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Aurora Institute

Exploring a Four-Part Quality Framework for Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

This is the seventh blog in a series leading up to 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 System. It 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.

Districts and schools are complex organizations with a complex goal helping students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse interests, aptitudes, and skills become prepared for the transition into adulthood, defined as readiness for college, careers, and life. In preparation for the National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, CompetencyWorks (in collaboration with thirty-some leaders from the field) developed a four-part framework to guide discussions around ensuring quality in competency-based structures: structure, culture, pedagogy, and learning experiences. We found that we needed some way to be able to talk about all the elements that make up competency-based, personalized systems that allowed us to look carefully at each piece and allowed us to see and explore the intersections.

This framework is obviously not inclusive of all the parts that make-up a district or school; human resources, budgeting, and the other areas of an organization that we refer to as administration are actually powerful ways that shape schools and the experiences of students. At some point, we need to begin to gather together the changes and practices that are happening within these parts of schools and districts and how they influence quality.

1. Competency-Based Structure

If we are going to dismantle the traditional system that sorts students, we must replace it with a new set of structures. The working definition explains how the system should function.

The competency-based structure is first and foremost designed to ensure students are successfully learning. This includes districts and schools advancing students based upon mastery rather than the time they have spent in the classroom and by building strong processes for internal accountability and continuous improvement. For example, transparency of learning objectives can create intentionality, empowerment, and honesty about how students are progressing. Creating transparency and reliability about how proficiency is determined requires calibration among teachers. Monitoring student progress demands responsiveness, including short-term provision of rapid/differentiated supports and long-term reflection on how that feedback can improve district and school improvement.

2. Culture of Learning, Safety, Respect, and Inclusivity

A high quality system of competency-based education is grounded in a school culture that fosters learning, safety, respect, and inclusivity. One of the biggest changes is the shift from a culture based on the beliefs that 1) some students are smart and others not so much; 2) students are extrinsically motivated; and 3) students learn best when they are passive and compliant. Competency-based education is based on a set of beliefs that starts with the idea that all students can learn. The culture of learning assumes that students and adults must feel safe, that they belong, and that learning holds meaning for them. This requires a culture that respects students: respects their home cultures; respects their racial, ethnic, and religious heritage; and respects their identity preferences. Students need to feel both a deep sense of belonging and valued if they are to offer their best efforts day after day. The strategies of cultural responsiveness are important to shaping this culture of learning, safety, and respect. Furthermore, respect begins with treating students as active learners who take responsibility for their learning.

3. Theory of Learning and Teaching (i.e., Pedagogy)

In personalized, competency-based schools, teachers collaborate with students and each other using intentional strategies designed to reach, engage, and support every student. To date, personalized learning has been described as an approach. However, it is increasingly being used to describe a set of pedagogical principles based on research about how students learn.

This set of principles starts with growth mindset and the idea that students learn best when they are active and have agency. It draws on the Universal Design for Learning and how to best engage and motivate students, is culturally responsive, and takes into consideration where students are in their own learning trajectory (as compared to solely focused on grade level standards). In the paper In Pursuit of Equality: A Framework for Equity Strategies in Competency-Based Education, we argue that schools also need to embed the equity strategies for ensuring students receive the instructional support they need into the core instructional design. Districts that have a clearly articulated pedagogy seem to have a much easier time implementing a competency-based structure because they can incorporate those structures and experiences in a way that is coherent and advances a broader set of instructional practices.

4. Learning Experience

In the traditional system, learning experiences were designed by teachers and described in terms of classrooms and curriculum. In competency-based education systems that use personalized approaches, students take a much more active role in shaping their learning. Learning may take place in the classroom, online, or in the community. It may be inquiry-based, project-based, or require direct instruction. Within the discussion of learning experiences, teachers organize tools and resources, including hands-on and online instructional strategies. Assessment is part of the cycle of learning and should be considered as part of instructional design (and should also be identified as part of the structure).

Although one might think of these as foundational layers, districts and schools are using different entry points to transform their systems. Thus, at this point it may be better to think of each of these four elements as doorways rather than stepping stones. The challenge is that no matter what the entry point, we need to support districts to build out all aspects of the competency-based structure with fidelity. We invite your feedback and insights to this four-part quality framework to build a shared understanding of what high-quality competency-based systems look like.

To explore the four-part quality framework more deeply, which includes key questions, indicators or look-fors, and examples, read In Search of Efficacy: Defining the Elements of Quality in a Competency-Based Education System.  

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