Why Kids are Hiring Competency- Based Education

By 07/21/2014

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Last week I had the privilege of sitting in on the first day of Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA)’s Responsive Education Alternatives Lab (REAL) Institute. The school has run the REAL Institute for four years, after fielding numerous requests from educators and administrators around the country wanting to learn more about BDEA’s competency-based alternative high school model.

Discussions of competency-based education these days (my own included!) are often awash with descriptions of what competency-based means and its abstract benefits. These definitions and examples may prove valuable to adults running the education system. But sometimes we are tempted into technocratic language that loses sight of the ultimate end user of our schools: the students. The REAL Institute facilitators wisely reminded participants of this fact by starting off the four-day Institute with a panel of BDEA students.

The panel prompted me to ask myself a question that is rarely articulated: why would students themselves be interested in a competency-based school? At the Christensen Institute, we often try to frame human beings’ decisions around their “jobs to be done.” The jobs-to-be-done framework first emerged as a helpful way to look at customer motivations in business settings. Conventional marketing techniques teach us to frame customers by attributes—that is, using age ranges, race, marital status, and other categories that ultimately create products and entire categories too focused on what companies want to sell, rather than on what customers actually need. In fact, customers rarely make buying decisions around what the “average” customer in their category may do—but they often buy things because they find themselves with a problem they would like to solve. With an understanding of the “job” for which customers find themselves “hiring” a product or service to do, companies can more accurately develop and market products and services well-tailored to what consumers are already trying to do.

Importing this framing to education reform can refocus our efforts on students as agents and consumers of their education. We can focus on what motivates their decisions—decisions to come to school every day or to skip school; to finish a project or to put off work. Alternative school operators are acutely aware of these decisions, as oftentimes they must convince and motivate dropouts to re-“hire” schooling in their lives.

The REAL Institute facilitators brought this to the fore by starting off with students’ own voices and explanations of what BDEA meant for them. Without knowing it, the five students managed to give all of us in the room a primer on the jobs they are trying to get done in their lives, and why they hired BDEA’s competency-based school to meet those needs. A few of those “jobs”—and BDEA’s ability to meet them—included:

Give me hope: In BDEA’s framework “Not yet competent” is the new “F.” Well, not exactly. In fact, the concept of an “F”—or of failing—is totally absent in a fully competency-based progression like the one BDEA is building. Students spoke about how this grading regime shifted their attitude toward school; unlike their previous high schools, BDEA didn’t write off an entire course’s worth of work if students couldn’t demonstrate mastery of certain concepts. Similarly, missing deadlines at BDEA wouldn’t simply mean failure full-stop. Students appreciated a model in which their efforts wouldn’t be entirely futile even if they slipped up or needed more time.

Make me feel smart: Another student talked about feeling competent when she was able to teach somebody else what she had learned. BDEA encourages peer-to-peer teaching—not only as a method to deliver instruction but also to assess students’ ability to explain concepts to others as a testament of their mastery of those concepts. Students also spoke about the power of “knowing you are progressing;” the schools curriculum is flexible enough that even if students are not on pace to complete a course in a single trimester, they are still making real progress toward graduation for every competency that they master.

Stop bothering me: All of the panelists described that at their previous schools, teachers and administrators would be after them for not completing their work or for missing class. BDEA walks a fine line of loose and tight management of its students, with a strong emphasis on student support. Students can be absent up to 10 days. If students miss class, BDEA is intentionally designed to welcome them back  and re-engage them, rather than punish them for their absence.

Keep me interested: As an alternative school, BDEA has more autonomy over curricular choices; teachers can develop courses in unique topic areas designed to reengage off-track students.  A number of the students talked about those course topics and how they were so much more interesting than the courses at their previous schools. As one student put it, her course on “the dark side of history” taught her “there is so much that we don’t know.” BDEA’s unique course offerings are not merely there to expand kids’ horizons, but to mark a departure from the curriculum that failed to engage them at their previous schools.

It’s tempting to ascribe BDEA’s ability to fulfill these jobs to its competency-based model. In fact, you can’t disentangle this from BDEA’s incredible efforts to build a strong school culture where students feel safe and feel that their teachers care about them. Still, I came away from the conversation convinced that competency-based education stands to be a particularly responsive model to address the jobs that many students are trying to get done in their lives. Although I think these particular jobs listed above are much more intuitive to those who have worked with off-track youth, they are jobs that the education system at large would benefit from trying to meet. Done well, a competency-based model offers flexibility in pacing, help when students need it, and the chance to continuously reengage on material even if you didn’t master it the first time around. What do those offerings mean in the real lives of real students? The flexibility, support, and hope that human beings—and particularly teenagers—crave.

-Julia Freeland

Julia Freeland is a research fellow in education at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This first appeared on the Christensen Institute’s blog.