Skip to content
Aurora Institute

How Could We Build a Shared Understanding of Quality in Competency Education?

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Evaluate Quality

This post first appeared on CompetencyWorks on June 14, 2017. 

This is the tenth blog in a series for the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education. We are focusing on four key areas: equity, quality, meeting students where they are, and policy. (Learn more about the Summit here.) We released a series of draft papers in early June to begin addressing these issues. This article is adapted from In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education SystemIt is important to remember that all of these ideas can be further developed, revised, or combined – the papers are only a starting point for introducing these key issues and driving discussions at the Summit. We would love to hear your comments on which ideas are strong, which are wrong, and how we might be able to advance the field. 

In the previous articles, we’ve shared our best thinking to date about the structure and features of what would make up a high quality competency-based structure. This is a good start but there are a range of strategies for defining quality and the processes that we as a field might develop to help districts and schools strengthen their competency-based structures. This blog will introduce four approaches to how initiatives could be structured to begin to build a formal understanding of quality. As you consider the approaches described below based on outcomes, design, processes, and quality reviews, consider how each approach will be most helpful in the following:

  • Does it Drive Equity? How valuable and viable are these approaches in helping districts and schools create equitable systems that effectively serve students, particularly those who have been historically underserved?
  • Does it Make the Case for Expanding Competency-Based Education? In what ways can these approaches demonstrate that competency-based education is a better option than continuing with the traditional structures? How do they also build capacity within districts and schools to implement effective competency-based education structures? Are there any other approaches that should be included in the approaches described below?
  • Does this Contribute Meaningfully to the Field? What is the the best strategy to advance our understanding of how high quality, personalized, competency-based districts and schools are designed and operated? How might the field move forward in defining high quality in the medium-term (2-10 years) or long-term (10 years or more)? Are some strategies more useful than others at building capacity within districts and schools to design competency-based structure with quality?

In the paper In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System, we delve into these approaches in greater detail, examining the opportunities and challenges each presents, as well as examples. 

1. Driving Quality through a Focus on Outcomes

If each state co-designed with their districts a crystal clear and calibrated understanding of proficiency-based graduation requirements, could quality be determined by student performance levels upon graduation?

In the traditional system, there is substantial variability in what evidence districts and schools use to determine that students are ready to graduate. Most depend on a number of time-based credits that have proven to be very weak proxies for learning, resulting in some students graduating without the foundational skills in math and reading they need to navigate their lives, let alone complete college. Even in competency-based schools, there is variety within graduation expectations of the levels of knowledge, skills, and competencies required, especially in the states in which districts have the responsibility for establishing the policies for graduation. Thus, some argue that it is difficult to define quality based only on attaining a high school diploma, as there is some degree of comparing apples and oranges.

However, there are ways to reach a consensus of graduation requirements.

First, there could be a shared level of minimum proficiencies for students to master prior to graduation. In competency-based systems, we are rethinking how “graduation-readiness” is measured, especially at the state level. Traditionally, states and districts have organized graduation requirements around completion of a number of courses and the accrual of credits. Some have added specific types of experiences (service learning or capstones), assessments (Board of Regent’s exam), or evidence (exhibitions). Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Colorado have introduced the idea of proficiency-based diplomas and opened the door to discussion about what mix of skills and knowledge students need in order to graduate. If each state and their districts were to establish proficiency-based graduation requirements that are aligned to college and career readiness, in which the diploma would have specific meaning in terms of skills and knowledge, it should be possible to measure student growth and demonstrated mastery of those skills based on outcomes and evidence. Theoretically, if graduation requirements were then aligned with higher education and workforce, the levels of skills and knowledge students have at graduation could shed light on the quality of schools in a district.

Second, at a more localized level, states could allow schools and districts to determine how they will allow students to develop and demonstrate proficiencies. Presumably, this will be accomplished with checks for comparability and rigor. Such an effort would require each state and/or district to determine precisely what was expected at graduation and then allow districts and schools to use whatever approaches they thought best.

