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Aurora Institute

3 Smart State Approaches to Competency-Based Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Karla Esparza-Phillips

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones, Fund Innovation, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

SuppliesThis post originally appeared on the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Ed Fly Blog on December 30, 2015.

There is a growing chorus of excitement and interest in competency-based education (CBE). One of the biggest draws is the potential for competency-based education to better meet individual student needs and eliminate learning gaps that traditional time-based systems have not been able to close.
In a competency-based system, each individual student progresses as learning expectations are met, rather than moving through a predetermined curriculum schedule dictated by fixed, age-based grade levels or seat-time requirements (sometimes expressed as Carnegie Units or credit hours).

Although the idea of time becoming the variable and learning the constant is attractive, making that a reality sometimes leaves the strongest of advocates scratching their heads. Many policymakers are committed to next generation reforms and have a sense of urgency, yet at the same time they have seen enough failed reform efforts to know that fidelity in implementation is paramount.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways states can create the conditions in which CBE can thrive and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) is committed to supporting states in these efforts.

Our principal recommendation is for states to authorize the creation of innovation districts or schools to pilot a competency-based system and identify the pathway for statewide policy adoption. (For more, see our model policy.) This strategy paves the road for innovative leaders to request flexibility from the rules or regulations that hinder innovation while committing to transition to competency-based education.

A CBE system allows students to accelerate through concepts and skills they have mastered yet receive more time and support in areas where they may have more difficulty. This new system is comprehensive and can necessitate fundamental changes in how credits and diplomas are awarded, how and when assessments are offered, and how schools, educators and students will be held accountable. Developing answers to these questions can appear daunting and complicate attempts to reform, however, the solutions can and should be embedded into the pilot process.

CBE requires a local commitment, yet there are state policies that can enable and support—or hinder—the transition. Each state has a unique policy landscape and the path to a competency-based system will look different.

Idaho, Ohio and Georgia provide three different state approaches to expedite the beginning of the initiative while allowing time for thoughtful implementation.

Idaho’s Mastery-Based Education. In March 2015, the Idaho legislature unanimously passed and Governor Otter signed HB 110, which directed the state to begin Idaho’s transition to a mastery-based education system. Specifically, the bill directed the state department of education to conduct a statewide awareness campaign, convene a committee of educators to identify policy roadblocks and solutions, and develop a process for an initial cohort of twenty schools to serve as incubators in 2017.

The decision was made in Idaho to proceed simultaneously with the beginning of a pilot program while also creating a venue and process to identify state policy issues that may need to be addressed. This allows the policy discussion to be informed by experience and not on speculation.

Enabling Flexibility in Ohio. One of the characteristics of CBE is the amount of flexibility allowed for local design and it can vary widely in approach and appearance. This is good. It should look different in a 200-student rural high school versus an urban 2,000-student high school. However, the components or characteristics of a CBE program or system are well documented and can be articulated in the application request. The application Ohio developed for the Competency-Based Pilot is a good example.

Georgia’s Phase-in Approach. In all fairness, this is not easy work which is why approaching the process in phases can be helpful. This is how Georgia has implemented the Innovation Fund. Georgia awards Planning Grants, Implementation Grants and Scaling Grants for a variety of priority areas (e.g. STEM, blended learning, etc).

Our friends at KnowledgeWorks lay out a nice framework for a process that could include a planning phase or conditional approval.  A Design or Planning Phase can be the right time to form a working group and bring in outside experts. Plus, a design phase helps with the second issue which is the design of the program itself.

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Karla is the State Policy Director of Competency Based Learning for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University. Contact Karla at Karla (at) excelined (dot) org.