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Aurora Institute

Five Reasons Competency Education Will Improve Equity

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

Chris Sturgis
Chris Sturgis

Why do we think that competency education is a better strategy to serve our lowest achieving students, including low-income students, minority students, English language learners, and those with special educational needs? Here are my top five reasons:

  1. Competency education is designed to identify and address gaps in knowledge and skills. We will always have students with gaps in knowledge, whether because of poverty-induced mobility, recent immigration, military transfers or health issues. When we identify and address gaps, students have a better chance at progressing.  As Paul Leather, NH’s Deputy Commissioner of Education, has pointed out, “We learn by connecting concepts and building expertise over time. If we do not learn a concept, new learning cannot be built on it.” (from Necessary for Success)
  2. Transparency and modularization is empowering and motivating. They are the ingredients for student ownership. Success begets success, as students see short-term gains and clearly marked next steps. Transparency also challenges bias and stereotypes that may contribute to lower achievement.
  3. The focus on progress and pace requires schools and teachers to respond to students when they need help, rather than letting them endure an entire semester or year of failure. Many competency-based schools organize flex hours during the day to make sure there is no excuse for students going home without receiving the help they need.
  4. Competency education is a comprehensive approach that benefits vulnerable students as well as those in gifted and talented programs. Schools don’t need specialized programs that label students. In fact, students may advance in some disciplines and not in others, as flexibility is built into the core school operations.
  5. Competency education creates powerful learners. We can’t underestimate what student ownership means in the hands of students who have been denied a high quality education in the past. Furthermore, it prepares students to explore their talents, interests and the future that lies before them. Instead of differentiating students with a single number, their GPA, we see children differentiated by how they demonstrate and apply their knowledge.

Will competency education eliminate inequity? Will the achievement gap suddenly disappear? Of course not, given the economic inequality corroding our communities.

Of course not, given that there will always be cases of faulty or piecemeal implementation. Two scenarios that partially implement competency education will not be able to eradicate inequity and low achievement:

  1. Advancing upon mastery after sitting hours in front of an adaptive software program, a common sight in credit recovery programs, may allow students to be self-paced, but doesn’t allow students to apply their knowledge. Recall and comprehension are inadequate levels of knowledge. Schools need to design for higher and deeper where analysis, evaluation, and knowledge utilization come into play.
  2. Using standards-referenced grading rather than standards-based grading (although most will call it standards-based grading).  Certainly basing grades upon standards is more valuable than norm-referenced grading. However, low achievement is guaranteed if students advance to the next course despite low grades and gaps in their skills, as is done in standards-referenced grading. It takes a school-wide commitment to implement standards-based grading so that resources are deployed and more time allocated to help those students who started at a different point on the learning progression or need more help to master the material.

Personally, I’m comfortable arguing that if poorly implemented – without explicit measurable learning targets, meaningful assessments, adequate supports, deeper levels of learning and transparency – it isn’t competency education at all.

Competency education will help students who currently are passed along to acquire fundamental skills. Based on the gains made by the early innovators, competency education can significantly build the capacity of elementary schools to serve low-income students. Within three years of implementation, Adams 50 in Colorado lifted all of its seven elementary schools out of the lowest performing status, and the Barack Obama Charter School in Los Angeles saw record-breaking achievement gains, ranking first in California for academic growth[1].

At the secondary school level, competency-based innovators such as Carpe Diem Schools and Boston Day and Evening Academy are developing powerful personalized approaches to accelerate the learning and graduation of students who may be more than two years behind. New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School offers competency recovery to students needing more time to become proficient in specific standards. Once researchers begin to explore competency education, we will be able to start the benchmarking process, understanding the state of the art and best practices that drive high achievement.

Competency education is not going to have all the answers, and it is certainly going to have its own unintended consequences. It is an essential step, however, in moving beyond our history of exclusion, sorting and tracking. Through competency education, we can discard the fixed mindset of yesteryear and embrace the growth mindset that is necessary for eradicating inequity

[1] No more ‘turnaround’ labels for Adams 50. Written by Rebecca Jones on Aug 27th, 2012.

See Barack Obama Charter School 2012 School Accountability Report Card at