Conundrums in Competency

By 12/22/2014

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Over the past several months I’ve attended a number of conferences where competency-based (or mastery-based) education was a hot topic. On the whole, there seems to be growing enthusiasm for adopting competency-based approaches that allow students to advance upon mastery and that deploy authentic assessments to test what students can do across disciplines. My conversations at these conferences, however, have convinced me that there are some philosophical and practical areas that administrators are still grappling with. This is a short list of questions that keep coming up in discussions and debates:

We are still operating on a fixed semester, academic calendar-based schedule. Can we implement competency-based education? In many cases, regulatory or cultural barriers make the concept of each student advancing upon individual mastery an overwhelming or impractical framework to impose on traditional academic schedules. For many systems, in the near future, courses or semester-based schedules are here to stay.

One interim shift that these systems might take is to adopt standards- or competency-based grading, whereby a student’s grade is a transparent reflection of what he has or has not mastered. Unlike a “B+”—which tells you that a student did not fully master material, but communicates little else—a competency-based grade can overtly lay out the persistent gaps in a student’s understanding. In such systems, two things may occur: first, there may be opportunities for targeted unit or “competency” recovery to fill in gaps at the end of courses or semesters. Secondly, students may be promoted to new coursework (as tends to happen in the traditional system) but their grades will at the very least show their next teacher a clear map of the areas where they still stand to struggle. The overarching premise here? If for some reason time in your system has to remain fixed, then at the very least you can make grading or certification at the end of a course an honest portrait of mastery and remaining gaps.

How can we be both competency-based and Common Core aligned? This question is probably one of the thorniest facing competency-based practitioners in K–12 education today. There’s not a satisfying answer. Although the content of the Common Core standards needs not exclude competency-based models, the learning progression presumed by the standards may be narrower than competency-based champions might like to offer. Moreover, the fact that Common Core assessments are designed against learning targets on a particular, time-based schedule makes it tricky to allow students to move at a pace appropriate to their learning.

The most promising policy solution to this would be to move away from calendar-based, high-stakes state tests to a system of on-demand testing that assesses students when they are ready. In the meantime, what seems to be happening is that the pacing implicit in the Common Core is treated as the minimum pace at which students in a competency-based system are expected to progress. Of course, today’s test scores and persistent achievement gaps tell us that this may not be a realistic minimum pace for every student in every subject, particularly in older grades where students may have already accumulated years worth of gaps. I think this stands to be one of the greatest barriers in the next few years to moving schools already overwhelmed by Common Core implementation toward competency-based models. Given that seat-time policies are beginning to give way to waiver options in many states, this may be the next wave of policies that advocates need to address.

We are already blended at my school. So that means we are “doing” competency-based education right? Not quite. First, it’s important to remember that there are competency-based schools that are not blended, such as Boston Day and Evening Academy in Roxbury, Mass., or MC2 in Manchester, New Hampshire. These institutions have managed to come up with processes and structures that personalize to each student’s needs without relying heavily on online content delivery.

Secondly, blended learning may be an ingredient to scale competency-based approaches, but the relationship between blended and competency-based learning is still working itself out. Although online modules in a blended-learning classroom might cede come control over path or pace to students, a blended-learning approach is not automatically competency-based. Some blended-learning models might still be supporting time-based, batch-mode instruction, but helping teachers to differentiate instruction within those models. Other blended-learning models might indeed facilitate students advancing upon mastery within a single online-learning progression, but may not hit on some of the other markers of CompetencyWorks’ definition of a high quality competency-based model—such as offering multiple modes of assessment or empowering students with greater voice and choice in how and what they learn.

Challenges or grey areas like those above make the transition to competency-based education something of a black box. Over the last year I have looked at the evolution of competency-based education in New Hampshire. One of the things that most struck me was that New Hampshire—and others around the country spearheading competency-based models—was essentially building the plane as it flew it. There was no blueprint for what a competency-based system or school would look like and no clear list of the sorts of supports a state ought to provide to districts or schools pursuing competency-based models.

Still, one step to fostering and spreading expertise is chronicling what high performing competency-based schools are doing and attempting to codify what aspects of their model make them competency-based. This would help us to delineate among different school models that embrace some but not all aspects of CompetencyWorks’ five-part definition. Chris Sturgis’ amazing body of work housed on the CompetencyWorks’ wiki is a great starting point for this sort of catalog. The better we as a field can do at chronicling actual practices inside existing competency-based schools and systems, the more efficiently traditional schools can look to these practices as guide posts for their own transformation.

– Julia Freeland

Julia Freeland is a research fellow in education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. This first appeared on the blog of the Christensen Institute.

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