The third option includes supporting schools and districts in using competency-based structures in exercising their flexibility to develop and demonstrate proficiencies. At the state level, this could mean implementing a tight/loose approach to developing quality, where outcomes are held tightly with the expectation that districts and schools would innovate with the goal of reaching better outcomes.

2. Driving Quality through a Focus on Processes

Transparency is one of the most powerful and transformative aspects of competency-based education. Transparency makes it easier to understand processes in use by competency-based systems, but it doesn’t necessarily enable one to determine if some processes lead to greater effectiveness than others. Some argue that there should be inherent flexibility in how we think about quality because schools use different models, including different definitions of student success. They argue that instead, the focus should be on ensuring that districts and schools use high quality processes as well as their ability to produce better results. For example, states could build capacity for district and school review that considers the processes by which districts and schools shape outcomes, the competency framework (the specific competencies and standards that students are to learn and apply), the pedagogy or theory of change, continuous improvement, systems of support for teachers and administrators, and the processes for holding themselves accountable.

3. Driving Quality through a Focus upon Design

For those deeply engaged in creating competency-based systems, a powerful driver is the process of redefining what is meant by successful student outcomes. Districts and schools are redefining success much more broadly to include lifelong learning skills such as growth mindset, agency, and well-being skills such as social & emotional learning, as well as academic and higher order skills. In short, we are expanding the role of schools to explicitly include the development of children and adolescents and documenting their development progress within specific competencies backed up by artifacts.

This has huge implications for the design of schools. No longer focused solely on core academic content, competency-based districts and schools are in the creative process of integrating everything we know about learning and teaching into a powerful pedagogy that is supported by the competency-based structure. This includes creating different systems of assessments, new staffing roles, and new schedules that create opportunities for strong relationships between students and teachers to be cultivated as well as applied learning and daily flex hours for extra instructional support. At this point in the development of the field, with so many variations of models being developed, creating an overarching framework rooted in learning sciences that can catalyze conversation, conduct the exchange of ideas and knowledge, and capture lessons learned is an important interim step. This also has implications for day-to-day teaching and learning, where educators begin to share responsibility for supporting students to gain these new capacities. An important question becomes: how do we share responsibility for teaching, tracking, and assessing growth in these capacities, and what is the action plan for developing these cross-cutting capacities

4. Driving Quality through External Review

Other countries have implemented external quality review processes for addressing quality. As the OECD notes, schools are the key agencies within education systems to improve student learning; thus, the effective monitoring and evaluation of schools is central to the continuous improvement of student learning. The OECD outlines three major approaches to external school evaluations for quality reviews: internal school self-evaluation or review, external school evaluation or review, and the comparison of schools on different performance measures. These school evaluations focus on evidence-based practices and are grounded in the research on how students learn best. External review processes allow for calibration among teachers within a school and across schools.

It is possible that state departments of education could play a critical role by shifting from a compliance-oriented approach to quality to an improvement-oriented approach through external review. A quality review office could be co-created with districts, developed in partnership with an intermediary or as a multi-state effort. Co-creating systems of support that would respond to the findings of the quality reviews, including coaching, would be an important part of this approach.

Each of the options explored above has value for defining and nurturing quality, and each comes with a set of challenges. Ultimately, the issue of quality will come down to the use of a system that ensures quality skills and knowledge are achieved for each student at each step along competency pathways toward higher level skills. The pedagogical philosophy, instructional design, and degree to which schools can strive to become bias-free will have the most influence on student learning. It is the system and structures in place to ensure student growth that will be a necessary part of assuring system outcomes.

Please share your ideas for action steps to advance an understanding of high quality, personalized, competency-based systems and strategies to accelerate the design and implementation of high quality district systems and schools.

To explore these four approaches to high-quality competency-based systems, read In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based System.