It’s very clear to me that we, the field of competency education, are at a turning point in many ways. First, we have reached a place where there are lots of different organizations with enough knowledge about competency education that we are seeing very valuable reports and articles with important insights. (Just in the past week, three reports/articles were released that are worth taking the time to read, as they give a sense of some of the expansion and challenges: Competency-Based Education: Staying Shallow or Going Deep?; Policy, Pilots and the Path to Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape; and Why There’s Little Consistency in Defining Competency-Based Education.) There are other organizations – other than CompetencyWorks, that is – that are identifying and lifting up new innovators and new practices. We’ve worked hard over the past five years to support organizations and our colleagues so that whatever knowledge we were building was being transferred and embedded into other organizations. And I can really feel that it is paying off because I’m finding that I need to put time aside now to read, not just skim, many of the things being published because they are enhancing my understanding.
Second, the field is expanding at a steady pace, and with that comes a variety of new challenges. For a while, competency education was under the radar. The folks who knew about it were all leaders who had come to the same conclusion that we weren’t going to move forward if we were handcuffed to the ranking and sorting of the traditional system. Then there was growing attention as states began to introduce the idea in their innovation zones and to take the concept of college and career readiness a step further with the idea that credits and diplomas actually had to have meaning (i.e., proficiency-based diplomas). However, we are now nearing what I used to call the “fad” stage when I was a foundation program officer: People are hearing about competency education from different organizations and feel that they may want, should, or need to get on the bandwagon. In some ways, of course, this is great news but it also carries a number of new problems:
- AnythingGoes-Ness: As a field, we haven’t yet fully defined what high quality design and implementation means. Only a few tools, such as reDesign’s self-assessment and Sanborn’s rubric, are available to help guide districts in understanding the structure of competency education. Without a tool, an educator can visit a school in the first year of implementation with only two or three of the elements of the working definition in place and return thinking they’ve seen competency education. They haven’t – they’ve seen a few pieces but not a full structure. I’ve been getting more and more calls regarding problematic implementation in which certain practices or concepts are emphasized without the big picture, with inadequate knowledge of the learning sciences, and quite honestly, while forgetting to use common sense. The risk is that districts and schools pick up a few practices and declare themselves competency-based. (We are starting to tackle quality ourselves at the National Summit coming up in June.)
- Bandwagonitis: Another problem when an idea or reform gets a lot of attention is that districts and schools will say they already do it. The biggest risk with competency education is that principals or teachers will only understand competency education as a classroom practice or, worse, think it is the same as instruction delivered through technology. (Please note, the mastery-based learning promoted in the 1980s was, in fact, a classroom practice and showed a lot of promise. However, we learned from it and realize that it takes an entire school or even a district to organize itself around learning. Teachers need the opportunity to collaborate around students and their learning needs. Students need schedules and calendars that are organized around their differentiated learning needs.)
- EntryPoint Frenzy: There are definitely different strategies being developed for the transition to competency-based systems than the one we described in Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. This is good news for the field. However, there also seems to be more discussion about entry points as if every change in practice is actually going to lead to a fully implemented competency-based system. I am highly skeptical and in fact I think it is important for all of us to be skeptical of the assumption that all doors will lead to a competency-based structure. Competency-based education starts with a commitment to a vision of an equitable system and 100% effectiveness, i.e. all students are going to be successful. If that leadership isn’t in place in a school or district, there is no reason to think that adding additional supports, making learning objectives transparent, blending your instructional delivery, or changing your A-F grading to 1-4 is going to making a difference.
In the paper Policy, Pilots and the Path to Competency-Based Education: A National Landscape, the Foundation for Excellence in Education offers a simple three-part construct that might help us through this stage: traditional system, transition, and transformation. Instead of operating on a binary is a school competency-based or not, we can begin to talk about the transitional structures and practices while holding a sense of high quality, full implementation of a competency-based structure supporting effective instruction, balanced system of assessments and personalized learning as our shared aspiration.
Those who have worked in competency education for years will attest that it can take a year or two, or even more (I certainly continue to have a-ha moments regarding the consequences and the power of the concepts of competency education) to get your head totally wrapped around the new paradigm. A set of guiding principles or guiding questions can be very helpful for a team of educators beginning to shake off the old paradigm and operating on the new. There are sure to be other techniques. What matters is that this period of expansion and interest leads to better understanding and higher quality implementation.
To make sure we don’t fritter away the upswing in interest, we need to become strong, critical friends to each other – if we see a practice being taken too far, piecemeal implementation that fails to put in place the high leverage changes, or failure to use evidence-based knowledge, we need to speak up. That’s what friends and colleagues do. That’s what we need to do to ensure that students are benefiting and learning.