring districts into the WSP effort, NHLI demonstrated an acute awareness of realities on the ground and whether a district might be ready for focusing on professional learning in this area. For example:

  • One large district was poised to enter the WSP study, but a particularly tough union negotiation meant the district superintendent was not in an optimal position to engage despite indicating a willingness to do so.
  • A district had sent many teachers through an overview course on WSPs but had not quite made the leap to fully implementing. NHLI provides specialized district consulting and used that to leverage action.

JFF has observed that part of being an expert assessor of readiness is deep empathy for the lived realities of leaders and classroom educators. This is coupled with an awareness of contextual constraints and political forces at play. It also allows the staff to know when the right time is to move, position an ask or push change.

Wielding Soft Power

Unlike the state’s Department of Education, NHLI has no legislated authority to compel districts to make instructional changes. Yet, the organization appears able to bring change along. From our field observations, this soft power appears to be built on the following:

  • Experience in the field – NHLI staff have all been in the field as teachers, principals, or district leadership or working closely with these individuals. They have been where others are at it and those in the field know it.
  • Long term relationships – NHLI’s staff have built strong relationships across the state over time. Executive director, Ellen Hume Howard was previously a district curriculum director who worked with districts peers across the state. The two directors of innovative projects, Jonathan Vander Els and Mariane Gfroerer, have worked with dozens of teachers and district leaders providing professional learning and technical assistance. Consultants and board members are leaders and experts in other parts of the state. These dense networks of relationships over time create trust, but they are not easily portable to other contexts. Rather, they must be developed.
  • Teacher- and student-centeredness – There are multiple instances where NHLI places teacher and student needs and perspectives first. They actively bring in teachers to deliver and design key professional learning and encourage teachers to vet materials with their students. Teacher leaders have been instrumental in both translating the work and championing it.

If you’d like to find out more about the work on scaling deeper learning in New Hampshire, visit our project Building Essential Skills Today (BEST) for the Future on the web at

This is the second blog of a series on scaling for impact; the first one can be found here.

Felicia M. Sullivan, Ph.D. is an Associate Research Director at JFF (Jobs for the Future). Her research interests include human development and organizational learning towards system change as well as the effective translation of research and evidence through cross-sector collaboration. She is currently researching deeper learning outcomes for high school students and the diffusion of innovation and scaled impact
. Email: Twitter: @feliciasullivan.

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