Other than the schools that have been doing competency education for a decade, such as Diploma Plus and Boston Day and Evening Academy, the best I can tell is that we are in about the second or third year of implementation of this wave of reform. This means we’ve moved beyond great design and we now have to face up to some areas we haven’t quite gotten right yet.
Here is my short list of five things we need to pay attention to if competency education is going to produce results. You’ll see that there are two themes snaking through this list: 1) What does proficiency really mean? and 2) Are we using the best tools and resources to help kids get there?
1) Depth of Knowledge of Learning Targets: Our country is making a huge shift from a focus on lower levels of knowledge– such as recall and basic skills– to the deeper learning embedded in the Common Core, such as analysis and knowledge utilization. (Sometimes our language is confusing — deeper learning is the same as higher levels on the knowledge taxonomies.) This is true for competency-based schools as well. So we need to be careful that we aren’t setting our learning targets too low. However, to set them at the higher levels of analysis and utilization also brings in a new set of issues, including performance assessment of higher order skills such as creativity and evaluation.
2) Standards-Referenced Grading Is Not Enough: I’ve visited a number of schools that claimed they were doing competency education only to find that they were primarily doing standards-referenced grading. The transparency and use of rubrics seemed to make a difference in the classroom but kids are being passed on with Ds and Cs. Implementing competency education as a classroom practice rather than a school-wide approach results in kids being passed on without reaching proficiency and teachers bearing the burden of providing all the support to the students in their classrooms.
3) Taking Advantage of Blended Learning: Are we using all the tools available to us to support the students that have gaps or are several grade levels behind? I’ve been shocked at how limited the use of adaptive software is in the competency-based schools I’ve visited. There seem to be lots of reasons: There are few high quality products for older grades, the products aren’t transparent about the standards students are learning so it’s difficult for a teacher to manage in a competency-based environment, and there is just not enough bandwidth to try to integrate blended learning when so much time is needed to get competency education right. However, to not use these tools when so many kids need so much help to catch-up just doesn’t make sense to me. Furthermore, software programs and placing curriculum online are also great ways to create the capacity for kids to advance beyond their grade level.
4) Using Time: Too often in discussing competency education we emphasize time as a variable, suggesting that some students are going to need more time to learn something. The problem with this is it leads to the concept of self-pacing and the fear that some students will be left lagging behind. It also presumes that students are at the same place and are learning the same thing, which isn’t the case at all. If you are a student with gaps, you are doing twice the learning, addressing gaps and tackling new concepts simultaneously. It’s not really taking you longer, you are doing more.
Rather than emphasizing the rate of learning, time as a variable is about how schools use or deploy time. One mistake that schools converting to competency education make is failing to allocate time in the school day for students to get extra help. Providing a day or two at the end of a course also gives students a bit more time to work on areas of weaknesses. In fact, time can be allocated to help prep students that are a grade level behind before they fail. Many schools take a break from the daily schedule, creating intensives or labs throughout the school year for students to apply what they have been learning.
Getting smart about time is also getting smart about costs. If we begin to look at cost-effectiveness we will certainly see that some ways of using time are going to pay off.
5) Proficiency, Not Completion: Lots of folks jump from “advance upon mastery” to performance-based funding. However, it ends up that most performance-based funding is about completion, not proficiency. We need to make sure we aren’t dragged into wasting our time talking about completion-based funding that doesn’t have clear understanding of the levels of proficiency required for completion. Increasingly, I’m hearing about a “D” being dropped as an indication of passing, but a “C” is still acceptable. I’m not convinced – do we really think a C means that someone is proficient enough to move on to the next level?